Pier & Shore Fishing Outlook
By David “The Pierpounder” Thornton
Since the recent wet spell, our weather should again return to a drier, milder phase more typical of the La Nina season that has been predicted. Gulf water temperatures are running just a degree or so above normal (upper 60s) as we move into climatological winter during this fortnight. That means sheepshead should be gradually making their way out of the estuaries toward the Gulf. So we can expect to see more activity with them around Perdido Pass and the Gulf State park pier as this occurs.
Fiddler crabs are a great bait for sheepshead whenever they are staging on the pier pilings, seawall or rock jetties. But two to three inch long live shrimp on small single hooks (# 6 or #8) with a light tackle presentation can be quite effective on these striped “convict fish” at times when they may suspend between pilings or near other hard barnacle encrusted structures. Beach ghost shrimp or hermit crabs may work even better whenever the sheepshead are holding away from these structures along the bottom. Sheepshead have good eyesight, and can be quite finicky in clear water.
Fortunately, they can be caught in a variety of conditions and locations which may change from day to day. Even Little Lagoon Pass may produce some at times, and now parking there is free (until March 1st). Despite the active hurricane season, that pass has remained fairly deep which may aid anglers fishing there. But Perdido Pass is the epicenter for large numbers of sheepshead seeking egress into the Gulf of Mexico.
Bluefish and redfish are common around the pass and jetties too, especially since the parking lot lights have been turned on again. Spoons and lead head jigs can be quite effective for these fish. Plus using artificials gives you more opportunities to find scattered fish this time of year. Of course they rarely refuse a live bait, but getting cut-off repeatedly by “snapper blues” is no fun. IF this happens, try a long shank hook (Aberdeen), or a short piece of heavy (30# or 40#) monofilament leader material. Redfish lack sharp teeth to cut line, but they are strong fighters that like to use nearby structure to their advantage. Therefore, most jetty fishers tend to ‘over tackle’ with medium heavy rods and 20# or 30# braided main line. Beach fishers targeting “bull” redfish from Mobile Point at Fort Morgan may go a similar route when throwing large plugs, jigs or spoons. But in general, surf casters can go as light as the conditions allow simply because there are usually no obstructions for large fish to break their line.
However, pompano and whiting (Gulf and Northern kingfish) will be the mainstay for beach anglers trying their luck in the surf zone. These make up the majority of surf angler effort through the winter along with occasional croaker, “ground mullet” (Southern kingfish) and other panfish. Fresh dead shrimp (often used with a piece of Fishbites or Fishgum) is the standard bait for surf fishers in search of “whatever will bite.” Often that may not be the targeted species, and their bait may be intercepted by an assortment of catfish, rays, puffers, small croakers or the like. But just as likely a large red or black drum might eat their tiny offering. That resulting battle can be epic when hooked on light spinning tackle (6 to 12 pound line). Still, the patient angler often wins the battle to the delight of onlookers drawn by the spectacle of a well bowed fishing rod. A memorable catch for sure! As are the occasional permit caught by anglers trying their luck for pompano. They tend to run together this time of year, and juvenile pompano often mix with undersized pompano. Though occasionally, some are landed in the one to two pound range. Though permit are not regulated in Alabama, most anglers recognize they are great gamefish with enormous growth potential, so they release them to grow and breed.
Matching your tackle to the conditions “du jour” will not only make your outing more enjoyable, but fruitful as well. Pay attention to the weather and water conditions, and log them if you are new at this. The insight of how the nuances of wind (speed and direction), wave (height, direction and duration), sky clarity, sun angle (time of day), and tidal variations (timing, strength, and duration) are vital clues for anglers trying to determine where and when to fish. Checking forecasts is a great way to plan what to expect for upcoming fishing days. And knowing the workings of tide tables helps anglers understand the inherent mechanism that spurs fish to feed, even as their environment is telling them to slow down.
Placing your baited rig in the vicinity of hungry fish (wherever they are) is a key component to catching them, especially in winter when they are less active. Another key to success is to use ghost shrimp on light tackle to target more pompano and whiting whenever they may be close to shore. Afternoon incoming tides should aid anglers in their close in quests with lighter tackle. But heavier tackle and longer rods will still be needed when the fish are farther from shore or on windy, rough surf days. Many savvy pompano fishermen will not even bother with natural baits when casting heavier leads and rigs. Instead, they often rely solely on the synthetic bait strips which endure the abuse of long casts better and stay on the hook longer. Again, the larger drum species may bite these offerings as well as the natural ones.
Fishing remains good from the Gulf State Park Pier, though “catching” has left a lot to be desired lately. But there have been some recent improvements in the success rates there, and historically speaking the pier is a popular and productive wintertime venue. Anglers should target sheepshead, whiting at the shortened pier, but flounder, bluefish and redfish may be caught there too. There are plenty of venues to check out as the year winds down, and differing options to please any angler. So as my old pier buddy Pug would say: GIT-CHU-SUM-O-DAT!
Pictured: Lee Chase caught this nice sheepshead on a fiddler crab from the Gulf State Park Pier with her son Stephen Franklin of Bama Saltwater, who took the picture. Jordan Gooding (G2 Coastal) took his 4-year-old daughter (Lucy) for her first beach fishing trip. It was a successful day to say the least.
Pier & Shore Fishing Outlook