Hitting The Brine Without A Boat
September 30, 2010
Just because you're not floating on the water doesn't preclude catching a variety of saltwater fish in Florida. Here are the tactics and locations for some exciting bridge fishing!
Among South Florida fishermen, Tommy Greene is somewhat of a legend. For more than 30 years, the Lighthouse Point angler has developed a wide array of fishing techniques that consistently produce fish ranging from bottom fish to tarpon. As a result, he has built up a following of sorts. What is most impressive about Greene's exploits is that he does not own a boat. He is a pioneer in the art of bridge fishing.
"It never fails to amaze me that everybody who comes to Florida thinks they have to hire a guide down in the Keys or charter a boat to go offshore and catch fish," Greene says. "But some of the very best fishing available has the easiest access and costs almost nothing to enjoy. Bridge fishing can be everything they're looking for."
In the Sunshine State, bridge fishing has long been a popular form of sportfishing. All along both coastlines, there are thousands of bridges that span brackish-water or saltwater canals, creeks, even the Intracoastal Waterway, yet relatively few anglers take advantage of what can be the perfect perch for fishing.
Florida is blessed with an abundance of bridges large and small, high-traffic and abandoned, that provide easy access to some excellent fishing.
Quite simply, experienced bridge pros like Greene will tell you that it is not mandatory to own or hire a boat to spend a day catching snapper or stalking snook. Coastal bridges provide the ideal positioning to experience some of the state's finest saltwater action.
"There are so many bridges in South Florida, for example, that you could spend months fishing them and not run out of good places to fish," Greene says. "And usually you won't have much company while bridge fishing. People just seem to pass them off as something to drive across, instead of a good place to catch a meal.
"There is tremendous bridge fishing in the Keys, for example. You can sit there with cut mullet or live shrimp and catch fish off of those bridges all day. You can catch a tremendous assortment of fish, including snapper, jewfish, tarpon, snook, sharks, kingfish, Spanish mackerel and jack crevalle. We've even caught school dolphin off of the Seven Mile Bridge.
Tommy Green displays the kind of big snook he often takes from the Florida bridges.
Photo by Jeff Christopher
"The bridges in the Keys are the perfect place to take the family and spend the weekend," he continues. "There are plenty of state parks to camp in and there are now catwalks on the bridges so you can stay out of the traffic and fish. There are a lot of bridges in the Keys that have been condemned to traffic that are now just fishing bridges. There are a lot of places to fish that offer easy access, and I would pick the Keys bridges over most piers in terms of producing fish."
Government officials have replaced some 37 bridges on the so-called Overseas Highway from the mainland to Key West over the years, but left major sections of 23 bridges for fishermen to use without worrying about the traffic behind them.
Since the age of 11, Greene has fished the various bridges that span the Intracoastal from Stuart south to Miami. He has fished them so much, in fact, that he has learned the intimate characteristics of each bridge and how to take advantage of them. At one point in his life, Greene and his regular fishing partners could be found working the shadow line beneath a bridge at least five days of the week.
Over the years, Greene has developed a sophisticated system for fishing bridges that includes advanced techniques for luring and then fighting fish from these shorebound perches.
Greene is a big-fish enthusiast, most interested in tangling with hard-fighting species like snook and tarpon. Although bridges provide easy access for all sorts of species, he has tailored his tactics to the more prestigious game fish.
The selection and care of equipment is crucial, he says.
"The rod is the most important piece of tackle in bridge fishing," Greene explains. "You have to be able to control the fish and keep them away from the pilings, where they will cut you off, so a 9- to 11-foot rod is needed.
"For fighting big fish, it helps to have a rod with an 18- to 24-inch butt, so that you can put it under your arm to help you control the fish better," he adds. "You need a big reel that will hold plenty of line and has a good drag system and a fast retrieve.
