Thomas E. Williams II
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Emerald Coast Living

Prime Time for Panhandle Pier Fishing

Posted on - By Frank Sargeant Special to The News Herald

In some areas, a fishing trip to a pier is a guaranteed long walk to nowhere. That’s not the case with the piers along the Panhandle beaches, which jut far enough into the Gulf of Mexico not only to reach passing fish, but to become artificial reef fish attractors in their own right. And there are lots of piers to choose from.

Starting with the pier at St. Andrews State Park at St. Andrews Inlet on the east and continuing almost all the way to the state line with Alabama, there are seven piers along the Panhandle beaches. And throughout the warmer months, there’s nearly always something biting at these structures.

Many are noted for attracting cobia in the late March through May season, and Spanish mackerel and kings are a daily catch in May, June and July. Bull reds and tarpon are frequent visitors from June through September. Even offshore pelagics show up on occasion — sailfish, mahi-mahi (dolphin) and blackfin tuna have all been caught from the longer piers in summer. And as the water cools, flounder, bluefish and sheepshead become more common catches.

What’s more, access is very affordable, with some free, the most expensive $7.50 for a full day of fishing, $3 for juveniles, seniors and active military. You don’t even need your own tackle — most of the commercial piers have bait shops at their entry which also rent rods and reels as well as pier carts to make it easier to tote ice chests and other necessities. If you’d like to simply walk out and see what’s biting, maybe snap a few photos, it’s also $3.

Most of the piers attract large schools of bait on a regular basis from late March through October, and the bait in turn attracts the gamefish. When the bait is there, it’s easy to see, forming a black mass over the pale green bottom and often “sprinkling” at the surface as the baitfish come up to feed. There are usually plenty of gulls, terns and pelicans hovering overhead when the bait is thick, a tipoff for anglers watching from shore to decide if a given pier is “on” or not.

Particularly when offshore wind and current conspire to push “blue” water in close to the piers, the bite of offshore species like sails, mahi and tuna can swing dramatically upward. Clear green water and abundant bait means Spanish, kings, tarpon and cobia. About the only condition that does not lead to good fishing is very heavy surf that causes the water to become murky nearly all the way out to the end of the span–this is a rare situation, however.

While every pier is not good every day, driving from one to another to check the action does not take long, and most of the time there’s a hot bite at one of the spans or another.

Gearing Up for the Piers

Because of the length of the piers and the need for quite a bit of gear, most pier regulars tote their rods, bait, ice chest, food and other gear on pier carts, light-weight wheeled devices that allow hauling everything imaginable, including a load of fish, out and back on the long walkway.

Most anglers use heavy spinning gear for the action; a 7- to 8-foot medium-heavy rod and a size 4000 reel or larger, loaded with 40-pound-test braid or heavier, does the job for most species. The heavy gear is needed more for hoisting the fish up to the span than whipping them, though occasionally a king over 20 pounds or a giant redfish may make the angler wish for even stouter weaponry. (Pretty much any fish over 5 pounds requires a pier net or pier gaff equipped with a separate heavy cord to be brought up over the rail.)

Drawing the Bites

This is mostly natural bait country because throwing lures where there are lots of anglers is a sure way to cause tangles. Frozen cigar minnows, available at the pier bait shops, are a favorite — the baits are hooked on 5/0 extra stout hooks, or sometimes with a second hook buried in the tail on a stinger, connected to the eye of the main hook with a short length of number 6 wire. Most also use a foot or so of number six from the main hook to the running line, connecting both with a small swivel. This prevents cutoffs from toothy species including blues, Spanish and kings.

The baits are cast unweighted into the thick of the schooling baitfish and allowed to drift with the current. The gamefish pick them off as they slowly flutter towards bottom. The Spanish typically weigh 3 to 5 pounds, while school kings are slightly bigger, 5 to 8 pounds, though an occasional smoker of 20 pounds and more may crash the act.

For cobia, tarpon and the occasional sailfish that might pass within range, a small live baitfish is a better offering — finger mullet, blue runners or whatever can be captured from the span on a multi-hook sabiki rig is likely to work, nose-hooked and fished unweighted.

Landing a Catch from the Piers

The smaller fish can be hoisted hand-over-hand (you may want to wear gloves to avoid braid cuts), but fish over 5 pounds are usually landed via a bridge gaff, basically a very large four-hook device that’s lowered on a separate rope to stick them — there’s nearly always someone on the pier with one of these willing to help land larger fish.

Fish that are obviously not legal to harvest, like oversized reds and all tarpon — illegal unless you have the $50 tag in possession — should not be bridge gaffed, of course, because the resulting wound is nearly always fatal. Know and follow the FWC regulations for saltwater fishing — if you break them, it’s highly likely that someone on the pier will make a call that will cost you money. FWC occasionally sends enforcement officers out on the piers to check catches, as well — you can check the rules on your phone at

Fish that are not legal but too big to hoist can be broken off by gripping the line with gloved hands and making a sharp, snapping upward pull. This breaks the leader at the hook, giving the fish a good chance for survival as the hook corrodes away. Cutting the line and leaving a long section trailing is not an option — the line becomes an environmental hazard to birds, turtles and other marine life. You’ll also want a long-handled hook remover — the squeeze grip type made by Bass Pro Shops, Rapala and some other companies is easier to use than pliers.