A Fly Fishing Magazine Unlike Any Other

Full disclosure here.

I’m a saltwater addict.

If I could only fish one type of water, saltwater would be IT.

photo by - Ralph Ripple

Mom, my brother Mike, my sister Tanya hiding, and I in front of our family motorhome. Nice shirt, Mike!

The mere thought of saltwater makes my heart race and my palms sweat.

As a child, the majority of my winter vacations were spent in Florida. Places like Boca Raton, Crystal River, and Everglades City fill my earliest memories.  As a young adult, Venice, Port Charlotte, and Manasota Key were the ticket.  Maybe that’s where the obsession with saltwater began.

But this addiction transcends far beyond my early days now that I fish. The mystery that lurks below the surface of salt is what lures me to the shore. When you fish a trout stream – you catch trout.  When you fish a bass pond, bass it is.  But when you fish saltwater, you never know what is on the other end of the line.

To me, that’s the obsession.

photo by - Kurt Kopala

Captain Justin Leake of Chasin' the Sun TV.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Panama City Beach, Florida, to fish with the man behind Chasin’ the Sun TV – Captain Justin Leake. Born and raised in Panama City, Justin has fished the bays and Gulf around PCB his whole life. In these waters, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guide who knows more about catching the inhabitants that live beneath the surface around PCB. I’ve been going through saltwater withdrawal since the Redfish Roadie trip last October, so I jumped at the chance to head 8 hours south of my front door.  Now I’m not going to beat around the bush here. PCB was never really on my radar given places like Islamorada, Naples, and Miami competing for the top bid. But when I saw an email promoting Panama City Beach, I was intrigued – and since being there in person, I’ve changed my mind.

I was only in PCB for two days and only booked a half-day guided trip, but as it turns out, fishing a half-day with Captain Justin is like a full-day anywhere else. He definitely has the hookup (literally) on where the fish live and depending on weather and desire, can put you on so many fish that you’ll be ready to head to shore at half a day.  I chose to catch Mahi-Mahi since I had never done so before.

The morning started with Captain Justin and his casting net filling the live well with pilchard – a small silver baitfish from the herring family – before heading a few minutes offshore.  An expert at using his electronics, Captain Justin quickly found Mahi and stepped down from his platform to toss some live pilchard into the water.  It didn’t take long before the surface was boiling with Mahi. The Mahi were the perfect size for taking a few home in the cooler for fish tacos (which I might add were delicious).

An underwater housing for your phone makes a world of difference for your saltwater photography. I love the AxisGO and take it everywhere.

This type of Mahi fishing is fun and attainable regardless of your skill level. You don’t have to make a long cast; in fact, it’s discouraged and for good reason. These fish come up from 100 feet down. If you make an 80-foot cast, you only have 20 feet of wiggle room to work with.  However, if you make a 30- or 40-foot cast, now you have plenty of time to fight the fish before you’re in your backing.  I’ve never thought about it that way before. Thanks for the lesson, Captain Justin. 

Mahi-Mahi of this size make the perfect fish tacos!

Another reason this is great fun even if you’re a new angler is the presentation of the fly doesn’t have to be perfect. When a feeding frenzy is on — it’s on. Toss your fly in the water and wait for the bite.  Then, the fun begins.  Mahi are great jumpers and, even a small saltwater fish fights like a monster in freshwater.  They’re also one of the prettiest fish I’ve ever caught.  Their deep blue and chartreuse color is striking.  A marvel to behold for sure.  If you like to capture your catch underwater, the beautiful emerald waters of PCB lends itself to beautiful underwater shots. For my underwater shots, I love the AxisGO. It's an affordable underwater housing for your cellphone and I don't leave home without mine. 

This snapper put up quite a fight. Too bad it wasn't snapper season - so back to the Gulf he went.

But Mahi isn’t the only fish in this sea – or Gulf. We also fished for Bonita and had a grand ole time — until the barracuda arrived.  Then it was all about trying to get the fish up before it was barracuda breakfast; a task that is not easily accomplished and seldom achieved. But, seeing the five-foot barracudas, which look like missiles coming through the water, was even a great time.

Getting a bonita to hand with barracuda in the water is a daunting task.

half a bonita

After the morning on the water, I felt like a needed a nap after all that catching, so I headed back to the hotel. When I had first arrived in the hotel room, it took me aback a little to see a random regular-sized refrigerator and freezer in the room.  But now it made sense (kind of).  I was very thankful for a full freezer so I could store the Mahi so it would be in great condition all the way back home (in my cooler I brought from home).

