By Charlie Walker
Pier Fishing at the Sunshine Skyway
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The name evokes a lot of different feelings among residents in the Tampa Bay area. Many people have a feeling of pride because of the length, height, and unique appearance of the new cable stayed bridge that opened in 1987 crossing Tampa Bay from Pinellas to Manatee county. Others harbor a feeling of dread when crossing it because they remember the tragedy in 1980 when a freighter lost control in a storm, slammed into the bridge supports of the old steel and concrete bridge , and caused the collapse of the center span during rush hour. Fishermen in the Tampa Bay area are happy though, to be living in close proximity to the longest fishing pier in the world, The Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers. For the forty plus years since the original span of the Skyway Bridge was built, fishermen have been visiting the bridge to fight with a tremendous variety of game fish, from shark, tarpon and giant jewfish, to king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, grouper, and sea bass. The variety that can be caught covers almost all species found in the central Gulf of Mexico, including those that are not usually associated with shallow bay areas. The largest sharks caught in tournaments during the sixties would frequently come from the Skyway Bridge (original span shown). Picture a 1,000 to 1,200 pound Tiger shark caught while the traffic was whizzing along only a few feet behind the angler while he fought this master of the oceans. The bridge has always had a reputation for producing a lot of very large fish, but now, with the addition of the artificial reefs constructed from the rubble of the center spans of the old bridges, the fishing is really beginning to boom.
The Skyway Fishing Piers were constructed by removing all the material from the center of the two original Steel and concrete bridges, placing it in strategic locations both around the fishing piers and off shore in the gulf, and tying the dead ends of each of the spans together to create a three quarter mile long pier on the north and a one and one half mile long pier on the south side of Tampa Bay. Both are the width of the original four lanes of the two old bridges, and you can drive your car onto the pier and park it right next to the area that you wish to fish. Combining the capacity of the two piers, over one thousand vehicles can park easily, and both the north and south spans have four lanes of parking, roadway, and fishing area. This makes the north span a one and one half mile long fishing pier and the south span a three mile long fishing pier figuring both directions. This is quite a difference from the usual fishing piers where you may have to walk several hundred yards from your car to your fishing spot, carrying all the gear and bait that you need to fish with. On the north pier, half way down, there is a clean, well lit, restroom. At the end of the pier, there is a beautiful bait and tackle shop that has all the live and frozen bait that you will need for your day or night of fishing, as well as a complete line of fishing tackle, including rental equipment. There are over a dozen picnic tables under a roof that will easily shelter over one hundred people. There is more than enough variety of food and drinks to keep you fed and happy while fishing. The south pier is the same but with two bait shops and clean bath rooms, and there is certainly enough stock on hand of food, tackle, and bait to keep thousands of fishermen happy. Both piers are maintained in a clean and well lit manner and the management is constantly roaming the piers to see that they are kept clean and that all the fishermen are served well.
If this sounds a little like a promotion for a vacation resort so far, while I was on the pier collecting information for this story, a few kingfish were caught. A forty pounder was brought in by one of the off duty pier employees, Scooter, and a grandfather/grandson team brought in three kingfish, of twelve, twenty and twenty six pounds. There were huge schools of bait under both piers, north and south, comprised of Spanish sardines, white bait (scaled sardines), and greenbacks (threadfin herring), as well as roaming groups of blue runners and cigar minnows (scad). I didn’t see any Spanish mackerel caught , but the pictures in the bait shop were proof that the macks had indeed been on the attack for several weeks. Two days prior to my visit, a sixty (that’s right, six zero) pound kingfish had been brought to the bridge gaff on the north span and a dusky shark of indeterminate weight (guesstimated at six hundred pounds) had broken the concrete base of the davit that they use to weigh the truly big fish. The pictures on the wall of the bait house were enough to get the juices flowing and really start a fishing fever attack, so don’t visit if you have a heart condition that can’t tolerate too much excitement.
The list of fish caught from the Skyway Pier is as long as the list of Fish in the Gulf of Mexico but some of the recent catches include a nine foot dusky shark with a girth of forty eight inches (many hundreds of pounds), a sixty pound tarpon witnessed by at least one hundred people, that a five year old hooked on a “Snoopy Rod” which exploded after the first jump. Needless to say, daddy went immediately to the tackle shop and purchased a more suitable rig for the next fish. Grouper have been hot on both piers with fifteen to twenty legal fish (20 inches or larger) taken almost every day in March and April. Pompano move in during the first week of April, and are regular visitors to the piers all summer. From April until October, mangrove snapper, sharks of all species and sizes, and cobia will join the list of regulars on the piers. Since jewfish were declared off limits to both commercial and recreational fishermen a few years ago, they have been making a comeback in the bay area and the Skyway Bridge and the fishing piers seem to be favorite haunts for all sizes There are many smaller ones up to twenty or thirty pounds caught on a regular basis that must be returned to the water immediately in good condition. The really exciting ones are the giants in the several hundred pound range that pick up big baits on occasion and really create havoc among the fishermen. They don’t run fast because they usually don’t know they are hooked. It’s sort of like having your hook attached to the back of a bulldozer that just continues to meander up and down along the pilings of the pier, and the looks on the faces of anglers who see a fish the size of a Volkswagen for the first time, is really something for the photo album. Spring and fall brings not only nice weather but our famous west coast king mackerel runs. During the summer, there are plenty of Spanish mackerel caught in Tampa Bay, but as the season progresses and the water temperature gets closer to 70 degrees, the big king mackerel move into the mouth of the bay to fatten up on the prolific bait fish that the Bay provides. This is the time of year to be on the pier with live baits on 4/0 hooks, forty pound line, and steel leaders for the sharp-toothed kingfish.
If you have not already left the house for the trip to the Skyway State Fishing Piers, you may when you find out that they are open twenty four hours a day, three hundred sixty five days a year and no fishing license is required. The price is exceptionally reasonable, about $3.00 per car and $2.00 per angler with the usual discounts for seniors and children. Campers and RV’s are a little more, but for the fishing, the amenities, and the best time over the water that you could hope to expect, the price can’t be beat. If you are within one hundred miles of the Tampa Bay area, you should definitely call for directions. The telephone numbers are; North pier (St. Petersburg side) 813-865-0668, and the South pier (Manatee side) 941-729-0117.
Good fishing and tight lines.
Capt. Charlie Walker