I enjoy going to the coast but, as a general rule, it’s not usually my first choice for vacations or time away. That is, until last spring. For some reason the thought of a few days on the Florida panhandle really appealed to me. It was more than that actually. I was sort of craving it, obsessing over it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I retired in July and, in late August, Romy encouraged me to go while she watched our three children, my brother Randy, who is disabled, and my mother who turned 90 in August. Yeah, she’s a saint. I don’t deserve her, never have.
So, with an approaching tropical storm (I ain’t scared) I tossed some stuff in my backpack, hooked up the G3, grabbed my fishing gear and headed southwest.
I outgrew any desire for the familiar summertime revelry associated with the stretch of coast from along the Alabama Gulf Coast and Florid Panhandle decades ago. Now I actually prefer the off-season.
However, the first few days I was in town included Labor Day weekend. My feelings were reinforced. I shouldn’t have even taken the boat off the trailer but I was so anxious to fish a little that I couldn’t resist. If you fish then I know you feel me. However, several hours of trying to inshore troll a little bit while boat after boat blew by me were…less than enjoyable.
I can picture, if the bay had an aquatic version of air-traffic control, a radar screen full of blips buzzing all around and a single blip hardly moving. Some frustrated guy looking at his screen;
“What in the world is this guy doing!? Is that a canoe? You’ve GOT to be kidding me. This idiot is trolling along the bay channel on Labor Day!”
Romy and I joined a vacation club when we first married. Of all the options for vacation lodging we’ve opted for using the vacation club more frequently than any other. I was able to book a single bedroom condo at Steamboat Landing on the bay for the week for about $600 if I remember right.
Steamboat Landing is a small condo complex behind, what I believe, are a couple of nice garden apartment buildings. I can’t speak for the atmosphere in the summer but it was definitely mellow while I was there. The unit was clean and well stocked and maintenance was quick to respond when I reported my DVD player was jacked up.
There is a free public boat launch within walking distance and I kept my little glorified jon-boat tied to the Steamboat Landing pier as long as I wanted for no additional cost.
They had an indoor pool and an outdoor pool, neither of which was ever crowded and some BBQ grills and places to chat with other guests outside the units. It was definitely a great place to crash for a few days and unwind.
One of the things I really liked about staying at Steamboat Landing was that I was within walking distance from Miracle Strip Parkway. Don’t picture the Miracle Strip from your senior trip. It wasn’t like that. There were several cool, casual restaurants as well as other shops along there. When I was riding out the tropical storm it was a great little piece of road to walk along in the drizzle and stick my head in a few places from tee-shirt shops, too an antique place with lots of maritime stuff, to a tattoo place. Yeah, I thought about it briefly but no more ink for me. Two is two more than I needed.
The first night I was in town I hit Cow Head. There is no shortage of higher-end hamburger places these days but I’d say this one was a little better than the average. There was a good selection of unique burgers they had created and the fries were…well…stinking GOOD!
They weren’t super busy the night I got in there but the manager was one of those guys who was just really friendly. He was able to make you feel like you’d been eating there for years from your first visit. I guess that’s part of the reason I went there for a couple of lunches while I was in town.
I also had breakfast my first morning at Asiago’s Skillet which was a short drive across the bridge and down a side street just past Okaloosa Island Fire Department. They also had some unique offerings. If you’re looking for something other than the standard breakfast fare I’d recommend them as well.
But here is what I came for when it comes to food…
I’m not a huge seafood fan but sometimes I get a jonesing for something particular. It might be oysters on the half-shell. It might be shrimp cocktail or broiled Florida lobster, or soft-shelled crab. This trip it was Blackened Redfish. Tuesday and Wednesday the storm was hitting us. The weather was too bad to do anything else so I called my cousin Keith in Spanish Fort to meet for lunch. Cousins are awesome. I wish I had more of them.
The Shack was few miles down the Miracle Strip from me so Keith and I met for lunch. Their Blackened Redfish was just what I was looking for. As Romy would say “It really got to de place”. That’s her version of it “really hit the spot.”
