- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
Twenty years ago, after building a new suspension bridge across the mouth of Tampa Bay, the State of Florida had a problem: what to do with the old bridge? In a fit of common sense, the state turned the remaining stretches of causeway into a fishing pier several miles long.
This pier, named the Sunshine Skyway Pier after the bridge from which it was born, is one of thousands of saltwater fishing piers open to anglers along United States coastlines. Some are in state parks, others are in county parks, and still others are commercial piers that anglers must pay to enter. All of them offer anglers easy access to good fishing opportunities, and they’re relatively easy to fish.
Captain Leiza Fitzgerald is a fishing instructor in Tampa, and is well versed on all aspects of saltwater angling. She says anglers need to be aware of several basic factors before they begin fishing any pier.
“First, you need to look at the tides,” she says. “If there’s no movement of the water, the only fish that will bite are the ‘trash’ fish – amberjack, catfish, ladyfish and the like.”
The second thing to remember is that on any pier, you’re going to be exposed to the sun. Take sunscreen, a hat, and a cooler with plenty to drink. If you take a beach umbrella and tie it to the pier railing with a couple of bungee cords, you’ll have the best shade on the pier.
Once you’ve taken care of the tides and the sun, you still need to know where along the pier to fish, and what to use in the way of tackle and bait. Each pier is different, of course, as is each bit of coastline, so you need to ask questions before you start fishing. Many piers have bait houses located on or near them where you can rent rods and reels, and purchase bait and terminal tackle. The proprietors of these bait shops can give you enormous amounts of information about how to fish the particular pier.
That said, here are some general tips for fishing piers:
Choosing A Spot
When you get onto the pier, don’t just plop down anywhere and start to fish. Adolf Schulz, owner of Galveston Fishing Pier, recommends walking up and down the pier for clues as to where fish are being caught. “The fish aren’t found every inch of the way along the pier. There are troughs and sandbars, and you want to fish between those sandbars,” he says. “The best way to see where the fish are is to see where people are catching them.”
Fitzgerald prefers a heavyweight rod, such as a surf-casting rod. This can be spinning or bait-casting (or small conventional) equipment, depending on which you prefer. She opts for 30- to 40-pound test line, with a 60-pound test leader to handle cobia, sheepshead and the occasional grouper.
However, on the Galveston Fishing Pier, Schulz says big surf rods are often impractical. “What you need depends on what you’re catching,” he says, adding that the outfits he rents are smaller, with 20-pound test line. For serious pier anglers, he suggests investing in three different rods.
“For speckled trout, you need a light rod that you can throw lures with, so it needs to be pretty limber, and use a line class from 15 to 20 pounds,” he says. “For a bait-caster, you need something that’s fairly stocky, so you can set the hook. Use 15- to 20-pound test line for that also. And for a surf-casting rod, you need something that’s stiff and long so you can cast way out. On that, use anywhere from 30- to 50-pound test. You just can’t combine those three things into one rod.”
Another important piece of equipment is a drop net, which can be invaluable for landing hooked fish from several feet above the water. Without one, getting a large fish up to the pier is next to impossible.
“You can tie it to the railing and drop it over the side with one hand,” Fitzgerald says. “If you have a big fish on the line, there’s no way you can get it up with just the line.” She describes a drop net as looking a lot like the baskets that hang on a chain in the kitchen.
Many times you’ll have to walk some distance between your vehicle and the pier. One way to carry all your gear very easily is on a luggage trolley. Pack a cooler with ice and drinks on the bottom, put your tackle box, bait bucket and umbrella on top, and use bungee cords to tie the whole thing together. Then hang a lawn chair over the handle and the only things you need to carry are your rods. Don’t forget to put a couple of old bath towels into the mix; you can use the bungee cords to tie them onto the rail, and then you have a padded surface you can lean your rods against so the line doesn’t get chafed from a rough railing.
Terminal Tackle And Techniques
A great deal of pier fishing takes place on or near the bottom, which means you’ll need some weight to get the bait down where you want it.
“There are a couple of different ways you can rig for fishing the bottom,” Fitzgerald says. “If the tide is running really hard, I use a 1-ounce sinker on the leader so the bait can move.” Other anglers use a 1- to 2-ounce sinker ahead of a swivel – your basic slip rig.
One technique is to use a pyramid-shaped weight and tie a dropper rig above it with two hooks about 18 inches apart for two different baits. The disadvantage of this kind of rig, however, is that it tangles, and it’s harder to feel what’s happening on the line.
Yet another technique is to freeline your bait.
“In that case I don’t use any weight, but just a heavy swivel,” Fitzgerald says. “I use live bait such as pinfish or a small grunt.” This kind of rig can help you catch some of the big fish such as cobia and mackerel, but plan on using a wire leader so they don’t cut through it.
Some experienced anglers – and many times the fish themselves – prefer live bait. Others prefer something dead. Make your choice depending on what the guy in the bait house or others on the pier say the fish are biting on that day.
Keeping baitfish and shrimp alive on a pier or bridge can be a challenge. On piers where a bait house sells live shrimp, buy just a few at a time and keep them in a bucket of seawater until you use them all. Or, if you’re not too far above the water, hang a perforated bait bucket in the water to keep the bait in fresh, circulated water. If you get serious about pier fishing, consider purchasing an insulated bucket with an aerator for $25 or so. Combined, these two items function like a livewell by maintaining temperature and oxygenating the water, both of which will keep bait alive and lively.
Artificial lures also work for a number of species, especially mackerel and trout. Although there aren’t any hard and fast rules about what works, when in doubt, try a spoon. Other than that, ask questions to find out what’s hot at the moment.
Pier fishing can be some of the most enjoyable fishing you’ll ever do. A good pier allows access to some fairly deep water without the hassle of owning boat, or the expense of renting one. In many cases, you can drive right to where you’re fishing, or at least get close. And as with all types of saltwater fishing, when you feel that tug on the line, you never know what you’re going to bring up. It just doesn’t get any better than that.