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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014
Outdoors

Big fish to be had at the big bridge


Published:   |   Updated: May 18, 2013 at 10:31 PM

It's Tampa Bay's version of Boca Grande Pass. It's probably the No.?2 spot in all U.S. waters for catching a tarpon from now through June, as thousands of the giant silver kings pass in and out with the tides and gather to feed on the tons of bait sucked between the pilings each day.

Collect your bait — live threads or scaled sardines — with a Sabiki rig or a heavily weighted cast net around any of the nearby markers, or by simply casting into roaming schools.

The second step is to anchor uptide of the bridge. While the outgoing evening tide that comes around the new and full moons each month is prime time, as it is at nearby Egmont Pass, any good current flow will produce bites. The morning and evening periods make the fish more active, however.

You'll need a serious anchor and plenty of line to make your boat stick. The current flow here demands a real hook and plenty of scope. The water is 20 to 25 feet deep around the bridge in most areas, except in the dredged channel. You'll probably have to go a minimum of 300 feet uptide, drop the hook and then back down as you let out line until you're within 50 to 100 feet of the bridge. Where to set up along the bridge changes from day to day. Some experts, such as Larry Mastry of St. Petersburg, who has won many a tarpon tournament at the span, have favorite pilings and hit that same spot day after day until the tide reverses during their allotted fishing time.

The one spot you don't set up in, obviously, is the shipping channel. The channel is busy, and every time a freighter comes through, you will be directly in their line of travel — stay well clear of this zone.

The standard tactic is simply to slowly cruise the uptide side of the bridge and look for rolling or breaking fish. Where you see one, there are likely to be a lot more. Get positioned on the anchor and drift your “horse” threadfin, shad or sardine back near the pilings.

Most anglers use 60- to 80-pound microfiber on heavy spinning tackle these days, though some still rely on revolving-spool rigs. The no-stretch fiber line makes handling the giant fish much easier around the bridge pilings. Broomstick rods of 7 to 9 feet are the rule, and most use 4 to 6 feet of 80- to 100-pound-test hard monofilament or fluorocarbon leaders. Circle hooks or octopus-style in 5/0 to 6/0, extra strong, are typical. Mastry, who owns the revered Mastry's Bait and Tackle in St. Pete, puts a glo-bead over the barb after he hooks his bait. The bead, he says, keeps the bait in place and prevents the hook from going into the side of the bait and killing it.

The baits are nose-hooked. Some anglers add a bit of weight above the leader when tides are exceptionally strong — to 1/4- to 3/4-ounce depending on tide flow. Put the bait 100 feet behind the boat and wait. Most pros use at least three rods, typically with one a “fly line” on top and two down a few feet.

When the bite comes, you won't have to set the hook. The rod whips down and the reel begins to howl.

The big issue is keeping the fish away from the pilings. They frequently go through with the tide, so a system allowing you to jettison the anchor line and get away quickly is a must. And have the motor running before you cast off, because you are going to go on a quick ride toward those gunnel-smashing pilings if you're not prepared.

Savvy anglers generally let the fish run any time it's headed away from the bridge and put on a lot of pressure when it heads back toward the pilings.

With this tactic, it's usually possible to encourage the fish to move to open water, where the battle can be won. A 100-pound fish here the average angler on the rod typically takes 20 to 30 minutes to whip thanks to the stout gear.

Occasionally, you get a super fish that just won't give up. Battles of mor than 90 minutes are not unheard of. As always, you want to whip the fish as quickly as possible, get a few photos at boatside, and then send it on its way. A tarpon that gets too tired sometimes winds up as hammerhead or bull shark dinner.

Access to the bridge is easy. Put in at O'Neill's Marina or Maximo Park, on the last exit before the bridge on the north side, Pinellas Point Drive South, and you're just minutes away down a well-marked channel through the flats. O'Neill's has fuel, ice, drinks and basic boat chow.

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