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Bridge Brawl Fishing

Bridge Brawl Fishing
Bridge Brawl Fishing

 

Try the drift-and-bump technique under the bridges for more fish.



Jim Harter slowed his 20-foot bay boat to an idle just upcurrent from the first bridge abutment. Within five minutes of dropping his trolling motor and tossing a lead-headed plastic bait upcurrent, the Palm City resident was fast to a heavyweight fish. It stripped drag like a huge snook, as he leaned on 30-pound-test braid as much as possible.

Harter pointed his bow away from the bridge, put the trolling motor on high and tried to move the fish away from the bridge pilings. He was efficient and fast, but not quite fast enough. The big fish ran behind a piling, and a slightly dejected angler reeled in the limp line.

“They're here,” he proclaimed as he re-rigged. “That was a good snook.”

Jeff Merrill and I listened attentively to our host while we fished.

“Cast your lures upcurrent from the bridge,” Harter explained, “then let them sink to the bottom and let water movement sweep them back into the shadow line and bridge structure. Pick up the rodtip just enough to make sure the lure continues to bounce and tumble along the bottom. Don't rush the lure, because big snook are lazy and don't like to chase after it. They would rather have it come to them.”

Encouraged, Merrill and I continued to cast our rootbeer-colored 3/8-ounce baits about 30 feet above the bridge abutment, letting them roll along the bottom toward the pilings. Soon Harter set back hard on the rod and it again doubled up with a big fish. Just as he put the trolling motor on high, I felt a faint tick of the line and set the hook into a fish of my own.

Jeff moved to the trolling motor as Jim and I fought our battles. Fortunately, both fish were forced away from cruel, razor-sharp barnacles. We did a couple of “over and unders” with our rods in opposite directions, following our fish around the skiff. After a few minutes, we had both fish at the side of the boat and Jeff stood by with the big net. Jim's snook was much larger, so Jeff netted it first. Jim wasn't overly excited with what I thought clearly was a giant—a 22-pounder. His largest snook from under a bridge weighed 38 pounds and his biggest ever from a dock pushed the scales to 43.

The sun was peeking above the bridge railings as we continued to put the “hurt” on those bridge snook. Jeff caught and released a 16-pounder next and Jim had another even bigger snook on for a full minute before it found barnacles.

It was obvious why Harter enjoys spending so much time around the bridges of Martin County. These structures represent habitat for mollusks, tubeworms and crustaceans. They harbor a complete life cycle system for estuarine species, from microscopic to large predators.

Bridges influence river and tidal flow by sometimes changing the direction of the current and by providing eddies. Harter likes the fact that they also create shadows and, at night, artificial light. He'll normally position his boat relative to the current and shadows. Jim's main target is snook, an ambush predator that uses both structure and shadow for cover. He'll position the boat upcurrent using his electric trolling motor so he can drift bait through areas that typically hold fish.

Harter uses only artificial lures, and unless there is evidence that fish are feeding on the surface, he likes his baits to bounce along bottom. Snook are normally looking ahead for something edible, he reasons.

“In Florida rivers and estuaries, anything over 10 feet is usually deep and the deeper water will hold more fish,” he said. “In water over 12 feet, the sound of a trolling motor does not seem to affect them. The trolling motor will spook a fish 12 feet away but not 12 feet down.”

When analyzing bridges, Jim considers three factors: current, structure and shadow. He likes the old bridges, which may have a bridge tender and draw bridge. They have more vertical structure, are closer to the water and create a darker shadow. The sun and the bridge create a shadow that angles down to the bottom.

Bridges have lights and at night, the old, lower bridges have a tendency to cast a sharper contrast between bridge lights and the shadow area, according to Harter, because the lights are closer to the water. Snook face upcurrent waiting in the shadow's edge in preparation for ambush. If there is surface bait, snook will be at the top of the shadow line.

“On the leading edge of a shadow line on the upper edge of the current is a great place to be at night,” Harter points out. “Some guides make a living taking their clients at ‘o-dark-thirty' to fish the bridge shadow lines. Any bridge with a pronounced shadow line will produce fish.”

