Apalachicola:Fishing's Forgotten Paradise

From redfish and tarpon to bass and crappies, the list of angling opportunities surrounding this town is as long as its name.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

As you drive west on U.S. 98 at daybreak, the light suddenly radiating from the Gulf of Mexico will cause you to stop. In spring the huge, shimmering orb of the sun rising out of the St. George Sound turns the feeding egrets along the shore from white to gold and lays an iridescent sheen across the water's surface. You can see the sun physically moving, changing shape -- first fat and wavy-edged, then coin perfect -- a fiery disk winched up by invisible cables for the opening act of some Wagnerian opera. Slip the theme music from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey into the CD player and you have it all.

Travel a little farther west and you will shortly cross the Gorrie Bridge. Look down from the bridge in June, and it's a good bet you'll see an angler perched in the bow of a low-slung skiff, his rod bent double in a silent struggle with the arcing, silver form of an airborne tarpon.

A little farther on you'll hit the quaint town of Apalachicola. Ahead is the three-story gray-and-white-trimmed frame of the Gibson Inn, its wide veranda generously set with white fan-back chairs and rockers. Arguably, it's too early to have a beer there, but should you stay at the Inn, the old porch swing is an ideal spot for rigging tackle and watching the town wake to its quiet routine, the pace defined by a single blinking stoplight -- the only one in town.

There is something oddly familiar about this town of 3,500, which, in various incarnations since the Civil War, has been one of the Gulf Coast's largest terminus points for cotton shipped downriver from Alabama and Georgia, a timber depot and, most recently, a sponging and commercial fishing center. The place conjures up images of the Old South, of Florida without condos, shell shops or jet-skis. And although they represent only one kind of the fish-rich waters found here, the clear bays and flats around Apalachicola's islands and shoals are reminiscent of places in the Keys without the boat and angler traffic. Why Apalachicola remains one of the last good places that has not yet been gobbled up Pac Man-style by rampant development is likely due to the simple fact that most tourists hang out on the lovely white sand beaches of St. George Island just off shore. And if classic clear-water sight-fishing for tarpon was as extensive here as it is in the Keys, the area would surely be over-pressured now by those who'll do nothing else. Yet in the five years I've been monitoring this country just below the elbow of the Florida Panhandle, the only sportfishing growth from Crooked Island to Bald Point has been by the area's only real guide service -- Robinson Brothers. Named for its founding owners, Tom and Chris, Robinson Brothers Guide Service now employs five flats guides and one bay guide. Their operation can handle up to 14 anglers.

Tommy Robinson, a former Key West guide and commercial pilot, is one of the more passionate sportsmen I know. When he ended a stint of fly-out floatplane fishing trips in the Bahamas back in 1994, he went looking for a new fishing frontier. He found it in Apalachicola. Seemingly in perpetual motion, Tommy is as intense about his fishing and storytelling as he is about the duck, turkey and deer hunting he does hereabouts. Once he realized the area's sporting potential, it took him less than a year to persuade his younger brother Chris to join him in the fledgling outfitting service.

One day last April, Tommy and I were fishing topwater plugs for spotted seatrout under cloudy skies in three to five feet of water. Tom was grousing over the constant stream of four-pounders we were catching, but he finally smiled when the six- and even seven-pound fish ate. Then the sun came out and turned the clear-water bay electric blue and lit up the variegated bottom where the flickering shadows of big trout crossed. We poled along the edge of a deep pocket of 25-foot water, watching and waiting. Finally the redfish schoolsoved up and spread across the flats. We caught them -- 6-, 8- and 10-pounders. Two months later, when outdoor life Editor-in-Chief Todd Smith joined me, we got them to 11 pounds in the same place.

