The Skyway, Paul Bristow

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In what almost seems like an early fall (rather than late summer) occurrence at the mouth of Tampa Bay, big schools of bluefish & jack crevalle demolished baitfish schools just as other species eagerly fed upon the remainders and/or injured baitfish.  Spanish mackerel remained on a good bite for this time of year and anglers reported some late-day catches of mackerel over the 20″ size range.  Mangrove snapper continue to be strong options – especially after dark – as these fish approach their heaviest weights of the season.  Snook were on a great bite in the tollbooth regions of both fishing piers and some spotted seatrout were mixed in with these catches.  Nice blacktip & nurse sharks in the 25 lb. – 50 lb. range were common catches on both piers and much fun for anglers seeking both a nice fight and some good shark steaks for the barbeque grill.

Bluefish schools might have arrived slightly early in the Tampa Bay Estuary, but that is welcome news to pier anglers who cherish both their aggressiveness and sporting qualities.  Bluefish are more commonly caught along the northeastern seaboard, and those fish get much larger than those that migrate to Florida, but the excitement and culinary qualities remain the same.  Bluefish were attacking schools of fingerling-sized scaled sardines along both pier stretches over the past week.  At times bluefish boiled the surface and were caught cast after cast right near the tollbooth areas.  Of course live baits caught these fish, but the most fun (and most fish) were had by anglers tossing artificial lures like jigs & plugs.  Your author witnessed multiple hook-ups in just short time spans and plenty of fish being given away to other visitors.

Bluefish have a very firm (yet tasty) flesh.  This species does have a rather dark lateral line and thus should be immediately bled & iced to ensure the finest table fare.  If you choose to fry or broil the fish, then I would recommend both filleting and removal of the darker lateral line.  If you choose to grill or use the fish in a soup or chowder recipe, the lateral line will actually provide a nice flavor to the dish.  The flesh – even when cooked – retains a firm texture.  This is one reason why the species is so favored for dishes like cheesy fish chowders or casseroles.  The firm flesh of the bluefish is also helpful when grilling because you can more easily flip fillets or steaks without concern for breakage and loss.

Jack creavalle joined bluefish in attacking schools of smaller scaled sardines along the approach sections of both fishing piers.  Jacks and bluefish often both fed together and competed for prey almost every morning this week.  While jacks will sometimes ‘boil’ the water like bluefish, they tend to “push” water with their large heads held high in the water column more often than do blues.  Whenever these two predators meet on a baitfish school, the carnage resembles something you might see on a television nature channel.  Casting artificial lures into this carnage is the best way to connect and you never know the species that will be on the end of your line…  Jacks and bluefish might be most common, but often underneath (because of less-aggressive traits) lie Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, spotted seatrout, snook and even the occasional flounder.

Snook were excellent this past week as far as a fun ‘catch-and-release’ option at the Skyway Piers.  The approach sections (from the tollbooths to the dumpsters) on both sides are almost always the top spots, but some very big snook also reside on the artificial reefs.  Interestingly, lots of snook were taken by anglers free-lining baits in the aftermath of schools of jacks & bluefish ravaging sardine schools.  The snook would simply await the passing of the pelagic predators and pick-off injured sardines at a leisurely pace.  The largest snook, however, were taken by anglers casting swim-bait style soft plastic tails on a jig head.  Snook remain closed in the Tampa Bay region at this time, but anglers took lots of very nice photos this past week before releasing their catches.

Action for medium-sized sharks of many species was excellent this past week.  Lots of blacktip, sharpnose and nurse sharks in the 4 ft. / 20+ lb. size range were landed by anglers.  The overnight and first light hours seemed to garner the most bites, and not many baits were soaked in the heat of these August days.  Medium-sized sharks (those in the 20 lb. – 50 lb. range) are among the most fun fish to catch at the Skyway Piers.  You do not need massive tackle or fighting belts…  You do not need 2 hours of time…  You most often get a very fun fight and an excellent eating option for the barbeque grill.  Your author prefers blacktip & sharpnose sharks for the grill.  Bleed the catch immediately, but keep the shark itself in whole condition until your fishing outing has concluded.  Steak or fillet and brush with olive oil and your favorite seasonings…  Fresh shark steaks from Tampa Bay might be amongst the most underutilized regional culinary resources.  Let the larger (breeding-sized) sharks go free and this fine resource can remain strong for many generations to come.