Florida 2012 Part II: A Pierfishing Mecca

After a long week of conferences and presentations, I was itching to get back to the water. The on and off clouds that hovered over Tampa had begun to change from fluffy cartoony cotton balls into an ominous gray covering and I was fearing the encroaching thunderstorms would quickly churn up the clear waters in the bay and cause the steady bite to drop off. Nearing the end of my stay in Florida, a top destination that I had wanted to visit was the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Spanning the north to south length of Tampa Bay, a large section of the 4.1 mile bridge collapsed in 1980 when a freighter struck it. Out of the tragedy, however, a blessing arose when the remaining approaches to the original bridge were converted into the Sunshine Skyway fishing piers. These piers are claimed to be the longest fishing piers in the world, and together at nearly 3 miles, this claim may actually be true!

What makes this pier interesting is that it is a purposely run through and through fishing pier. Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week all year long, the piers are well light at night with a bait shop selling live bait on each section. Hiking 3 miles with a pier cart would make for a quite tiring pier fishing expedition but such inconveniences won’t bother fishermen on the Skyway piers because you can simply drive onto the fishing pier! Pull out spots are located all along the pier where you can pull over, grab your fishing gear and toss out a rig within reach of your vehicle!

And what of the fishing? Well, not only does the length of the piers allow anglers to reach the deep shipping channels where large sharks and other monsters of the deep wander, old bridge pilings of an alternate span of the bridge line one side of the piers providing ample structure for a variety of fish. Additionally, rubble created by purposefully sunken sections of the old bridge create expansive artificial reefs that are easily reachable by seasoned anglers who have the knowledge of where such rich grounds lie. The piers provide such rich habitat that in fact when tarpon begin their migration along the coast of Florida, tarpon hunters in boats will sometimes fish for the silvery beasts near the pier and at times even among the pilings! Even 300 lb+ goliath grouper (while illegal to target) commonly wander their way under the piers.

Well, after hearing all these legends of the mother of all fishing piers in one of the richest fishing waters of the world, this fisherman could not pass up the opportunity to wet a line there. So in fear of incoming inclinement weather, I decided to skip a few lectures to try and get a few hours as an evening session in at the pier. Being an expedition of just a few hours, my gf decided for once to stay and relax at the hotel, giving me a chance to out fish her… since she wasn’t fishing lol.

Arriving at the pier with just over 2 hours to spare before sunset, I was tripping over myself to get a line out into the water. After paying the toll operator at the entrance of the pier for a 24 hour permit to fish on the pier (which meant I did not need an additional Florida state fishing license), I idled down the pier in my car hoping to watch how the scattered anglers were doing. Well, it didn’t take long, as 100 feet from the entrance to the pier I watched as a fisherman’s rod bent heavily in his hands. I quickly pulled over and watched as he deftly pier gaffed a nicely sized Atlantic Spanish Mackerel (Scomberomorus maculatus). As the highest priority species that I had hoped to catch at this pier, you can bet my heart was racing. Moving a good 20 feet away from the angler so he wouldn’t feel crowded, I quickly pulled out my fishing outfits. Looking at his cast net sprawled on the ground and his aerated bucket, I could see he was live lining small live scaled sardines. Quickly snapping on my sabiki rig, I was unsure of whether the sardines were planktivorous and would hit a sabiki. However, my doubts were immediately overcome as something small hit my rig. I quickly pulled up a small silvery fish. However, once on the ground, I realized it was not a scaled sardine but instead a threadfin herring (Opisthonema oglinum). Awesome! A new species! However, due to it’s larger size and deeper body, I thought it would make for a difficult fish for the medium sized spanish mackerel to engulf. Nonetheless, I impaled an octopus hook through it and freelined it on the strong current away from the pier with my Toro 60 clicker on.

Meanwhile, I continued to use my sabiki to see what new little species I could entice. It wouldn’t take long as every single drop yielded fish after fish with just a little jiggle of the rod. Sure, this was baitfish fishing, but with the variety of new species that were coming over the railing, I was having a ball.

