Any angler who finds themself in St. Petersburg, FL, will want to find time to visit the Skyway Fishing Pier, State Park. Of course, you will probably want to catch fish rather than watch others reel them in. So be sure to check out our tips to find a local favorite, the gag grouper (Mycteroperca microlepis). The piers make for a great site seeing adventure as well, and there are copious amounts of wildlife and scenic views.
The piers now accept credit cards in 2020, cash or card, and the fees are as listed: Entry cost: $4.00 per vehicle. There is a separate fee for fishing on the pier; this does not include the $4.00 vehicle fee. Children 5 years old and under are free. Children 6 - 11 years old are $2.00 each. Adults 12 years old and older are $4.00 each.
A little Skyway Pier History
Skyway Fishing Pier State Park's story is one of turning tragedy into a fortune. After the Skyway Bridge was struck by a freighter, rendering it unsafe for continued use, it was shut down and replaced. Eventually, Florida's State turned the old structure into one of America's longest public fishing piers. The destruction of the bridge allowed anglers to fish some of the best Tampa Bay waters 24/7.
Anglers catch several local species, including snook, black sea bass, Spanish mackerel, cobia, sheepshead, and mangrove snapper, but one of the favorites is grouper. BIG grouper. However, successfully targeting these trophies requires some specific equipment, the best bait, and a little secret that we will share with you shortly.
Skyway Bridge Fishing Equipment
If you are going to target, battle, and land Skyway grouper, you need to prepare yourself. The fish hit hard, fight harder, and will break you off in the rocks quicker than you can say "fish on!" What does this mean? You will need to beef up your equipment so that it's up for the task.
- Minimum 80 LB test mainline (Braid)
- 80 – 100 LB leader (Mono)
- 8/0 – 10/0 circle hooks (Size depends on bait size)
- Reel with suitable drag, 24-30+LBs of drag is preferable
** Important Tip – never leave your rod, or even lay it down. When the fish strikes, the rod needs to be in your hands, or it will soon be in the water. If you don't believe me, ask Chris or watch this short video for a good chuckle:
Every successful angler knows that the key to big fish is a good bait. They also know that although there are dozens of bait options, the best baits are both fresh and caught locally. Don't over complicate things; keep it simple with one of their favorite juicy meals. Best baitfish such as pinfish, grunts, yellowtail jack, or fresh mackerel is the ticket.
You can always buy bait from the nearby bait shops; there is even a bait shop on the Skyway, but why not catch your own? Bring along a second lighter rod, tie on a sabiki rig tipped with shrimp pieces, and find pinfish or yellowtail jack. Best of all, if your bait runs low, you can drop your line back over the side and reload your cooler without ever leaving your spot. Baitfish can't get any fresher than that! Don't forget to swap out your bait often, so it is always extremely active.
Grouper Sweet Spot (Rock Pile Secret)
One of the drawbacks of having such a large pier is deciding what spot to claim as your own. Most places on the fishing pier offer the possibility of success, but why not tip the odds in your favor? You want to locate structure as this is where the fish lay. Again, there are multiple options.
- Review local charts and identify drop-offs, shoals, or man-made reefs adjacent to the Skyway.
- Fish the rock piles formed when portions of the bridge collapsed. The rock rubble is located by finding the existing bridge supports that contain the extra cross brace, which starts after the 2nd bathroom. There is no shortage of structure, that is for sure.
- Use technology. Like the one available from DEEPER, fish finding apps allow you to cast a bobber like depth finder, reel it in, and get an incredibly detailed view of the area. Including water depth, temperature, contour, and even where fish are hanging out. Also, Google Earth is FREE and is a precious resource. If you aren't using it by now, you are missing out on great opportunities to locate hidden gems.
I have made several videos on the topic of Skyway grouper fishing; here is the video regarding the rock piles and their correlation with the bridge pilings:
Secret Tip #2
You've got the gear; the bucket is full of bait, and your chair marks your spot, so now it is time to try our secret tip for Skyway grouper.
Freelining is perfect for the Skyway for many reasons. It allows you to cover a lot of areas. Your live bait can run free and as natural as possible, making it more inviting. You can use the tide to reach rock piles and other structures outside your normal casting range.
Of course, if you are going to freeline, it is essential to understand the basics.
- Little or no weight is necessary, relying on bait's weight to cast and the natural movement of your bait to get to where the gamefish are.
- Live baits are essential; cut baits will not provide the action needed and are best for bottom fishing on slower tides or transition tides.
- Heavy current can make it difficult for smaller baitfish to dive deeper into the water column so that they may need a small amount of weight for help.
- Sunlight levels will cause your bait fish to react differently. Head for deeper water when the sun is at its brightest, so keep in mind this will also impact how your live bait behaves.
Hooking Your Baits
When free lining, how you hook your bait is super crucial if you want the desired results. What results may you be asking? Well, you want your bait to swim down to the structure erratically to trigger the big grouper bite. When hooking your bait, we suggest rigging the fish near the anal fin so that it does just that, swim down!
Nose hooking baits do not work when free lining for grouper. The resistance and way the pinfish swims when hooked in the anal fin make it swim downwards. When tossed near the structure, pinfish tend to swim towards it in an attempt to hide from predatory fish.
How Do You Keep Your Bait Off the Surface
Freelining is a skill, and it is one that needs practice. The key when freelining is to let out the line with an open spool SLOWLY. The idea is to allow the baitfish to swim with the tide; if you do not, your bait will wear down and ultimately drown while coming to the surface.
Skyway Free Lining Obstacles
Fifteen years ago, we didn't have as many issues with dolphins or porpoises as we do now. The instinctive but sly mammal has grown smarter over the years. Even teaching their young how to pluck baits off the hook without being hooked. It is very frustrating, and honestly, it's something you have to overcome if you want to be successful on the bridge. There are a few pointers I can give to help alleviate some of your frustrations.
- Free line large threadfins or pilchards. 90% of the time, dolphins will not mess with whitebait.
- Try not to toss a bait out until the dolphins are at least 75 yards or more away from you. They are smart, and if they hear the bait splash, they will quickly return.
- Also, be sure to watch out when you do get a fish. Flipper is like Hoodini and pops up out of thin air, or so it seems. Dolphins have stolen dozens of keeper grouper and snapper from me over the years. Stay vigilant, my friends.
Other obstacles include trying to free line when there is no water flow. You have to get familiar with your tides and moons so you can pick and choose the best windows to snag a couple of keeper grouper. You want water flow, but you don't want to fish hill tides; the transitions and slow downtimes are always valuable times to fish for grouper. There are many variables to consider that decide whether you will be miserably fishing for hours or have success reasonably quickly.
I get asked a million questions about the Skyway, I have no problem with that, but I often address the same questions in the videos I create. Be sure to watch the videos and subscribe, and I am sure you will find them very useful.
Also, we appreciate the comments and interaction. It lets me know that I am helping, and this is why I create the content. The most important tip that I can provide is to make sure you are getting out there and testing the water.
You can't catch fish on the couch or computer; they require skill but, most importantly, perseverance and time. I didn't even dive into the thump life. Maybe I will save that topic for an article down the road, showing you what to do when you get the bite. What do you want to see more content on? Comment in the comment section and let us know; we are open to suggestions and welcome the feedback. Until next time, we will see you on the water!