"Although I like to use light line whenever possible, it's just not possible with bridge fishing for big fish like snook. You need heavy line to control the fish and not get frayed off on the pilings. I've lost as many as 30 to 40 snook in one summer on 100-pound test. Bridge fishing puts you in position to wrestle with some big fish, so you have to be as prepared as possible. I've had skinned elbows, busted hands, bruised arms, a hurt back. I've been beaten up pretty good by being dragged down the rail on more than one occasion. When you hook a fish that's 20 or 25 pounds, it's you against him usually only for about two minutes. And he'll win a lot of the fights."
If catching large, hard-battling game fish is not your goal, you can get by with light- to medium-action spinning tackle and 8- to 20-pound-test line. Because of the barnacle-covered bridge pilings, it is usually a good idea to use a monofilament leader that is considerably heavier than your line (like 20-pound leader for 10-pound-test line).
For fishing bridges, Greene has long been a live-bait specialist relying on shrimp, pilchards, sand perch and mullet. The only time he uses artificial lures is when the fish are schooling and more likely to ambush a fake baitfish. Over the years, Greene has developed some strong techniques for getting the most out of live bait.
The most common -- and most productive year 'round -- live bait among the state's legion of bridge fishermen is shrimp, which attracts an endless variety of fish. Even bridge fishermen who prefer using artificial lures usually tip their jigs with shrimp and either drift them through the current or bounce the lures along the bottom.
With live bait, Greene insists that the difference in attracting strikes when using a monofilament leader vs. a wire leader is heavily in favor of the mono. He has years of bridge fishing experience to support that claim.
"The most important thing about fishing live bait from bridges is that you
must make your bait look as natural as possible," he notes. "Remember that a tarpon or snook or other predator game fish will feed into the current. What you must do is cast your bait upstream and have your bait come back to the bridge resembling natural bait. It must look lifelike, natural. You can't fill it with garbage like big leaders, big snap swivels and things of that nature."
Two overlooked, but important, aspects of bridge fishing are keeping hooks ultra-sharp and maintaining a tight line on the bait before attempting to set the hook. Those two factors cost bridge anglers more fish than any others.
The tide also comes into play with bridge prowlers. Generally, Greene prefers to concentrate on the changing of the tide from an hour before until an hour after the turnaround is completed. He has also found that a consistent major feeding period around bridges occurs an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset.
With the traffic roaring by a few feet behind the anglers, fishing some bridges can be dangerous. That is a major reason why Greene developed a casting technique that allows him to get his bait to the fish without hanging his back-cast on the bumper of a Hummer going 50 miles per hour.
"Most of the time, you need to put your bait in the shadow line of the bridges, which is not always an easy thing to do," Greene says. "You usually can't take an 11-foot snook rod, swing the bait behind your head with the cars flying by, and make a normal cast. People have actually died from getting tangled up with a passing car.
"When I was about 17, I developed a cast just for bridge fishing because of that. At first, I would swing the bait parallel to the bridge and kind of sidearm it to my right or left, which was easy to do if the bridge wasn't crowded. I could get a 60- or 70-foot cast with a big lure and a big rod, and then I would work the bait back down the side of the bridge. That is a good way to fish some bridges.
"But there were times when I needed to cast straight out. If there's a long shadow line, you need a long cast. So I came up with a cast that starts by letting out 8 feet of line on a 10-foot rod and swinging the bait back towards me to where it looks like it's going to hit me in the face. It will actually swing around past your face and then sail away from the bridge once you release the spool. I can throw a live mullet 120 feet with that cast on heavy line and stay out of trouble."
For landing big fish from bridges, veteran anglers use a bridge gaff, a large, weighted treble hook attached to a stout 1/4-inch rope or parachute cord. An oversized snap is attached to the hook eye. Once a fish has surrendered and is lying on the surface, the snap is placed around the line to keep it close as the hook is lowered to the fish. The homemade gaff is then dropped into position to sink the hook into the fish.
"For fighting big fish, it helps to have a rod with an 18- to
24-inch butt, so that you can put it under your arm to help you control the fish better."
Some of Greene's best bridge techniques were developed under duress while fighting (and sometimes losing) the big fish he tangles with on a regular basis. South Florida bridges have produced several snook that topped the 37-pound mark for Greene over the years, along with numerous tarpon between 150 and 200 pounds.
