Heaven to me is standing on the beach just before the sun makes its ominous appearance over the horizon. With pounding surf breaking at my feet I revel in a holy, sacred harmony with nature. The heavy aroma of a vast ocean carrying scents from continents and islands far away fills my nostrils as I drive my sand spikes into the coarse sand just above the tide line. I am a surf fisherman and this is my heaven.
But aesthetics are not the only reason I make my way to the edge of the world. My ultimate goal is to battle with some of the hardest pulling, unrelenting denizens that frequent Florida’s salty shorelines. For a majority of my life I called South Florida home and the beach was something I really took advantage of. So much so that other surf casters would gauge their success by the frequency of the bend in my rods.
The old bridge rubble was deposited along the western sides of both piers and attracts a variety of predators that follow forage flushing into the bay.
I must say that Spanish mackerel were often my target species, but not every day produced my quarry. Some days were utter chaos created by the ominous, teeth gnashing schools of voracious bluefish. On others I was accosted by muscle wrenching jack crevalle and unrelenting tarpon. While I truly appreciate a good fight from a heavyweight predator, the pull of a trophy Spanish mackerel over 5-pounds is not to be dismissed. Even schoolies can pull a rod from its seat in the sand spike. One minute you’ll be standing in the suds, waiting, mind drifting and then in a split second you’ll be trying to pry a rod from the grips of its metal holder. I can’t tell you how many times not only did the rod kiss the waves in an insane, almost splintering bend, but I have also been witness to the spike being torn completely from the sand. Unfortunately, I no longer live in South Florida. My home is now closer to Tampa and the Atlantic is an occasional trip when time allows. But hope springs eternal and I have found another righteous fishing haven—The Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers.
The original span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge was constructed in 1954 and had a reputation for incredible angling opportunities. The current cable-stayed bridge was built in 1987 and replaced the original concrete and steel cantilever structure that was damaged from a collision with a freighter. After the accident the center of the bridge was demolished and the remaining spans were converted into the Skyway Fishing Pier State Parks. The old bridge rubble was deposited along the western side of both piers and attracts a variety of predators that follow forage flushing into the bay.
What makes these piers unique is the fact that you don’t have to lug your gear to fish like most other shore-bound locations. It’s a good thing, because the north pier is ¾ of a mile long and the south pier stretches 1.5 miles! You can drive on both piers and park right where you want to fish. In addition, both fishing structures have clean restrooms and well-equipped bait and tackle shops. While I’ve encountered mackerel frenzies at both piers, I prefer to fish the south pier for a few key reasons. First and foremost, the south pier is much larger, which provides plenty of elbowroom. During the week I sometimes have the entire pier to myself! Secondly, the bottom around the south pier features a more gradual slope to deep water of the nearby shipping channel. The first ¾ mile of the south pier is around 6-to 7-feet deep, where it then begins to gradually drop to 10- to 14-foot depths. It keeps dropping to 20-foot depths about a ½ mile from where the bridge makes a bend to the north. This is a particularly good area to test your luck with ravenous Spanish mackerel. Why all the excitement in this new discovery? Because there are mackerel here! Many mackerel!
The reason mackerel are drawn to these superstructures is due to the abundance of forage that piles up in the deep shipping channel. Sardines, pilchard, herring and blue runner call the nutrient rich inshore waters of Tampa Bay home and where there’s bait there are mackerel. Ravenous Spanish mackerel can be caught year-round, but anglers encounter the largest numbers in the late winter and early spring. In addition to Spanish, king mackerel also make a strong showing during this time. All in all, the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers provide some of the state’s most impressive land-based mackerel opportunities.
Before proceeding any further in my fervor, one must be made aware that fishing Tampa Bay and the West Coast of Florida requires new skills and a greater knowledge and appreciation of tides. While living in South Florida I preferred to fish during outgoing tides and was always aware of their frequency to the point it was somewhat unhealthy. Tides in the Gulf come in assorted varieties. Sometimes there are two tides a day, while on others there might be three or four tidal swings in a 24-hour period. It can be confusing since there is no real consistency, but you’ll eventually figure out some sort of pattern.
The best tidal datum I have found that provides the most accurate predictions for the Sunshine Skyway Piers is the Redfish Point/Manatee River selection. There is a tidal datum selection for the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, but in my observations it seems that it isn’t as precise. So now you probably want to know the best tides to fish? In my experience the absolute best is the outgoing, which enables anglers to thoroughly work the artificial structures in the area. This should be taken with a grain of salt, because incoming tides can also be productive, they just require more effort. Casting into the current during an incoming tide, one is required to work their lure with greater speed and fervor to keep the line tight and compensate for the momentum of the incoming current.
When it comes to tackle selection, Spanish mackerel aren’t too picky and will attack a variety of natural and artificial offerings. You can catch them on Clarkspoons and Gotchas, but I’ve also had success with small bucktails and topwater plugs. If the action isn’t on the surface I sometimes take my jig or spoon and attach it to a few feet of 30 lb. fluorocarbon with a 2 oz. sinker just above the swivel/leader connection. No matter what lure you choose be sure to work it all the way back to the pier because a majority of bites will occur just beneath the structure.
For those who prefer to fish bait there are copious amounts of whitebait surrounding the piers. If you can throw a cast net, then you will catch all the bait you will ever need. If you can’t see the schools of herring or scaled sardines on the surface don’t panic. You can still catch bait by using a quill rig because they sometimes prefer to hang near the bottom. If you choose to fish with natural offerings many anglers have great success fishing a bait plug on a 4/0 or 5/0 long shank hook and fluorocarbon leader. Outgoing tides are better for bait slingers because it enables anglers to keep tight lines as their offerings drift over artificial structures beneath. And yes, the rods bend to their breaking point just like an attack on the beach.
Pound for pound, Spanish mackerel are some of the toughest and tastiest adversaries that prowl state waters. Fortunately, the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers provide incredible action that’s centrally located for anglers throughout the state.
Shiny spoons and Gotchas that mimic the prevelant forage have been fooling mackerel in these waters for decades.