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Fishing Tampa Bay Bridges

Your roadmap for success on the biggest “reefs” in Florida waters.

Bridges carry folks from Point A to Point B, but how about Point Sea? You have to get out of your vehicle for that one, but sling a bait under one of these people pathways and you’ll find angling action aplenty. Here’s your quick primer on fishing Tampa Bay bridges.

Sometimes the direct approach works best—you park over the fish and send them something appealing. Other times, backing off and letting the fish come to you makes sense. More on this later.

As a case study, consider the four main bridges which span the Greater Tampa Bay region (see accompanying story). Add to this the many smaller bridges linking residential areas, and the area presents an assortment of emergent structures not unlike the many oil and natural gas drilling rigs dotting the northern Gulf.

These structures provide fish much-needed shade, good ambush points with current dynamics and lots of forage species. More or less an emergent reef, a bridge gives anglers a clear target to fish and the ability to move up or down a few pilings to locate the bite. Common targets include tarpon, cobia, pompano, snapper, grouper, sheepshead, redfish, black drum, speckled trout and snook. Spanish mackerel and bluefish make seasonal appearances, and ladyfish are always a possibility.

Tampa Bay bridges produce year-round but the popularity increases as the thermometer rises. Fish and anglers beat the heat by sticking close to a bridge’s shaded waters. When thunderstorms threaten, a bridge is your umbrella and windbreak. No need to run back to port—just tuck behind the downwind side and ride out the blow.

Bridges avail themselves to a variety of fishing styles, determined mostly by your target species. Here’s a roundup of productive options.

Live Baits

Drifting live pilchards or threadfins downcurrent past pilings is a popular tarpon tactic, but don’t hesitate to fire down a small greenie on a light hook and splitshot. Mangrove snapper and the occasional grouper feed around bridge pilings just like they do on ledges, limestone outcroppings and coral reefs.

Chumming

Anchor uptide of a bridge and hang a chum block off your stern to amass enticing bait schools and provide predators a scent trail to follow. Snapper will rise from the pilings, mackerel will swarm the area and you’ll probably raise a few cobia and sharks. Supplementing a chumline with freshly cut threadfin herring chunks can jumpstart a good bite.

Once you get the party rocking, freeline live shrimp, pilchards or threads on 2/0 circle hooks toward the pilings. Let out line in 5-foot increments to “count” back and locate the hot zone. In strong current or choppy conditions, add a splitshot or replace the circle hook with a jighead to keep your bait from kiting too high in the water column.

For a natural chum job, scrape the pilings to crush and release barnacles or mussels. The scent stimulates sheepshead, drum, redfish and pompano—all likely recipients of cut shrimp dropped into the scent zone on 1⁄4-ounce jigheads. (Light hooks and splitshots also work, but jigheads effect a more streamlined presentation that drops quicker in current without spooking fish.)

Moving Targets

Run shallow-diving plugs like a Bomber Long A, Yo-Zuri or Rapala X-Rap right next to the pilings, where snook and speckled trout chase baitfish. Jigs and baitfish imitators like a D.O.A. TerrorEyz work well in the slack water behind bridge fenders. For mackerel, cast a Clarkspoon rigged with a 1- or 2-ounce cigar weight above the leader. A good rig for landlubbers, the weight hugs the bottom and the spoon flutters up like a fleeing baitfish.

Jigging

A 1⁄4-ounce jig set through the tail of a live shrimp and hopped across the bottom will turn up a diverse selection of bridge residents including redfish, flounder, cobia, sheepshead, black drum, gag grouper, mangrove snapper and juvenile tarpon. Probably the most popular jigging target in local waters is the pompano. Species-specific jigs such as Doc’s Goofy style or small, round-head bucktails tempt the golden nuggets.

When the fish are thick, tip a bare jig with a live fiddler crab and it’s pompano fireworks. Pomps may bite one-here-one-there, but more often than not, you’ll have to search several pilings to find the mother lode. Do your looking with jigs and hit the school with fiddlers.

I caught some of the biggest pompano I’ve ever seen with St. Petersburg skipper Capt. Paul Hawkins. Targeting one of the smaller bridges on the Sunshine Skyway’s approach section, Hawkins worked the upcurrent side during an incoming tide and switched to the downcurrent side when we returned later in the day to fish the outgoing water.

One of the area’s true salts, Hawkins taught me an important tactical point: Fishing a bridge doesn’t necessarily mean hugging the structure. There are times when pompano and other species will feed close to the structure, but consider that the eddies spun by flowing tides can create feeding scenarios 100 yards from the pilings.

The plume of tidal flow, accelerated by funneling through the bridge, can move the fish a significant distance from the structure. Similarly, tides move bait schools around and that often influences where predators position themselves.

