NAVARRE BEACH, Fla. — Navarre Beach advertises itself as Florida’s best-kept secret. It must be true, because it says so on the sign at the entrance of the bridge that takes you to the beach.
It’s hard to believe it’s much of a secret judging from the beachcombers there this past week, but if you compare it to the crowd of sun worshipers on its left and right – at Destin and Pensacola Beach – Navarre Beach is downright secluded.
(Tip: Don’t drive into Destin to shop on a rainy day in the summer. Apparently, all the tourists staying in the Florida panhandle have the same idea.)
I took my family to Navarre Beach last week for vacation. We’ve stayed at several places along the Alabama-Florida coastline in the past — Alabama’s Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and Florida’s Perdido Key and Pensacola Beach — but this was our first trip to Navarre. We seem to be working our way down the Emerald Coast.
We came to Navarre Beach for the surf and the sand, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The turquoise-colored water is beautiful.
Down the road from all the condos and beach houses, Navarre Beach is home to the Gulf Islands National Seashore. For eight miles, the pristine beaches remain untouched by development and are home to nesting sea turtles, birds and other wildlife.
Navarre Beach doesn’t have as much shopping, night life and restaurants as in Destin and Pensacola Beach, which probably is why it’s the beach less traveled among the trio.
I had no intention of fishing on this trip but soon discovered that just a few hundred yards down the beach from our condo was one of the most popular fishing spots in the area — The Navarre Beach Fishing Pier.
There are a few fishing piers in the Florida panhandle, but — at least according to the locals — Navarre is the best. Perhaps that’s because it’s the longest fishing pier extending into the Gulf of Mexico. It measures 1,545 feet long and towers 30 feet above the water.
The first fishing pier was constructed on Navarre Beach in 1974, but Hurricane Ivan knocked it out in 2004 and forced county officials to build a new one. The new, modern pier opened in June 2010 and is said to be sturdier to stand up to future storms.
The pier was built in a way to protect sea turtles that nest in the area. Signs along the pier inform anglers of the safe fishing guidelines for protection of the sea turtles, birds and dolphins.
Adult anglers can fish off the pier for $7 a day. It’s $4 for ages 15 and younger. Fishing off the pier doesn’t require the purchase of a separate Florida fishing license.
If you just want to walk the pier to look for wildlife and view the sunsets, the cost is just $1. That’s pretty cheap for a dolphin show, and pier walkers are always seeing dolphins, said Marina Burda, who works at the Pier store, where anglers can buy bait and rent fishing tackle.
I stepped into the store looking for a good source of fishing information. My idea was to find a salty old sea veteran who resembled Ernest Hemingway, but instead the only person in the store looked more like a young Mariel Hemingway.
Initially, I was disappointed. What kind of fishing information was I going to get from a 17-year-old?
But Marina (yes, that’s her real name, I’m not making it up) knew all about what anglers were catching and what they were catching them on.
If anyone catches anything worth bragging about, they usually stop by the store and do so, Marina said.
“Right now they are catching lots of kings (mackerel), and they’ve caught some cobia in the last month,” she said. “They are catching redfish right now and a lot of bait fish like hardtails.”
Cigar minnows for mackerel and shrimp for redfish are the most popular baits other than artificial lures, Marina said.
Anglers have been catching 20- to 25-pound mackerels every day, and there have even been some fish weighing more than 50 pounds in the past week, she said.
In the fall, anglers will catch dauphin and sailfish from the pier, Marina said. Sharks and stingrays often get caught from the pier, as well, she said.
“Someone fought a shark for eight hours a month ago,” she said.
If anyone needs proof, there is a YouTube video of an angler catching a tiger shark off the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier.
Occasionally, you might even see a shark from the pier, but viewing dolphins is almost an everyday occurrence, Marina said.
She was right about the dolphins. I hadn’t been on the pier five minutes when three dolphins swam by the pier. Before the afternoon was over, I had spotted two huge sea turtles around the pier and a local angler reeled in a 35-pound king mackerel.
The surf, the sand and the fishing pier. Three good reasons for this old man to return to the sea.