September 24, 2010
As coastal waters warm in early spring, hungry game fish follow bait up the Atlantic coast -- and right by fishing piers.
April can't get here fast enough to suit saltwater anglers along the Atlantic coast. As spring gradually replaces winter, rising water temperatures cause anglers' spirits to do the same in anticipation of their favorite species migrating to inshore springtime haunts. Hungry and willing, these sporting nomads offer a multitude of nearshore fishing opportunities for those in position to intercept them.
In the spring, good-sized flounder are accessible to pier-anglers, as the fish feed in the shallows before moving to deeper waters later in the summer. Photo by Charlie Coates
Veteran coastal anglers know, however, that the one fly in this otherwise fine springtime ointment is the weather, well known for its tendency to turn sour whenever fishing trips are scheduled. Cold fronts, rain and diabolical winds can team up to ruin the best-laid plans, even in protected inshore waters.
Fortunately, anglers in need have a friend in deed for such times, one that will provide a refuge from rough seas and unsteady footing right smack in the middle of some of the best springtime action. Anglers need look no farther than the nearest pier in the path of migrating fish along the oceanfront or adjoining bays, rivers and inlets.
Admittedly, there's far more practicality than glamour in fishing from a pier, but even when it's not the only game in town, pier-fishing can often be a wise choice, especially in the spring. While boaters fight angry seas in search of willing fish, pier-anglers enjoy a solid fishing platform with the built-in structure that bait and their predators are looking for.
Pier-fishing can be as simple and laid back as you want to make it, but those who do a little pre-trip planning can be handsomely rewarded for their effort. Tackle selection is determined largely by matching gear with water conditions and the quarry being targeted. While anglers fishing for panfish off a pier in an inlet or bay can get by with light tackle, those targeting larger game fish along the oceanfront will need to think bigger.
Regardless of where they fish, most anglers would be well-advised to carry along at least two general-purpose outfits -- one rod and matching reel light enough for casting and retrieving lures or detecting bites of panfish, and a medium- to heavy-action combo that can handle bigger fish and rougher water. Even the lighter rig should have a rod tip that's stiff enough to handle a few ounces of sinker along with a thrashing fish. Additional rods and reels can be added to the arsenal for targeting specific species.
The standard rig for pier-fishing employs a three-way swivel with a leadered hook and a snap holding a pyramid sinker to keep bait in position on the bottom. Double-hook rigs can be used for croaker and other relatively small bottom dwellers. Some species, notably flounder, prefer a bait that moves across the bottom, requiring the use of bank or egg sinkers. To cover various conditions, an assortment of weights from 1 to 6 ounces should be carried. Hook sizes depend on the size and species of fish being targeted, but Nos. 4 to 1/0 should handle most situations.
The best baits to use will be live or cut specimens of whatever fish are feeding on at the time. You can catch your own or buy them from the pier or local tackle shop. In addition to baitfish, locally available shrimp and crab baits are usually effective. Casting and jigging lures will provide a pleasant change of pace and can often yield good catches of trout, puppy drum or bluefish.
PICKING YOUR PIER
Although any pier along the oceanfront or nearby inland waters is likely to produce in the spring, some will be more rewarding than others at certain times and under certain conditions. The first consideration is the species being targeted and the stage of their migration. It's easy enough to find out from fishing reports, Internet forums, tackle shops and pier personnel, among other sources, how far the fish have moved up the coast and whether they have yet moved into inland waters. These same sources can also advise you on best choices of bait and methods.
While longer piers are favored by most anglers at any time of year, offering more room and access to deeper water, early spring is one time that size won't matter as much. Bait, and therefore game fish, inhabit shallower water now than they will later in the year when waters warm up, often feeding right up along the beach. Baitfish retreat to the shallows for protection from predators lurking nearby, waiting for the tide to flush out their meals. A shorter pier with inviting nearshore structure and forage will out-produce a longer one that offers fewer amenities.
The fact that game fish and their food sources inhabit shallower water in the spring also makes the warmer shallows of inland waters a good bet. Even a small inland pier strategically located inside the mouth of a river or inlet can put anglers within casting distance of prime fishing spots. Such areas are springtime favorites of many predators that hide along structure and wait for tidal changes to deliver their meals.
So, how does a pier-angler find all that fish-holding structure? That will require some time and work, but the effort should be well rewarded. Serious pier-anglers will follow the lead of their most successful surf-fishing brethren by learning to read the water and beach within casting distance of the pier. The most effective way to do this is to study the area around your chosen pier during low tide. Periods of new and full moons that cause lower than normal tides offer an excellent opportunity to gather as much information as possible.
The most important types of structure to look for are sandbars that run parallel to the beach and sloughs or troughs that lie between the sandbars and the beach, providing travel routes for predators and prey.
Special attention should be paid to any cuts in the sandbars where water and bait will pass through on a moving tide. These pinpoint prime ambush sites where a rushing tide and rip currents disorient prey, delivering effortless meals to game fish.
The closest -- and often most overlooked -- structure within range will be right under the pier. Low tide can reveal a lot about what's happening below the boards and out of the angler's sight. Look for any holes or pockets in shallow water that are likely to hold bait during a receding tide.
Also, study the configuration of any rocks or other structure, as the deeper side is likely to attract more game fish. The downcurrent side can be especially popular during an incoming tide. A look at the pier's pilings should tell you which one
s will be most productive. Those encrusted with a generous supply of barnacles, mollusks and other delicacies will draw the most dinner guests.
TIPS AND TACTICS
When you first step onto the pier, resist any innate urge to rush out to the deep end and cast your bait as far toward the horizon as you can. Now is the time to put all that pre-trip surveillance to use.
If you timed your trip to catch the best tides, you should get positioned to target any fish-holding structure you discovered during low-tide scouting. While incoming tides are favored year 'round by many pier-anglers, outgoing water, especially in the spring, can produce a lot of action as predators ambush bait being washed out of hiding places near the beach. This is also a good time to check out any holes or pockets for congregated baitfish.
During either moving tide, you'll want to get a bait to the down-tide side of any sandbars you located and into any cuts between them. Don't neglect the suds close to the beach. Flounder and bluefish often chase baitfish right up to dry land this time of year.
Most of the time, however, flounder will insist your offering be moved slowly across the bottom with the current. A little movement will also increase your chances of catching trout or puppy drum. Bluefish, on the other hand, will likely find your bait no matter how you fish it or what tide you fish it on.
Good numbers of sheepshead are caught from piers along the Atlantic coast each spring, but the most consistent catches are made by veteran anglers who specifically target them. Remember that low-tide scouting under the pier? Those food-rich pilings you found will be sounding the dinner bell for hungry sheepshead as the tide rises. They'll consider most crab, shrimp or clam offerings, but working a fiddler crab right off the bottom and up against the piling will tilt the odds in your favor.
If you wait for good boating weather to go fishing this spring, you'll miss out on a lot of great action. Hit the boards at your favorite pier and you'll be right on top of it.