May is when fishing for pelagic species really kicks off. King mackerel are in good numbers and steady fishing. Wahoo and dolphin push much closer in. Weed lines form offshore in the 10 to 80 mile range. What we call rips (big temperature breaks) form offshore in the 20 to 80 mile range as we transition from Spring weather to summer weather.
The weather in May is flat out awesome. We are normally past the severe weather fronts of Spring. Spring breakers have headed back to school and the time period between the first of the month and Memorial Day is a perfect time to be in town. The crowds are light, seas are normally calm with light winds, and we have bright sunny skies.
Along with the influx of pelagic species there are a variety of other fish to catch. In the bay, trout and reds invade the flats. Bottom fishing for amberjack, red grouper, scamp, vermillion snapper and triggerfish is very good. Farther offshore, the blue and white marlin start to show up, and swordfish are biting along with yellowfin and black fin tuna!! It’s time to try your luck with some of the year’s best fishing!!
Cobia should continue to bite for at least the first week of May and can last until the third week of May, depending on just how fast the water warms and when the moon phase occurs. At some point, the cobia will move off the beach into deeper cooler water and will be caught all summer over wrecks — just not in the numbers they are caught in during their migration to spawn.
There are several ways to catch cobia, most are caught spot casting from a boat or pier.
For the boat fisherman, most of them fish with live eels, live pinfish, jigs or savage eels. The boat fisherman head out of the pass and generally fish to the west in the morning to have the sun at their back. Around midday they’ll head back to the east again with the sun at their back, making it easier to spot the fish.
Pier fisherman usually fish with jigs and stand on the east side of the pier looking for the cobia that are migrating from east to west.
Cobia can be caught bottom fishing, chumming or trolling, but the fisherman taking advantage of boats with towers or piers tend to have the best luck. Why? They don’t have to just wait and hope for a bite but actually hunt the cobia down to catch them.
Spanish, much like cobia, will bite all summer but just not in the numbers in which we catch them in spring. Spanish tend to be bigger fish in summer.
Spanish can be caught trolling the bay, harbor, pass and along the sand bars just off the beach with straw rigs, spoons and Yo-zuri lures.
You can also get good numbers of Spanish off the piers and jetties using jigs, Gotcha lures, spoons, bubble rigs and Yo-zuri lures.
Spanish are excellent eating, fun and easy to catch and provide all day fun for kids!!
Kings will become steady this month and one of the main targets of charter boats and recreational fisherman alike. Baitfish will begin congregating on nearshore reefs and the kings will hang out with them most of the day.
An effective method of catching kings is the use of a downrigger. When using a downrigger, you are looking for the area under the water called a thermacline, or temperature break, and many of the king will be found at this depth usually between 25 and 100ft below the surface. Look for schools of baitfish on the bottom machine to find your starting depth.
Kings can be caught by fisherman in boats in a variety of ways. Troll dead cigar minnows on a duster wigged with a planner or down rigger, use Yo-zuri plugs, Rapala’s or spoons.
Another great method is slow trolling live baits (cigar minnows, herring, or hard tails). Use a stinger or Carolina king rig with a 4 to 8oz trolling lead and troll wrecks and reefs as slow as you can go.
Pier fisherman will catch plenty of king drifting a live or frozen cigar minnow off the end of the pier. Lots will also be caught casting large spoons, Berkley swim baits 5 or 6 inch size, plugs and big rattle traps.
Starting in May and throughout the summer, chicken dolphin will inhabit near shore reefs, wrecks and weed lines. Every day I am asked where the weed lines are, and while we do try and keep track, some years there aren't many weed lines. Don’t let this deter you from catching chicken dolphin. Take yesterdays newspaper with you. Go to a local reef or wreck and lay the newspaper out over the water. Go somewhere else and fish for about a 30 minutes to a hour and come back and most surely there will be chicken dolphin. If it is rough out, the paper may not hold up, in this case if I know it is going to be rough I use tarp with a couple buoys to make my imitation weed line.
