April 26, 2018
Dotted along the second longest coastline in the U.S., Florida pier fishing opportunities are countless areas where boatless anglers can catch big saltwater fish species.
With a tidal shoreline stretching nearly 2,300 miles, second only to Alaska for the longest coastline in the United States, and more than 660 miles of beaches, Florida offers anglers unlimited places to fish in the only state that touches both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. At about 770 miles, the Florida Gulf Coast exceeds the length of its 580-mile Atlantic Coast.
From Pensacola to the Everglades on the gulf side and almost the entire Atlantic Coast, Florida anglers without boats can fish numerous public beaches and piers.
PANAMA CITY BEACH PIERS
At Panama City Beach, anglers can fish two identical concrete piers built to withstand hurricanes. Constructed in 2009 to replace an earlier pier destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the Russell Fields City Pier, often called the City Pier, sits at 16101 Front Beach Road across the street from Aaron Bessant Park.
About five miles farther southeast along the beach, the M. B. Miller County Pier sits at 12213 Front Beach Road. Often called the County Pier, the Miller Pier was built in 2010 to replace a much earlier and smaller pier destroyed by Hurricane Dennis in 2005.
Both piers extend about 1,500 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. Water at the end of the City Pier drops to about 25-feet deep, slightly deeper than the County Pier.
Throughout the year, but mainly from March through October, the pier legs attract large baitfish schools. Where baitfish gather, predators hunt. On rare occasions when prevailing winds or currents push salty blue water closer to shore, pier anglers might even catch sailfish or blackfin tuna off the deep ends.
"A variety of fish come by the piers throughout the summer," claimed Austin Plummer with Half-Hitch Tackle. "I've actually gaffed an 81-pound cobia. I've even caught mahi and sailfish off the piers. It's very uncommon to get those off the piers, but it does happen."
At the pier ends, anglers usually catch the biggest fish. Cobia migrate along the Panhandle coast from late March through May. As water warms, Spanish mackerel move close to the coast. Many anglers tempt these predators with shiny spoons or jigs. Also in the warmer months, people catch king mackerel.
"The king mackerel run usually starts about late March and continues through the fall," Plummer explained. "It can run as late as December if the weather stays warm. In the summer, we get mostly 6- to 10-pound kings and 12- to 18-inch Spanish, but we get a run of bigger mackerel in the spring and fall. For kings, we fish with a single treble hook on a wire leader and tip the hook with a cigar minnow or hardtail. People can also use larger lipped plugs for the kings."
Later in the summer, the silver giants move through the area, giving boatless anglers an opportunity to catch some enormous fish without going offshore. Probably the biggest non-shark anyone might catch on the piers, some tarpon exceed 100 pounds. Following baitfish, they often move through the area in large schools.
Closer toward the beach, anglers might catch speckled trout or other any inshore fish common to northern Florida. From June through September, bull reds terrorize baitfish schools. In the fall, people catch sheepshead, bluefish and flounder.
"In the summer, people catch a lot of big redfish," Plummer said. "They are fun to catch even if they are over the slot size. People occasionally catch pompano near the beach. Many people also wade in the water off the beach and catch a lot of whiting. I've even seen permit come down the beach, but it's very rare."
Anglers can fish either pier seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Both piers charge a daily fee, but anglers can also buy annual passes that allow people to fish either pier anytime they wish. Anglers can buy passes, tackle and some other necessities at small Half-Hitch Tackle satellite locations at each pier. Visiting anglers can also rent rods, reels, tackle and bait.
A bit farther down the beach to the southeast, anglers can fish two smaller piers at St. Andrews State Park, near where St. Andrews Bay feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. One juts into the gulf and the other into Grand Lagoon. Off either pier, anglers might catch speckled trout, redfish or any other inshore fish.
One of the most popular fishing destinations along the Atlantic Coast, Sebastian Inlet sits about halfway between Melbourne and Vero Beach. The actual inlet connects the Indian River Lagoon to the Atlantic Ocean, but separates Brevard County from Indian River County. It also divides the Space Coast (Brevard side) and the Treasure Coast (Indian River side.)
The Indian River runs about 121 miles through eastern Florida before flowing through the Indian River Lagoon. The Banana River flows into the Indian River. Several other rivers flow into the system, including the St. Sebastian River.
The Indian River Lagoon, actually a compilation of Mosquito Lagoon, the Banana River and the Indian River, stretches about 156 miles from north to south and varies in width from about a half-mile to five miles. One of the most ecologically diverse systems in North America, the lagoon gained a reputation for its excellent speckled trout and redfish fishery. Anglers also catch snook, flounder, black drum and many other species.
At the mouth of this fishery, Sebastian Inlet State Park straddles the manmade cut through the barrier island to the ocean, which created two islands. The park spreads across 755 acres on islands separating the Atlantic Ocean from the lagoon.
