Fishing piers in salt and freshwater present unique opportunities for anglers who know how to fish them
Public fishing piers are popular and productive in many coastal areas. Image by Arne Beruldsen
Pier anglers make up the smallest contingent of fishermen in North America. Far more anglers pursue their quarry from boats, from the bank, or by wading. Yet pier fishing continues to have a die-hard following for good reason: few other forms of fishing offer such a profound experience.
If you’ve never experienced it, you’re in for quite a surprise. Imagine…
Idle chit-chat breaks the monotony as anglers on the pier keep their hopes up. Not much has come over the rail lately, and you think of packing it in.
Suddenly, an angler down the way sets into a fish, followed by your buddy just a few feet away. You anticipate the action and are rewarded, as a hungry school chomps down the line.
Suddenly, it seems everyone is hooked up. Nets are dropping and fish are flopping all over the deck. The pier veterans, used to these wild waylays, get back in as fast as possible, making hay when the sun shines. You realize how much you live for these moments.
Sound fun? I’ve experienced these thrills in both freshwater and salt. Let’s dig in to the details.
Choosing the right pier is a big part of successful pier fishing. Image by Millennium Promotions
PICK A PIER
When fishing from a pier, one fact is overwhelmingly obvious: you’re only as good as your surroundings. Some piers extend far out into the ocean or Great Lakes, offering otherwise shore-bound anglers a chance to fish deep, productive waters. Other piers, unfortunately, aren’t so hot.
Always try to pick a productive pier. You’ll know you’re in the right spot because the pier will be busy. Piers attract regulars much like a neighborhood watering hole, and you can learn a lot with a few basic questions of these frequent fishers.
Discuss what you can expect, the primary species that the pier produces, as well as best times or tides. Learn the hot baits or lures, and you’re well on your way to success.
Most people think of saltwater when they think of pier fishing, but Great Lakes piers can offer chances at trophy walleyes. Image by Millennium Promotions
THE ULTIMATE PLUS
It’s important to understand one key concept in regards to pier fishing: unlike any other angling pursuit, fishing from a pier allows an angler to be in the school. As fish proceed with their daily routine, they often utilize piers as key feeding areas. Unlike when fishing from a boat, on a pier, there’s no telltale presence of anglers to alert the fish that the jig is up. Nope, anglers on the pier fit right in, the fish below oblivious to human predators.
For that reason, pier fanatics often experience fantastic action when conditions are right. Let’s look at a few of these key scenarios at a diverse group of fishing piers, so you can be informed before you go.
Cast up-current and catch that big snapper when your free-lined shrimp washes back under the pier past the pilings. Image by Millennium Promotions
NEARSHORE SALTWATER PIERS
Small piers all across the Atlantic and Gulf coasts offer the chance for instant action. Often, these are built around or beneath bridges, offering a quick trip to passers-by. Waters are fairly shallow, but a tidal presence offers steady fishing. Flounder, mangrove snapper, redfish, and pompano offer most of the action for keeper fish. Without question, the top bait is shrimp.
There are two ways to fish these short, shallow spots. One utilizes the pier itself for the draw. Casting up-current, allow a free-lined shrimp to wash back beneath you, under the pier, where snapper hold behind the pilings. Add a bit of weight to allow your bait to reach bottom, and you’ve got a great shot at a flounder. Once a productive piling is found, a bunch of fish can often come from the same spot.
Casting out and around the pier yields pompano. These tasty migrators school en masse, and are also susceptible to shrimp, sand fleas, small crabs, and artificial baits like Fish Bites. Tactics should be similar to surf fishing — a sinker below a dropper rig — but leave the big rods and weights at home. All that’s necessary is enough weight to hold bottom.
You may run into a redfish anywhere along or around the pier, especially if your bait offering includes a blue crab knuckle. Same for a big flounder on a finger-mullet; the flatties just can’t resist.
Great Lakes piers are frequently at their best during the late fall. Image by Millennium Promotions
GREAT LAKES PIERS
Walleyes from a pier? You bet, especially in the late fall. All along the Great Lakes, pier anglers cash in on the autumn bounty, taking some of the biggest walleyes of the year. The southern shore of Lake Erie is ground zero for this tactic, as die-hards take to “the wall” from Toledo, Ohio, to Buffalo, New York, with schools of 10-pound fish dancing in their heads.
This is not a game for the meek, as the best fishing occurs at night in temperatures often dipping below freezing. The best fishing, it seems, often comes during the coldest conditions.
The science behind this unique bite is relatively simply. Gizzard shad, shiners, and alewives all migrate shallower as temperatures plummet. Often, they take up residency along seawalls and piers. At times, baitfish schools can be miles long, easily seen from airplanes. The lake’s giant walleyes, always the predator, are right there in the mix.
Pier fishing for nighttime walleye is dependent on the bait: when it’s there, things happen. When it’s not, all an angler can do is wait. The best conditions are usually relatively calm nights with a bright moon. At times, the eyes of the giant walleyes below the pier can be seen glowing in the dark.
Productive lures are hardbaits. Lipless crankbaits, like over-sized Rat-L-Traps, catch their share of Erie ‘eyes early in the fall. Once water temperatures dip into the 40s, long minnow plugs reign supreme. It’s important to retrieve lures painstakingly slow in cold water, so the baits barely wobble beneath the surface. In choppy conditions, try a sinking minnow plug like a Countdown Rapala. Wakebaits, often used by bass fishermen, have been productive in recent years, perfectly imitating a winter-kill shad.
Salmon runs revolve around the spawn; spring and fall. There is a plethora of ways to catch big kings, from casting chrome spoons to live bait fishing with bottom rigs. Savvy anglers cast-net large alewives and deploy them for monsters. Tactics using long rods and spawn, much like river fishing, also produce in the coldest conditions.
Like other pier fishing opportunities, this fishing is best done after a recon mission to watch the locals. Keep updated of the run with area bait shops. When it’s on, fishing can be fantastic, even in the snow. Smoked salmon is the ultimate reward.
Pier fishing is always a great family experience. Image by Will Brantley
OFFSHORE SALTWATER PIERS
Some of the most famous fishing destinations in the South are gigantic piers offering shoreline anglers a shot at the fish of a lifetime. Keepers Pier at Port Aransas, Texas, boasts a 14-foot shark as its best catch. The Skyway Pier in Tampa spans the entirety of Tampa Bay, and regularly includes cobia and grouper on the fish boards. All throughout the Florida Keys, the old Overseas Highway holds thousands of anglers, fishing for an equal shot at a snook or tarpon. Gulf Shores, Alabama. Hatteras, North Carolina. Jupiter Florida; dozens of southern coastal communities offer world-famous fishing piers.
The most important part of fishing these piers is carrying a variety of gear. When tides slacken and an opportunity present itself, dip around the pilings using a heavy jig and cut bait for grouper or snapper. If the king mackerel make it in, be sure to have a long surf-style rod with a wire line and live bait ready. Into sharks? There’s sure to be plenty around, so don’t come under-gunned. Often, a cobia follows in a big shark.
Be sure to take a long-handled net, or a hoop-style pier net on a rope. Some sort of beach cart is mandatory for the long walk, as is a good-sized cooler and ice. Many of the famous piers offer a tackle shop on the premises with updated, daily reports. Search for them online to keep up with the bite.
The fishing’s not over, folks. Hit the piers for late fall and winter action. There’s a good chance you’ll come home with dinner, and a story to boot. When the schools swarm the pilings, there’s nothing like pier fishing for heart-stopping action.