With last weekend’s cold front, we saw our first taste of winter’s north winds making conditions less than ideal for boating on local waters. While you can almost always find protected areas to fish, it’s getting to those areas that’s the hassle. Let’s face it: Running across choppy waters is no fun in a flats skiff.
For those of us fortunate enough to live on a canal, we sometimes have a whole other problem with post-frontal conditions. North winds can push a lot of water out of the canals, leaving too little to get your boat off the lift and into the water. Even if the chop doesn’t bother you, you can’t launch in mud.
What it comes down to is there are going to be days you might want to fish but taking the boat out is an iffy or impossible proposition. What can you do? Well, you can do what folks who don’t own boats do: Fish from shore.
Now, I know some of you will look down your noses at that idea. “You want ME to fish from SHORE!?” That’s fine. If you think you’re too fancy to go out to the pier with the commoners, go hang out at the country club instead. For the rest of you, land-based fishing will be fun and offers a new angle on the sport.
Land-based fishermen actually tend to be a little more skilled than boat-based anglers. When you’re fishing from a pier or shore, it’s not like you can fire up the engine and go to the next bush or the next flat. When you have only a small area to fish, you’ve got to figure out how to get the fish in those spots to bite. It’s harder to be really good under these conditions, but it will sharpen your skills.
Land-based fishing will also force you to pare down your gear to the essentials. On the boat, you can carry a whole lot of stuff. That’s tough to do on the pier. What do you really need? It’s way easier to carry one or two rods than five or ten. A bag of frozen shrimp weighs a lot less than a bucket of live ones. A few packs of soft plastics and hooks fit in your pockets and you won’t have to carry a tackle box.
Let’s focus on some basic how-to: A longer rod makes it a bit easier to keep fish away from the pilings, so I wouldn’t suggest anything under 7 feet (and longer is better). Dual-drag reels are handy to have, because you can set it down with no fears of a fish pulling it over the side. A bridge net is extremely useful for pulling fish up to you, especially when you hook a bigger one. Avoid bridge gaffs, because a gaffed fish is a dead fish.
Many newbie pier anglers use weights that are too heavy. In most cases, a half-ounce is sufficient. Much of the time, all you really need is a splitshot or two. If you’re in strong current, go heavier if you must, but anything over an ounce is probably just too much.
Sometimes weighted rigs aren’t the way to go. I like to start out with two rods, rigged differently — one with a float, one with a sinker. One will usually get more action than the other. When that’s the case, I switch both rods to the more successful rig (unless things are really good, in which case I just want one rod to focus on).
Where should you fish? You’ll see many people walk out to the end of a pier and cast out as far as possible. Deeper water, bigger fish — right? But a pier is a fish attractor, and many of the fish are right under your feet.
In fact, when targeting fish that like cover (mangrove snapper, sheepshead, snook, black drum, etc.), I prefer to fish the uptide side so my bait gets carried under the pier. Areas that have more pilings or more cover are usually fishier. For fish that like open water — trout, sharks, cobia, mackerel — cast from the downcurrent side and let your bait drift away from the structure.
Look for eddies and ripple changes in current. Those can be subtle signs of dropoffs, oyster bars or deeper spots below the water’s surface, and those little spots can be fish magnets. These tiny areas are often the reason why some guys on the pier seem to catch all the fish. Some are so small that if you’re 5 feet off, you’re getting nothing. Of course, you have to fish the pier more than once or twice to figure these things out.
Another thing that takes time is figuring out how tides affect a particular spot. For example, do the trout bite better on the incoming or outgoing tide at this pier? How about the flounder? Are there even any flounder around? To get this kind of intel, simple observation is best. Watch other people fishing. Note who’s being successful. Pay attention to their methods and specific locations. Don’t try to push anyone out of the way, but when you have a chance, see if their techniques work for you.
For me, land-based fishing always reminds me of my childhood. It’s that love/hate thing: I loved going fishing, but hated not having a boat to get to all those spots people talked about. But now looking back, I realize it wasn’t so bad. I learned a huge amount because I was forced to deal with the constraints of fishing without a boat.
If I’d always been spoiled by having that boat ready to go, I think I would have missed out on a lot. Those of you who graduated from pier fishing to boat fishing will understand. Those of you who’ve always had the advantage of a boat probably don’t get it. My advice to you is that you spend some time casting from the pier, bridge or beach. It will improve in ways you never expected.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor and at 14531 N. Cleveland Ave. in North Fort Myers. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.