Pier & Shore Fishing Outlook 3/22/23

Pier & Shore Fishing Outlook
By David “The Pierpounder” Thornton

So typical of March as a transitional month, the weather continues to defy seasonal norms. Nature’s pendulum swings both ways, and we are now experiencing a bit of below average temperatures. Many days begin in the 40s instead of the 50s we usually see. Also, recent afternoon high temps often do not reach the seasonal norms of the low 70s. As a result, the water temperatures in the shallow back bays and surfzone have actually fallen back into the upper 60s. Fortunately that is still a little above average for late March. Consequently we have still been seeing good results from sheepshead herders cashing in on the spawn. These fish will remain hungry as most of them wrap up their amorous activity around the next full moon on April 6th.
This fortnight coincides with our lunar based tide cycle, so it begins (March 22) and ends (April 4 – 5) with NEAP tides. That means the difference between low and high tide will be less near those days, and tidal flow near the passes will not be as strong as during the week in between. That is when high tide will occur in the afternoon/evening hours.
Reports of spanish mackerel have been spotty the past couple of weeks. But that run should get cranked up as we get into true meteorological spring. Mackerel are warm water pelagic fish that winter over in the waters off southwest Florida. Notably, that region that has been wracked repeatedly by red tide outbreaks this winter. Not that it necessarily kills migrating fish outright, but it may well have interrupted their food supply as they travel through that region on their way here. Spanish mackerel have been reported to our east all along the Florida Panhandle, so more should trickle over our way through the coming weeks.
Pompano migrations are another species that may be affected by Florida red tides. More and more of these tasty jacks usually filter into our area through April, just off the beaches. A favorite target species for local and vacationing anglers alike, pompano fishing constitutes the backbone of the surf fishing industry along the coast. There is a subculture of locally based anglers who target pompano year round, but April is the best month to find them here. That is when pompano are gathering into large pre-spawn schools in the surf zone, just off our beaches. Look for sand bar drop offs creating a feeding station for hungry pompano within casting distance from shore. Breaking waves dislodge the invertebrate species pompano feed upon, and sweep these potential food items over the shoreward edge of the bar into the deeper trough. That is the precise spot you want to place your bait. It can be double dropper “pompano rigs” with fresh shrimp and Fishbites or Fishgum, or even fresh sandfleas or ghost shrimp. If you use ghost shrimp, wrap them with light bait keeper thread like Magic Thread (available at the local Bait & Tackle shops. Those are your best locations to get get the items like rigs, bait, other tackle and advice. Whiting which are Gulf or Northern kingfish are the most frequent by-catch for pompano fishermen. But sometimes, like at night or when the water is roiled and dingy all they may catch is catfish of the hardhead or gafftopsail varieties. These can pull hard, and are edible, but not nearly as desirable for anglers used to dining on delectable pompano. Redfish, black drum and bluefish are other frequent bycatch species, along with the ever present rays.
This time of year, I like to have a 7 to 8 foot rod with a jig or spoon tied on, ready, in my cart to cast for bluefish or mackerel or even “bonita”. Often these fast-moving fish may show themselves near the beach but they do not stick around long. So timing is critical to grab the rod and get the lure to them before they disappear. Similarly, if you fish the Gulf State Park Pier, notice how many regular anglers have multiple rods on their carts rigged different ways despite the fish only one rod at a time rule. This is so they can quickly change target species simply by putting one rod down and grabbing another that is pre-rigged. Also many pier fishers carry a bait bucket with a bubbler and a landing net on a rope. Most are more that happy to lend it out or land a fish for you when needed. Simply ask for help if you need it, even for rigging advice or other tips. Overall, it is a very friendly fishing venue where folks are glad to help the less experienced fisherfolks.
This time of year, most pier fishers will concentrate on sheepshead. They usually fish vertically or near vertically along the pier, often dangling a live shrimp or fiddler crab next to the piling. This keeps anglers at regularly spaced intervals, though sometimes two anglers may fish either side of the same piling. Anglers targeting spanish mackerel will usually be casting from the outermost accessible part of the pier just south of the middle platform. Nicknamed “the nub”, it extends southward just a little more than 100 feet from the platform. Soon schools of large jack crevalle will start showing up off the east side of the pier, and perhaps even a solitary cobia or two. These large fish (15 to 50 pounds) are usually targeted with three ounce jigs on heavy rods. So be aware what is going on around you when you hear a commotion or the call “COMING DOWN”, as someone needs room to follow a big fish down the rail. Either crouch down to let them pass over you, or step back to let them pass under your rod and line so they can keep up with their big fish. Nobody wants to be the reason an angler looses a trophy sized fish, and it only takes a little cooperation to prevent that along with any subsequent disagreement.
Spring Break is a time when folks head to the beach for some sun and fun. There is plenty of room for everyone either on the pier or beaches. Especially in undeveloped areas away from the public access points. There are plenty of fishing options for shorebound anglers to explore.