"One of the wildest techniques we came up with -- and it works well -- was to handle big fish like tarpon that would take the bait and head back under the bridge on you," he says. "Fishing with a partner, he would go to the other side of the bridge and snag my line.
"Then I would drop my rod and reel overboard. He would pull it up the other side of the bridge and hand it back to me. Then I could fight my fish on the downstream side of the bridge. That was the only way to handle a big fish that took you under the bridge, and it worked. We caught two tarpon that weighed about 190 pounds each on the same night that way."
That is a good illustration of the kind of excitement some bridges can provide. Bridges offer easy access to low-cost fishing and plenty of action.
Now let's take a look at some of Florida's most productive bridges.
Probably the most famous is the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which has been hosting fishermen for more than 50 years since the original span was completed over the mouth of Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg. The old bridge was destroyed when a large freighter rammed it in 1980. A new bridge was built to carry Interstate 275, but portions of the original structure were kept as fishing piers on the north and south sides of the bridge.
An amazing variety of game fish are regularly caught from the Skyway piers, including sharks, huge Goliath grouper, tarpon, king and Spanish mackerel, sea bass and grouper. There is action year 'round in these waters.
The St. George Island Causeway in the Panhandle is a personal favorite. Live shrimp is the ticket to good catches of sheepshead and trout, as well as an occasional redfish. There are also some prime flounder spots along both the north and south bridges.
One of the most popular of all bridges among fishermen is also located in the Panhandle. The Pensacola Bay Fishing Bridge is an old 1 1/2-mile bridge that once carried motorists from Pensacola to Gulf Breeze. Today, its pilings attract Spanish and king mackerel, trout, redfish, pompano, jacks, bluefish, croaker, crabs and sheepshead. And anglers have the run of the place.
In Stuart, the Ernest Lyons Bridge is a well-known snook hangout. It's not unusual for chartreuse-colored feather jigs or live shrimp to produce 20-pound-plus bruisers.
It is said that more snook over 40 pounds have come off the Flagler Bridge in West Palm Beach during the spring mullet run than have been caught off any other structure in South Florida. The giant snook usually fall victim to sand perch, live mullet or jigs fished after dark.
Nearby, the Old Blue Heron Bridge fishing pier offers some excellent shore-bound opportunities just north of the newer bridge.
In northeast Florida, the George Crady Bridge State Fishing Pier provides fishermen access to some fine fishing along the old mile-long bridge that spans Nassau Sound. The entrance to the fishing bridge is through Amelia Island State Park, where skirmishes with whiting, jacks, drum and tarpon are common around the pilings. Redfish and trout are in the sound year 'round.
A little farther south, the Matanzas Inlet Bridge offers some of the best bridge fishing anywhere for redfish, sheepshead and flounder. It is located 14 miles south of St. Augustine.
Bridges don't have to be large to be productive. A prime example is the remnants of the old No. 4 Bridge in Cedar Ke
y, which is especially popular with crabbers in the spring and fall -- and also yields redfish on occasion.
Then there is the fabulous bridge fishing throughout the Florida Keys. There is more bridge fishing access available than you could fish in a lifetime. Much of it is on bridges that were once part of the old Flagler East Coast Railroad that have been refurbished to accommodate fishermen. Most feature parking areas for night or day use.
Several dozen bridges are scattered all along U.S. Highway 1 from Key West up to Key Largo. The longest is the famed Seven Mile Bridge. Although a new bridge has replaced it, the old bridge remains in place, and some of the best fishing occurs on a portion of the span set aside for anglers. It is on the stretch from Knights Key to Pigeon Key. This is one of the few places where you can tangle with a truck-sized tarpon while on land. It's not unusual to see schools of tarpon passing through the pilings.
As you can see, the Sunshine State is blessed with an abundance of above-the-water perches where shorebound anglers can thrive -- further evidence that you do not need to own a boat to enjoy some of Florida's finest saltwater action.