I especially loved hooking up with the Blue Runners (Caranx crysos). I never hooked up with a fish larger than 7-8 inches, but boy did they fight like fish double their size! True to their jack heritage, these beautiful little fish fought with stubborn tenacity, digging hard to try and gain line. In fact, I had heard these quick fish made for perfect bait for the mighty King Mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla) that had conveniently just begun to show up around the Skyway piers. While it would be an amazing feat to hook one of these lightning fast predators on this trip, I knew that seasoned anglers often take many trips before successfully landing this pelagic from a pier. Known as “smokers” among the Florida pier rats, this nickname was due to the blazing strike and initial run that King Mackerel usually take upon engulfing bait, often causing reels to send off a spray of water vapor looking like smoke. I contemplated swapping out the threadfin herring I had freelining on my heavy rod for the blue runner, but decided against it, not knowing whether the speed demon blue runner would simply take line out against my clicker and snag me somewhere.

While playing around with my sabiki, I suddenly had a severe hit. My rod bent heavily in my hands and I worried whether the light sabiki leader would hold. After a brief tussle, I was able to raise the fish to the surface of the water, where I saw an elongated silvery form. Was this my spanish mackerel? However, in a dash of speed, the fish exploded out of the water shaking it’s head violently and betraying its identity as a ladyfish. Although commonly looked down upon in Florida due to it’s poor edibility, it is quite revered as a sportfish due to the flashy jumps that it often takes when hooked. It also happened that it was a species of fish that I was quite eager to capture. However, fate dismissed this fish as this first jump almost immediately snapped the sabiki hook’s branch line when the fish landed on it. Argh!

Casting back out, I jigged the sabiki when another fish hit. Again, the rod arched over with an energetic fish. Almost immediately however, I felt a light pop. I reeled back in to find another sabiki hook branch line cleanly sheared off. Hm, was the sharp toothed predator a small spanish mackerel? The sun was beginning to set in the horizon now and a gentle glow bathed the pier in a glorious Florida sunset.

I decided to switch out the sabiki for a larger, flashy lure intended to attract a predator higher up on the food chain. I opened my tackle box and chose to begin with a universal search lure: a 1 oz silver spoon. Casting out, I tried various retrieves without any bumps. I then tried a jerkbait, hoping to entice something on a reaction bite. One by one, I tried various tried and true lures in my arsenal without any success. Finally, I laid my eyes on a silvery Gotcha plug. Given to me by a fellow East Coast fisherman, I had heard of great success throughout the opposite coast using this particular lure. However, given the minimalistic looking wire construction and cartoon-esque eyes, I was simply not impressed. Nonetheless, when in Rome…

I cast out the lure and watched as it soared into the distance like a bullet. Then, I began a jerkbait like retrieve as my friends taught me. Through my polarized lenses, I saw the silvery spot in the transparent green waters of Tampa Bay erratically flick back and forth, side to side, up and down. Despite the homely looking appearance of the lure, I can say without a doubt it had an amazing action. Apparently, the fish decided the same because all of a sudden a long flash of a fishes flank slashed behind and under the lure. My heart skipped a beat, as I continued the retrieve as I watched another missed strike and another. Before I knew it, the lure was under me already. I quickly casted out again and began the hard, fast retrieve. Again another flash, and another! There was definite interest, but the fish were just not committing. Desperate to hook up, I cast out again as hard as I could, so I could get the lure to work slightly deeper.