Hot Saltwater Action
Boatless anglers can fish nearby beaches, two rock jetties jutting out into the ocean, beneath a causeway bridge and piers. The pier at the north jetty extends about 500 feet into the Atlantic. At the southern jetty, people can fish from a catwalk. The inlet runs about 14 to 20 feet deep and usually carries a strong tidal flow and abundant baitfish. Anglers can also fish various places on the shoreline in the park or wade into the lagoon.
"Sebastian is one of the best destinations for fishing from shore on the East Coast of Florida," said Terry O'Toole, park services specialist at Sebastian Inlet State Park. "We have a T-dock that sticks out into the inlet and two fishing piers that extend out into the Atlantic. Many people like to fish off the North Pier. Both are open to the public 24 hours a day."
In the spring, Spanish mackerel and bluefish move into the area. Tarpon also come close to shore at times. In summer, anglers might also catch mangrove snapper or even hook up with a goliath grouper. Anglers might also catch black drum, sheepshead or big sharks.
"We get a lot of large sharks in this area," O'Toole warned. "In the park, people can access the Indian River Lagoon and fish for trout. Trout are present in the lagoon all year long. During the winter, people fish the deeper holes for trout. The lagoon can produce some monster gator trout. There's no better bait for big trout than a pigfish."
In the summer, though, most people pursue snook. Ambush predators, snook love to get in structure and wait for something tempting to pass close. People can catch them near the rocks with live bait or artificials.
"June is the peak month for snook," O'Toole said. "When the snook are running, there are a lot of people here fishing, especially at night. Many people also come here at night to catch shrimp and blue crabs. In May, people can still catch some summer flounder. People can also catch some whiting and pompano. People also catch redfish, lookdown, Spanish mackerel, croaker, barracuda, sand perch and black margate."
Redfish schools also gather near the jetties and pier pilings from August through November with the peak in September and October. Some top 30 pounds. Tempt them with cracked crabs or finger mullets.
During winter, warm-water loving snook become more lethargic. However, the flounder action heats up as the temperatures drop. For flounder, tip a jig with a shrimp piece and bounce it off the bottom. Flounder also hit live minnows, live shrimp and various soft-plastic baits.
If they wish, anglers can rent boats, canoes or kayaks to go up the Sebastian River. About two miles upriver, anglers might start catching largemouth bass, bluegills and other freshwater fish. Some people also fish the mosquito control ditches inside the park.
Some people camp at the park. However, visitors can find lodging, food and other accommodations in the nearby cities of Vero Beach, Sebastian, Melbourne and several smaller towns.
SKYWAY FISHING PIER
Across the peninsula, anglers might find good action at the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park over Tampa Bay. The new Sunshine Skyway Bridge connecting St. Petersburg to Sarasota opened in 1987 to carry I-275. After the new bridge opened, parts of the old bridge became lighted fishing piers.
The original Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened in 1954. A parallel structure turning it into a four-lane bridge opened in 1969, giving fish plenty of time to find the cover created by the pilings. Some debris from the demolished center section of the old bridge became nearby fish-attracting artificial reefs.
The southern pier extends about a mile and a half over the mouth of Tampa Bay. The northern pier stretches about three-quarters of a mile. Fortunately, people can drive their vehicles out onto the long piers.
The pompano run usually begins in early April. Then, the mangrove snapper move in, followed by cobia. In late spring, anglers catch king mackerel around the piers. From the summer through autumn, look for Spanish mackerel. Anglers might also catch snook during the warmer months, as well as tarpon, black sea bass, sheepshead and more. The waters near the bridge even produced some tiger sharks exceeding 1,200 pounds.
Both piers remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Anglers can buy fishing supplies, snacks, drinks and other items on either the north or south piers. Visitors can also rent fishing equipment at the bait shop.
Gold, Silver, Jewels and Fishing!
While near Sebastian, check out the McLarty Treasure Museum and learn why people call this area the Treasure Coast.
In July 1715, 11 ships laden with gold, silver and precious jewels set sail from Cuba for Spain. Seven days later, one of the richest Spanish treasure fleets in history, encountered a hurricane off the Florida coast. All 11 treasure ships sunk near Vero Beach, killing about 1,000 sailors.
Today, visitors to the McLarty Treasure Museum can see some artifacts from that fleet pulled off the bottom of the Atlantic and exhibits telling the tragedy story of that doomed fleet.
People can also climb into the observation tower to see where it all happened 300 years ago, knowing that much of the fabled treasure remains out there somewhere in the depths.
Anglers might also explore the Sebastian Fishing Museum, a collection devoted to the rich history of the Sebastian fishing industry and the Indian River Lagoon. Both museums open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. except on major holidays.