Further defining the proximity variables, a recent trip with Capt. Chuck Rogers of Tampa found us hovering under the Gandy and pulling a few mangrove snapper from the pilings. When the action slowed, we moved outside and did the anchor-and-chum routine. Rogers noted the wisdom of fanning a bridge section to locate the sweet spot. Once we dialed in the spot, several keeper mangos hit the ice.

The real fun occurred when we noticed several brown figures darting through our chumline. Rogers flipped out a pinfish with an ounce sinker and brought a short cobia to the boat fairly quickly, but previous success on this spot told him the real talent had yet to take the stage. We left the rod with a freelined pinner in the transom rod holder and five minutes back into the snapper deal, that big rod doubled with a 25-pounder.

After Hours

Night fishing is always a bonus, as bridge lights attract baitfish, which draw in predators. From June through October, tarpon patrol the shadowlines of most Tampa Bay bridges and anglers drifting live baitfish or accurately casting MirrOlures, D.O.A. Baitbusters and swimbaits will put a few nocturnal ‘poons in the air.

Just don’t dangle your feet over the side, as warmer months find loads of sharks patrolling the pilings. On a particularly memorable outing, we were treated to a glowing green light show as millions of planktonic players erupted with bioluminescence as our boat moved through their masses. The crescendo came under the Gandy Bridge when a line of cruising tarpon suddenly bolted as an honest 12-foot figure passed maybe a rod length from the bow.

What to Look For

Identifying productive bridge spots is mostly trial and error, but a few criteria will help you judge a good one. Current always benefits fishing, as it pulls food sources past ambush points—usually on the downcurrent side of pilings.

Position yourself according to the water’s direction. You may want to sling a bait under the bridge and let it drift back out; other times, the current will help you position a bait at just the right point.

Also, you can’t go wrong by working near baitfish schools. When food abounds, someone with an appetite will find it, so work your baits into the natural food chain. While you’re at it, don’t hesitate to catch some of the local forage and float them in clear vulnerability on the outskirts of the school and along the bridge’s shadowline.

Most pilings bear numbers for maintenance reference. Keep track of where you caught fish and note specific points such as piling design, compass directions and any particular markings such as ropes, graffiti or excessive pelican guano.

Like reefs, bridges offer abundant opportunity with lots of room for personal style. However, unlike their submerged counterparts, bridges are easy to locate and you rarely have to worry about finding dive flags on your spot.

Tampa Bay Bridges

In Old Tampa Bay—the northwest arm of Greater Tampa Bay—three bridges link Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. North to south, these are: the Courtney Campbell, Howard Frankland and Gandy. South of the Courtney Campbell’s west end, the Tampa Bayside Bridge connects Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

The big boy of the bunch, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge spans the mouth of Tampa Bay and links Pinellas to Manatee County. The original Skyway was demolished years ago after a phosphate barge hit one of the main span pilings during a squall. The north and southbound approach lanes were capped and converted into state park fishing piers.

Similarly, the original Gandy Bridge now serves as a biking/pedestrian route called the “Friendship Trail,” with lower catwalks extending from either end. The structures adjacent to the Gandy and Skyway bridges—along with dedicated fishing lanes on smaller spans like the Tierra Verde Bridge (south Pinellas)—give landbound anglers access to the bounty below.

Bridge Considerations

• Watch Your Clearance: During a sudden summer downpour, my friend rushed under a section of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge (now a pier) but forgot to pull down the rods from his T-top holders. The sound of hopelessly scarred fiberglass and graphite scraping against concrete was far worse than fingernails on a chalkboard. Lesson: Check your clearance and don’t take chances with rods or antennas.

Towerboaters will want to pay particular attention to clearance, and stay alert for the sudden lift of waves. You might have plenty of room while sitting still, but let a big boat or ship send 3-foot swells under your boat and you’ll run out of space in a hurry.

• Dangling Tackle: Popping out from the bridge shadows and running face-first into a dropping hook or sinker is a guaranteed ER visit. Also, an often tenuous relationship exists between those fishing from a bridge and those motoring around it, so remember the courtesy thing and stay clear of deployed lines.

• Ready To Run: If you’re targeting the bridge big boys—tarpon, sharks, cobia—you may have to run down a hefty fish. You may not have time to pull anchor, so rig a float to your anchor line and simply uncleat the rope and toss the whole deal overboard when go-time arises. After the fight, return to your float and retie your anchor line at your original position.

• Laws: Consult local or Coast Guard authorities for special navigation rules applicable to bridges in your area. The U.S. Coast Guard has relaxed its post 9-11 regulations limiting boat proximity to bridges. Currently, a 100-foot security zone applies to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge’s center span, its pilings, dolphins and rock abutments. All other rules of navigation still apply, but anglers are allowed to fish elsewhere along the Skyway and other area bridges. FS

FS Classics, Published October, 2008

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