Jerk-jerk-jerk-WHAM. The lure was stopped hard in the water and for a split second I felt something stall in the water. Zzzzzing! My drag cried out as something went for a run in the water. I held on, hoping, wishing it was my target species. After another two short runs, I managed to work the fish up to the surface and there glaring at me was a Spanish Mackerel! Quickly handlining it up to me, I was absolutely blown away by it’s beauty. A fingerprinting of yellow spots wandered their way along silvery flanks that shimmered with an iridescent glow. Jet black fins highlighted with reflective white silhouetted the fish, while rows of finlets lead to a powerful forked tail. A sharp mouth lined with rows of razor like conical teeth crowned the streamline and graceful body. Interestingly, these teeth seemed to be slightly retracted against the jaws of the fish and were much more distinctly visible when the fish opened it’s mouth.

After a quick picture, the fish was released back into the water. I was eager to fight another one of these little terrors! I cast back out and within seconds I was connected to another Spanish! True to reputation, the fish traveled in voracious packs. Again, the fish went on a few lightning quick runs, before running out of steam and coming up. Although it provided an enjoyable fight, I have to say I was slightly disappointed, incorrectly thinking that they would have the fight of our Pacific Bonito. Given their much slimmer body shapes however, it makes sense that the Spanish Mackerel simply don’t have the same amount of fight as our stubborn west coast torpedoes.

With the sun fading away, and no permission to stay out late, I was running out of time. I cast out a famous “last cast,” and this time almost got the lure back to me before it was hit. The strike was slightly different from the previous ones and my silent wish was answered as I watched the sinewy form of a ladyfish leap clear out of the water. I prayed that my hooks would hold as the ladyfish continued to go on jump after jump. This time, fate decided my wish would be answered when I was finally able to get the ladyfish up on the pier. Having only seen pictures of them, I have to say that in person, their giant gelatinous looking bug eyes combined with a rubbery toothless mouth really gives them an otherworldly appearance. A great addition to my species list.

With that fish, the wind suddenly picked up into enormous gusts just as the sun began to disappear over the horizon. The current began to slack, and I knew the ocean was telling my day had come to an end. I unsuccessfully tried to toss my lure out against the wind for a few last casts, before decided to pull in my untouched live lined bait and walk all of 10 feet to my rental car and pack it all in.

I sat in the car for just a second, watching the last of the sunlight wink out over the distance while the luminescent rows of fluorescent light flickered on over the railings and illuminated the choppy water beneath. I watched as a group of anglers arrived onto the pier in a pickup truck, loaded with buckets and aerators and fishing rods. The ultimate fishing pier doesn’t rest, and I wished I could continue on into the night. With a forlorn look in the rearview however, I started up the car and drove back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel, I glanced through the schedule for the last day of lectures. Wait a second, it was a half day starting in the early afternoon? Good thing I came back to the hotel early, because I was going back out in the morning! And I was already in my car headed to the pier the next morning long before the sun rose. However, the storm that I had feared would hit us seemed like it arrived. Despite predictions that the storm would pass before morning, the sky was blackened with dark clouds and explosions of heavy raindrops pelted the car. Did I care? Of course not!

Wanting to try a slightly different approach in the hopes of snagging different species, I stopped by a bait shop along the way to the pier and found some very appetizing looking live shrimp for sale. However, with no live well or bucket, I opted for some very fresh dead and half alive shrimp instead at only $4 for a ¼ lb.

A major target today would be Florida Pompano (Trachinotus carolinus). According to local reports, the pompano run was sporadic but they were present. Popular local methods of targeting the frisbee like fish in the surf were to use sandcrabs on light carolina rigs in the surf (sound familiar?) or a unique jig called Doc’s goofy jig. This was simply an oblong shaped painted jig head often attached with a teaser fly in fluorescent colors. This jig was bounced along the substrate, throwing up puffs of mud and silt imitating small invertebrates. This would be my chief rig of the day, sweetened with the fresh shrimp.

Arriving at the pier, my gf decided that she would sleep this one out, given the windy and rainy conditions. As she snoozed away, I rigged up a 1 oz goofy jig, baited it, and tossed it out towards the open ocean. Imparting a sharp jigging motion, with long pauses, the jig was hit within a few casts. 2 long runs later, another beautiful spanish mackerel was lying on the pier.

