For live and premium content, sign up for our email newsletter and we'll send reports directly to your inbox
Don Causey Note: Carrabelle, Florida, is one of those great fishing spots that doesn’t get talked about much because those who know and love the place don’t want it overrun by yahoos and tournament goons. Frankly, I am a bit reluctant to talk about it myself, even in the quiet, almost confidential forum provided by this newsletter. But the truth will come out eventually, I guess,
and the dignified presence of Angling Report subscribers in Carrabelle will be a plus, not a negative. The report was sent to me by subscriber Walter Kirkland, who has earned himself a place on our Subscriber Honor Roll by taking the time to craft this assessment of a gem of a place to go in search of big tarpon. See page 2 for more on our Honor Roll Program.
To borrow a phrase from my favorite fishing author, Tom McGuane,
Carrabelle, Florida, is linked in my mind with the words “92 in the shade.” Ordinarily, I would opt for a beach chair, an umbrella, and a cold beer in the kind of heat I’ve encountered in Carrabelle. Instead, though, I always find myself locked into knee braces on the bow of an 18-foot Hell’s Bay flats boat, watching tarpon the size of torpedoes head toward me within easy casting distance, my heart somewhere between racing and exploding.
When the fishing excitement gets this hot, I can take the heat.
I’ve been fishing Carrabelle annually for the last four years, a town in Franklin County, 81 miles east of Panama City, Florida, on a stretch of US 98 sometimes labeled the “forgotten coast.” It’s called that for good reason. Franklin County has 750,000 acres of public land, no buildings more than 35 feet high, two traffic lights, and 22 miles of beaches. There are bears, deer, bald eagles, and marine life there unequaled anywhere else in the United States.
Just east of Carrabelle lies the productive tarpon waters of St. George’s Sound. With the sound’s sandy, shallow bottom and crystal clear water reflecting a brilliant blue sky, the sight fisherman’s excuses here are limited to his casting and angling abilities.
This tarpon fishery is less well known than the famous Keys and southwest Florida fisheries, yet the opportunities to stalk, sight cast to, and land Silver Kings here are equal to or better than many other, more fabled fishing grounds.
From mid-May to mid-June, tarpon can be seen heading east to west, the “right way,” or west to east, the “wrong way.” After mid-June, almost all the tarpon are going the right way as part of their annual migration up the west coast of Florida and along the panhandle on their way to deeper waters in the Gulf to spawn. Opportunities to take fish in the sound diminish dramatically after mid-July, when the fish have moved further west.
The unique topography of Alligator Point and St. George’s Sound seems to force huge swarms of the migrating poons through channels and along reefs located in the sound. And they’re not babies; this is the breeder bunch, the big boys, the backbreakers. I have fished for tarpon in the Florida Keys, along the Sanibel Island and North Captiva shorelines, and in Charlotte Harbor, but I have never seen as many fish at any of these places as I have in Carrabelle.
Every year I book a trip with my friend and neighbor, Jack West, a bit of a legend along the so-called Redneck Riviera. A native of Fairhope, Alabama, Jack was for years the proprietor of Judge Roy Bean, a raucous bar on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. Local legends Jimbo
Meador and Jimmy Buffet called Judge Roy Bean their special watering hole, mainly due to Jack’s gregarious and laidback manner. Jack divested himself of the bar business about 12 years ago to devote more time to his first love, fly fishing. He started fishing Carrabelle 16 years ago,
when few professional guides were exploiting the resource.
When Jack started guiding full time in 2002, there were at most six professional guides in the area. There are approximately 20 guides there now. But 20 guides and another 20 or so tarpon-holic private fishermen do not crowd the fishing grounds. St. George’s Sound stretches approximately 15 miles east to west, and there is ample room for fishermen to stake up around reefs and channels throughout the area.
The first three years that I fished with Jack, he told me to show up at his house on the sound at 6 a.m. I was confused because the sun doesn’t get high enough to see the fish until 8:30 at the earliest. He wanted us to get on the water early, however, so he could stake out his preferred spot. Jack has since improved upon this routine by getting up and out by himself and dropping his anchor and buoy on his favorite spot by 6 a.m. Now he tells me to meet him at his dock at 8:30. It’s easy for me to get up at the crack of dawn to catch fish, but I’m not as enthusiastic about getting up early to sit in a rocking skiff for two hours or more doing nothing.
The guides have names for various spots in St. George’s Sound: Bluefish Cut, Top Spot, Tall House, North End, and South End. Some may be better than others depending on tides and wind conditions, and there is some competition for the best spots. Jack and the other guides know the protocol with respect to where and how the boats should be spaced. They also relay information to one another when spotting fish. Jack is not bashful about telling the uninformed private fisherman that he may be intruding on the likely pathway of moving fish.
