While a boat gives you access in Florida to thousands of miles of waterways and coastline fishing, it also presents a host of complications. Berthing it, trailering it, maintaining it and, increasingly, paying the price of operating it are all prompting lots of people to question the wisdom of owning a boat.
Not to worry, there are plenty of fishing opportunities for people without boats.
Many visitors don’t realize just how many species of fish move up and down the coastline and through our waterways within easy reach of a fisherman on shore or on a pier or bridge. Additionally, there are hundreds of public docks around the state that offer freshwater fishing access to Florida’s famed black bass and numerous panfish. It’s just a matter of figuring out where there’s close access to the water and then fitting yourself out to do some laid back fishing.
While I’ve done my share of surf casting and still hit the beach occasionally when the pompano are running, I grew up as a wharf rat, spending many happy hours fishing from the old Jacksonville Beach pier.
You could call me dedicated. A college friend who knew I fished a lot once asked to go along on one of my pier expeditions. We arrived at the pier at about 2 p.m. just as a cold front was moving through the area. The wind was whistling, the waves were breaking and the sky was lowering when we started throwing plugs just beyond the break. We nailed an occasional bluefish, enough to keep my novice friend’s interest alive.
Then, as it got later and darker and colder, the bite picked up and the fish we were bringing in were getting bigger. We finally quit around 8 p.m. when even I couldn’t stand it any longer. Cold fronts in Florida generally aren’t a big deal, but standing on a windswept pier in 45 degrees with just a light windbreaker to fend off a steady drizzle isn’t anybody’s idea of fun. My friend never asked to go fishing with me again.
Pier fishing can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be. At the easy end of the spectrum, you don’t even need to own any tackle. Most of the ocean piers around the state have a concession stand that will rent you a rig and sell you the terminal tackle and bait. All you need do is show up and pay the fee, which usually includes the use of the pier’s commercial fishing license.
A day of pier fishing can be a family outing. If the kids get bored with fishing, they can wander up and down the pier seeing what other people are catching or they can hit the beach to toss a Frisbee or grab some rays.
The real pier aficionados put on a very elaborate show. They’ve built or bought dock carts that allow them to haul multiple rods and reels, lots of gear and even live bait (not to mention drinks, lunch, a boom box and whatever else they feel they need for a day’s fishing) from the parking lot to the end of the pier.
The anglers seeking king mackerel have the most exotic setups. They use one big rod and reel to send a heavy sinker with prongs as far out into the ocean as possible. When the sinker hooks up with the sandy bottom, they tighten the line and put the rod in a rod holder. Then they use a second rod and reel to send a live bait dangling from the first line just until the bait is right at the surface. The bait fish’s frantic efforts to swim on the surface creates a commotion that gets the attention of any king mackerel that happen to be swimming by and POW!, the fight is on.
But fishing for kings is a specialty sport. The average pier fisherman using simple equipment and dead bait, like shrimp, will most likely connect with whiting and croaker. While hardly fighters of any repute, they make great table fare.
But be careful, because interspersed with the dinner fish will be the occasional catfish, whose spines can inflict a nasty injury (I know this from experience after getting a dorsal fin deep into my foot). If you land a catfish, don’t attempt to grab it while it’s flopping. If you don’t have any pliers, ask one of the veteran pier fishermen nearby for help. They’ve caught and unhooked a thousand of them.
While small fish are the norm, there’s always the chance that something big will wander by. Pier fishing is mostly a matter of stationing yourself in the path of fish swimming parallel to shore just beyond the breaking waves and waiting for them to find your bait or lure. That can mean black drum, redfish, sea trout, bluefish and Spanish mackerel (smaller cousins of the king mackerel), all of which can range from a few pounds up to 35 or 40 pounds.
Most piers will have big circular nets on a stout rope to help lift a big fish the 20 or so feet from the water to the pier deck. Again, if you hook something big, get help from the veterans. They know the drill.
Finding a fishing pier shouldn’t be hard. There are an estimated two dozen piers around the state’s coastline, so wherever you are you should be within an hour’s drive of an ocean pier.
But don’t confine yourself to just ocean piers. Lots of bridges spanning salt water inlets or waterways offer fishing opportunities. Just be aware that you’re sharing the bridge with vehicular traffic. Stay in the pedestrian areas and keep a close eye on the kids.
Along the Intracoastal Waterway, a lot of older lower draw bridges are being replaced by 65-foot high bridges to allow unimpeded boat traffic. Sections of the old bridges are often left in place and turned into fishing piers. They don’t have a traffic problem and that makes for a much more comfortable experience. The old Sunshine Skyway bridge that spanned the entrance to Tampa Bay has been converted into two of the longest fishing piers in the world.
Surf fishing is a variant of pier fishing. You’re trying to position yourself so that fish swimming parallel to the beach just beyond the breakers will come across your bait. While surf fishing allows you much more freedom to pick your spot—you can roam hundreds of miles of coastline—you’re confined to how far you can cast your bait (and you have to have your own equipment and a salt-water fishing license).
That means if an east wind has been blowing and the surf is up, you’re going to have a hard time getting your bait past the breaking waves. And some shoreline will be much more productive than other areas.
Fishing near jetties or inlets can be good, but what you really want is to find a stretch of beach protected by an offshore sandbar. Those sandbars have occasional openings to the ocean through which tidal currents—and lots of fish—flow back and forth. You want to position your bait right in the middle or on either side of those breaks. It takes a little experience to learn to read the water and the pattern of breaking waves to find the right spot.
But if you wander a nearby beach early in the morning or late in the afternoon, chances are you’ll come across a group of fishermen. That’s where you want to set up shop the next morning.
Anytime is a good time for fishing, but Florida is host to a lot of migratory fish, including enormous schools of mullet, a prime baitfish. If you can pick your time, some of the best surf and pier fishing is during the fall and spring mullet run when game fish chase the schools of mullet along the beach.