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Beyond the golf courses of Destin, Florida, the red snapper awaits

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,
Destin - Water
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Destin has some of the whitest beaches and prettiest waters in Florida. (Tim McDonald/WorldGolf.com)

On a Florida golf vacation, in Destin, you might want to skip the golf course for a day and fish the Gulf of Mexico, where the highly-sought red snapper awaits

DESTIN, Fla. - If you're a first-time visitor to Destin, Florida, you may be surprised at the way the white-sand beaches and turquoise waters look like something straight out of a glossy travel magazine.

No, they don't treat them with chemicals.

I was born and raised in Florida, and lived in the north, south and central, as well as on both coasts, from Fernandina in the north to Key West in the south.

The Panhandle doesn't yet have the high-paid marketers that Miami or Naples do, but I can tell you firsthand that the waters and beaches in these parts are as scenic as anywhere in the state, and prettier than most.

For example, were you aware that Key West has to haul in the sand for its beaches?

You'll see what I mean when you drive along the thin strip of land from Destin to Ft. Walton Beach, with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the huge Choctowatchee Bay on the other.

So I'm betting that if you go to Destin for the golf, at some point you'll want to stow the clubs and break out the fishing gear, however briefly, if nothing more than as an excuse to get out on the water.

Gulf of Mexico fishing

Just as the redfish is king around the Louisiana bayous and the tarpon is king around Boca Grande, red snapper is the preferred catch around this part of the Gulf.

And it's with good reason: Seafood connoisseurs swear by the taste of red snapper, with its firm flesh and sweet meat, which tastes almost like smoked almonds.

It's so good, in fact, it is often faked. Just because you ordered red snapper off the menu doesn't mean that it's red snapper you're eating. It could be barracuda, for example, or it could be rockfish.

Also, studies have found that red snapper is often mislabeled in supermarkets.

If that isn't enough, be aware that, even though the Destin area is surrounded by waters that host a big charter-fishing industry, many seafood restaurants in the Destin area don't serve the fresh, local stuff. So make sure you ask upfront.

Your best bet is to catch your own red snapper. To do that, you'll have to be in the area for the red snapper season. Again, beware, it's complicated: The fish were over-harvested for so long that restrictions have been in place for a few years now.

The recreational red snapper season opened April 21 this year for 194 days in the Gulf. The limit is four with a minimum length of 16 inches, until May 2, when the limit is lowered to two.

If you hire a charter boat, you don't need me to tell you how to catch red snapper. There are around 120 operations to choose from in the Destin area.

If you want to rent a boat and strike out on your own, the first thing you'll probably want to do is tie up a snapper rig. Tie enough weight onto a 60-pound test line made up of either mono or fluorcarbon - remember, red snappers of up to 40 pounds are not that uncommon - to hold you straight down in the water, against whatever current you're fishing in.

Rig some dropper loops above your sinker, with the first anywhere from a foot to 16 inches above the weight. Tie the hooks on to the loops - the hook size depends on the size fish you'll most likely hook up with.

For bait, use dead squid or cigar minnows. Don't worry about having to venture too far offshore; legal red snapper can be caught within five or six miles out. You can use the Okalaoosa County Web site for GPS coordinates.

Fishing Choctawatchee Bay

You don't have to rent a boat to catch fish here. Fish off the Okaloosa Island pier for Spanish mackerel - another one of my favorite fish to eat - bluefish, pompano and the hard-fighting cobia.

Choctawatchee Bay offers the chance to catch all sorts of fish without the risk of getting seasick, like redfish, sheepshead and spotted seatrout. For sheepshead, you can simply stick a little crab on the end of your hook and hold it down beside any piling. Catching them requires a touch of magic, though, because their mouths are soft and you almost have to anticipate their bite.

There is good freshwater fishing in the tributaries of the bay, including the Choctawatchee and Yellow rivers. Go after black bass, shellcrackers, speckled perch and bluegill in Lake Talquin. There's no admission into the Lake Talquin state park.

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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