Warm weather, clear water and baitfish schools quickly returned to the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers after some rainy frontal days passed through the Tampa Bay region this week. Spanish mackerel fed heavily prior to the passing fronts, but were more difficult in the days after their passing. Sheepshead were less affected by the weather and continued on a strong bite as spawning aggregations approach their peak size. Spotted trout and silver trout continued to feed in both the shallows and depths, respectively, and some snook are already beginning to stage along the rocky approach sections. Grunts, porgies and even a few mangrove snapper were taken along the artificial reefs by visitors preferring bottom fishing. For anglers seeking either screaming drags or a sore back, a variety of smaller shark species and goliath grouper were available for thrill seekers.
Sheepshead were gathered in large schools along the Skyway Piers and anglers were able to catch plenty of these fine tasting porgies as they approach their spawning period. Fiddler crabs, sand fleas and bits of live (or freshly frozen) shrimp were top choices – as they are most of the time. Anglers took some fish by presenting a chunk of shrimp on a 1/4 oz. jig head right next to the piling. The jig head allows a more precise presentation than a traditional live bait rig when sight fishing very tight to structure. Ball head or oval head designs are both fine jigs in this game, with more importance being placed on a quality hook to withstand the vice-grip-like dental array found on this porgy. Anglers fishing sheepshead took some fine-sized spot tail porgies on the same bait offerings. Although many visitors release these fish, they are fantastic eating and do not have the size or bag limits associated with many other members of this Family of Fishes.
Schools of smaller snook began to gather along the approach sections of both fishing piers, and some slot-sized fish were already mixed in with these groups of linesiders. Gulf recreational snook season is set to re-open in only a matter of days, and many visitors have caught their first snook at the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers. Free-lining a live shrimp or scaled sardine to schools (or single specimens) is one great method. A 1/0 or 2/0 octopus-style black nickel hook paired with 25 lb. fluorocarbon leader material and perhaps a split-shot sinker or two is the only terminal tackle needed in this game. Early morning or night time anglers get the best results, and many of these diehards also enjoy throwing a 1/4 oz. or 3/8 oz. jig with their favorite soft plastic tail. Artificial shrimp or sardine imitations also work great after sundown.
Spanish mackerel numbers were down from last week, but the bite appeared to be improving as the weekend approached. Last week & weekend saw some good mackerel bites and common limits of fish, but anglers had more struggles catching mackerel at the start of the week. By mid-week, visitors focusing on late afternoon / to sundown feeding periods were able to take some mackerel, bluefish, ladyfish and jacks. Anglers had success with poppers, white jigs, sabiki-style baitfish rigs, Gotcha lures and spoons. When feeding fish are more scattered, artificial lures simply allow pier anglers to cover more water in search of the easiest bites. Given the fact that baitfish schools remain in full force, mackerel catches could increase exponentially by the weekend, and live or natural cut baits will again become a factor. Visitors willing to switch between artificial & natural baits, and even to deploy both at the same time, often produce the most consistent mackerel catches at the piers over the course of each season.
Small sharks of several species made their presence known with visitors this past week. Blacktips were the most common catch, but some sharpnose and bonnetheads were also reported. For anglers visiting their piers or fishing saltwater for the first time, this is an easy and rewarding family outing. Medium light freshwater spinning or casting gear (like that used for bass or catfish) is perfect for these fish that are often 5 lbs. to 10 lbs. A short length of wire – or even heavy monofilament – will prevent most bite-offs from these smaller fish. Pinfish and grunts are plentiful and easily caught on a baitfish rig with strips of squid. Deploy some fish whole and cut others into chunks. Look for outgoing tides in the overnight hours and enjoy these fish that are not only great fun on a light rod & reel, but also excellent as steaks on the grill or deep-fried as shark nuggets!