A pre-summer peak in fishing activity takes place this month
The month of May typically comes with a huge upswing in air and water temperatures into the 80s, along with corresponding increases in fish availability and activity.
With the notable exception of the sheepshead bite and cobia migration winding down, just about all resident and pelagic fish species will be present and in seasonal abundance along the north-central Gulf Coast. In fact, a pre-summer peak in fishing activity takes place this month and the list of fish available is almost endless whenever warm gulf currents push close to shore. The weather is often so conducive to good pier and shore fishing that anglers might struggle deciding which species to target and where to fish for them.
Medium-sized baitfish like scaled sardines (called “LYs”), Spanish sardines, also called herring, and the ever popular mackerel scad (cigar minnows) swarm into the shallow nearshore waters of the Emerald Coast to spawn in early to mid-May. These are often pursued by the medium-sized and larger gamefish species like blue runners (hardtails), ladyfish (skipjack), bluefish, Spanish mackerel, bonito, redfish, jack crevalle, king mackerel, cobia (ling), tarpon and occasionally even dolphin fish (mahi-mahi”) and sailfish. Yes, it’s not uncommon to catch sailfish from the piers in the Florida Panhandle, though most are released or intentionally broken off once they are pulled back to the pier.
Gathering Live Bait
Having a readymade supply of fresh and live bait available literally right below your feet makes pier fishing a very attractive venue, both for the fish and fishermen, especially at the Florida Panhandle piers in Panama City Beach, Fort Walton Beach, Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach and even the Gulf State Park Pier in Alabama.
Anglers can gather the bait needed for a day of fishing in a variety of ways, but one of the simplest and most popular involves catching bait on a dedicated medium spinning outfit (6.5- to 7-foot medium action) with a “gold hook rig” or sabiki rig tied on with a 1/2- to 1-ounce weight beneath it. This rig (comprised of four or five tiny flies or number 8 gold Aberdeen hooks) is simply tossed near a school of baitfish or dropped near the bottom and jigged up and down to get the baitfish to strike the tiny lures. Then, haul the baitfish in and hook them onto a heavier combo in the 15- to 20-pound class, usually with a 20- to 40-pound steel leader and a number 4 or 2 treble hook. The bait can be fished alive, often hooked in the tail to encourage it to swim away from the pier, or hooked through the head or nose.
Also dead baits can be fished this way to be “snobbled,” a slow retrieve action that allows the bait to sink then jerked a few feet to mimic a stunned or dying baitfish. Gamefish like king mackerel often find this action irresistible, providing the pier anglers with some very enjoyable visible surface strikes. Other gamefish are common bycatch to this method, especially the larger Spanish mackerel, commonly called “axe handles.” Almost as well, these fish can often be caught on a variety of artificial baits ranging from 1/2-ounce leadhead jigs to 9-inch long plugs and spoons or even soft swimbaits.
So Much Variety
In addition, there is a great variety of fish to be caught in the surf zone around the piers including pompano, flounder, redfish and even speckled trout at the Gulf State Park Pier in Gulf Shores, Ala. Many days the options are almost overwhelming to anglers who may switch bait, tackle, tactics and location on the pier in pursuit of whatever species is biting best at that time.
That is the main reason you see pier anglers with carts and multiple rod and reel combos, so they can be rigged for different types of fish or fishing without having to stop and re-rig. It also frees up rail space so anglers pursuing a fast-running fish won’t have to step over or around rods lying against the rail. A cart is a great place to store your cooler along with a landing net or gaff used to deck larger fish.
Sifting the options from shore can also be a challenge as small jack species such as blue runners, invade the surf zone and passes. Fishing from the jetties at St Andrews Bay, Destin Pass, Perdido Pass and Dauphin Island, Alabama offers a wide variety of fish from inshore species like flounder, redfish and speckled trout to pompano and bluefish to occasionally include pelagics like blue runners, bonito and even mackerel. Lures like 1/2-ounce white Looney jigs are most often used for the more active species, but free-lined live shrimp are a favorite for speckled trout and redfish especially around the Fort Gaines jetties on Dauphin Island. Another advantage of using artificial lures from the jetty is not having to lug a bait bucket around on the rocks. Either way if you want to keep your fish to eat, a long handled landing net is a good idea to minimize the losses while trying to lift from the water.
Sand and Surf
With the water temperature rising through the 70s to near 80, or even higher, wade fishing becomes a much more viable and comfortable option for anglers throwing jigs for pompano or plugs for speckled trout. A 4-inch soft swimbait like a Lunker City Fin-S and Zoom Fluke in pearl or silver with a black back on a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jighead are great minnow imitations. These baits can catch quite a wide variety of the fish that may be present in the surf zone, passes or nearby back bays. These are especially effective when the sun angle is low early or late in the day or on calm days when the water is clear.
Anglers fishing set lines from the beach will also find more variety in species available as the warmer water makes the fish feed more actively. Their prey items become more active as well. Mole crabs, also called “sand fleas,” make great bait for pompano, redfish, black drum, flounder and even bluefish. The higher temperatures also draw rays and sharks into shallower water to feed and spawn, so both the angling options and wariness factor of potential hazards should be on the mind of these anglers as well as the potential for interactions with swimmers.
Beach fishing has become more restrictive in many communities that cater more to sunbathers than fishermen. Being respectful will help keep fishermen in a good light with authorities and the public.
Having so many options available could be an issue for many anglers having to decide which venue and species to pursue. With our typical late spring mild and stable weather it should be easy to choose well as you enjoy your great days outdoors!