The Skyway Piers, Paul Bristow

Scenic aerial photo of Sunshine Skyway Bridge, fishing pier, Tampa Bay, Florida.

Despite this being the last weekend of the Spring Break travel season, some Summertime bites are already kicking in at The Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers.  Mangrove snapper are the most prominent fish ‘ahead of schedule’ this season as many big fat mangos hit the concrete this past week.  Spanish mackerel have been spotty, but also very large when located, including many fish in the 24″+ range taken this past week.  The king mackerel bite tapered off from the week prior, but some nice fish were still caught and others hooked but not landed.  Large bluefish remain around the piers despite the warm weather, and some really big blues in the 5 lb. class were taken in recent days.  Tarpon continue to be a popular nighttime target underneath the lights and some very nice blacktip sharks were also taken this past week.

It seems that the milder winters of recent years bring about an ever earlier mangrove snapper bite each season, but this year has already seen large mangos taken that often do not appear in consistent numbers at the Skyway Piers until the Summer months.  Many very nice fish over 12″ were taken this past week, and some big fish pushing the 18″ range have already been reported.  Indeed, even a few reports of some monstrous 20″ plus Skyway snapper are pulsing throughout the pier fishing community.  The fact that a few ‘offshore-caliber’ fish are already appearing in April is perhaps a sign of some incredible snapper fishing in store at the piers this season.  Most anglers are fishing cut chunks of threadfin herring or scaled sardines on either knocker or traditional bait rigging with black-nickel octopus or circle hooks in the 1/0 – 3/0 range.

Snapper fishing can take many formats at the Skyway Piers, but most often it is a decision between either fishing the pier or main bridge structure itself, or instead fishing the artificial reefs that line the piers.  Outgoing tides generally send anglers to the artificial reefs and incoming tides to the old pier or main bridge pilings.  However, there are some ‘hybrid’ examples buried within these locational general rules.  Anglers can bounce baits underneath the pier structure itself (where they are standing) on either tidal cycle using a lift-and-drop technique and the lightest weight that will just barely hold bottom.  On the flip side, anglers can free-line live baits underneath the closed pier span all the way to the artificial reefs on the Tampa Bay side during an incoming tide.  All of these options are effective for snapper at the piers, but those anglers willing to fish areas that see the least amount of fishing pressure often catch the biggest mangroves during any given season at the piers.

Spanish mackerel were slow to give up a full limit this past week, but plenty of anglers that took 4 or 5 really large fish were still quite happy with their results.  Fish seemed to be moving in pods of 6 to 10 members as they roamed the pier spans – instead of the huge schools that are often common this time of year.  Many fish were well in excess of 20″ and plenty of catches started to push the 30″ mark.  Gotcha lures and silver spoons took their share of these Big Macs, but free-lining live scaled sardines on a long shank hook with a fluorocarbon leader on the afternoon outgoing tide was the top approach.  A few very large bluefish (for the Tampa Bay Region) were also reportedly taken on this same method and this added some excitement to what was essentially a waiting game for a few very high-quality strikes.

Sharks have remained around the Skyway Piers nearly all winter long – probably because of the mild climate in the region over the past few months.  In the past few weeks, however, some of the larger blacktip sharks that inhabit the Tampa Bay Estuary have made themselves known.  Many nice blacktips were taken this past week, and plenty of others either jumped or broke anglers off…  This is perhaps the easiest game to enter for novice shark anglers, as medium-class spinning tackle and light wire leaders are the primary weapons.  A fresh chunk of ladyfish, jack crevalle or large pinfish finishes off the bait-end of the rig.  All three baitfish species are easily caught with sabiki-style baitfish rigs or other artificial lures at the piers.  The larger blacktips (and their even larger spinner cousins) require heavier conventional tackle, so it is not a bad idea to have a more ‘beefy’ tackle outfit ready if a fish simply ‘out-classes’ your tackle.  Many times, that exact same fish can be hooked within minutes of its escape and the original shark rig will still be hanging from the side of a menacing toothy grin as it is landed…