The Skyway Report, Paul Bristow

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A bout of windy & cooler weather in the Tampa Bay region seemed to be exactly what the doctor ordered to fire up the king mackerel bite at the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers!  Multiple kingfish were taken on both piers, but the North Pier did experience a stronger and more consistent bite than the South Pier.  Spanish mackerel were around in some numbers, but were overshadowed by kings as most of the largest Spanish were taken by anglers fishing large live baits for kingfish.  Jack crevalle and blue runners were around both piers and thus available as both baitfish (and fighting adversaries) as some of the jacks were too large for kingfish rigging.  Mangrove snapper remain ahead of schedule and some large fish are now being added to the what had been limits of fish right around the legal size limit.  Ladyfish are busting the top along the approach sections, and providing both quick action and baits for sharks, tarpon and goliath grouper that are all becoming more active by the day.

As the wind was building each day towards a frontal system pushing through Tampa Bay, it only seemed to energize a king mackerel bite that had been only spotty up until this week.  Indeed, as early as Tuesday kings were shooting through waves chasing jack crevalle along the approach sections of each pier.  The action heated up each day until Friday saw multiple hook-ups and landed fish at the piers.  There were lots of fish in the 20 lb. range and even a few that exceeded 40 lbs.  Anglers are using a wide-ranging mixture of both tactics and bait selections to target these early season kings.  Scaled sardines, threadfin herring, jack crevalle, blue runners, ladyfish and even a few just-legal Spanish mackerel were all deployed by anglers seeking smokers this past week.  Scaled sardines and threadfin herring live much longer & swim much better on a single hook approach with light hard wire.  Multiple hook quick-strike hard wire rigs are better for the larger bait options, especially blue runners and smaller jack crevalle, which seem to have the longest hook life of the larger kingfish baits at the piers.

Anglers new to the king mackerel game should not be dissuaded by the need for fancy tackle.  Indeed, basic kingfish rigging can be accomplished with simple medium-class spinning gear as long as the reel is loaded with plenty of line.  A quality monofilament line in the 12 lb. – 15 lb. class might even contain some advantages over fishing braided line because kings so often get hooked on small flaps of skin around their mouth and the monofilament is much more forgiving because of the inherent stretch properties.  Spinning reels that will hold 200+ yards of line and rods that have a little bit of composite glass in the blank are ideal because ‘forgiveness’ in the rod tip might be the key to landing a big fish when it is brought pier-side.  Even multiple rod trolley-rig systems that initially appear complex need not be so to accomplish the goal of placing multiple live baits at a few depths.  The ‘anchor’ rod should be stout, but it need not be fancy because it is simply a  fixed line where baits will be set out to rest.  While satellite-style anchor weights are available to hold bottom, even several egg sinkers with a bit of clothes hanger wire looped around and left to dangle will suffice.  With release clips, obviously adjustable downrigger or outrigger clips are available, but so is a simple clothespin attached to a shower curtain ring.  The name of the game is not to be intimated by fancy-looking tackle – it is really just about getting baits out with a variety of depths and presentations.

Mangrove snapper have been on a good bite for early April and fish size is beginning to increase in this admittedly young snapper season.  Most anglers were fishing live or freshly dead shrimp or scaled sardines with a live bait or knocker rig approach.  Some anglers were fishing the artificial reefs on the outgoing tide, but it seemed like more success was had fishing the pilings of the older ‘closed’ bayside section on the incoming.  Some sea bass, grunts and spotted seatrout got into the mix as well and allowed visitors a mixed bag of fish for their coolers.

Ladyfish were busting baits in the evening hours along the approach sections of the piers.  These fish are not only fun to catch, but also valuable to many visitors as both bait and culinary options.  Ladyfish are very bony, but their flesh is as white, mild and flakey as many much more heralded fish species.  Preparation sounds complex, but is really quite simple.  Place the whole fish in the freezer for about an hour (until hardening – but not frozen) and then fillet all the way down each side of the fish.  Take a spoon and scrape the flesh off the skin and the bones will remain attached to the skin.  Mix with your favorite bread crumbs and/or seasoning and deep fry just like a fish patty or crab cake.  You will never view these fish in the same manner again.  Of course ladyfish are also one of the finest baits available at the piers to fish live or cut for trophy species like snook, tarpon, goliath grouper and sharks.