Above photo: The Pensacola Beach Pier is a beautiful spot to throw in a line.
Story by Anne Roderique-Jones; photos by Nathan Jones
Anne is a freelance writer who covers travel, food and lifestyle topics. She is based in New Orleans.
Even if you don’t catch a thing, you can still savor the experience.
If I were forced to fish for my dinner, let’s just say I’d wind up very hungry. I’d been out on the Florida Panhandle coast for five days and didn’t even have a minnow to show.
But that’s not the case with most folks. Florida’s Gulf Coast may be known for beautiful white sand and emerald green waters, but it’s also home to some of the best fishing in the world. Whether you’ve rented a charter or happen to be throwing a line from the pier, there are opportunities to catch king mackerel, bluefish, bonito, cobia, redfish and loads more. In fact, Destin has earned the nickname “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.”
I grew up fishing with my dad and learned to bait a hook before I could tie my shoes. We’d fish off the shore at our house on Table Rock Lake in the Ozarks, and when we’d take a family vacation to the white-sand beaches of Pensacola, we’d fish off the piers. During these trips, it was one of the few times I had my dad to myself. There were no meetings, my brothers had yet to be born and my mom was content to sunbathe on the sand. I started my most recent trip to the Florida Panhandle on the very piers my dad took me on to fish in anticipation of recreating the magic. If I couldn't make that happen, at least I could catch some dinner.
Perched above the bluest waters I’ve ever seen in the United States, the Pensacola Beach Pier at Casino Beach is 1,471 feet long. A fishing license costs just $7.50, and if you’re lucky, the Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron might be spotted above. Turns out, I wasn’t lucky that day. I should have gotten a whiff of my misfortune when I realized that I was the only one on the pier without a tackle box and a wagon full of accoutrements. Or maybe when the friendly gentleman who rented me a pole asked if I wanted a pink one. Did my dress and fashionable hat tip him off? Clearly, I was out of practice — and place. I left the pier empty-handed and disappointed that I would not have the opportunity to take a photo next to the “I caught this on the Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier” sign.
Those who are more adept with a pole can bring their bounty back to Paradise Bar & Grill, where the staff will cook up cleaned fish and serve it with fixings like fries, slaw and hush puppies. That’s exactly what I had planned to do, but the only thing I was carrying was a handbag. I took a seat at the restaurant anyway and smothered my inadequacies in fried food — caught by someone else, naturally.
But here’s the thing about the Florida Panhandle — if you strike out on the reel, there’s plenty of ultra-fresh fare for purchase. One of the finest establishments is Joe Patti’s Seafood. This shop has become a Pensacola institution and a must-stop for those who come to Florida for their annual vacation and stay in condos fully equipped with a kitchen. The shop started in 1931 when Joe and Anna Patti began selling fish from their front porch and has since become a much larger operation. You’ll still find family members working at the shop, front office and wine shop.
My next stop was 45 miles east at the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier, built in 1998 and nearly one-fourth of a mile long. There was an old communal coffee pot near the desk on the pier, and everyone seemed to know each other as they milled about and talked shop. I couldn’t have been more of a fish out of water, wearing lipstick and gold sandals. Tacked to the wall were pictures of fishermen and women proudly holding their prizes. I hoped to join them — lipstick and all.
I had anxiously arrived in time to witness the sunrise over the beach, ready to reel in something I could boast about to my friends. But something about the moment made me think back to my childhood. It must have been the pink sun coming up over the horizon, the whooshing of the waves, the cadence of casting my line and the patience required to wait for a fish. I was never good at that part.
I grew up fishing with my dad but stopped when I became a teenager, far more interested in my friends than the sport. I moved to San Francisco for college and later New York City for work and traded my pole for pumps.
It was during this moment on the pier that I realized the appeal of fishing — something that took my dad not only out of his suit and tie but out of his hectic life, if only for a few hours. I get it; I was genuinely glad to be out of those pumps and realized that it was more about enjoying the moment than a photo on the wall. I still didn’t catch a thing.
I soon arrived at the Russell-Fields Pier in Panama City, 50 miles east from my previous stop. This pier is decidedly more tourist-friendly with a beachy stand for tropical beverages, waterside tables to eat funnel cakes and Hook’d Pier Bar & Grill that will cook up your catch. (Again, if you’re lucky.)
At the gate hung a single fading photo of a man with his prize-winning cobia. If I squinted, it could have been my own father. And if I were delusional, it could have been me. Instead of renting a pole, I just paid the $3 entrance fee and took it all in.
My dad, who is no longer with me, always told me that life is about experiences, not things. I gazed at the beautiful blue-green waters, breathed in the salt air and listened to the squawking birds and crashing waves.
My trip ended at Navarre Beach Fishing Pier — located in a sleepy town outside of Pensacola — near where my trip began. The locals won’t let you forget that it’s the longest fishing pier in Florida at 1,545 feet. I handed over my $7 and proudly asked for the lone pink fishing pole. If I wasn’t going to catch a thing, I might as well enjoy the experience.
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