How To "Pier Fishing"
When I talk about pier fishing I am not referring to any sort of bridge, as the structure beneath a bridge is quite different than that found beneath a pier. Although many bridges are eventually turned into piers, in which the majority of rubble from the bridge is strategically placed beneath. Florida piers are generally constructed over a sand bottom extending from a beach, and some piers often add structure below to attract fish, but nothing like that of the bridge turned pier. Additionally, bridges connect land masses, and therefore the current is usually condensed and stronger, with a lot more variation to the bottom.
The first thing you'll find out about pier fishing is that the rules change, the fish come in spurts, and there is a defined method and etiquette that must be followed. The best way to learn the ropes is to visit a pier a few times and just watch how things work, talk to the locals, and pick out those anglers with experience. Leave your fishing gear at home. You might be wondering how you will know which angler has experience, well it's actually pretty simple. Pay close attention to their setup, not particularly on the rods and reels that they are using, but rather in the assortment of gear and means of transportation for that gear. You will quickly find these anglers, as it appears that they brought their entire life long storage of gear. They will have effective aerators to keep bait alive, line gaffes and nets ready to be deployed, food and drink coolers, chairs, and as I mentioned, some sort of transportation device that allows them to carry all their gear in one shot. If you watch from a distance you will most likely see them engaged in conversations with many others that frequent the pier.
The worst thing you can do is get out on a pier and not know what you are doing, and this has little to do with whether or not you get a bite, but what you do after you get a bite, or how you control your line while waiting for a bite. It would be wise to learn how to deploy a line gaff or net and use it effectively, fight a fish up and down the rail, and most of all, learn the finer details of etiquette for when your fishing interferes with others. Angling etiquette is especially important when fishing from land based structure, whether from a pier, rock jetty, or bridge, anglers are restricted by the physical size of the place they are fishing.
Rule #1 - Give other anglers plenty of room, at least enough space to allow them to cast comfortably and be able to move around their spot without getting tangled in your gear. Now I understand this may not be possible at all times because many piers get very crowded, but if the space is available keep ample space between you.
Rule #2 - understanding the methods that are being deployed by your fellow anglers and using the same will make your time on the pier peaceful rather than argumentative. If anglers on either side of you are fishing bottom rigs, don't try free lining or floating a bait that is certain to get caught up on their lines. Study the current and wind and see which way other anglers are positioned, and understand that you need to do the same.
Rule #3 - Read the pier rules and understand them. If you are the new kid on the block some of the locals may try to take advantage of you, especially if you have the favorable spot. In example, I have seen new anglers fishing from the end of the pier with short rods fishing nearly vertical. This creates an issue when those anglers packing 10 foot long casting rods show up to fish the end of the pier and there you are not taking advantage of the opportunities. They are long casting to get their baits out in the deeper water where the king fish, cobia, bull reds, and many other traveling fish are found. On many piers this will be clearly posted, in which case you'll need to concede. If it is not posted, it will be at your discretion whether or not to give up your spot. Not conceding may be more trouble than it's worth if you run into a persistent local.
Rule #4- The angler with the fish on has the right of way. Crossed lines and tangles will be dealt with slowly, so just do your best to work with those fishing near you.
The end of the pier usually holds the deepest water, and the further out you cast, the deeper the water becomes. It is here that you will find the bigger fish traveling up and down the coast such as sharks, king fish, cobia, tarpon, amberjack, permit, bull redfish and more. Depending on the bottom structure and the placement of the pier, fishing from the end may allow you to reach the wave breaks and drop offs, which is where a lot of these larger species like to travel. In the middle of the pier you'll find a mixed bag of species such as snapper, flounder, sheepshead, trout, and the speediest of the bunch such as bluefish, ladyfish, Spanish mackerel, and Snook. These middle of the pier fish can also be found closer to shore, along with the addition of Pompano and Whiting, but the preferred area is in the middle of the pier.Keep in mind that some piers may be too shallow near the middle of the pier, so you'll want to ensure you have ample water depths of at least 2 feet.
Beyond just casting out your line and waiting for a bite, reading the water and other signs is a great way to increase your chances. Please see the section on reading the water and apply those methods that are applicable to your situation. Most anglers that fish these piers regularly know the structure below and until you learn that structure you'll need to look for other signs above water that will help you. Watching the birds is a surefire way of finding bait, and where there is bait there is usually fish. Seagulls and pelicans are well-versed in knowing where the bait is located at any given time. Furthermore, they know exactly how the bait is moving around within the current. Paying close attention to these birds and which way they are facing and feeding will give you a pretty good indication of what is going on.
In example, if you see diving birds actually going into the water then you know there is bait close to the surface and therefore should cast in that area. Being that the bait is on top, you'll most likely want to get your bait just a tad bit under the bait school where the predator fish are waiting. If you see birds diving but not entering the water that means the bait is running deeper. This is a good indication that there is bait below, but it is out of reach, and therefore you should use a bait that's going to get down deeper, whether it be a deep diving lure or adding more weight.
To determine what kind of fish are actually feeding on this bait you can look at the leftovers floating in the water. If you see bits and chunks of fish along with an oily surface you can guarantee that it is fish with teeth such as Spanish mackerel feeding below. Sharp teethed fish often cut the bait in half and leave chunks floating around. If you see a lot of action with very limited bits and pieces floating around that usually indicates it is fish without sharp cutting teeth such as snook, redfish, etc. These types of fish normally swallow the bait whole and leave very little leftovers, perhaps just a glitter of scales. Also, Trout have a tendency to regurgitate food when they eat too fast, so chunks floating can also indicate a massive trout bite going on.
If you see a pelican facing one direction for long periods of time and occasionally stabbing his beak in the water, that's a good indication that the bait are moving with the current, and a good indication that the game fish will be using the pier pilings and other structure as cover, so drifting a free line or slightly weighted bait past the structure is a very effective method. Many times you may see a pelican swimming in all different directions near a piling. This is a good indication that the bait is stationary and keeping close to structure. A good method for this is to anchor your bait several feet off the piling and let it swim freely.
Lastly, look for variations of water color that may indicate below structure or different water depths. Any change from the normal, as with any type of fishing, is sure to hold fish. Cloudy water areas will usually hold fish right on the break where the cloudy and clean water meet. Casting into the cloudy water and letting your bait drift into the clear break is my preferred method....more info avaialble in the book.