With the shorter days and cooler waters, October is a prime month for fish and fishermen in Panhandle waters both inshore and offshore. The baitfish will begin to gather in large schools prior to their annual migration south to the Keys, and these huge bait balls attract lots of predatory fish.
Blackfins, Kings and Spanish
Action for tasty blackfin tuna will be about as good as it gets, and there should also be plenty of kings and Spanish around until the last week of the month, maybe longer if no early cold fronts blow through.
Best way to get the blackfins is to find the areas where bait is most abundant—usually around reefs and wrecks anywhere from a mile to 20 miles or more offshore. Diving birds are a sure marker, but the bait can also be seen readily on big-screen sonar. Live baits like LY’s and scaled sardines are favorites for blackfins—they’re liphooked and drifted around the baitfish schools, sometimes with ground up baitfish chum added to draw the tuna into the strike zone.
Trolling very slowly, at walking speed or less, also works well with the livies. Heavy spinning tackle and 40-pound-test braid will do the job. Avoid using wire leader as is needed for kings—blackfins often shy away from it. Try 40- to 50-pound test fluorocarbon, which rarely slows the bite, though in very clear water lighter gear is sometimes required.
Blackfins average 8 to 10 pounds, but sometimes reach 20 pounds or more. At any size, they’re some of the best tasting fish in the sea—get them onboard quickly, bleed them immediately and ice them down to preserve the flavor—best sushi on the planet.
The same baits and gear also work for king mackerel, though kings sometimes prefer larger baits like foot-long ladyfish or Spanish mackerel—a stinger hook wired to the tail is a must for these toothy predators to prevent cutoffs. Kings are frequently found in the same areas as the blackfins in October, and can sometimes be seen “skyrocketing”, leaping 10 feet into the air as they grab a baitfish on the way up.
If the fish are hard to find, rigging up with some dead cigar minnows or ballyhoo and duster-type heads will often help to locate both blackfins and kings, though the blackfins can be more persnickety than the kingfish.
Larger kings, 20 pounds and up, can sometimes be found by trolling the color line that makes up on outgoing tides around the panhandle passes—the dark inshore water does not immediately mix with the green water of the gulf, and this creates a rip where large gamefish sometimes feed.
Spanish also hang around the baitfish, and sometimes run well inside the larger bays, as well. A 2-3 inch Clark spoon with a bit of weight ahead of it trolled at about 5 knots is usually all that’s required to get more than enough for dinner—15-pound-test spinning tackle does the job. They also mass around schools of juvenile bay anchovies, sometimes called “red minnows” by Panhandle anglers. These baits, just 1-2 inches long, seem too small to attract gamefish, but they school in such numbers that they attract pretty much all the Gulf predators when they’re available.
Both kings and Spanish can also be caught off the three large piers in the area by drifting a frozen cigar minnow off the end anytime there’s good current flow.
October Redfish and Trout
October is also prime time for redfish, with the big spawners sometimes running the beaches and inlets in schools of several hundred. Every fish in these schools will be 20 pounds and up, far too big to keep, but right-sized to provide some amazing angling action. Because they have to be released, it’s best to catch them on single-hook lures like jigs, swimbaits and spoons, though they readily take live bait, cut bait and topwaters.
Keeper-sized reds also perk up inside St. Andrews and Choctawhatchee bays this month with the cooling water. The most interesting way to fish them is to pole or wade the flats and watch for tailing fish, then cast a live shrimp or a Berkley GULP Crab ahead of them. A few anglers also connect with fly tackle, though you’ve got to be a good caster to make this happen. Flats with lots of small mullet, crabs and other bait are usually best for finding reds—and there may also be a lunker trout or two in the same areas.
Trout action will be more dependable around docks, creek outflows, oyster bars and marsh points, particularly at dawn—throw a topwater like the Zara Spook to get them, or switch to a DOA Shrimp later in the day.
Last but not least, flounder will start to show up after being hard to find all summer. As the end of the month approaches, they’ll gather in loose schools and begin to drift out the passes. This migration becomes a flood in November as they head off the beaches to spawn—catch them with live killifish, AKA “bull minnows”, fished on bottom on light tackle.
In short, whatever you’d like to catch, you’re probably going to have a good shot at it before Halloween somewhere in Panhandle waters.