To catch the chicken dolphin, troll small spoons or feathers, cast jigs, spoons, Gotcha lures or swim baits.
Pick out a area of natural bottom or large wreck. Mix a batch of chum, some for a chum bag and some for tossing over chunk style. Use a few pieces of bonita or mackerel for bait. There are plenty of sharks all year if you just want a tug on the line.
You will need a 80lb rod and reel combo spooled 80lb or 100lb line braid or mono. Your leader should be 150lb to 250lb wire with a 12/0 to 16/0 circle.
Sharks can be caught on boats or while surf fishing. There are plenty of sharks in the surf!
Scamp grouper are generally found in the 75 to 400 ft range, They prefer natural bottom but will congregate on some wrecks. Fishing a Carolina rig with 1oz of lead for every 10 ft of water. Best to use live cigar minnows, pinfish or frozen northern mackerel.
Amberjack are generally found fishing wrecks in 50 to 400 ft range, Unlike grouper, they tend to like large wrecks rather than natural bottom. Live cigar minnows, hardtails, pinfish and vermillion snapper are preferred baits. Use a Carolina rig with extra long leaders, up to 20 ft when fish are picky. Amberjack also love butterfly jigs and large swimbaits.
Trigger fish are one of the more tasty fish and fairly easy to catch. Use a 2 or 3 hook bottom rig with circle hooks no bigger than a nickel in size. The best bait is squid, northern mackerel or bonita cut into 1in chunks, fresher is better. They can be caught on wrecks or reefs in 50 to 175 ft depths. Another bait not many people use but very effective is Fishbites or Gulp!
Vermillion snapper, aka mingo snapper or beeliners, are another one of the better eating snappers. In my opinion they are much better than red snapper and can be caught all year. They normally range 1-3 lbs but we catch them up to 5-7 lbs. If these little guys grew to 20-30 lbs no one would care about red snapper. Use a 2 or 3 hook bottom rig with circle hooks no bigger than a nickel in size. The best bait is squid, northern mackerel or bonita cut into 1in chunks. Fresher is better. They can be caught on wrecks or reefs in 50 to 175 foot depths. Another bait not many people use but very effective is Fishbites or Gulp!
Red grouper unlike most bottom fish seem to bite better on what we call trash bait. Trash can be anything from a frozen northern mackerel to a butterflied vermillion snapper. Live baits typically don’t work as well for red grouper unlike other groupers as they tend to be very lazy. Also we catch them in much shallower water. normally 50 to 150 foot depths.
These little guys don’s get any attention but if they grew bigger they would be held as one of the top fish in the gulf. Rarely do you see one over 2lbs and most people consider them as trash but are one of my personal favorites for the dinner table. When you filet one there meat is not so much white as clear and sparkles when you cut it across the grain. Catch them just like you would fishing for vermillion snapper or trigger fish.
Fish along edges, deep water wrecks, weed lines and rips. Best to troll with Yo-zuri bonita, deep running plugs, ballyhoo rigged on an islander, or soft head lure. Troll 5-8 knots. Downriggers and outriggers can be very effective, allowing you to fish multiple lines at multiple depths. Run your downriggers at depths of 50 - 100 ft deep. Try adjusting the depth until you get a bite, as you are looking for a thermocline where the bait and fish are located. Watch the bottom machine for bait pods as this is a good indication of the depth the downrigger should be at.
Look for dolphin by finding weed lines, rips and floating debris. Also look for diving birds and frigate birds working an area. Many times frigate birds will fly over just a single bull dolphin.
Troll feathers, ballyhoo, live cigar minnows or herring. Smaller lures tend to catch more dolphin than larger ones. When trolling for dolphin, fish between 4 and 8 knots.
White and Blue Marlin
Marlin can be caught May through October. Most marlin are caught at the Spur, Nipple, Squiggles and the Offshore rigs.