The water has to be moving for optimal fishing and Jim has his preferred locations, depending on the flow. He has noticed that his favorite old holes change, depending on the direction of the water. On an incoming tide, he usually will fish different areas than on the outgoing tide. For example, he positions his boat on a 6-foot-deep flat when the water is coming in and dropping into a 23-foot hole.

The water in the St. Lucie River system, which weaves throughout eastern Martin County, is generally stained and has a re-suspension layer that is much darker than surface waters, according to Jim. There may also be a drastic water temperature change in deeper water. Many snook fishermen prefer to fish at night, but Jim opts for fishing bridges anytime. He is usually able to find the right temperature and water currents, even in the middle of the day.

“Some of my biggest fish have been between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.,” he said. “I go under the philosophy that somewhere something is eating and it's just a matter of finding them.”

Harter uses the standard rule of thumb, that the darker the water, the darker the lure should be. Correspondingly, the lighter the water, the lighter the lure color. Jim's favorite lure for most bridge fishing is a rootbeer DOA TerrorEyz in 3/8- or 1/2-ounce, heavy enough to sink to the bottom fairly quickly. He ties it on with a loop knot for more freedom of movement. If he finds that the fish are feeding at the surface, he'll change to a plastic shrimp or pull out his fly rod.

Harter employs 20-, 30- or even 50-pound braided line and 40- or 60-pound fluorocarbon leader—heavy enough to horse fish away from trouble, without fear of abrasion from snook jaws and gillplates. He uses a 7-foot rod rated for 10- to 17-pound-test line or a 71/2-footer for 20- to 30-pound.

“One of my best bites was one evening just before dusk at the Roosevelt Bridge in downtown Stuart,” Harter recalled. “I caught about 20 snook up to 32 inches in two hours. But it's not always about snook. I have had doubles on big tarpon fishing under the Palm City Bridge, but it was an impossible dream to think that those fish could be brought to the boat.”

Jim's biggest tarpon was a 200-plus pounder from the Roosevelt Bridge that went airborne next to his boat and scared him. In the summer of 2004 for a month and a half, the avid angler had tarpon hookups every day at the Roosevelt Bridge. In between those tarpon, he caught four snook over 30 pounds.

“The longest fought fish from under the Roosevelt Bridge was two years ago when I took a neighbor kid about 16 years old with me,” he laughs. “The kid hooked into a tarpon bigger than he was and we fought it through three bridges for two hours and 15 minutes before bringing it boatside.”

Fishing bridges is not always like that, but usually there's a banquet under them, and the fish are waiting for baits to come along. Take advantage of those bridge benefits and bump a

bait their way.

East Coast Bridge Basics

One reason the original Roosevelt Bridge in Stuart is so good, according to local angler Jim Harter, is that it is an old bridge with a lot of support trusses and structure. There used to be two bridge spans and one of them was removed about 10 years ago, which means that part of the old one is still on the bottom, creating more habitat. He says the new Roosevelt Bridge has fewer supports and less structure, and while holding some fish, is not as good as the old bridge.

“When I run the St. Lucie and Indian River system, I always stop and fish the bridges and almost always hook up on nice fish,” he says. “Newer ones with less supports and less habitat are slowly replacing old bridges. Just because boat traffic is routed through a channel with markers and bridge fenders doesn't make it the deepest part of the river. Sometimes the actual channel is a long way from the boating channel. That's where the fish are.”

The new bridges have fewer vertical supports but the base of the supports is generally bigger, according to the avid angler. These bigger bases have a tendency to create eddies and current pools that at times hold a lot of schooling bait. Last year to the south of the Sewall's Point Bridge, locally known as the “Ten Cent Bridge,” tarpon by the hundreds spent days feeding on the bait in the eddies of this bridge.

“While the old Roosevelt vertical supports influence fish feeding habits through cover,” said Harter, “the new Evans Crary Bridge [Ten Cent Bridge] influences feeding by changing the current. Either way, both structures provide a great place where fish can be caught.”

FS

 

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