Great Fishing Afoot–Beaches and Bridges

Fishing Down on the Boulevard

Surf fishing’s not just an Atlantic game. We survey promising shoreline on the West Central Gulf Coast.

Surf fishing paradise between Fort DeSoto Park and Clearwater? Well, one fishing truth is that many people overlook the obvious. If you like the image of your drag searing out with some of the Gulf’s most crowded coast at your back, maybe reaching a hand back for a soft drink to sustain you in the battle, picture yourself stepping off Gulf Boulevard, State Route 699. There’s mackerel, blues, snook and more out there that “ain’t sceered” by condos and carbon monoxide. If you plan to be in St. Petersburg or Clearwater on business or pleasure, remember to pack your tackle.

Just pick your fish attractor. The saltwater ones are usually easy to spot. You’ll find two of the best ones together—passes and bridges. The passes, where tide pulls Gulf back and forth into intracoastal waterways and lagoons, are natural fish meccas. Add a good ol’ barnacle-encrusted bridge featuring an eddy on the downstream side of every piling and you’ve got to be thinking not, “Will I catch anything,” but, “What kind of fish will I catch next?”

Access points abound between Fort DeSoto Park and Highway 60 into Clearwater. You get a choice: fish the passes from beach, bridge or jetty, or walk out on the beach and start casting. There are major public beaches along the way and between those, frequent public paths to the beach. You’re never far from a casting opportunity. My boys and I started at Fort DeSoto and cruised north, checking out spots along the way.

Fort DeSoto is a glorious Pinellas County park south of St. Petersburg and a world away. It’s great to see a park where it’s clear the designers actually thought nature was a good idea and so left a lot of it around. That’s Fort DeSoto in spades. Here you’ll find vast, non-crowded fishing ops wherever you look. Not to mention gorgeous campsites. Ours had a waterfront view. We went kayak fishing in mangroves, spotted snook from little bridges, surf fished, and stalked the most wadeable flats ever. I didn’t want to leave but the Boulevard—and, by extension, home in Central Florida—was calling. We had plenty of adventure ahead, with the goal of seeing how many times we could grab those rods and make for salt water between our campsite and the big Pier 60 in Clearwater.

We started watching for a good bridge.

Ordinary people think a bridge is just an easy way to get across the water. Fishermen know better. We recognize a spectacular blending of engineering and architecture, a tribute to the indomitable human spirit, one of the truest symbols of man’s exit from the cave and into the realm of fishing. When we see a sign that says DRAW BRIDGE AHEAD we are likely to take pencil in hand and draw a bridge with a head on it. Our proud wife is then likely to say, “That’s good, honey. That’s real good.”

Bridges come in different flavors and a fisherman should be keenly aware of the distinctions: Is it a nice, low bridge? Is it a tightfisted stingy bridge bookended with NO FISHING signs or is it a liberal, welcoming bridge that recognizes its duty to taxpayers driven by the pursuit of fish, with a catwalk and parking space at either end? Does it sport mid-channel fish-attracting, barnacle-encrusted fenders? Is there a beach at each end where a person can land and photograph that giant cobia? Are there lights? Is there a bait and tackle shop nearby?

The boys and I soon hit a bridge that met all the criteria. We opted for tiny tube lures on 1⁄16-ounce jigheads with a splitshot a couple feet up the line for weight. Six-pound test and no leader. Not using a leader means hoping for pompano, whiting, flounder, lookdowns, maybe mangrove snapper over blues and macks. If you’re feeling adventurous, light line is great for bridge fishing because it has little water resistance, enabling you to use light lures and letting your lure stay longer where you want it in current; and low wind resistance which lets you put it there in the first place. And yes, with a little luck in what part of the mouth gets the hook, you can land snook and toothy fish with that line. Of course, you’ll need a long-handled dipnet, or a hoop net on the end of a nylon line, if you plan to haul up anything substantial.

If Spanish and blues are around, best to try 30-pound-test mono or light wire.

Night fishing from bridges can be exciting. Try 1⁄4- to 1⁄2-ounce bucktails or tube lures, and walk the bridge, dropping by pilings or the best place, by the bridge fenders. Wait for a light tap, then hang on to that snook. Heavier tackle is helpful for this, at least 15-pound test. If he heads unstoppably for a piling, give him slack line. Normally the snook will stop and you can eventually ease him away. Tarpon also are a distinct possibility.