On that trip it had rained hard, and sooty clouds slid away all morning. Then the sun broke through and school after school of redfish spread out before us. We were in Chris Robinson's boat then. Besides the reds, a pair of huge 'gator trout cruised close, and the normally quiet Chris came unglued. Todd led one of them just right. It ate and pulled, and then the hook plucked out. Never mind, it ended up a nine-species day -- trout, sea bass, reds, ladyfish, a blue runner, jack crevalle, black drum, catfish and a good eight-pound-plus bluefish Todd brought in -- 10 if you count a little grunt. "Oh, we just wrecked 'em," Chris laughed happily.

Over dinner that night Tommy explained that if you want really big reds, you need to come in the fall. "We get them cruising the beaches," he began, "20 pounds -- and bigger. But we really like to concentrate on the marsh-fishing at that time."

Really, you can marsh-fish much of the year here. It's a different kind of sight-fishing than the clear-water stuff. You fish in johnboats rather than the 18-foot Hewes Redfisher flats skiffs the Robinsons use for everything else. The marsh-fishing requires anglers to cast to fish in water as shallow as six inches while floating in little more than the Robinsons' tricked-out aluminum hulls, which maneuver almost in a damp spot and don't mind occasional brushes with oyster-bar edges. This is not the color-saturated clear water of a Winslow Homer painting. In the marsh it's all muted browns and greens.

If the redfish are not tailing in the muddy-looking water, you watch for the bluntness of their shape, a flicker of color change. The reds don't mind mud; they'll belly into it, squirming to where they want to go. And unlike casting for bonefish or tarpon, you want to hit these fish no farther than two feet from the nose. Jigs and spoons are fine for spinfishers. Guide Jim Dupre's slick spoon flies in gold or dark are the ticket for flyfishers in this murky water.

Up the Apalachicola River itself things can get a little busy, but only during bass tournaments, and not for anglers fishing crappies, big bluegills or their gaudy subspecies, the Apalachicola painted bream, in the main river creeks and drainages of Tate's Hell swamp or Lake Wimcoe on the Intracoastal Waterway. From the upriver backcountry to the estuaries, bays, flats, oyster bars and inshore shoals, this is the fishing country you dream about -- uncrowded and rich in the promise of incredible variety. The inshore fishing, which is pure quality and getting better, begins with big spawning spotted seatrout and then swings through a season of redfish, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, jack crevalle, pompano, flounder, occasional cobia, tarpon, black drum, ladyfish, tripletail and stripers. Offshore there are amberjacks and king mackerel.

Sadly, a freak storm hit the day Todd arrived. We decided to try to fish through it, but the wind and rain destroyed our tarpon fishing the first day when Tommy took us out into "the Playpen," one of the Robinsons' favorite bays, where many fish from schools migrating up the coast branch off to lay up and feed on crabs, mullet and menhaden. We took the next day to let the big bay water clear while we stalked and caught redfish on clear-water flats in more protected areas.

By day three it was time to seriously plan our next assault on the big silver fish, which we did over beers and oysters at the Indian Pass Raw Bar, where Gator Weiland holds court. The oysters here are among the world's best. I admit to liking a little Tabasco in my cocktail sauce, but Gator kept suggesting I'd like something more serious -- like Dave's Insanity or Pure Cap, whose bottles sat on a shelf where kids couldn't reach them. Pure Cap is so hot it comes with an eyedropper to dispense it. I heard the stories; I passed.

"It's too bad more of our anglers don't want to sample a little variety in summer," Tommy said, "but everybody's keyed on tarpon. With good weather we could run the outside beaches and catch 25-pound jack crevalle on light gear, or hunt tripletail -- they're like mega-crappies on steroids -- or play with the big bull, hammerhead, tiger or blacktip sharks. We're uncovering so much new fishing now."

"You get into more exposed waters with the Redfishers?" I asked.

"Oh yeah. Before we were doing great using the johnboats in the delta, and up in the creek mouths. We'd fish rolling or finning fish, or laid-up fish if the visibility was okay. That's over by about 11 in the morning, though. Now we can run to the outer beaches. It's crazy out there now that they've stopped netting pogie minnows (baby menhaden). It's like a giant chumline -- miles of it, with crevalle, sharks, sail catfish and tarpon free-jumping -- everything tearing up the bait."

