The first few days of February saw several traditional & predictable winter fishing patterns & methods settle in at the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers. Sheepshead fishing is beginning to kick into higher gear as groups of fish begin to gather ahead of the spawn. Spotted seatrout are schooling around the approach sections on each fishing pier. Flounder are also lurking not only near the approach sections, but also along artificial reef transition areas where rock and rubble turn to sand. Smaller jack crevalle are busting bait schools and commonly hitting baitfish rigs. Silver trout schools and catches are getting larger - especially in areas nearest to the main shipping channel. Finally, Spanish mackerel are available to anglers willing to fish smaller rigs & lures on light tackle slowly throughout the water column.
As we approach the sheepshead spawning time in the Tampa Bay region - most often late February / early March - these porgies dressed like old time convicts are beginning to gather in larger numbers and becoming more aggressive. The approach sections, dumpster areas, restroom areas, bait shop areas and end sections of both fishing piers will most often hold the largest number of visible fish. There is not much science to these spots - they simply most often have twice the number of pilings (and more crossing pilings) than anywhere else on the piers. The extra pilings not only provide more current eddies to help fish hold during heavy tides, but also contain more surface area to hold barnacles, small crabs and other sea life that the fish will feed upon. Small live shrimp or bits of freshly frozen shrimp performed well this past week - as did both sand fleas and fiddler crabs. Do not ignore the artificial reefs as the sheepshead spawn kicks into full gear at the piers because many of the reefs not only hold great numbers of fish, but also some of the largest.
Spotted seatrout are beginning to use the inshore rock retaining walls and pier pilings to warm up, and as a result, plenty of nice trout catches are happening at both fishing piers. Many anglers target these fish both early and late in the day - regardless of tide - but it does seem that at least some moving water is helpful for a better bite. Extreme tides with heavy current flow, however, seem to turn these fish off of the feed. The debate over live versus natural bait for trout at the piers seems to run about 50 / 50 among seasoned anglers. Plastic shrimp, swim baits or jerk baits fished along rocks and pilings are extremely productive. Free-lining live shrimp or scaled sardines is also an excellent method. Some anglers will be prepared to employ both methods and perhaps this is the best overall approach.
Flounder are also beginning to show in better numbers in areas where hard rocky bottom transitions to sand. Most anglers associate this with the rock retaining walls that line the entrance to each fishing pier. Although this assumption is obviously correct, it is not the only area that presents this bottom-content scenario. Many of the artificial reefs that line the piers have rocks that have broken or fallen off. Picture the reefs as old bridge pilings (most are) laying both next to and on top of each other - often crisscrossed. When bits of the pilings crumble and fall away, this creates a bottom that goes from hard rock to rubble to sand. Flouder cherish these areas because they can lie in wait - hoping to ambush the multitude of small baitfish that inhabit the reefs if they stray just a little too far into the sand area. Small pinfish or shrimp deployed on as light a weight as possible dragged along these reef transition edges are great choices. These same baits will work in the pier shallows that also contain so many of these areas, as will 1/4 oz. to 3/8 oz. jigs bounced along the bottom with that angler's favorite soft plastic tail.
Spanish mackerel remained in catchable numbers for anglers fishing light tackle jig presentations and larger sabiki-style baitfish rigs. The approach and end sections of each pier are good places to deploy these tactics, but mackerel were wherever the most sardines seemed to congregate. This is a freshwater game deployed in saltwater, as single or tandem white crappie jigs in the 1/8 oz. range are slowly bounced through the water column with the lightest leader possible. Many winter mackerel at the piers are in the 13" - 15" size range, so often 12 lb. or 15 lb. leader material will suffice. Large baitfish rigs with hooks like #4's or 1/0's are another great option. Often the hook shank will prevent bite offs, but the larger bait rigs also generally have stronger leader lines than the smaller ones, and these rigs are a great multi-species choice simply bounced on the bottom over the next month.
– Paul Bristow