October 01, 2022
By Sid Dobrin
When I was a kid, I thought fishing piers were the greatest places to be (and I still think they are). For me, getting dropped off at the pier was better than getting dropped off at the mall, movie theater, skating rink or any of the other places parents deposited kids on weekends and summers. Piers let me get out to water a little deeper than I could reach just surf casting (don’t get me wrong, I have always loved surf casting, too). Piers let me target so many kinds of fish, from whiting and flounder to piling-dwellers like sheepshead to big inshore species like bull reds and big snook to the pelagics like Spanish mackerel and the occasional kingfish. Mostly, piers were a place to learn. They were as critical to my learning—both about fishing and the world in general—as any classroom I ever attended.
Today there are more than 325 fishing piers across Florida. Each provides its own learning opportunities, challenges, and favorable circumstances for top-shelf fishing. Before becoming attuned to a specific pier’s particular rigging customs and localized practices, it is a good idea to have some of the basics down. There are four fundamental rigs for fishing from piers. Let’s take a look.
The bottom rig is the fundamental rig for pier fishing. It is valuable in all three zones of the pier: the end, the middle, and the wash nearest the beach.
As the name suggests, a bottom rig is designed to get your baits to the bottom. They can be cast or flipped away from the pier or simply dropped down by the pier’s pilings. Bottom rigs can be purchased pre-rigged or partially rigged, or you can tie your own (three-way swivels work great, or use the inside loop knot to make branching leaders). Most tackle stores—and even many Florida grocery stores—sell bottom rigs. Popular rigs include Sea Striker’s Drop Bottom Rig and Shakespeare’s two-hook rig. Both of these are basically a double hook drop shot rig.
Bottom rigs can be rigged with either pyramid or bank sinkers, and you should select a sinker that will keep your rig on the bottom and not allow the rig to move around with the current or surf. When fishing inside the wash zone, for instance, you will probably need a heavier sinker than if you are fishing at the middle or end of the pier since there tends to be more movement in the water in the wash. Generally, bottom rigs should be rigged with sinkers of 2 to 4 ounces.
For drum, whiting, sheepshead and other fish targeted on the bottom, you’ll want size 2 or 1 hooks. From some piers, if the fish are a bit larger, you may consider using 1/0 or 2/0 hooks.
Bottom rigs are ideal for a wide variety of baits: frozen shrimp, clams, sand fleas, fiddler crabs, cut bait, bloodworms, squid and so on. That is, the bottom rig is ideal for customizing for the local bait of choice.
PRO TIP: If you want to keep your bottom rig on the bottom but want your baits to rest a few inches above the bottom, try using a pre-rigged bluefish rig which is a standard bottom rig that has small floats adjacent to the hooks to float the bait up a few inches off the bottom. Most are also rigged with wire leader to resist the razor teeth of a bluefish, and that addition can always be useful when mackerel find your rig.
LIVE BAIT RIG
The live bait rig is a simple rig, but it can be very effective when fishing live bait on or near the bottom under the pier. The live bait rig can be effective when rigged for larger fish like the big snook that haunt the rocks under the north pier at Sebastian. When rigged a bit lighter, they can be very productive when fishing the bottom for flounder, whiting, croaker and other species. That is, the live bait rig can be adjusted in terms of line strength, hook size, and weight to accommodate any target species.
The rig can be used with just about any live bait from live shrimp to mud minnows to pinfish to greenbacks.
The concept is simple: The weight pulls the line to the bottom, but unlike a bottom rig that keeps the hooks secured to that spot on the bottom, the live bait rig allows the leader to slide through the weight giving the bait a bit more room to swim about.
The rig consists of a strong leader, a barrel swivel and a hook, usually a 1, 2, 1/0 or 2/0 depending upon the target fish and the bait being used. The size of the weight should be heavy enough to keep the line tethered to the bottom in the current without adding so much weight that it encumbers the retrieval of the rig when a fish is hooked.
PRO TIP: Place a bead above the swivel on the line where the egg sinker slides. This will help prevent the egg sinker from wearing on the knot at the swivel connection.
ANOTHER TIP: If you’re fishing in heavy current or strong waves, and the egg sinker seems to be rolling around too much, try a pyramid or Sputnik sinker clipped to the fishing line on a plastic sinker slide.
SPANISH MACKEREL RIG
Anyone who fishes piers regularly will tell you to always have on hand a spinning rod rigged for casting artificials in case Spanish mackerel show up. Each pier will have its local favorites: soft bodies, spoons, bucktails, pencil jigs and so on depending on what fish are likely to show up. But after having fished piers on both coasts, my go-to is the Spanish mackerel rig.
The Spanish mackerel pier casting rig is simple yet deadly on Spanish mackerel. It’s also a reliable rig for trout, flounder, bluefish and many other species that you’ll find on piers.
I like to rig the Spanish mackerel rig on a 10-20 pound spinning outfit in order to be able to cast or flip the rig efficiently. Some might say that for most pier fishing, line test of 20 pounds is excessive and that a 10-12 pound outfit will suffice. However, I like to have a stronger line in order to put a little more pressure on the fish should it make a run to get under the pier and into the pilings.
