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Friendship Trail lives up to its billing

By RICK FRAZIER
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

The Friendship Trail Bridge has been an angling hot spot for decades. Anglers continue to pull lunkers out of Tampa Bay from its catwalks.

One of the many visitors to reap its rewards is Connecticut resident Joe Hornath.

"I've been out here every day for the past three weeks," Hornath said. "I'm on vacation for another week and I'll be here every day until I have to go back home."

On a clear but windy day, anglers were scarce but the fish weren't. "I caught 11 sheepshead the other day with the biggest being around 5 pounds," Hornath said.

"I had another sheepshead on that I know was well over 6 pounds but it came off when I was tried to bring it over the rail."

Hornath's favorite bait for sheepshead are hermit crabs he finds along the beaches next to the bridge. If the hermits are hard to find, Hornath looks for oysters and/or blue mussels. These also are found easily along the rocky seawall edges of the bridge.

"Tubeworms are another bait I like to use but they're harder to find," Hornath said. "You have to go way down by the Skyway Bridge to find those, at that's too far to go."

Hornath prefers the Tampa side of the bridge for sheepies. He doesn't walk far out on the catwalk because there is more rock structure close to the shoulder of the bridge, which he likes.

"Sheepshead are great eating, too," Hornath said. "But the males taste better because the females' meat is a little mushy now that they're full of roe."

Ron Fretwell formerly of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but living in Tampa, is another angler who prefers the Tampa side, mainly because of the convenience.

"I like to fish here because it's close to home and all it costs to fish here is the price of bait," he said. Squid and blue mussels are Fretwell's favorite baits.

That fact was confirmed by the clump of mussels sitting next to his radio.

Fretwell had the day off from his job so what better reason is there to go fishing.

"Yeah, it's a little cold and windy today, but I'm from up north and this isn't that bad. Besides, I'm dressed for it," he said.

Although Fretwell wasn't having the success he would like, he was glad to be out.

"I only caught one catfish so far," Fretwell said. "But I caught a few stingrays when I came out here before."

The catches are common from the Gandy Bridge this time of year. Black drum is another hard-fighting species now common. So are silver trout and whiting, but mainly at night.

As the water warms with the onslaught of spring, Spanish mackerel and red drumwill be prevalent. When summer arrives, look for permit and pompano to be hanging around massive pilings. Snook and tarpon also are summer regulars at the Gandy, but they are more common at night then during the day. Tarpon often are seen rolling in shadow lines created by the bridges lights. Snook are most common along the rocky shoulders where they lay in wait for unsuspecting prey.

The catwalks may get a little crowded on the weekends, but veterans of the Gandy are typically friendly and willing to help novices with techniques and bait preferences.

Fishing is allowed 24 hours a day on both sides of the bay. There is also wheelchair access and lower railing sections on the catwalks to accommodate the handicapped anglers.

-- Capt. Rick Frazier runs Lucky Dawg Charters out of St. Petersburg and can be reached at (727) 510-4376. If you've had a great day fishing from land and want to share it with readers, call (727) 893-8775 or e-mail captrick@luckydawg.com.

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