“Do you like fishing topwater?" said Captain Mark Lyle. “Absolutely,” I quipped. I mean, what serious fisherman doesn’t like the anticipation of watching a fish explode on a water-walker lure?

That’s all Lyle needed to know as he smiled and throttled the boat in reverse, churning up the gin-clear waters of St. Joe Bay. Within 10 minutes we were drifting over shallow grass patches in search of big speckled trout. With the sun just tickling the horizon, Lyle tied my lure on — a Bill Dance Poppin’ Image — and made a short cast with it to show me how to work it. He quickly snapped the rod tip twice and then let the lure sit still. Then he snapped two more times and let it sit again. He said, “That’s how you work it,” and then handed me the rod. I reeled it in and threw a long cast over a patch of grass. I popped it just like Lyle showed me and on my third series of pops the water boiled around my bait and I set the hook on a hefty pair of fillets. Line screamed from the reel as the rod bowed submissively to the water’s surface. As I worked the fish closer to the boat Lyle says, “It’s a redfish.” About that time the rod snapped back straight as an arrow and the line went slack. “What’d you do that for,” asked Lyle as he began to laugh.

That wasn’t the first time Lyle had seen a fish get away. He’s been making a living from these waters at the southern border of Gulf County Florida for more than 30 years. He’s a commercial fisherman as well as a licensed captain. He fishes both St. Joe Bay as well as Apalachicola Bay. A local fisherman was telling me about Lyle’s fishing expertise and he said, “If there’s a crab out there, he knows where it’s at.” After spending a couple of days on the water with Lyle, I believe that fella was right.

By the time the mid-June sun was high and shining bright we had lost another red fish, caught a few smaller trout and one keeper, missed a bunch of top-water bites and caught some lady fish. It was time to move and change tactics.

Speckled TroutAfter a 30-minute hunt for Elwy (a baitfish that resembles a 3- to 5-inch freshwater shiner), Lyle was able to chum some up in shallow water and throw his cast net over them. With just three casts he had a live well full of bait and we were on our way to the back of the bay.

Lyle dropped anchor in about 4 to 5 feet of crystal clear water covering huge grass beds. The trout take cover in and around the grass and ambush unsuspecting bait as it swims by. We swapped our artificial lures for a 4-foot leader of fluorocarbon, bait hook and a popping cork rig. I brought my father-in-law along for this trip and both him and I casted our baits out into the expansive grass.

It didn’t take long and my bait started frantically swimming on the surface while towing the cork behind it. Lyle speaks up and says, “Reel most of your slack line up and get ready. Something is after it when they start swimming like that.” The wind was blowing some now so the choppy waves made it difficult to see a predator’s approach. Then I heard a deep slurp or pop — the same sound a big bluegill makes when it sucks a bug off the surface of the water. Only this sound was louder and made by something bigger. Suddenly my cork goes under and begins to speed away. I reel the line taught and set the hook. The fight ensues. The fish pulls hard enough to engage the drag on the reel and after a minute or so it’s swimming alongside the boat. That’s when Lyle dips his net into the water and pulls out a beautiful 18-inch speckled trout. Over the next couple of hours, Lyle, my father-in-law and I pull nine more trout from those grass flats. The trout varied in size from 15 to 21½ inches. It was the best day of speckled trout fishing I'd experienced. Lyle kept us in the action all morning and through midday. He definitely knew where the fish were and what they wanted.

Fishing With Captain Mark

If you’re looking for a near shore or in-shore fishing experience while visiting the beautiful beaches of Gulf County Florida, contact Captain Mark Lyle. Speckled TroutHis knowledge of the bay and the fish in it is second to none. Having spent a lifetime fishing St. Joe Bay, he truly knows how to target the fish swimming in its waters. Not only is Lyle knowledgeable, but also he’s fun to be around. He has some great fishing stories because he’s been a commercial fisherman for decades, including some stories of 12 to 13 foot sharks caught off the local beach. He’ll make you laugh and make sure you have a good time, all while putting you on fish. He offers shark fishing as well as pompano, tripletail, flounder and more. Visit, www.flatbottomfishing.com to contact Lyle or to book a trip. His prices are reasonable and I’m not sure you can find someone with more local experience.

Visiting Gulf County

If you’re interested in tricking your wife into taking a fishing vacation, then look into visiting Gulf County Florida. Not only can your wife and kids enjoy the beautiful beaches, emerald Gulf waters and great dining, but you can also take advantage of some of the best fishing along the Florida Panhandle. St. Joe Bay is located 45 miles southeast of Panama City Beach, 25 miles west of Apalachicola, and 100 miles southwest of Tallahassee Florida. While droves of vacationers flock to the beaches west of Gulf County, this area of the Panhandle is much more laid back. There are no high-rise condominiums, crowded beaches, congested traffic, long lines at restaurants, or any of the other frustrations that go along with the heavily visited beaches of Panama City, Destin, Pensacola and Orange Beach. Not only that, but these beaches are dog friendly and you can even have a bonfire on the beach.

With a large marina located in Port St. Joe, you have access to charter boats that can take you deep-sea fishing or you can contact Captain Mark Lyle for all your inshore needs. There is also a large public boat launch in town, so bring your own boat for a week full of fishing. Plus, from July through September you can catch scallop in the bay. This is a great activity for kids and the whole family. If you like relaxing on the beach, you’ll find great fishing right in the surf as well. My family and I visited this area of Florida about 2½ years ago and it’s the only place we go when taking a beach vacation now. For more information on rentals, hotels, dining, fishing and more, check out www.visitgulf.com.