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Casting in the shadows

In the middle of the night, piers are wide awake with anglers catching fish and enjoying each other's company.

By JASON LUSK

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2001


In the middle of the night, piers are wide awake with anglers catching fish and enjoying each other's company.

The top half of the boy's torso disappeared over the railing, his feet clinging to the perch about a dozen feet above the roiling water, wind streaks stretching beyond the 20-yard ring of light.

He wasn't worried about falling. The boy's eyes were locked on the thin splice of monofilament that stretched into the darkness below.

The line was attached to something. Ronnie Golden III wasn't sure what -- a fish, floating debris, another rock? Too preoccupied to wipe the dripping sweat from his brow, the 11-year-old called for help.

"Dad, I got something again," he shouted to his father, Ronnie Golden Jr., guarding his lines 30 yards farther along the pier. "It's pulling hard. And it's not a rock this time."

In that moment, the boy had discovered the essence of night fishing from the old bridge that parallels the Gandy Bridge. Each cast might bring a tug on the line, with each tug a possibility to bring something new from the dark water into the harsh orange glare cast by streetlights.

The bridge offers a wide range of fishing options. In early summer there are tarpon, snook and cobia to lure anglers into the night. Speckled trout and redfish are a frequent catch year-round, along with dozens of miscellaneous grunts, pinfish and other small fish. Rays frequently glide past the pier, and mullet often are heard splashing. Any fish that lives, permanently or seasonally, in the north end of Tampa Bay must pass through the spans between Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The old bridge also attracts a mixed society of anglers to the rapid currents of Tampa Bay. Night workers, insomniacs and hard-core anglers jockey for position along the spans, looking for an exact combination of structure, tide and light on the water.

They carry gear or wheel it in rickety carts to their desired spots -- some close to the rocks at the foot of the bridge, others to the end of the piers in a popular belief that big fish stay in the middle of the bay. Tackle ranges from light to heavy, and anglers often are loaded down with nets, bait buckets and lanterns. Some have been spotted with small grills, cooking the freshest seafood possible.

"It's all about access," said Golden Jr., 40, a Tampa native who grew up fishing along the many bridges and piers scattered about the bay and Gulf of Mexico. "Everybody who comes out here comes out here for the access."

Dozens of anglers may leapfrog each other on a still weekend evening before midnight, but the crowd usually clears out after 1 a.m. on a weeknight.

"I like fishing in the day too, but it gets too hot out here during the day. And a lot of the time there's more fish out here at night," said Jay Negro of St. Petersburg, an occasional commercial fisherman who fishes the bridge three to four nights a week for fun.

"At this time of night you can kind of have the place to yourself," he said during a 3:30 a.m. excursion that started when a toothache kept him from sleeping."And there's a lot of fish around the bridge. It's simple math. If you have more fish and fewer people trying to catch them, you stand a better chance."

Each angler seems to have a theory on how to hook up. Some deploy live bait beneath bobbers beyond the glare of light on the water. Others soak dead bait on the bottom. A few repeatedly cast jigs and plugs along the shadow lines and pilings. There are no hard rules, just oft-changing theories.

"You got to cast right up under the bridge," Negro said. "People cast way out there past the lights, and they don't catch anything but catfish. The fish get right under the bridge to get out of the current and find bait, so you have to fish where they are. Cast it out of the light and they won't see it."

As good a theory as any, but his menhaden, cast on a thick rod to wrestle large snook from the barnacle-encrusted pilings, went unmolested.

"Even if you're not catching anything, it gives you a chance to see what all's out here at night," said T.C. Lewis, who drove from Winter Haven with his uncle, Frank Lewis, to fish the bridge and Picnic Island on the Tampa side of the bay.

"You see all kinds of things out here at night that you don't ever see during the day or if you're at home sleeping," T.C. Lewis said. "Plus, it gives you an excuse to sleep all day on your day off when everybody else has to get up."

Golden III wasn't having any problems getting something to grab his lure. His father had planned the predawn trip because the boy was out of school, and the action was fast, even if every strike wasn't from a fish.

The boy was casting a white jerkbait on a jig head among the rocks and pilings near the end of the bridge. He lost several jigs to rocks, but after rearing back on one possible strike, the line started to dance.

"Hurry up dad, this one really isn't a rock," he shouted. "I know it's a fish."

Not tall enough to reach over the top rail, the boy climbed to the second of four crossbeams to fight the fish. With his dad peering over his shoulder, Golden III worked the rod to counter the lunges of the fish, eventually freeing it from the pilings.

After a 5-minute fight, Golden III cranked a 25-inch snook, his first, from the water to the bridge. If the fish had been much heavier, the line would not have been enough to hoist the fish onto the bridge.

"That's what's so cool about coming out to places like this," said Golden Jr., a commercial power-washer."I've hooked a lot of snook, but it took me 40 years to land one like that, and he comes out here tonight and gets his first one. It's just really cool. Good job, bud."

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