The boat marina at Apalachicola provides anchorage for much of the local fishing and shrimping fleet. Often the boats and their crew are out all night laying nets and bringing in their catch, returning to dock bleary-eyed the next morning. Gulf of Mexico fisheries are among the most productive in the world, yielding shrimp, oysters, and a variety of fishes. The Gulf yields more finfish, shrimp, and shellfish each year than the south and mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake, and New England areas combined.
Cast netting is a popular and relaxing way to spend time on Gulf Coast waters. It’s especially useful for catching mullet, a species which doesn’t usually go for a baited hook. The circular net has small weights around the edge, and when it’s thrown by hand, it spreads out and sinks quickly, catching any fish unlucky enough to be swimming underneath it. It takes practice to master the technique, but it’s good exercise and an inexpensive way to catch dinner.
The Florida Gulf Coast has hundreds of small docks and piers, some in better shape than others. These oyster boats in Franklin County may look basic but they have all the components necessary for getting the job done: a shallow draft for navigating over the oyster beds; wide platform for dumping oysters when they’re pulled from the water; and a deck and fore area for walking while “tonging” for oysters.
Although large stretches of the Florida coastline has succumbed to development over the past decades, many areas along the Gulf Coast remain much as they were 50 years ago. Native trees, shrubs, and grasses are part of marshes and estuaries that serve as nurseries for marine species. They are also home to a wide variety of birdlife that lives here year-around. Left untouched, these natural barriers help protect coastlines from erosion and flooding.
One of the simple pleasures of the Florida Gulf is fishing from shore for the many species that live in these shallow coastal waters. Much of the coastline is available to the public, and anyone with a license can cast a line and then sit back to relax and wait for the fish to strike. Even if the fish aren’t biting, the setting and the view are worth the effort.
Early morning often comes softly to Florida’s Gulf Coast. In the cool hours before dawn open boats head out to the oyster beds, or bars, located in shallow bay water. Men “tong” for oysters using two long wooden tongs like chopsticks to pull the sharp-shelled mollusks from their shallow beds. Mature oysters are kept and undersized ones are thrown back in. The Florida Panhandle coast around Apalachicola is famous for its oysters, widely considered America’s best.
Half an hour inland from Port St. Joe, Dead Lakes State Recreation Area is an expansive waterscape of thousands of drowned cypress trees. The lake was formed when sand bars formed by the current of the Apalachicola River blocked the Chipola River, flooding a large low-lying area. Besides kayaking, the lake is famous for its bass fishing and birding. Several local outfitters offer boat rides around the lake.
Locals and visitors enjoy sailing or motoring out to one of the Gulf Coast offshore barrier islands. Often uninhabited, these nearby islands offer shelling, fishing, swimming, and relaxing amid the tranquil sounds of the water and Gulf breezes. With their powdery sand dunes, sea grasses, and native shrubbery, these islands are also a place for getting a rare glimpse of what the area must have looked like before Florida was developed.
St. Joseph Bay is an expansive aquatic nursery and home to dolphins, turtles, rays, and countless varieties of fish. But each summer it’s the humble scallop that brings people here. From July to September scallop harvesting season is in full swing. Boats anchor above the sea grass beds where the scallops lie, and people pull on masks and snorkels to search for the little mollusks, collecting them by hand, one at a time.
Well-used shrimping boats lie at anchor beneath yet another Technicolor Gulf sunset. Shrimping is big business here, and the succulent shellfish are available fresh in many restaurants and stores. Most commercial fishermen go out at night when the shrimp are easier to see and catch using lights. Locals boat or wade into shallow water using nets to scoop up the shrimp. The grass flats on the back sides of barrier islands on a low tide are often productive spots.