The Spanish mackerel rig consists of an egg sinker or a small trolling sinker (I prefer the egg sinker because the trolling sinker adds two more knots to the rig and that can increase the potential for breaking off), a stout leader (I prefer 24 inches of wire leader since mackerel have sharp teeth that easily cut mono), and a small spoon (I prefer Clarkspoons in the 2.5-inch or 3-inch blade).
Fishing the Spanish mackerel rig is relatively simple: just cast or flip the rig out from the pier and retrieve. If you want the rig to sink a bit deeper, wait a few seconds after casting it for the weight to pull the lure down.
Note: Because of the increased numbers of people fishing piers, over the last decade or so, many piers now limit the numbers of rods you can fish, so be sure to check to see how many you can take. If two is the limit, I recommend one dedicated bottom rig rod and one dedicated artificial rod for the Spanish mackerel rig or the lure of your choice.
The trolley rig—also known as a clothespin rig or a pin rig and in Texas they are often referred to as sideline rigs— is designed for fishing deeper water with live bait. The trolley rig is best suited for the end of the pier, especially when the end of the pier reaches to deeper waters. Thus, the trolley rig would be less applicable to a pier like the Weedon Island fishing pier that extends only a short distance into the mouth of Riviera Bay on the west side of Old Tampa Bay. However, they are ideal for Atlantic coast piers, especially the south Florida piers during the summer when the Gulf Stream pushes closer to shore and the warm waters draw pelagic species close to the shore. I’ve also used trolley rigs from the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier to put live baits out near the channel to target cobia and tarpon.
The basic strategy of the trolley rig is to work a live bait like a pilchard, pinfish or greenback as far from the pier as possible. However, casting a live bait the distance needed to reach deeper waters away from the end of the pier can be almost impossible. So, the trolley rig lets the bait ride a kind of trolley beyond the angler’s casting range.
A trolley rig requires the use of two rods: one to deploy and maintain an anchor line, what we will call the anchor rod. The second rod, which we will call the fighting rod, is the outfit on which you will fight the fish.
The concept is fairly straightforward: the angler casts the anchor rod rigged with a heavy weight. Often anglers prefer a surf sinker for the anchor line because the wire molded into the lead helps better grab and anchor to the bottom. Both the Sea Strike Sputnik Long Tail Surf Sinker and the Hurricane Sputnik Sinker are popular sinkers for this task. Once cast, the slack of the anchor line is brought tight to create a tight line between the rod and the anchored sinker.
I prefer to use a surfcasting rod for the anchor line. This allows me two advantages: first, a longer surf rod in the 11- to 15-foot range allows me to cast farther than a shorter pier rod. Second, the height of the rod allows me to bring the rodtip as high above the water as possible to create the greatest angle before the line enters into the water. I also try to place the anchor line in a rod holder that is secured to the pier. A few tie-down straps or bungee cords can serve this purpose fairly easily. Hint: Don’t put the anchor rod in the rod holder until the trolley is connected to the anchor line.
The fighting rod is rigged with a heavy leader and a solid live bait hook or circle hook and baited with a pinfish, greenback, menhaden, blue runner, croaker or similar. You can use either conventional reels or spinning reels for the fighting rod since you don’t cast this rod. Once the anchor line is cast and secure, clip the trolley to the anchor line—but don’t let it go. The end of the trolley rig has a clip, most often a clothespin or a flatline clip like used on an outrigger. Bass Pro sells the Offshore Angler Pin which serves the same function.
Once the trolley is clipped to the anchor line and can slide along the line, use the clip to hold the line of the fighting rod. Once the clip is secured to the fighting line, open the bail or set the reel to free spool. Let the trolley slide down the anchor line, bringing the live bait with it. This is the moment when I lift the anchor rod into the secure rod holder to get the rod tip as high as possible and the line as tight as possible.
Once the trolley has carried the bait down the anchor line to the water, close the bail or engage the reel. Keep the drag set loose enough for the line to play out when a fish takes the bait but not so loose the fish will strip the reel instantly. If the reel has a clicker, turn it on. When a fish strikes, the trolley rig clip will release the fighting line and you’ll be free to fight the fish back to the pier.
A COUPLE OF PRO TIPS FOR USING A TROLLEY RIG:
- If you are using a clothespin for your rig and it is letting loose of the fighting line and bait too easily, you can tighten the grip of the clothespin by wrapping a rubber band around the pinch end of the clothespin.
- If your trolley is not sliding easily or sliding as far down the anchor line as you’d like, try adding an egg weight to the rig between the anchor clip and the bait clip.
- If you are specifically targeting kings or smaller tuna, consider adding a stinger hook to the rig.
- Remember that if you do hook a big fish like a king, you are not going to be able to reel the fish up to the pier, so make sure you have a dip net, a drop net, or a pier gaff handy—but be careful when using a pier gaff, since you don’t want to gaff an undersized or out of season fish.
IMPORTANT NOTE: A lot of piers, like those along the Panhandle, do not permit anglers to use trolley rigs. Others limit anglers to only one or two rods. So before you make plans to try some trolley rig fishing, be sure to check with the pier to be sure it’s okay. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine May 2022