The beach is the first thing most folks notice about Destin. The sparkling white sand is so soft and fluffy that it squeaks when you walk on it. The fine quartz crystals were once the rocky mountaintops of the Appalachians, washed away by eons of rain and rivers, and settled along this shore by clear waters so green they are compared to precious jewels.
Destin’s beach is the destination’s primary draw. Visitors flock like gulls to its expanse, from The Gulf Islands National Seashore on its west side, just beyond the bridge over East Pass, to the quiet Henderson Beach State Park on the eastern edge, as well as to 12 public access points in between.
Visitors also tend to focus on the boats: all manner of crafts bob in the wide Choctawhatchee Bay, putter out the East Pass into the Gulf, anchor around a sandbar, and dock in the harbor.
Water is everywhere in Destin, and from there the town’s destiny emerged. Its nickname, “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” has stuck for more than a century. There’s good reason.
“Seafood is in your blood here,” says Charles Morgan, a wiry old salt, who runs along with his son a couple of local restaurants (Harbor Docks and Camille’s) and a fresh fish market (also called Harbor Docks). “What we do in the Gulf is rare. The Gulf is one of the last sources of wild protein left in the world,” he says.
Stop and think about that. We raise meat all over the US. We even farm fish. But here in these green waters, there is ample seafood, wandering freely, and it’s harvested by individuals testing the waters daily.
So, it’s not a surprise that Destin is home to Florida’s largest fishing fleet, with more than 140 vessels. Destin’s natural harbor is the nearest access to the 100-Fathom Curve. About 10 miles offshore, the floor of the sea drops to depths from 100 to 600 feet, creating favorite hidey holes for red snapper, grouper, amberjack, king mackerel, sailfish, and blue marlin—just to name a few. In fact, more billfish are caught here than from all the other ports on the Gulf of Mexico combined.
“This is where the fish are, so this is where the people are,” says Shantelle Dedicke, a recent newcomer who promotes eco-tourism. “Destin is an authentic beach town,” she says. Her husband flies at the Air Force base nearby, and they plan to retire here because of the beach and the fishing. There are many ways to experience fishing around Destin, she says, beginning with the Gulf, bay, bayou, sound, and harbor.
Destin’s waters, as well as its dune covered shoreline and pine and scrub oak forests, teem with life. “This is one of the top five bio diversity hot spots in North America,” Dedicke says. “We also have rare coastal dune lakes, which are only found here, in Oregon, and in New Zealand.” These seaside lakes fill with water, birds, and fish until the rain and high tides push them to overfill, spilling their waters and bounty back to the Gulf.
Fish on the Line!
A 19th century fisherman, Leonard Destin, arrived here from New London, Connecticut, about 1845. He and his family fished the only navigable channel from the bay to the Gulf of Mexico between Panama City and Pensacola. Today that’s known as Destin’s East Pass. Destin and his comrades typically stayed close to shore using seine nets from small boats, which they powered with oars. In fact, the oldest seine boat, The Primrose, a 1920s vessel, is on display at Destin’s History and Fishing Museum.
Since then, folks have flocked here to tap into the seafood– with remarkable results. “Destin has produced more world record fishermen than anywhere else in the world,” Charles Morgan boasts. That’s quite an accomplishment for a little village of less than 12,000 residents.
The fishermen, market owners, and restauranteurs all agree: The key to modern fishing is sustainability. Nowadays, most restaurants no longer serve Florida fish. Charles Morgan says that more than 90 percent of fish sold in Florida is imported and the problem is the price.
“Our snapper entrée tonight at Harbor Docks is $32. That’s almost a fair price,” he says. “We have to be willing to pay more so we can give the fishermen a market. Snapper is more expensive than filet mignon, and it’s not expensive enough.
