By Ron Brooks
Pier rats — what a name! It evokes plenty of unsavory connotations, yet it is exactly what the serious saltwater pier anglers affectionately call themselves. These are the folks who manage to carry every conceivable piece of fishing gear in a compact combination tackle box, rod holder and cooler on wheels.
You have probably seen them on the end of a pier, and they somehow seem to always get there before you do, almost as if they never left. These are folks who take their pier fishing seriously. They are very good at what they do, and they’re quite often willing to share tips with novice anglers who make their way out onto the pier.
Many of these folks actually prefer pier fishing to any other type of angling, and at certain times of the year it’s easy to understand why. Spring and fall runs of migrating fish can make a trip to the local beachfront pier a freezer-filling experience!
Pier fishing anglers can range from the pier rat variety to the beginner looking to catch a first fish. The methods used by each angler vary according to the individual’s level of experience and the purpose of his fishing trip. Some anglers are there for the meat and look to catch as many fish as possible. Others are there as much for the social interaction as they are for the fishing. Others are seeking an encounter with a trophy-sized game fish. In any case, most of them go home satisfied and often return again on another day.
The variety of fish that can be caught from Georgia’s piers is extensive and includes croaker, spots, whiting, red drum, seatrout, weakfish, black drum, sheepshead, cobia, grunts, mackerel, bluefish, king mackerel, flounder, bonito, false albacore, sharks and an occasional tarpon. This list is not all-inclusive, but it does cover most of the species that anglers pursue from our piers.
In addition to the Peach State’s public piers on the ocean and inlets, there are also public docks located on tidal rivers, bays and creeks. Add to this the private docks on these waters, and you quickly see that Georgia has a lot of potential pier angling sites.
Let’s take a look at fish targeted and tactics used on these piers during the various seasons of the year.
The ideal bait for all of these fish is live shrimp. Fished on the bottom or from a float, shrimp are a favorite food of all members of the drum family. From the inland dock or pier, probe the bottom with your fishing gear as you walk toward the end of the structure. The idea is to find the edge of the stream channel. All creeks and rivers have a deeper middle channel, and the game fish like to run the edges of that channel.
Float a shrimp or fish the bottom along the edge of the channel. Artificial lures such as swim-tail grubs can take fish early and late in the day. Fish them slowly and erratically along the bottom close to the channel edge. Chartreuse, pink and red are favorite colors for these jigs.
Flounder love shrimp, but they also will inhale finger mullet or mud minnows that pass their way. Flounder can be caught just on the upper edge of these channels on a high tide. They move into shallower water with the incoming tide and then position themselves next to an outflowing slough or creek to ambush bait coming out with the tide. If you find a pier or dock close to one of these outflows, pitch a bait there on the bottom and slowly drag it back across the bottom. Be cautious of oyster bars at these creek mouths. They can cut your line before you even feel them! Flounder also take grubs or jigs with a swim-tail. Fish these slowly and along the bottom in shallow water on an incoming tide.
Sheepshead are easy to find. They love structure, and the pier or dock pilings provide a perfect place for them to congregate. They feed on the small coon oysters and barnacles that cling to the posts. Baits are pretty much limited to fiddler crabs or small live shrimp. Small hooks, short leaders – maybe 8 inches long – and sinkers make up the best rig. Fish as close to the pilings as you can, and be particularly alert for their subtle bite. They can use their teeth to crush a fiddler crab off your hook without you even noticing if you don’t pay close attention!
It’s interesting to watch boating anglers when they fish some of the inlets and creeks. They toss their bait, artificial or natural, right along the pilings of a dock. Often they pitch the bait back under the dock. At the same time, the dock anglers are casting as far into the river as they can away from the dock! The fact is, these dock anglers are already on top of some of the best fishing. Fish love structure, and the dock pilings provide just that! Next time you fish from a dock, try dropping your bait down close to the pilings and see what happens. You might be very surprised!
Springtime on the ocean piers means several runs of migrating fish. Baitfish migrate north as the water warms, and predatory fish are following close behind. This is the time of year to catch huge red and black drum from ocean piers. Pods of menhaden (many people call them pogies) make their way up the coast along the beach just outside the breakers. These schools can cover several acres, and you can be sure that feeding fish are around them.
Look for the telltale “flipping” on the surface of the water as the school approaches the pier. In most instances, the school avoids the pier, moving out and around the end. Even a small cast net thrown off the pier can catch a handful of this bait. Fish a live or fresh dead pogie on the bottom under the school, and hold on. Huge 40- to 50-pound red drum are sometimes under the school and feeding along the bottom.
