A landlubber’s Paradise
By Capt. Mel Berman, Florida Fishing Weekly
It was a one of the most tragic events in Tampa Bay history — which ultimately evolved into a major Florida asset.
Some 26 years ago, on the morning of May 7, 1980, the huge freighter “Summit Venture” struggled to navigate through the rain and fog the 54.8 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the port of Tampa. Experienced harbor pilot John Lero was at the helm guiding the 608 foot long vessel through the narrows ready to pass under the Sunshine Skyway Bridges, located at the broad mouth of Tampa Bay.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. At 7:25 AM, as the 20,000 ton vessel was making its turn through the span, heavy sheets of rain suddenly plunged Lero’s visibility down to zero. He tried at the last minute to avoid a catastrophe, but the squall had shifted northwest, forcing the vessel to collide with bridge pier 2S.
A huge section of the structure immediately collapsed, taking with it a number of southbound vehicles which were traversing the bridge at that very moment of impact. A Greyhound Bus with several aboard, plus some passenger cars crashed into the waters below. Sadly, many died that fateful day while the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge was left a shambles.
Some years later, the beautiful new structure that has become the shining physical signature of Tampa Bay rose to grace the skyline.
Meanwhile, many wanted to completely chop down the old bridge and deploy it as a rubble reef out in the Gulf. But then Governor Lawton Chiles, and avid angler himself, had a much better idea. He mandated that only the center span should be carted away, leaving the north and south sections intact for use as fishing piers. Then, about 11 years ago, the remaining structures were converted to the popular North and South Skyway Fishing Piers.
What a gift that it has become to thousands of Suncoast residents who treasure the idea of catching everything from smaller inshore species to jumbo ocean size fish without a boat. For the record, the South Pier is the world’s longest fishing pier at 8860-feet in length – a bit over a mile and a half. The shorter, but also spacious North Pier is about three quarters of a mile in length. Virtually everywhere along each side of the piers are remarkable fishing locations. Except for hurricanes and other emergencies, both facilities are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Thus, one can pick their favorite day or night time and go fishing.
When asked which of the two piers is more productive, manager Mike Tyson (not the boxer) said that “it depends on who you talk to. Some say they do better on the South – and others prefer the north pier.” For the record Tyson believes there are actually more big grouper caught on the South Pier “because there’s a lot more structure and rubble.”
On these glorious spring weekends, both are crowded with people from all walks of life who, for a small admission price, can take the entire family for a full day of fun in the sun and a great fishing experience. And there’s no need to park in an outside lot and walk the length of either piers to fish. Everyone is allowed to drive their cars right up to a favorite fishing spot – walk across the way and start catching a remarkable array of species..
“Here on the North Pier,” said Tyson, “everybody wants to fish on the end – sort of like getting the stern position on a party boat. That’s where the deeper waters hold a great variety of species usually found in the Gulf well offshore. But I can tell you that there are many locations on both piers that are quite productive – all the way down to, and including the toll booth area where folks enter the pier,” he said. “There, they catch more trout, snook and reds because of the excellent grass flats below.”
When we were there in mid April, great schools of king mackerel swarmed in on the late morning tide. Not only did they keep pier anglers busy, a number of boat fishers also gathered around below to catch their share.
When the kings move on, there are Spanish mackerel, sheepshead, mangrove snapper, good sized grouper, Key West grunts, seatrout just about every kind of Gulf species to keep pier anglers busy.
And this time of year, the Skyway is bait fish central. Giant schools of greenbacks gather around the structure and rubble piles in the surrounding waters. This occasionally causes a sort of culture clash between boats netting bait below and the pier anglers above. However, most of the time both groups get along.
It’s amazing to see what Skyway Fishing Pier Anglers can catch from this facility. “There are already a lot of tarpon showing up,” said Tyson, “and that 12-foot drop from up here on the pier is not very good for big fish. So I tell folks to cut the line and not to try to hoist them all the way up. Anyway, most of the time the tarpon breaks off and goes on his merry way.”
Among the amenities on both Piers are very clean restrooms and well stocked bait shops, stocked with all sorts of natural and artificial baits, sandwiches and snacks, soft drinks, plus souvenirs and a great array of other items. It’s also a great place for the newcomer to get advice on where and how to fish the unique angling facility.
Tourists from all over the world, as well as thousand of locals come to the Skyway State Fishing Pier every year. It is a unique fishing location between Bradenton and St. Petersburg with easy access off I-275. Many call it the biggest fishing bargain in the state of Florida — just $3.00 per vehicle (oversize – $10.00) plus a small admission charge. Kids under 6 are free; children from 6 to 11 years old pay only $1.00; the cost for 12 to 64-year olds is a very affordable $2.00; and seniors 65 and older pay only $1.00 for a full day of fishing. These prices do not include Florida state sales tax.
For more on the Skyway Fishing Piers, go to http://www.skywaypiers.com/