“People know all about farm to table, but when they walk into restaurant, they go brain dead about fish. If you go to a chain restaurant, chances are you won’t be eating fresh local seafood,” he claims. Instead, Morgan says what the Destin locals say, “Go to independently owned restaurants for local fish.” Captain Gary Jarvis of the Back Down2 fishing boat adds, “If the fish isn’t Gulf-to-Table fresh, eat cheeseburgers.”
From the End of a Line to the End of a Fork
Destin’s Gulf-to-Table program, an educational initiative to help visitors learn about local seafood, says that at any moment, more than 20 different edible fish can be caught in Destin’s waters, depending upon the season. The fleet harvests thousands of pounds of catch daily.
Many visitors want the thrill of hooking into a fat snapper or a fighting amberjack during their visit. There’s dozens of sport fishing boat captains such as Gary Jarvis on the Back Down2 willing to charter for half-day, full-day, and overnight trips. Half-day trips run about $1,000 for up to six guests, including tips.
Afterwards, anglers may bring their bounty to one of the locally owned Destin restaurants for a hook and cook option. Destin’s Gulf-to-Table website, www.emeraldcoastfl.com/gulf-to-table/restaurants/, lists the different eateries that transform a fresh catch into a feast.
At Brotula’s, one of the locally owned seafood houses on Destin Harbor, Chef Tommy Lemasters comes to the table and asks about preparation. A group of ladies arriving in from a half-day fishing trip recently brought in a mess of amberjack and trigger fish. Lemasters suggested blackening the triggerfish, and frying and grilling the amberjack. For $15.95 per person, the fish arrived at the table heaped on platters with side dishes to round out the meal.
Another way to determine the freshness of the local catch is through Fish Trax program. Participating restaurants serve fresh fish with a QR code tag. Smart phone apps then can read the code to inform diners where and when the fish was caught and which boat and captain caught it.
One of the tastiest times to visit Destin is in October during the annual Seafood Festival weekend, October 6-8. That’s when locally owned restaurants congregate on the Harbor along with plenty of good music and vendors to offer up their most creative dishes in a carnival atmosphere.
Between the fishermen, the restauranteurs, the fish markets, and the locals, maintaining the quality of Destin’s fresh locally caught fish is a passionate business. They still want visitors to come for world-class beaches, but they also want to make sure visitors eat the best of the sea.
Destin Fish on the Plate
The Gulf-to-Table website offers a list of Destin’s locally owned eateries serving locally caught fish. Here are some of our favorites:
Brotula’s Seafood House and Steamer: Upscale casual on Harbor, hook and cook, Fish Trax; www.Brotulas.com
Harbor Docks: Flip-flops casual on Harbor, hook and cook; www.HarborDocks.com
AJ’s: Upscale casual on the harbor, hook and cook; www.ajs-destin.com
Dewey’s Destin Harborside: Casual on the harbor, hook and cook, Fish Trax; www.DestinSeafood.com
Jackacudas: Upscale casual on the harbor, hook and cook, Fish Trax; www.Jackacudas.com
Primrose: Upscale in The Henderson Resort; www.HendersonBeachResort.com
Destin’s Newest Digs
The newest resort between New Orleans and Jacksonville snuggles up to Henderson State Park. The Henderson, features gorgeous views across the state park to the sea, from a comfortably elegant lobby. Featuring 170 guest rooms, a decadent spa (think caviar facials), several pools and a lazy river. The dining here at Horizon’s Bar, octagon shape room ideal for sunsets, and Primrose, source fresh seafood from Harbor Docks Market. Don’t miss the gallery of historic Destin photos, especially one of a kid on horseback galloping along the coast, pulling a water skier, with a rod and reel in hand, trolling for fish. The Henderson shares beach with its sister property, the Henderson Park Inn. www.HendersonBeachResort.com and www.HendersonParkInn.com
When the Fish Bite
Come down and hook up with winning fish in one of these tourneys.
Sheepshead Shootout, February
Cobia World Championships, March- May
Blue Marlin Classic, June
King Mackerel Classic, September
Destin Fishing Rodeo, October