Over the next day and a half, I was able to really explore PCB and took in some of the highlights.

Biking through Conservation Park

My partner and I rented bikes and rode through a beautiful park, ate at a number of great restaurants, took in some shopping, and even went to the hotel bar for some live music.

We were in PCB during COVID times, and the city and institutions did a great job of making us feel comfortable.  There was a mask mandate in effect that was adhered to, and our hotel made accommodations including limiting elevator riding to only those in your party and suspending maid service unless you really needed it.  All-in-all, COVID rules were clearly marked and easy to navigate.

View of one of the piers

While PCB had not made my list before, it is certainly a place I would want to revisit, and a great place to fish regardless of your skill level.  If you love to saltwater fish but are intimidated by the more well-known fly-fishing destinations, PCB is the place for you.  And, there is a lot to do there so you can bring your significant other who doesn’t fish, or the family, and they will be entertained while you’re out on that charter catching supper.

So, if you’re looking for a great place to vacation where you can do it all, here’s my DIY list.

If you want an affordable and clean place to stay that is on the beach, has a great pool for kids and adults, and a beautiful white sand beach to walk (not to mention a beach bar with amazing tropical drinks and live music), I suggest the Holiday Inn Express. The staff was pleasant and knowledgeable and that full refrigerator and walk out balcony were added bonuses.

If you want to fish while you’re there, you can easily walk the beach but the beach at times can be busy.  If you want to book a trip with a guide, Captain Justin Leake and Panama City Inshore is your ticket. You can target a variety of species depending on weather and time of year from big tarpon to redfish, to Mahi you can throw in your cooler.  If you want to check him out, you can see all the fun to be had fishing on the Chasin’ the Sun TV show.  It’s also easy to book a trip with him, but make sure you book your charter as soon as you know when you’ll be in town, as he books up quickly. To check out the types of fishing and book a trip click here

Breakfast at Finns!

While our hotel offered a good breakfast, I’m a sucker for a good donut.  If you’re like me and need a dose of coffee and some sugar to get you started, or if you just love a great donut, make sure you stop by Thomas Donut and Snack Shop.  It’s a PCB institution for good reason. Everything they serve is DELISH!  And, if donuts don't do it for you, then Finns Island Style Grub has THE BEST breakfast burritos, island hash, banana pancakes, and more.  They also have really, and I mean really great coffee.  

The exquisite food at The Grand Marlin

Drinks and dinner were incredible at Capt Anderson's

There are a lot of great places to eat lunch and dinner in PCB. Almost everywhere you look there is seafood on the menu and a beautiful view as you eat.  We ate at a number of different places during our stay, but two of my favorites for dinner were The Grand Marlin, which affords a beautiful open-air seating area upstairs that overlooks the water and has fantastic food and drinks, and Captain Anderson’s Restaurant which has been named among America’s Top 50 Restaurants and is a recipient of the “Best Seafood Restaurant” award from Southern Living magazine.  Both of these restaurants had excellent food and a great drink list with the perfect ambiance, and a staff that was top-notch.

Bikes from Bike the Beach waiting for us at Conservation Park

When I turned 16 I turned in my bike-card for my driver's license.  I have only been on a bike one time since then and that was when I had to ride a rickety old Belizean bike for an Orvis photoshoot (it wasn’t a pretty sight).  But, I thoroughly enjoyed hopping on a bike and riding the boardwalks and unpaved trails (24 miles of them!) at Conservation Park.  It’s super easy to reserve a bike to be delivered and picked up by the bike rental company Bike the Beach, and a little bike ride and peace and quiet after a large lunch do everyone a world of good – even if you’re not so great on a bike.

The SkyWheel

If you’re bringing the family or friends who don’t fish and you’re looking for other activities, PCB has a number of activities to keep everyone happy, from a giant SkyWheel to the interesting shops at City Pier and Pier Park.  In addition, it also has activities for the kids like a large water park, ZooWorld, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

Fun restaurants and shops at the Piers - something for everyone.

All in all, I found my time in PCB to be more than I had imagined it to be, and I will definitely be heading back to fish again. The 27 miles of white sand beach to shore fish from is an added bonus in my opinion if you’re looking to visit on the down-low.  But, if you want the true fishing experience, head out to fish for Mahi.  You will definitely learn a lot about fighting and landing saltwater fish, and because there is a healthy and abundant Mahi population, you won’t have to feel bad about throwing a few in your cooler so you can enjoy fish tacos later.

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