With open maws, the neat rows of jagged teeth were even more visible and served as a good reminder of the savage life that marine organisms must survive. Releasing it back into the water, I decided that perhaps I would try the alternate side of the pier, casting and jigging among the old pier pilings.

The action on this side was just as quick as before, and within the next hour, I added another trio of new species to my list, strangely enough including a pair of Atlantic black sea bass which are not considered a very common inshore species in the Tampa region.

However, as the clouds retreated and the sun began to poke out from the darkness, the Spanish mackerel and pinfish went on a rampage and almost every cast was met with a Spanish mackerel or a pinfish! My gf eventually woke up and decided to cast around with a large spoon, only to find that the voracious pinfish were almost impossible to keep from hitting the lure.

Eventually, I pulled in a large threadfin herring, and decided to pin it back onto my heavy outfit and freelined it into the current with a ½ oz egg sinker in hopes that perhaps something large was lurking around the immense amount of smaller fish in the area. Small areas of diving birds along the pier lifted my spirits that perhaps some other species of predators might be near. Afterall, the bait store had mentioned that King Mackerel were being caught sporadically at the pier. Meanwhile I continued casting the goofy jigs, looking for that elusive pompano. When a nearby angler hooked up with a hefty and beautiful pompano, I intensified my efforts. However, after catching multiple spanish mackerel, one of them eventually bit the jig in a way in which the teeth contacted the 20 lb mono leader and “ping!” No more jig! Those teeth were really amazingly sharp!

With less than an hour remaining to fish, I was trying to decide what to try next when I saw a distinct black and white striped silhouette lazily weaving among the pier pilings. Sheepshead (not to be confused with our west coast Sheephead)! Another top species on my list, I quickly rigged up with a long fluorocarbon leader and small mosquito hook. Known as notoriously finicky biters and bait stealers, sheepshead are usually present inshore in Tampa during the winter and warm waters often sees them returning to deeper waters. Usually taken on sandcrabs, fiddler crabs, and live shrimp, sheepshead are known to refuse almost all other baits. Nonetheless, I wanted to give my dead shrimp a try. Unfortunately, the second that my bait was lowered into the water, a swarm of pinfish immediately tore into the soft shrimp. Cast after cast yielded only pinfish on my hook. In fact, at one point innumerable pinfish were massed underneath me, circling ravenously like a ferocious pack of piranhas! The sheepshead quickly dissappeared and soon became just another species on my list of future targets.

Well, my time on this pier had come to and end. My gf and the conference beckoned. I began to take apart my rod and pack away my tackle into the car trunk. That’s when I heard something hissing ferociously from the pier railing. “That’s a curious sound,” I thought to myself while I finished putting away my backpack.

From along the rail, I hear the cries of fellow fishermen. “Smoker! Smoker! King!” My head snaps up, as I scan the railing for who hooked up. Everyone is pointing at me?! I look over at my Revo 60 and it is literally SMOKING. The spool was spinning so fast that my clicker simply made a high pitched whining noise. I sprinted over to the setup and swooped it up as fast as I could. My heart was pounding in my chest as I spun the handle to engage the spool while simultaneously rearing back for a hookset.

It wasn’t even a split second before “pop!”

I had hedged my bets by using a 50 lb fluorocarbon leader, as opposed to a wire leader, thinking that it might entice a finicky fish to take my bait. However, as the larger faster stronger and even toothier big cousin to the spanish mackerel, the King Mackerel’s teeth had sliced through my leader like a hot knife through butter.

Although the memory weighs heavily in my mind, having a species to take vengeance on is enjoyable is some ways. After all, externship opportunities are coming up and I hear there are a few good residency programs in Florida to check out…

With that exciting and heart breaking finale to my pier fishing expedition in Tampa, I had one last day to explore one last fishing opportunity. After the mangrove mazes and the ultimate pier fishing experience, there remained one more place I had hoped would add more species to my Florida experience…

To be continued…

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