High Times Mackerel

For most anglers it all starts at the local pier. Accessible, available and affordable, Florida’s fishing piers are the breeding grounds for future fishermen as well as the favored go-to spot for anglers in the know who just can’t get enough.


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Photo: Frank Abbott

Stretching 40 miles across the emerald green waters of the Panhandle and protecting the mainland from storm damage, the barrier island of Santa Rosa is home to the protected stretch of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, as well as the coastal communities of Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach and Okaloosa Island. Fortunately, each of these three locales has its own fishing pier stretching out more than a thousand feet into the Gulf of Mexico.

If you’re in the beginning stages of your pier fishing career, it’s best to keep your eyes and ears open to everything.

Throughout the year anglers soaking lines at these man-made structures routinely connect with redfish, sheepshead, Spanish mackerel, whiting, cobia, pompano, sailfish, tarpon and more, but some of the most exciting action occurs during the annual king mackerel migration when the fishing is fast and furious. Now don’t get the wrong impression…realize that you aren’t deep-sea fishing and if you land a nice king or two you’ve had a very successful day. On average the piers produce upwards of a dozen quality mackerel per day, with high times reaching more than 50 fish when the bite is really going off.

Visiting anglers encounter a variety of species at the pier, but those who specifically target king mackerel utilize 8-foot medium action spinning rods matched to reels with the capacity to hold no less than 300 yards of 12 to 20 lb. monofilament. Using braid as a backing with a top shot of mono or fluorocarbon will give you a bit more peace of mind, but braid isn’t highly recommended because of its tendency to burn off nearby anglers fishing mono. Additionally, unless you’re fishing with hi-vis braid it’s hard to see it against the water, which leads fellow anglers to unknowingly cast over your line.

Although pier fishing is simplistic with no boat required, you’ll need a way to transport your gear. The most experienced anglers utilize a pier cart with storage for rods, bait, cooler and tackle. Fishing carts come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from homemade versions as simple as a flat piece of plywood on wheels, to extravagant wagons with multiple rod racks and complete tackle stations. The choice is yours, but if you are serious about walking the planks a pier cart is a necessity, not a recommendation.

A common tactic for coercing kings from Panhandle piers is what’s referred to as snobbling, which involves casting a dead cigar minnow on 30 lb. single strand wire leader with a #4 treble hook pinned to its head. Cast the bait as far as you can into the wind and slowly retrieve it back to the pier with intermittent pauses, making the silvery scad flash and appear to be struggling for its life.

While snobbling is very popular, free lining live bait can also be extremely effective. If you wish to do so, you are in luck as Panhandle piers attract incredible gatherings of a variety of favored finfish. Casting a #6 or #8 sabiki is all that’s required to connect you will pilchard, greenies, cigar minnows and small hardtails.

From here rig your live bait with a traditional J-hook and stinger, with hook size correlating to the size of the bait. With this technique you need to cast straight out from the pier and follow your bait by moving down the rail. While tending live bait requires a little more patience compared to repeatedly casting and retrieving a dead cigar minnow, the technique offers a whole lot more.

When it comes to hooking your live bait there are several techniques that will greatly influence the presentation. Inserting a hook near the anal fin will make the bait swim towards the surface, while a hook placement in the nostril will make the bait swim directly into the current, but anglers risk short strikes with this hooking method. If you want the bait to swim deeper in the water column without the use of a weight, try hooking it in the collar. No matter where you place the hook be sure to keep slack out of the line and follow your bait so you can keep tangles to a minimum. Unfortunately, baitfish hardly ever swim straight away from the pier. It will certainly take some time before you get the feel of it, but this is where the best live bait fishermen are bred. Hold the line in your finger with the bail open and have the drag set so when a king picks up the bait and you engage, the fish is able to scream off line.

With both of the aforementioned techniques putting fish on the planks, you’ll want to choose your approach and fishing location on the pier based on the current and wind direction. Casting a dead cigar minnow in between two anglers free lining live baits isn’t such a great idea, so look around and use common sense before excitingly pitching out your first offering.

Even if you’ve paid your dues and worked the pier’s surrounding waters for decades, you won’t catch kings if there aren’t any kings around to catch. In this endeavor timing the migration is everything. The first kings typically show up along the Panhandle when the water reaches 68 to 70 degrees and the action stays hot until October, before waters really begin to cool.

While at the pier it’s important you exercise a level of common courtesy. With the availability and easy access fishing piers provide you can expect a lot of novice anglers to be mixed in with the regulars. If you’re in the beginning stages of your pier fishing career, it’s best to keep your eyes and ears open to everything. If you’ve grown accustomed to pier fishing, then you know that it all starts somewhere so show some courtesy to beginners. When the bite is hot you can expect the locals to be more focused on fishing than instructing, and the best thing to do here is simply watch and learn.

That being said, newcomers shouldn’t head straight for the end of the T, but grow their skills along the pier straights. Additionally, all piers have posted rules ranging from no cast nets or shark fishing, to no running, glass or loud music, but there are also unwritten rules that all anglers must follow. First and foremost, don’t leave unattended gear leaning against the rail. Always look behind you before making a cast, always follow hooked fish, and always do your best to assist anglers when they get hooked up. Finally, pick up trash even if it isn’t yours and remember that excuse me and thank you go a long way at the pier.

Visit the Panhandle

Pensacola Beach Pier
Length: 1,471 feet
Location: 41 Fort Pickens Road,
Pensacola Beach, FL 32561
Contact: 850.934.7200
Hours: 24/7
Entrance Fee: $7.50

Navarre Pier
Length: 1,545 feet
Location: 8579 Gulf Blvd.,
Navarre Beach, FL 32566
Contact: 850.936.1794
Hours: 5:00 am – 10:00 pm
Entrance Fee: $7.00

Okaloosa Island Pier
Length: 1,262 feet
Location: 1030 Miracle Strip Pkwy E, Ft. Walton Beach, FL 32548
Contact: 850.244.1023
Hours: 24/7
Entrance Fee: $7.50