But the seas outside were still too much and the next day we returned to the big bay. It was calm and as the morning wore on the sun came out and the water went dead flat for a time. We pitched big, jointed Bomber Long A's. Only sporadically would a tarpon explode on bait, and once, up close, a big fish came out free-jumping -- contorting and twisting as it tried to shake the remora from its side. It did that twice. But something was wrong.

"When it's right there will be acres of fish finning, blowing up on bait," Tommy said. "Hundreds of them. There's one other chance -- if we moveä."

Tommy agonized over the decision. Finally, in the early afternoon we pulled the boat and headed east along the coast. The new water was open to the Gulf, but at an angle that might work. Long swells rolled in. "This place is perfect for a fly if we can get it right," Tommy said. We anchored just outside the surfline, the waves breaking off our stern. Mercifully, the water was clear. And the tarpon came.

They came over the sand and weed-mottled bottom in singles and then a small pod. The wind was from my casting-arm side, but not strong enough to make it unmanageable. Swells turned the boat into an elevator ride gone mad. Twice I came off the forward casting platform. The fish were coming on fast like driven birds. Two presentations were not what they wanted. The third was. The lead fish in the pod (the biggest) moved in, but then the second in line rushed ahead, its head breaking out and coming down on the fly as Tommy shouted, "Hit him, hit him," which I did. Tommy slipped the anchor line and we drifted.

Twice I brought the fish alongside, but we had slid too close to the worst surf. Now we were too vulnerable to taking a wave and swamping. Touldn't reach them. Pure Cap is so hot it comes with an eyedropper to dispense it. I heard the stories; I passed.

"It's too bad more of our anglers don't want to sample a little variety in summer," Tommy said, "but everybody's keyed on tarpon. With good weather we could run the outside beaches and catch 25-pound jack crevalle on light gear, or hunt tripletail -- they're like mega-crappies on steroids -- or play with the big bull, hammerhead, tiger or blacktip sharks. We're uncovering so much new fishing now."

"You get into more exposed waters with the Redfishers?" I asked.

"Oh yeah. Before we were doing great using the johnboats in the delta, and up in the creek mouths. We'd fish rolling or finning fish, or laid-up fish if the visibility was okay. That's over by about 11 in the morning, though. Now we can run to the outer beaches. It's crazy out there now that they've stopped netting pogie minnows (baby menhaden). It's like a giant chumline -- miles of it, with crevalle, sharks, sail catfish and tarpon free-jumping -- everything tearing up the bait."

But the seas outside were still too much and the next day we returned to the big bay. It was calm and as the morning wore on the sun came out and the water went dead flat for a time. We pitched big, jointed Bomber Long A's. Only sporadically would a tarpon explode on bait, and once, up close, a big fish came out free-jumping -- contorting and twisting as it tried to shake the remora from its side. It did that twice. But something was wrong.

"When it's right there will be acres of fish finning, blowing up on bait," Tommy said. "Hundreds of them. There's one other chance -- if we moveä."

Tommy agonized over the decision. Finally, in the early afternoon we pulled the boat and headed east along the coast. The new water was open to the Gulf, but at an angle that might work. Long swells rolled in. "This place is perfect for a fly if we can get it right," Tommy said. We anchored just outside the surfline, the waves breaking off our stern. Mercifully, the water was clear. And the tarpon came.

They came over the sand and weed-mottled bottom in singles and then a small pod. The wind was from my casting-arm side, but not strong enough to make it unmanageable. Swells turned the boat into an elevator ride gone mad. Twice I came off the forward casting platform. The fish were coming on fast like driven birds. Two presentations were not what they wanted. The third was. The lead fish in the pod (the biggest) moved in, but then the second in line rushed ahead, its head breaking out and coming down on the fly as Tommy shouted, "Hit him, hit him," which I did. Tommy slipped the anchor line and we drifted.

Twice I brought the fish alongside, but we had slid too close to the worst surf. Now we were too vulnerable to taking a wave and swamping. To