Most anglers won’t ever leave fish to find fish, but it’s more than likely you routinely pass under a bridge or come very close to one en route to your day’s final fishing destination. Not knowing you may have just passed the best action you would’ve encountered for miles, you kept cruising in hopes of finding fish along more enamored flats and shallows. In Florida, anglers must come off plane and idle when passing under bridge spans anyway, so it only makes sense to capitalize on the opportunity and see what’s below.
In my area of the Panhandle there are many bridges that span our waterways, but the three most productive are located within a 15-mile radius of my local ramp. Three-Mile Bridge extends across Pensacola Bay and has been a great producer since Hurricane Ivan demolished the old fishing pier in 2004. Now the rubble sits on the bottom and there is no shortage of structure for a variety of resident and migratory game fish. The Bob Sikes Bridge connects Gulf Breeze to Pensacola Beach and is ideally situated on the ICW and only a short distance from Pensacola Pass. Last but certainly not least, the Lillian Bridge crosses Perdido Bay and connects Florida with Alabama. Here anglers often score impressive trout and even more impressive sheepshead.
Whether your region’s bridges are covered in barnacles, oysters, mussels, scallops or all of the above, the combination of braid running line and fluorocarbon leader is the answer.
With underwater structures that have been soaking for years, one would think that fishing around bridges would be easy, but this isn’t always the case. Bridges vary greatly in height, length, design and location, and there are also numerous angling variables to contend with including seasonal tendencies of game fish and forage species, water temperature and clarity, depth, tidal flow and time of day. Fortunately, bridge fishing tactics apply to overpasses statewide, so the following tips can be implemented around nearly any bridge regardless of location or target species.
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that when fishing bridge spans by boat you must be aware of your surroundings and never impede or interfere with navigable waterways and channels. Safety trumps everything and it is illegal to anchor within a marked channel. It is also against the law to tie up to bridge fender systems, navigational markers and fixed bouys.
What makes bridges so fishable are the wooden pilings and concrete abutments used to hold these massive structures over the water and allow safe passage for trains, vehicles and pedestrian traffic. These weathered structures penetrate deep into the seafloor and provide fish with ideal ambush points to stage and wait for the tide to bring them an easy meal. Additionally, the size of the supports greatly influences the slack water created by the rushing tide and can be a major factor in the positioning of prized game fish. Furthermore, just as the sun provides a daytime shadow against the structure, bridge lights and street lights provide shadow lines after sunset for hot action no matter the time of day.
When you first approach a bridge by boat you’ll want to focus your efforts on the down current side. Fish will position in the eddy of water that is formed by the current racing through the pilings and stage at a variety of depths according to their preferred feeding habits. Black drum, red drum and flounder are notorious for relating to the bottom, and trout and sheepshead will be caught mid-depth. Depending on location in the state, your local bridges might also be hunted by snook, tarpon and snapper, but understand your area’s prevalent game fish’s preferred feeding habits and orientation to structure and you’ll find success implementing the same general tactics from coast to coast.
I will let you in on a secret that works for me and I use it almost exclusively when fishing these towering structures. It’s been around for years, but is often overlooked or forgotten about because of some fancy new lure or technique that someone developed and promoted as the next big thing. My secret weapon when fishing bridges is simply a live shrimp pinned to a lead jighead. While a Carolina rig is a popular presentation for soaking live pinfish or scale baits, with a jighead I can fine-tune my presentation to the prevalent conditions much more effectively. The key is to choose the proper size jig to accommodate the tidal velocity so the shrimp appears as natural as possible. Some days you’ll be using 1/8 oz., others you’ll be using ¼ oz., and then there are times when the current is roaring and you’ll be forced to go heavy with ½ oz. or even ¾ oz. jigs.
Along with braid being mandatory due to its sensitivity and abrasion resistant qualities, another aspect to successful bridge fishing is leader selection. While monofilament is more affordable, fluorocarbon is stiffer and more capable of handling wear and tear, so it’s really the only choice when fishing around such unforgiving structure with line-slicing marine growth. When fishing for drum, flounder and trout, I start with 30 lb. fluorocarbon and scale down to 20 lb. if fish are finicky. Whether your region’s bridges are covered in barnacles, oysters, mussels, scallops or all of the above, the combination of braid running line and fluorocarbon leader is the answer.
The way you hook live shrimp is also critical. The shrimp has to not only look alive, but it also has to stay on the hook or your efforts will be futile. I insert the hook just below the fantail of the shrimp and make sure it is positioned exactly in the center. Many believe you must hide the hook for a stealthy presentation, but for this approach it is critical the hook is exposed to make certain it penetrates with ease.
Next you’ll need the appropriate retrieve, or lack thereof. There’s no need for an erratic retrieve here, simply let the current do the work and you’ll see more strikes than trying to impart any additional action. This means simply holding your jig still and letting it undulate in the current. Toss your bait up current and let it slowly drift down and back along the pilings you are targeting. You’ll often get slammed as the jig is slowly falling, so be sure to keep in constant contact with the lure as it drifts toward the bottom. If it reaches the bottom without getting picked up, twitch the bait and move it only a couple of inches at a time. Between twitches let the bait sit for upwards of 20 or 30 seconds. If no strikes result on the way down or by resting the bait on the bottom, then retrieve the bait back to the boat, but very slowly with lengthy pauses in between until it’s within sight.
On your next planned outing to the flats or on your way to the inlet, don’t hesitate to give that bridge a second look and stop off and try your luck. Bridge fishing doesn’t receive the same exposure as sight fishing the flats, but whether high traffic or abandoned, bridges can’t be ignored for incredible inshore action.
With strong currents and flowing tides passing under bridges, at times forage and predator species will get pushed off the structure and this is when a high-definition side scanning sonar system pays big dividends. Don’t hesitate to look upwards of 100 yards from the base of the structure you’re fishing.