Spring is also the time for cobia to be found riding the back of manta rays. As the large mantas migrate north, look for cobia, sometimes as many as four or five, to be following closely over and next to the huge rays. The rays are easy to spot, but your opportunity window is short. They can be in range and out of range in just a couple of minutes. A 10-inch black plastic swim-tail worm (the type used for freshwate
r bass fishing) with an egg sinker six inches up the line on a small wire leader can be cast well in front of the moving ray. Swim the plastic worm in front of the ray and the cobia. The black worm closely resembles the eels that are a favorite food for the cobia. Live baitfish can also be fished in this manner. You should cast these baits to a passing manta ray even if you don’t see any cobia. Quite often, the fish are under the ray, particularly if the manta is on the surface.
Bonito and false albacore are normally blue-water inhabitants that stay far offshore. In spring, however, they come quite close to shore. Just after sunrise, schools of these fish sometimes work their way up or down the beach, feeding on baitfish. You can’t miss seeing them. The water is worked in a froth for as much as a half-mile along the beach as these predators tear up schools of baitfish. At these times the fish hit literally any artificial bait you put in their way. Just make sure of two things: First, use a wire leader at least 24 inches long. Second, never use a shiny swivel; opt instead for the black variety. A shiny swivel is often mistaken for a piece of baitfish, and your line gets cut as the predators charge and bite the swivel. This same rule applies for mackerel and bluefish.
Mackerel and bluefish make their annual migration north in the early spring, and both are sporting targets from ocean piers. Clark or Hopkins spoons, and any other indestructible flashy artificial baits, work well for these speedsters. In general, the baits need to be worked fast, but often varying the retrieval speed can entice a bite from non-feeding fish.
Ocean piers have a different summer pattern. Croaker, spots and whiting make up the majority of the summer catch. Anglers using multi-hook fish-finder rigs with pyramid or bottom-bouncing weights on the end catch two and three fish at a time when a school of these good-eating fish move through. The best bait is usually dead shrimp. Many people believe that whiting prefer the shrimp peeled. Whiting feed by smell, and their under-chin barbels can better find the shrimp if it’s peeled. Look for whiting just beyond the breakers on sandy bottom.
By this time of year, king mackerel are showing up in great numbers. This is when the very ends of the ocean piers become very popular. Anglers looking for kings take up residence on the end of the pier and suspend live bluefish, blue runner or other small live fish under a float. That float is sometimes a small balloon. Balloons are easier for the angler to see and large enough to keep a live bait just under the surface.
During the summer, more large king mackerel are caught within one mile from the beach than anywhere else. Records from multiple kingfish tournaments indicate that the winning anglers invariably fish close to the beach. That makes the odds for catching a nice king from the end of an ocean pier very nice!
From the ocean piers, false albacore and bonito make several appearances on the beach. The fall king mackerel season finds smaller brood fish making their way down the beach, following the bait as it moves south. Spanish mackerel and bluefish make a minor run on their way south and can be caught until the water turns cold. Even then, some of the bluefish will remain.
Fall may be the best time to fill a cooler with spots and croaker. Their annual fall migration brings huge schools around ocean piers. Many pier anglers take a week away from work to come to the piers and fill their ice chests with these tasty fish.
The fishing method is very simple. Use single or multi-hooked rigs fished on the bottom with dead shrimp. When the bite gets going, expect to catch a lot of fish.
From inland piers and docks, look for the redfish to be moving out. Flounder and sheepshead also are making a move to deeper water. The trick here is anticipating the movement of the schools. They do not stay on any one pier for long as they move closer to the open ocean with each passing day.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division lists over 35 public access piers and docks. Three of these are major ocean piers, while the remaining ones are docks and piers on rivers and creeks.
he Riceboro Creek Fishing Docks, which are located farther inland than any of the others listed. They are on U.S. 17 just north of the town of Riceboro. The only other option in the county is Sunbury Fishing Dock, on the south shore of the Medway River at the site of the old colonial village of Sunbury.
The methods mentioned in this article can all be successfully used on Georgia’s docks and piers. Whether you live in Savannah, St. Marys or any point in between, a public fishing dock or pier is near you. Angling from one of them is inexpensive and fun.
For more information on saltwater fishing in Georgia, visit Ron Brook’s Saltwater Fishing Guide site on About.com at www.saltfishing.about.com.
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