Wherever you go, the basic equation is structure plus current equals fish. An easy solution is fishing a bridge. Bridge pilings, jetties, channels and flats create an artificial reef hosting the entire food chain. But the same rocks and concrete hiding bait and predators pose an obstacle for anglers. The trick is placing the bait in the structure without getting caught. I fish the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT) for sheepshead, tautog, speckled trout, striped bass and red drum. To improve my skills, I dropped a line to friends across the country who specialize in bridge fishing.
Light-Tackle Bridge Bass
Casting light-tackle lures into the current swirling around pilings is one of the easiest ways to fish a bridge. On the CBBT, a well-placed swimbait such as the Storm Wildeye Swim Shad or Z-Man HerculeZ definitely leads to hookups. Or cast a lipped plug such as a Berkley Hit Stick Saltwater, MirrOlure MirrOLip, Rapala X-Rap or Yo-Zuri 3DS to score a scrappy striped bass, redfish or speckled trout.
Capt. Ben Florentino, a West Coast tournament champ and inshore guide, laughed when I asked about bridge fishing. “When we fish bridges, we often catch spotted bay bass, calico bass, sand bass and halibut,” he says.
Florentino fishes sand flats, rocks and deep holes along bridges in San Diego Harbor. He looks at current as a fourth dimension of structure. “I want some current moving but not ripping,” Florentino points out. When the water is flowing at top speed, he imagines the fish hunker down and wait for the current to ease. Fish get tight to structure as ambush locations—surprisingly tight. He suggests working the lower part of the water column, where the fish stage deep, waiting to surprise and attack baitfish.
Florentino uses a Minn Kota trolling motor to maneuver his boat up-current of the bridge, watching his Humminbird Solix side-imaging sonar for schools of anchovies and sardines.
To search for bass, Florentino casts an underspin while slowly motoring parallel to the bridge. Vary the retrieve speed, and the versatile jig-head-and-spinner-blade combo bounces along the bottom or swims at any depth. When he marks bait or catches a fish, he hits Spot-Lock and the trolling motor holds the boat in place.
Once Florentino is on the bite, his favorite lure is a 1-ounce chartreuse-and-white spinnerbait with a willow blade. “No trailer, no bait, just the spinnerbait,” he explains. The naked spinnerbait provides a larger profile without adding weight.
Casting accuracy is key. “I want the lure to cross the current,” Florentino says. He imagines fish holding along the edge of sand and rock, then facing into the current’s flow. “I want the lure to pass in front of the fish, not over its head.” By moving along the bridge and fishing the entire water column, Florentino covers ground and narrows the search.
The Piling Pirates
Some fish wait to ambush baits passing by bridge pilings. Other fish, such as sheepshead, tautog, grouper and snapper, hunt for baitfish and crabs in and around the structure. My CBBT features 5,000 pilings and four rock islands teeming with tautog and sheepshead.
For Capt. Patric Garmeson, of Ugly Fishing in Mobile, Alabama, sheepshead fishing is a lifelong passion. “My dad had my brother and me fishing for sheepshead since childhood.” The lessons he learned pulling sheepshead out of the pier pilings are the foundation for his technique as a pro guide.
“When I was a kid, I learned to spot sheepshead swimming near the surface,” Garmeson remembers. Today, he has the power of side-scan sonar to mark the fish hiding in the structure. “Sheepshead can be anywhere along a bridge piling, from the surface to the bottom.”
When Garmeson sees sheepshead, he uses his MotorGuide Xi5 trolling motor with a virtual anchor to hold the boat down-current of the bridge. Then he pitches his bait into the lee side of the piling.
To fool sharp-sighted and finicky reef fish, Garmeson goes as light as possible. “Light leader, light rig and a light hook,” he emphasizes. He starts with 20-pound high-visibility braided line tied to 3 feet of 30-pound monofilament. “Monofilament has better abrasion resistance and more stretch,” Garmeson explains.
The captain adds split-shot sinkers to the line so the bait sinks slowly in the current. As the current increases, Garmeson will replace the split shots with an egg sinker. The trick is to allow the rig to sink slowly, giving the sheepshead more time to respond to the bait. “A lighter rig is less likely to get snagged in the structure,” Garmeson adds.
If he’s catching fish within a few feet of the surface, Garmeson switches to a slip float pegged a few feet above the bait. The bobber keeps the bait in the strike zone and provides a foolproof bite indicator.
Garmeson’s light-tackle presentation advice applies anywhere reef fish lurk. The challenge is keeping the rig, line and leader strong enough to resist breaking under pressure.
Beneath a bridge, the diverse structure and steady current create a complete food chain, from microorganisms to top-dog predators. Pulling these beasts from the bridge pilings requires heavy tackle and nerves of steel. For me, cobia, red drum and lunker striped bass are the ultimate trophies. To pick up a few tricks, I hit up the master of bridge tarpon, Capt. Russell Kleppinger.
Last year, Kleppinger released so many tarpon, he lost count. He estimates he caught over 60 percent of his tarpon on the bridges around Miami and the Florida Keys.
It’s no secret bridges are reliable locations to find tarpon, but they are also dangerous places to fish. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Kleppinger admits.
To fish live mullet for tarpon holding near bridge pilings, Kleppinger anchors up-current of the structure. “Start with the correct-size anchor, chain and rope with enough scope to hold the bottom,” Kleppinger instructs.
If you don’t follow a big tarpon in and around pilings, it will break you off pretty quickly. Kleppinger releases the anchor so he can give chase as soon as he hooks a silver king. To get going in a hurry, he connects the boat to an anchor buoy with a shorter rope, which speeds up the process without catching the line in the prop. “I attach one end of the rope to the bow cleat, then run the other end through a carabiner attached to the float and secure it to the spring cleat.”
Kleppinger stresses safety. “One crewmember needs to be ready to start the boat, throw the anchor and clear the lines.” For the quickest turnaround, he recommends limiting the spread to a couple of rods.
Chasing a tarpon through the pilings requires great care and concentration. “Expect to lose tackle,” Kleppinger warns. His advice for pulling a tarpon out of the bridge pilings is “a lot of praying and cursing.”
Jokes aside, Kleppinger says the bridge fight differs depending on the current and size of the fish. “When the current is running fast, it tends to wash the fish out,” he says. Kleppinger has also noticed smaller fish are less likely to leave the safety of the bridge pilings when a large shark is nearby.
Kleppinger points out that each bridge fishes differently. “They have their own vibe.” Variations in structure and current create unique scenarios. “The current may be running hard in one place and hardly a trickle in another spot,” he says.
Bridges really come alive at night. Streetlights on the bridge illuminate the water, allowing predators to see prey.
Kleppinger says fishing the lights is its own science. Placing a bait at the edge of the shadow line is a good bet, but Kleppinger suggests fishing secondary shadow lines farther away from the bridge. He says the largest tarpon hunt the outside edge of the light line.
Wherever you go, structure plus current equals fish. An easy solution is to fish a bridge, but pilings and rocks offer another challenge. Combining local knowledge with tactics from across the country improves the chances of pulling a fish out of a bridge.