As the sun rises over the Gulf of Tampa Bay, dozens of anglers line the railing of the Big Pier 60. It’s Monday morning and the mackerel are running along one of the most popular fishing piers in Florida. One by one, reels scream as the monstrous school tears through the fishermen’s bait.
The fight is fast and furious and fish fly over the rail onto the pavement. One man in overalls stops, stuffs five fish into a cooler and guzzles the last of his coffee. “That’s all for me,” he says, packing up his fishing gear. “It’s time to get to work.”
This scene is played over and over at Florida’s great fishing piers. They’re convenient, usually free and often a rewarding way to catch fish. But with so many, it may be difficult to decide where to start.
Many of Florida’s fishing piers have shallow artificial reefs within casting reach. These man-made structures support diverse communities of marine organisms, so it's not unusual for anglers to land “game” fish such as tarpon, cobia and king mackerel. From time to time, these shore-bound anglers even hook fish far too big to land, including sharks and even the stray sailfish.
At the bait house, you'll see photos of local anglers proudly displaying their prized catches. Every pier has a cast of regulars, most of whom are willing to share their secrets. If a fellow angler hooks a big one, don’t be shy about asking what they used as bait. Follow the leader and cast away.
If you're heading out to any pier in the state, here's a list of equipment that will suit your needs:
A folding grocery cart (about $25 online or at most grocery stores) can be converted for pier duty. Use tie straps to fasten 11 two-inch PVC rod holders ($3) to the basket. Place cardboard on the bottom and/or sides to keep gear from falling through.
A soft tackle bag with plastic trays will store everything from hooks to pliers ($40). A Sabiki rod and reel ($79) will catch all the baitfish you need. These rods are extremely sensitive, which will allow help you feel the bait hit.
A simple spinning rod and reel (combos start at about $50) is the best outfit for casting, or a conventional rod and reel (combos start at around $75) is best suited for straight-down bottom fishing.
Places to fish
The Skyway Fishing Pier State Park: Located at the mouth of Tampa Bay on a structure that was once a bridge, the twin Skyway Fishing Piers are probably the most productive land-based fishing spots in the state. If it swims in the Gulf of Mexico, sooner or later it will pass beneath your dangling line.
Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier: One of northwest Florida’s premier fishing spots, this pier is known for its big fish. The action here is consistent year round, but it’s red hot during the summer months.
Naples Pier: If you want to catch a tarpon from land, you'll have a good a chance as any at this Gulf of Mexico fishing pier. Plus, the sunset here is one of the best in Florida.
Sebastian Inlet State Park Pier: Blessed with the added amenities of a state park, this Melbourne Beach fishing pier is located at the mouth of a waterway that drains the Indian River Lagoon, one of Florida’s most famous fishing areas. The fishing is good, but the catching is great.