Catch marlin with ballyhoo, squid, large acrylic lures (Black Bart), soft heads, live bridled bonita, and hardtails. Marlin speeds are 5-12 knots. Marlin like weed lines and rips and that is where you find good concentrations of baitfish.
You can spend lots of fuel hunting marlin and other offshore species. Using a service like Hilton’s offshore or Roff’s to find fishing locations. They offer offshore temperature, currents, and chlorophyl; all good indicators of where the bait and the fish will be located.
Imagine it’s a warm summer night. The seas are running a soft 1 to 2, wind light and variable, stars fill the night sky, and you have a cold beer in hand with burgers on the grill. Everyone is sitting around telling war stories of the one that got away. Lines are set, extra baits are rigged, the Hydroglow’s light spills under the boat turning the crystal blue water an erie green. You can see the 4four buoys marking the lines in the distance. In the quiet still of the night the drag starts screaming, swordfish on the line!!
Swordfish are mostly caught around the Spur fishing the north wall. Most are caught using large offshore squid, whole bonita and northern mackerel. While we do catch daytime swordfish most are caught at night. Fish three lines at depths of 50ft, 100ft, and 200ft deep.
While yellowfin tuna bite all year at the rigs the prime time for fishing them is May-November, this is when they venture closer to home. Most are caught at the Nipple, Spur, Steps, Squiggles and Rigs.
Tuna can be caught in the day trolling ballyhoo, cedar plugs and bullet head lures. Look for birds working bait or pods of porpoise as many times you will find the tuna mixed in with the porpoise.
At night catch the tuna jigging or chunking. Find a good spot and set the sea anchor and start chumming with cut pieces of northern or Boston mackerel.
Tuna can range form the small football size to well over 200 lbs here along the panhandle area!
Surf, Pier and Jetty Fishing
The surf and jetty will provide plenty of action for those looking for pompano, whiting, Spanish mackerel and sheepshead.
Pompano and Whiting
Pompano and whiting can be caught bottom fishing with sand fleas, fresh peeled shrimp and fiddler crabs. Another method that can be used is casting jigs from the surf, pier or jetty bounced along the bottom.
You can catch king mackerel from from the pier using live or frozen cigar minnows drifted off the end of the pier. Also cast plugs or swim baits. You will need to rig with 40 to 60 lb wire because of the teeth on kings.
Spanish mackerel will be chasing small baits along the coast, use spoons, Gotcha lures and jigs. Look for birds working along the beach and jetty.
Tarpon can be caught at the piers using and assortment of live baits and lures. Rig live baits on a 60lb mono leader with a circle hook or treble hook, the best live baits are cigar minnows, herring and hardtails.
Berkeley swim baits in 6in size are by far the best of all lures and in most cases tend to get mote bites than even live baits. They also take spoons, rattle traps and Yo-zuri plugs.
Ladyfish and Hardtails
Ladyfish and hardtails take spoons, gotcha lures and straw rigs. They can be caught from the pier, surf or jetties. While neither are really good eating they make for hours of fun. Ladyfish make excellent bait if you want to fish for sharks in the surf.
All summer there are plenty of sharks to be caught surf fishing. Very early morning, just before sunset and after dark they can be very plentiful. Some of the piers allow you to shark fish, both of the piers in Panama City Beach and the Navarre Pier allow shark fishing dusk till dawn. You can not shark fish from the Okaloosa pier.
Trout and Redfish
Trout and reds will both make their way to the flats now that the weather is getting nice. They will both congregate around boat docks that have deep water access. These trout and reds will bite topwater plugs, Berkeley Gulps, Savage Shrimp, DOA Shrimp and live baits. The best live baits are shrimp, menhaden and finger mullet.
There will also be bull reds near the bridges that lead out the passes. The bull reds like live pinfish and live cigar minnows. Fish a carolina rig with about a 2oz lead with a circle hook.
Red Snapper opens June 1. Gag grouper opens July 1.