If it’s a low bridge and you have a lantern, lower it on a rope to just above the water. It’s fascinating just seeing the weird creatures that swim through the light and often it attracts big fish to catch.

It’s a special feeling just being out on a bridge at night—fresh night breeze, maybe some moon, stars, mystery.

For a much simpler pass fishing experience, just park and walk down to the sand, find a nice eddy or bend and start tossing that little tube lure or spoon. Or fish from the bridge abutments. You may just find out what’s out there. Ladyfish and jacks, two of our most spectacular fighters, are always a good bet.

Moving on, the boys’ friend Nigel spotted a glimmer down a road out the left side of the van. We parked and got out. Folks sitting on a well placed picnic table, weighted lines out with cutbait.

Seawall and rocks are sprinkled with the occasional fisherman. I ask how’s the fishing. Not good at the moment, but it looks good, with the inlet curving out to the left a couple football fields away. Easy fishing, with a nice little eddy right here, little dock to the right; I can just picture predators slashing in at exhausted bait schools trying to hang out of the current.

The boys toss jigs by the dock and Ely gets a nice snapper interested. He’s sure a touch of bait would close the deal but I don’t see any extra around. Nice little open-air restaurant-bar across the street, man sitting almost on his rod, apparently just returned from that establishment, tells me exuberantly “Lookit! I caught this cup.

He holds it aloft with great happiness. “Isn’t this great?” he gushes.

“Yeah. Pretty nice cup. Blue. Did you hook it?

He looks sheepish. “Nah. Had to swim for it.”

“Then it doesn’t count,” I try to deflate him. “Anything else out here?”

“Oh yeah,” he rhapsodizes through a big sharky grin. “Everything. Spanish mackerel, blues, jacks, kingfi
sh, grouper. They get flushed in and they get flushed out, just like a giant toilet.” I believe him. This little out-of-the-way nook could be great. And it couldn’t be more convenient.

Though the boys would like to linger longer, we’re back on the road.

Redington Shores boasts a 50-year-old wooden pier, a relic to make an old pirate’s gallbladder glad, the likes of which I thought no longer dared the Gulf’s wrath after the year of the hurricanes. In fact, I didn’t know piers with this much character ever existed.

“This, boys, is a pier,” I said.

At the time, the pier looked as if it had weathered a few storms—barely. You could lose your catch in the grain grooves in the old planks. For contrast, a random new one was nailed in. As we strode up the ramp barefoot, a thoughtful fisherman pointed out one particular nail famous for its ability to “rip a big toe clean off.” I wondered if it had a name, like Hitler the Boca Grande hammerhead.

“Thanks,” I said, “but I’m sure I would have found it on my own.

“Hey boys, do you suppose all the fishermen out here might actually be dead, like The Pirates of the Caribbean?”

They were not ready to rule out the possibility.

We got out there and I noticed antique park benches lined up along the rickety rail. A Canadian hauls in a bull whiting.

“Want to see the rest of them?” he offers instead. Sure enough, a bucket of big whiting.

“How do you like this pier?” I ask.

“Look around you,” he laughs, pointing to some two-by-fours inexplicably nailed in an elevated rectangle “It could use a little repair, eh?

“To tell you the truth, that’s exactly what I like about it.”

“They even had to block off the end.”

He had me there. (For the record, the privately owned Redington pier was closed to the public for a few days in 2006, but has since reopened with structural upgrades.)

Just then a man set the hook viciously and hauled in a long Spanish mackerel. I found his rig interesting and nothing I’d have expected to work: piece of cut mullet suspended below heavy egg sinker under large styrofoam cone bobber. A minute later he sets into a nice bluefish. I take to watching his bobber. Then Nigel walks up with a blue runner and Ely hauls up a lizardfish. Lots of fish out here, I’m thinking. It’s eerie, like the fishing is from the past, too. I keep a furtive eye on the boys, lest they get sucked into some Twilight Zone type void.

“How do you feel about paying 10 bucks to fish out here?” I ask the present Canadian from my native perspective.

“Heck,” he rejoins, “Where else can you go for 10 dollars?”

“Never thought of it that way,’’ I said.

A tall, triangle-shaped cloud is devouring the sun, dripping rays of orange and yellow to the surface of the Gulf. “Time to go if we’re going to make it to Pier 60,” I say to three getting-tired boys who’ve been adventuring since dawn. But first they want a swim. Quite a sight, 12-year-old boys, billions-years-old sun, brand new sunset and scary fishing pier. You never know what you’ll find down on the Boulevard.

