Good news in Florida panhandle

With the scourge of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill expanding throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico, Florida can no longer claim complete purity.

However, despite the tar balls recently discovered on Pensacola Beach, the Sunshine State got a bit of good news on Monday when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reopened 339 square miles of previously closed fishing area off the Florida Panhandle.

On June 5, NOAA extended the Gulf of Mexico's closed area to 78,603 square miles (roughly 33 percent of Gulf federal waters) as a precaution because oil was projected to reach farther east within 48 hours.

However, when satellite imagery, radar and aerial data proved that oil had not moved into this area, NOAA reduced the closure accordingly. The northern boundary of the closed area currently ends at Florida's federal-state water line on the east side of Choctawhatchee Bay.

The closed area now represents 78,264 square miles approximately 32 percent of Gulf federal waters. This leaves approximately 68 percent of Gulf federal waters available for fishing. The federal closed area does not apply to any state waters.

NOAA states that closing Gulf waters to fishing is a precautionary measure intended to ensure that seafood from the Gulf will remain safe for consumers. Federal and state governments have systems in place to test and monitor seafood safety, prohibit harvesting from affected areas and keep oiled products out of the marketplace.

Pensacola fishing

I recently spoke with one of Pensacola's top fishing guides, Capt. Wes Rozier, who clarified the Panhandle situation.

"What we're having wash up are tar balls most of them are the size of a quarter to the size of a pancake," he said. "I haven't seen the first one myself and I'm out fishing every day. Everything is still clean and normal. The only thing I have noticed is that if we have a strong southwest wind, I can smell the oil but only for a few minutes."

Rozier said that folks inland have also reported smelling petroleum fumes, but he notes that onshore winds are carrying the scent and such detection does not necessarily imply approaching oil.

"I think the oil that we have is just in the current and it's just skirting our area," Rozier said. "I think eventually, we might start seeing (bigger) splotches of it. But are we going to wake up someday and find the whole beach covered? I don't believe so. I don't think we're going to see what they're seeing in Louisiana."

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, speaking recently in a television interview, noted that Florida's barrier islands, like Santa Rosa Island guarding Pensacola Bay, provide a strong first line of defense for sensitive marshes.

No one wants to test this theory, but oil in any form that may wash onto these beaches would be more easily cleaned than the oil that has washed directly into Louisiana's marshes that lack barrier island protection.

Nevertheless, word of oil even tickling a Florida beach has loosened more earth in what has become a landslide of lost tourism mostly driven by speculation. Rozier laments the decline in fishing industry business due to what appears to be widespread misbelief that oil taints the entire Gulf.

Countering that fallacy, Rozier points to an active coastal and inshore fishery that continues to offer dependable rod-bending opportunities for anyone visiting the Florida Panhandle. Zipping and slashing their way through coastal waters, toothy Spanish mackerel provide fast-paced fun. Trolling white bucktails on 30- to 40-pound monofilament leaders will bring a bunch of these stunning predators to the boat.

Move out a little farther in state waters and slow trolling live cigar minnows or alewives will nab the Spanish mackerel's larger cousin the king mackerel. You can do Spanish mackerel on light to medium-action spinning gear, but you'll want to beef up the tackle a little for kings. You'll also need more line, as a big king will take you down to the knot.

Inshore, Rozier is catching plenty of redfish and speckled trout in Santa Rosa Sound. Look for reds around docks at the sound's north side and islands to the south. Mullet schools are a good sign, as redfish often mingle with these vegetarians. Rozier suggests free lining live shrimp or croakers for redfish, but gold spoons, Berkley Gulp Shrimp hooked weedless and topwater plugs will also appeal to the reds.

Look for Pensacola trout over grass beds and note that the fish will feed shallow during the cooler hours of early morning and then drop into deeper areas as the sun rises. Fish topwater plugs or live shrimp under corks.

For Pensacola fishing trips, contact Capt. Wes Rozier at 850-982-7858.

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.