Later in the week I hit The Shack again. I’d been fishing all morning and I noticed that I could tie my boat up to their private dock, so I did. This lunch I decided to try a different Redfish selection. They call it “The Shack Fish Dinner”. It was a Redfish filet covered with a creole sauce, crawfish, tomato, and green onion. Redfish craving satisfied!
If you visit Fort Walton I wouldn’t miss a trip to The Shack for sure.
My higher purpose for visiting Fort Walton was to unwind, and I did.
My wife says that I can talk to anybody and, to a degree, she is right. I don’t have a problem striking up conversation and chatting with people. Truth be told though, I’m more of a loner than I like to admit.
Years ago, on more than one occasion, I’d throw my backpack and fly rod in the back of my truck with my Black Lab, Bama, and drive down one of the US Forest Service gravel roads for miles into the hills around Helen, Georgia. I could spend more than a few days there fishing, hanging with the most loyal dog God ever created, and drinking coffee by the fire.
In a sense, this was a coastal version of that. I did meet two couples from Louisiana and we chatted by the grills a couple of evenings. Most of my time though was spent by myself. Contemplating…stuff. I spent a fair amount of time walking the Miracle Strip Parkway in the tropical drizzle. I also enjoyed a cigar under the covering a few nights on the second-floor deck overlooking the bay and the Steamboat Landing dock.
I had saved a bottle of rum I bought in the Virgin Islands in 2000 for my retirement. A man can do a lot of contemplating with a cigar and a coke with 18 year old rum and lime in it while watching a tropical storm roll through.
Maybe I had some epiphanies. Maybe they were good.
My other purpose though, was to have some fishing time.
I’m 53 and my saltwater fishing knowledge is limited to what I’ve learned through the years dabbling squid around the piers in Panama City as a child and, later, what the party and charter boat captains told me to do. On a saltwater fishing knowledge scale of 1 – 10 I’m about 0.84.
I did some research online and bought some books before I went. My targeted species were Speckled Trout, and Redfish. Redfish, imagine that.
I managed to increase my knowledge before the trip the most by chatting with a retired Panama City battalion chief, Daniel Snapp, who now owns Grassy Flats Charters. I was so grateful for the time he spent on the phone with me and his willingness to not simply take me fishing but to teach me fishing.
We had scheduled an inshore trip that I was really looking forward to but, as fate would have it, I scratched my cornea a couple of nights before we were to go and, after a morning at the emergency room I decided to skip it and dabble in the bay on my own. For now.
My aforementioned trolling was an exercise in futility. It was probably hilarious to anyone familiar with inshore fishing. The older I get, the less I care what people think as long as I’m learning.
Bluefish was not a fish I cared to catch. I’d never caught one before but I got a serious introduction to them. I may be doing everything wrong but I was surprised at how similar fishing freshwater lakes for Largemouth and fishing the bay were in some respects.
One evening, about dark, I decided to work a line of boat houses with a crankbait. I caught my first Bluefish. When this thing hit it was like a torpedo. My arms immediately were pulled down as this thing made its first of several runs under the boat.
My largest Bass is a 9 pounder so I’ll have to use catching it as a frame of reference.
You know those Strongest Man in the World contests you watch on ESPN 2 at 3:00am? Okay, the guy from Scandinavia carrying the 500# concrete ball? He’s a nine pound Bass. He feels like a concrete block. When he makes a run, he’s strong, but not fast.
This Bluefish, when he ran, felt like the strength of that Scandinavian but with the speed of an NFL defensive back. By the time I got him to the boat I had gotten the net for him, in a near panic, and it wasn’t until the adrenaline wore off that I realized he really wasn’t all that big!
I actually managed to catch several Speckled Trout, or Specks as I heard them called growing up. None of them were large enough to keep but it was encouraging that I could find any of them at all. Maybe next time we’ll find some bigger ones.
My other goal was to catch my first Redfish. Mission accomplished but that little guy has a few more growing seasons to see before he ever sees any Red Bay Seasoning and a hot iron skillet. I didn’t know they made them this small.
Fort Walton was about a 5 hour drive from Atlanta, the lion’s share of the drive is interstate. I managed to pack a lot of unwinding into a few days. Retirement? I think I can get used to this is I can manage to stay unemployed.
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