Get Your Feet Wet Or Not

Fort DeSoto Park: 3500 Pinellas Bayway S., Tierra Verde. This park has it all: Campgrounds, boat ramp, Bay and Gulf fishing piers, canoe trails, observation tower and more. To reach the main office, call (727) 582-2267. For the camp store, dial (727) 866-9191. Kayak rentals available in park for excellent and easy backwater angling; call (727) 864-1991.

Redington Long Pier: 17490 Gulf Blvd., Redington Shores. Excellent antique pier with tackle shop.

Big Pier 60: 1 Causeway Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 462-6466. Adult fishing admission $6.30. Bait and tackle sold on site.

Wingin’ It: Pinellas County has lots of public beach access, and there are bait and tackle shops scattered up and down Gulf Blvd. Winter is a good time to fish; the water’s cool, and you won’t be competing with swimmers for space. One shop we spoke with, West Wind Bait and Tackle (727) 392-2121, advised getting in on the whiting bite, using small bits of shrimp on a sliding sinker rig. “You can walk out and catch whiting all day, and some pompano here and there,” said owner Tom Williams. “Our beaches do a good job at giving everybody access.” West Wind is located between Johns Pass and Redington Long Pier.

Another B&T we consulted with was The Bait Bucket in Tierra Verde, (727) 864-2108. They recommended fishing for sheepshead around structure, and said with a warm winter, or early spring, migratory fish such as Spanish mackerel and kingfish are a possibility off the piers. The fishing varies according to water temp. Snook were biting on the flats through the winter of ’06-’07. Main thing is, just get here and adapt to the circumstances. That’s what the fish are doing.

Here’s a quick look at some spots we checked:

• Pinellas Bayway (SR 679) south to Tierra Verde draw bridge: Perfect for fishermen, with continuous vehicle access via dirt track paralleling road. Many breaks in the mangroves, where you can wade or launch paddle craft. Look for seatrout, redfish, snook, tarpon, mangrove snapper in the mangroves. Ideal place for soft jerkbaits, spoons and tube lures.

• Tierra Verde draw bridge: Fishing encouraged, catwalks and guard rails. Public parking at both ends, particularly north end. Pretty spot.

• Tierra Verde behind Mercantile Bank: Local knowledge hotspot; small grouper, seatrout, snapper.

• From Tierra Verde to Fort DeSoto County Park: Everywhere you look; very fishing friendly.

• Passe-a-Grille: A town made for fishing. Long seawall on inside, right next to road; just park, step out and start fishing. Scattered park benches for exquisite comfort, and scattered small docks. Passe-a-Grille jetty at southernmost point is particularly known for pompano; also great beach access with metered parking and playground park near beach. Small side bridge by Sea Critters Restaurant.

• Small and wide beach accesses scattered along Gulf Blvd.

• St. Petersburg Beach, 75th Ave. bridge: No guard rail; park by city hall.

• Boca Ciega Bay bridge: Parking and boat ramp.

• Gulf Blvd. bridge to Treasure Island: Easy parking.

• Boat ramp Treasure Island, 100th Ave. and Gulf Blvd.: good small dock, good depth. Fishing access also at 101st and 102nd avenues, plus small beach access across from 103rd Ave.

• 112th Ave.: Little side bridge, easy parking.

• Boat launch and dock: 123 Ave.

• John’s Pass: Public access from north side, fishing jetty. Catch whiting, pompano, sheepshead, seatrout and redfish.

• Madeira Beach Causeway: Beach access and nearby park.

• Indian Shores-Park Blvd: Boat ramp has park and restroom; seawall fishing from park, also bridge.

• Indian Rocks Beach: Seawall fishing.

• Sand Key Park: County beach park at 1060 Gulf Blvd., south side of Clearwater Pass. Phone (727) 588-4852.

• For general Pinellas County parks information, visit www.pinellascounty.org/parks

The Hit List

Year round: whiting, seatrout, redfish, mangrove snapper, tarpon, snook.
Fall-early winter: Pompano, Spanish mackerel, kings, bluefish (some blues year-round).
Sheepshead: Big spawners show up winter through spring. Drop bait around pilings and hang on. Stout tackle and leader helpful for this style angling.

FS