A few years back, a friend and I pulled up to the Port Manatee artificial reef in search of a few mangrove snappers for dinner. We sunk live shrimp to bottom on the bridge rubble below and promptly started hauling up foot-long snapper. We had a half-dozen before the game suddenly changed; I had yet another snapper about halfway to the top when suddenly my rod doubled over and my drag began screaming — the snapper had suddenly grown. Seconds later, the same thing happened to the little mangrove my buddy was hauling in.
Twenty minutes later, I hauled a redfish approaching 40 inches long to the side of the boat. The hook had pulled out of the unfortunate snapper and stuck in the giant drum's throat. My buddy's fish proved only slightly smaller, and as he was fighting it, a whole school of the big reds boiled to the top chasing bait, turning the water red with their gleaming rose-colored backs. We shot a few photos and released the oversized giants, hoping for a shot at the surfacing fish but they quickly went racing out of range and we went back to our quieter pursuit of the snappers.
Fishing the near-shore artificial reefs of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties is like that. You never know what's going to grab your bait, but you can be pretty sure of action. These structures simply are fish magnets, and yet most of them get surprisingly little fishing pressure.
The reefs are funded by county and state grants, and a recent study by the University of Florida suggests that they are a very good investment of public money.
Six southwest counties, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota Charlotte and Lee, spend an average of less than $50,000 a year on artificial reefs, but pull in some $253 million in revenues for local businesses related to boating, diving and fishing, as well as fuel and travel accommodations.
Statewide, some 2,500 artificial reefs have been put in place since the program began in 1982.
There are 11 reefs inside Tampa Bay. Reefs at Ballast Point and Picnic Island are within reach of anglers on the piers, and all others are accessible to small boats.
In addition to mangrove snapper, the deeper reefs produce occasional keeper gags and lots of sheepshead, and flounder hang around the sand at the edge of the rubble. Snook and tarpon also like the reefs, as do cobia, and Spanish mackerel cruise above the structure chasing baitfish.
Most are built of discarded concrete, but the one at Port Tampa consists of four steel barges.
One dependable way to fish most of the reefs is to anchor uptide and put over a bag of chopped baitfish, available frozen at many coastal bait shops. The scent lures the fish out of the cover into range of your bait and makes it possible to land them before they can get back to the rubble and cut you off.
Live shrimp is good for many reef species, but for grouper, tarpon and cobia, a lively pinfish, threadfin or sardine is a better bet. There's often an opportunity to lure up fish with a noisy topwater on calm mornings — big lures like the MirrOlure Top Dog do the job. Jigs and swimbaits can be effective later in the day, though snagging can be a frequent issue. Most fish on the reefs inside the bay are not giants, but there are enough bigger fish around to warrant at least 30-pound gear.
Pinellas County also has several dozen reefs located off the beaches from 1 to 5 miles out, and these hold everything the Gulf has to offer, including kings, Spanish, gags, bonito, cobia, sharks and in summer barracuda and occasional yellowtails.