The Skyway, Paul Bristow

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Steamy weather and passing storms again shaped the week at the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers, but several species remained on very strong bites despite the August heat and turbulent weather.  Mangrove snapper are on one of their most consistent bites in many weeks, with limits of 12″ – 14″ fish becoming quite common for pier visitors.  There are also lane snapper, Key West grunts, porgies and even a few spotted seatrout & snook being taken for those mango hunting.  Spanish mackerel remain in the vicinity of the piers, but anglers had to work harder for both multiple catches and larger fish.  Tarpon are beginning their traditional late summer showing and many fish are being spotted & hooked in the shadow line after dark.  Gag grouper remained on a good bite, but many fish fell just short of the legal length required to harvest this tasty species.  Jack crevalle have literally invaded both fishing piers and visitors are also reporting some nice bluefish mixed in with the jacks.  Sharks of various species & size classes were common catches this past week as well, with the smaller specimens primarily being sharpnose & blacktips and the larger ones being mostly nurse, bull and lemon sharks.

Mangrove snapper are on an excellent bite on both fishing piers – especially on Gulf side artificial reefs during outgoing tides.  The overnight hours are almost always best for snapper, but your author saw several very nice (14″+) fish taken this past week right in the middle of the summer sunshine.  Tackle & tactics remain simple snapper standards – with the only major choices being live bait style versus knocker rigging or octopus versus circle hooks.  A traditional live bait style rig has the sinker suspended by a swivel above the hook by about 18″ – 24″ of leader material, while knocker-style allows the weight to rest directly against the eye of the hook.  Octopus-style hooks involve setting on a fish whereas circle hooks set themselves with pressure from the fish.  Anglers almost always use monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material in the 20 lb. – 40 lb. range – with lighter lines getting more bites and larger lines allowing greater snapper extraction from the reefs.  A chunk of freshly-cut scaled sardine or threadfin herring was top billing, but live or freshly-frozen shrimp was a close second whenever pinfish could be avoided.

The location of the Gulf-side reefs at the Skyway Piers garners much more mystery for anglers than it ever should…  Not only are there pictures of the reefs widely available in online satellite images, but on a low tide with clear water and a virtually cloud-free day, you can actually see most of them simply as darker bottom contrasts against the lighter bottom.  The best views are on winter low tides with a high sun & totally bluebird skies, but even your rapidly aging author can see most all of the reefs almost any given sunny day with minimal clouds at both fishing piers.  Consider the areas past the dumpsters on both piers as generalized starting points to work the reefs – with the South Pier reefs starting further out than those on the North. They then extend all the way to the end (or near the end) of both fishing piers running as perpendicular (not parallel) piles of mostly old bridge rubble & pilings.  Always remember that this is not an exact science.  Some reefs have been altered by erosion, tides, anchoring and other natural factors found in the Tampa Bay Estuary.  To find inside turns of a particular reef or portions of open area between rubble is what separates the best anglers at the piers – this can only come with experience & more time on the water.  To simply find fish-holding structure, however, is something almost any semi-experienced pier visitor can easily accomplish.

Spanish mackerel remained on a decent bite at the piers, and the more dedicated mackerel hunters continued to well-outperform those only willing to spend a short time chasing these fish.  Silver spoons fished behind a casting bubble were top-notch on the mackerel dinner menu.  The casting bubble is essentially a hollow plastic bobber that you place water inside and peg with either a swivel (or toothpicks) above your spoon, jig or straw lure.  The lure darts behind the bubble and the bubble gets way fewer ‘false strikes’ (and thus less bite-offs) than the ever-popular trolling-sinkers also favored in this pier mackerel casting tactic.  Many anglers tweak & improve upon the bubble with superglue, clear tape, split-shot sinkers and beads, but the concept remains the same.  Some innovators have even begun to use smaller water bottles as ‘casting bubbles’ in much the same manner.  On the flip side, anglers who prefer trolling-sinkers to present their offering often color the sinker black with a permanent marker to reduce false-strikes upon the weight itself.  On the natural bait side, strips of sardines & herring fished underneath a 3″ weighted float using only a long shank hook took some very big (20″ +) mackerel for those willing to spend the time.

Tarpon have made a strong mid-summer comeback at the piers – just as fishing history in Tampa Bay would suggest.  Fish of all sizes are seen rolling and striking baits along the piers during the daylight hours, but most of the silver king action occurs after dark…  Look for tarpon on almost every light and in almost every shadow line for the next few months.  The most entertaining way to connect with these fish is to throw white or glow buck tail jigs along the shadow line – working against the tide to keep your jig just outside of the pier pilings.  You can add a plastic curly tail to this presentation as well and some die hard tarpon folks think this garners a few extra strikes each night.  Plugs also work with this approach, but are a little harder to work (and to keep away from snagging the pilings ) as the tide pulls against your cast.  A more sure way to connect, but perhaps a little less fun, is to free-line live shrimp or sardines to fish you see working the shadow line.  Finally, for the laziest of tarpon anglers, place a 6 oz. weight above 6 feet of 80 lb. fluorocarbon and an 8/0 circle hook.  Catch a smaller ladyfish or jack at the piers and suspend the fish (weight remaining in the air) so that it struggles right at & just below the surface (based on waves) where you have spotted a tarpon.  Anchor the rod with medium drag for the hook-set, set the clicker and walk away.  Even the most finicky tarpon can only take this presentation so long – most will eventually succumb.