Jack runs an 18-foot Hell’s Bay flats boat powered by a 70-horsepower Yamaha motor. He has rigged a casting platform on the bow with mid-thigh-high rails. He has a stripping basket affixed to
the casting platform. This setup proves invaluable in windy conditions when waves start to rock the boat. His clients needn’t bring their own tackle, as Jack has top-end Sage rods and Tibor reels, all in excellent condition. He is equally happy to let you fish with your own equipment and will provide flies if you don’t have a preference for your own. Most of the time, Jack sets up his terminal rig to fight and land the fish as quickly as possible. If you are inclined to fish IFGA-class tippet regulations, he’s fine with that, but he is more concerned with a quick fight for the sake
of the fish.
This is not a fishery for the novice, however. Ninety-nine percent of the fishermen and guides here are fl y-fishing-only guys. You need to be proficient in casting 11- and 12-wt. outfits accurately and for distance in windy conditions. This usually means you better have your doublehauling technique down before you book a trip to Carrabelle.
Once on our spot, Jack reviews several important points. He emphasizes the importance of accurately placing the fly. He wants his anglers to cast in front of an oncoming fish by about 20 feet. If the fish is moving right to left, then the fly should be visible only to the left eye of the fish; if moving left to right, only the right eye. Of course, the ideal opportunity is one in which the fish is coming head on. Place the fly about 20 feet in front of the oncoming fish, strip very slowly, then
as the tarpon notices the fly, start short, jerky strips. When the fish attempts to eat the fly, whatever you do, don’t jerk the fly out of his mouth. With the fish on the reel, Jack casts off the anchor and tells you to crank down the drag. You fight the fish by putting as much pressure on him as he can stand. I’ve followed Jack’s instructions and landed tarpon of more than 100
pounds in less than 15 minutes. This is good for two reasons. First, it’s better for the fish, and second, it gives you time to catch more.
As with most trophy tarpon waters, actually hooking and landing a fish weighing more than 100 pounds is a low percentage proposition. In addition, cloudy days are almost always a bust, as
success depends entirely on seeing the fish. But under the right conditions, every single fish you’re likely to see in Carrabelle will be huge. This is not the place to go to catch a half dozen juvenile tarpon in a day. On average, a good fisherman with a good guide should get 20 to 30 shots per day to monster fish.
Accommodations in the Carrabelle area are somewhat limited, but they are inexpensive and comfortable. The Franklin Inn (850-697-4000) on Highway 98 charges $64 a night for a room with
two queen beds. The Moorings (www.mooringsatcarrabelle.com; 850-697-2800) on Carrabelle Harbor has motel rooms and condominium accommodations at very modest rates as well. Dining is limited in Carrabelle. However, Apalachicola, a town famous for its oysters, is 20 miles to the west and should be visited on any trip to the area. Boss’s Oyster House, Tamara’s, the Owl, and
Papa Joe’s are just a few of the numerous excellent restaurants in Apalachicola. If you are bringing a nonfishing partner, you may consider staying in Apalachicola at the restored Gibson Inn or the Coombs House Inn. If you want to add a beach vacation to your trip, consider St. George’s Island, the barrier island south of the sound, which has 22 miles of pristine beaches and no high-rise condos. Staying in Apalachicola or St. George’s Island is an excellent option, given Jack’s new routine of meeting his clients at 8:30.
Driving time from Atlanta to Carrabelle is about six hours. The nearest decent airports are in Tallahassee, 55 miles from Carrabelle, and Panama City, 81 miles away. Jack charges $550 for a
full day of fishing, and I mean a full day. You almost have to drag him off the water at 4 or 5 p.m. You can reach Jack West by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 251-591-5650. My fishing partner on my last trip told me that he had never met a guide as enthusiastic and supportive as Jack West. I could not recommend him too highly.
Just be aware, if you plan a trip to Carrabelle, that temperatures during prime time, from mid-May to mid-July, are likely to climb to 90 degrees or higher, and the sun is merciless. Be prepared with proper sun-blocking apparel. If your goal is to stick a 100-pound-plus tarpon, you’re not likely to get better chances than those afforded in the Carrabelle fishery from mid-May to mid-July. Jack’s services are in demand, so give him a call and get on his call list. He starts booking trips on January 8 and is usually fully booked within a couple of days. Enjoy!—Walter Kirkland.
Postscript: If Jack West is fully booked, he says he is comfortable sending overflow clients to Jason Rucker, Chris Robinson, and David Mangum. He can provide contact details on request. Another guide who fishes Carrabelle, but only during prime time, is Greg Arnold, who is nigh unto
famous as a redfish guide in Biloxi Marsh, southeast of New Orleans. Arnold can be reached at 504-237-6742