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By Ed Mashburn
Coastal spans hold untapped fishing potential.
When cold water slows the topwater and flats action, try fishing natural baits near bay bridges.
Coastal bridges are excellent places to fish for redfish, sheepshead, grouper and many other species, but there are some secrets to getting the most out of the opportunities.
Captain Blake Nelson of Last Cast Charters in Destin (850-499-3811) is an expert at working the many bridges along the Florida Panhandle-including the famous Hwy. 98 bridge over Destin Pass. “Typically, the redfish bite is the best from March to October, and the sheepshead bite is best November through February,” said Blake. “But you can catch other types of fish. Off the Destin Bridge, red snapper, grouper, tarpon and even cobia have been caught while targeting redfish.” Bridge structure itself is obviously a big draw for fish. Pylons and fenders encrusted with barnacles and oysters are a buffet table for crustacean-feeders like sheepshead and drum. The crabs and small fish that hang around the protective cover are food for reds, trout and other fish. And of course, some fish take advantage of the breaks in tidal current.
But, as Blake says, it’s important to consider what other fish-attracting features may be in the vicinity. In the case of the Destin bridge, “there are usually sandbars with dropoffs and deeper pockets that fish will feed in that are around the bridge,” said Blake. “It is tempting to just fish around the pylons, but fish go where the bait goes: The bait doesn’t just stay around the bridge.”
Rig It Right
The simplest and most universal technique is to fish live or fresh-dead bait on the bottom, using a sliding sinker or Carolina rig.
“My bait of choice is a croaker, and then pinfish, finger mullet, and live or dead shrimp,” said Blake. “The weight of the egg sinker depends on the current. Use the lightest possible weight to get the bait to the bottom. I prefer 5/0 circle hooks with live croakers. A 20- to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader is plenty strong enough.” For sheepshead fishing, Blake advises, “I use a Carolina rig with a 1-ounce egg sinker, 1/0 livebait hook, and a 15- to 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. This rig is fished on the bottom right next to the bridge pylon. Bait of choice is fiddler crabs, live shrimp or oysters.”
Redfish are perhaps chief among bridge residents likely to take an artificial lure. Rig a fairly heavy jighead with a soft-plastic body and work the area under and around the bridge, bouncing the jig off the bottom.
Play it Safe
Red drum, left, and gag grouper, right, are two likely catches around deepwater bridges.
Anglers fishing around bridges have a couple of problems to deal with. First, some bridges can have very strong currents. Know how to maneuver your boat in these conditions, and carry at least 7 feet of anchor line for every foot of depth.
Also, it can be very hard to see other boats anchored under and around the bridge, especially in low-light conditions. Keep a sharp eye out and confirm that your navigation lights are in working order and fulfill U.S. Coast Guard regulations. The 360-degree white “anchor” light, for instance, must be mounted so that it is not obscured by persons or objects in the boat; a short, transom-mount pole light may not be sufficient to alert others to your presence. For similar reasons, never anchor in a marked channel. FS
Pelagics and Bridges
When water temps are above 70 degrees, kingfish and Spanish mackerel are likely catches around bridges over deep bays and passes on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. That includes the Three-Mile Bridge on Pensacola Bay, the Sunshine Skyway on Tampa Bay, and the larger U.S. 1 bridges of the Florida Keys. Kings often work bait up to a quarter of a mile away from the bridge, and anglers can have great results trolling diving plugs or live bait. Also, some bridges have additional structure close by. The old Pensacola Bay Bridge was severely damaged by Hurricane Ivan; parts of the bridge toppled into the water alongside the present Three Mile Bridge. The rubble is great fish-holding structure for anglers.
First published Florida Sportsman January 2015