With so many bridges that span the local waterways of Florida’s Panhandle, anglers have a wide range of venues when it comes to promising inshore structures. Most of these bridges are best approached by boat, but there are even a few emergent overpasses land-locked anglers can easily access and utilize to target popular wintertime game fish.
Without a doubt, the most popular bridge in the area is Three-Mile Bridge, also known as The Pensacola Bay Bridge. One reason the fishing is superior along Three-Mile Bridge is because in 2004 Hurricane Ivan destroyed the decommissioned bridge and knocked the remaining fishing pier into the water. With the vast amount of structure resting on the bottom it’s no wonder there are so many fish attracted to the area.
Try slightly lifting the rod tip and letting the bait flutter back to the sea floor. This mimics the appearance of an injured or disoriented baitfish and should entice nearby predators to strike.
While local anglers certainly fish area bridges year-round, the most consistent action comes during the coolest months of the year. During the winter bundled up fishermen routinely encounter redfish, sheepshead and white trout, with an occasional flounder, black snapper and ribbonfish thrown in the mix. The fishing can be so good from January through March that on any given day of the week you will see a dozen or more boats lined up working the pilings.
There are three additional bridges within a short boat ride from Three-Mile that also provide incredible action. You definitely want to check out the I-10 Bridge, which traverses northern Escambia Bay. Garcon Point Bridge is a toll bridge spanning the southern part of Escambia Bay and leads you into Blackwater Bay, and the Bob Sikes Bridge extends over the ICW and brings vacationers to Pensacola Beach.
Along all of the aforementioned bridges game fish can be pursued both day and night as they stage along the pilings while waiting for the right moment to ambush unsuspecting prey. Just as the bridges provide a daytime shadow, bridge and streetlights provide shadow lines after sunset. While I enjoy fishing during the day, some of the best action comes at night because the lighting configuration often creates a regular series of lit waters below that game fish habituate or routinely investigate on their pursuit of forage.
I’ve caught plenty of reds along unlit bridges from dawn to dusk, but experience has proven that the lit waters concentrate redfish with much greater consistency. Fishing the edge of a shadow line is the ideal area to work your offering and it’s worth searching for and fishing the brightest stretches of water. During moonless nights when the lights really illuminate the water you can expect to see redfish and trout darting in and out of the shadow lines between the abutments.
Whether fishing shadow lines by day or night, tackle selection and your approach will be determined by the species in your crosshairs. When fishing for redfish and white trout there are a number of reliable techniques that will get you connected. Around crusty bridge pilings redfish average 3- to 20-pounds, with white trout typically found in the 13- to 20-inch range.
Jig fishing is one of my favorite approaches, with a ¼ to ¾ oz. jighead rigged with a soft plastic shrimp or paddletail deadly. With this combination you want to let your jig contact the bottom as you slowly work it across the debris below. Try slightly lifting the rod tip and letting the bait flutter back to the seafloor. This mimics the appearance of an injured or disoriented baitfish and should entice nearby predators to strike. The most important consideration is that you don’t overdo it. Holding your jig still and letting it undulate in the current will usually entice more strikes than anything else. If you’re constantly moving the jig you’re also less likely to detect a subtle strike. Winter fish are lethargic and this translates to less aggressive feeding behaviors. A lot of times you’ll detect small taps more than you’ll feel anything at all.
Another proven method is a basic Carolina rig, or fish-finder rig resting on the bottom. I often rig with a 1 ½ or 2 oz. egg sinker, 24 inches of 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader and a 2/0 circle-hook baited with live or dead shrimp, or fresh cut bait. Mullet and pinfish are good choices, and this approach can easily be upsized for larger bull reds with 24 inches of 30 lb. fluorocarbon leader tied to a 5/0 circle-hook baited with live white trout, mullet or pinfish.
With the water temperature hovering in the mid 50s in January and February, the sheepshead bite is typically in full swing. Anglers in all kinds of vessels will be holding tight to the pilings in an effort to entice these striped convicts to bite. When targeting sheepshead along area bridge pilings you have to remember that this is a vertical presentation and you don’t want your bait resting directly on the bottom. Instead, you want it about ¾ of the way down the piling. When targeting sheepshead I prefer to use a 7-foot medium-action spinning outfit loaded with 20 lb. braid. Again, a basic Carolina rig with an egg sinker as light as possible depending on what the current is running will suffice. I suggest a ½ to 2 oz. egg sinker and 24 inches of 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader tied to a #2 O’Shaughnessy or 1/0 circle-hook baited with a live shrimp or fiddler crab. Sheepshead are considered bait-stealing masters, and I always instruct my clients to strike just before the bite. This is a hard concept to grasp, but after you land a couple of fish you will get the hang of it. Some anglers bring a tool to knock barnacles off the pilings to get the sheepshead in a feeding frenzy, but this isn’t always necessary.
No matter what species or bridge you target, proper anchoring is essential and your boat’s positioning in relation to the current and piling orientation will have a large influence on your success. Remember that every bridge is different and the features of your chosen bridge, as well as the bottom makeup, will determine the established feeding zones. While you can cast underneath the bridge and work your offering between the pilings, you should also position yourself so you can work lures perpendicular to the pilings in a cross retrieve.
Florida’s Panhandle has some incredible fishing in the winter months. Even though it’s cold outside, that shouldn’t keep you indoors. Bridges offer ideal winter fish magnets, with deep water and funneling currents providing forage and ample ambush opportunities to countless waiting fish. Whether high traffic or abandoned, Panhandle bridges simply cannot be ignored.