The Skyway, Paul Bristow

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Some bites were consistent while others were hot & cold as we entered the month of November at the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers.  Gag grouper remained on a great bite and the past week perhaps saw as many keepers reported as in many months.  Jack crevalle & ladyfish remained in the “hot bite” category as many anglers loaded up with these species for use as either table fare or bait.  Bluefish have been showing reliably after dark on the approach sections of both piers – especially on the South Pier.  Sheepshead are beginning to show in catchable numbers and your author spotted fish around the bathrooms and the approach section.  Spanish mackerel were one of the hot & cold bites as some anglers reported limits while others reported tough sledding.  Mangrove snapper also fit the hot & cold category as some of the largest fish of the season were reported, but full limits of fish were tougher to catch.  Massive schools of cownose rays invaded both piers and several large cobia have been spotted amongst the schools of rays.  Pompano had some great days and other slow days as these nomadic fish could not be patterned enough by the anglers that cherish both their fight & taste.

Gag grouper were striking diving plugs and free-lined pinfish hard this past week.  Legal fish numbers continued to rise, and on several days there were numbers of fish for the cooler on both fishing piers.  The outgoing tide remained the most-favored by grouper diggers because it is easier to fish at the piers.  However, this past week showed numbers of big gags taken on the incoming tide by free-lining all the way to the bay side reefs or by fishing the accessible main bridge pilings.  Lots of anglers reported being “rocked-up” by gags and there is no certain cure for this common occurrence.  These fish make an immediate dive for reefs or pilings and the battle is often won or lost in the opening seconds.  Some anglers lock down their drags entirely and others walk backward on the hook-set.  If fish do become entangled, there is some hope to get them out by giving them slack line for a few minutes or plucking the line like a guitar string.  You can almost always feel if the fish remains on the line, but there comes a time where nothing will work to extract the grouper other than breaking the line.

Sheepshead are showing up amongst the pilings on both fishing piers and this is a common occurrence at the mouth of Tampa Bay as warm waters begin to cool each season.  Many anglers reported catching several keeper fish this past week, but mass numbers of fish have yet to arrive at the piers.  Sheepshead are a member of the Porgy Family of Fishes that love to gather around pilings because of the barnacles, mussels, crabs and other potential food sources found in these areas.  Their dark & light striped coloration makes them easy to spot at the Skyway Fishing Piers and anglers know the pilings to target before they even put a bait in the water.  The fish uses human-like teeth and inner mouth crushers to turn shells into mush and expel the parts they do not want.  This makes their bite extremely quick and gains them a reputation for taking baits without being hooked.  Some anglers like to set upon the first nibble while others want the rod to load up with weight.  Both approaches can work and practice seems the best way to decide your approach.  Small shrimp, fiddler crabs and sand fleas are all good bait choices.  Use small (Size 1 or less) but strong hooks and combine them with the lightest leader and weight that will allow an effective presentation along the piling plus a good shot at landing the fish.  Sheepshead are excellent on the table and rank in the top ten table choices of many pier regulars.

Voracious bluefish have begun to show up after dark along the approach sections of the piers – especially on the south side.  Pier anglers caught a mixture of bluefish, ladyfish, jacks and even a few spotted seatrout after dark this past week.  Bluefish slash & gash with reckless abandon as they attack baitfish schools and can be heard by anglers.  Free-lined or corked scaled sardines (live or dead) will take these fish, but artificial lures are just as effective and much more entertaining.  Surface or shallow-diving plugs are a blast to fish for blues because the strikes are often seen by the angler.  Visitors worried about treble hooks after dark can remove all but the tail treble or even replace all trebles with single hooks.  Blue are so aggressive that changing hooks will not greatly impact the number of fish caught.  When bled and iced immediately, bluefish can be excellent table fare, especially in soups and chowders where their firm & meaty flesh will remain in bite-sized chunks instead of falling apart like other species.

Massive schools of cownose rays invaded the Skyway Piers and these fish have not only provided battles for visiting anglers, but also brought some other fish species along that like to follow their schools.  These rays cruise areas in large schools to stir up sediment (and thus food sources) from the bottom.  Although the rays are doing this to help themselves feed, many other species can be targeted based upon seeing these rays.  Pompano love the small crabs and other critters exposed by these passing schools and some peak feeding is often observed just after rays have crossed an area.  Cobia like not only the crabs stirred up, but also relish the baby rays that are born live (but weak) as these schools move through the water column.  The rays themselves are prized as shark baits by big game anglers and some visitors even fillet the wings & prepare the flesh like scallops.