Bridge the gap this fall for saltwater success

Capt. Kenny Shiyou said the winter sheepshead bite on the U.S. 90 bridge pilings is as dependable as fishing gets on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Bridge pilings near Mississippi’s Gulf Coast will produce fish until it gets warm again next spring.

With a forecast of 40 degrees and a 40-percent chance of rain, I was expecting a call to cancel a planned inshore fishing trip with two captains in Bay St. Louis the day after Thanksgiving.

And I wouldn’t have been upset, despite having gotten up at 3 a.m., and left home at 4 for the three-hour drive to the coast.

Instead, I got this text message as I passed Hattiesburg at sunrise:

“We’ll be waiting on you at the new marina down on the beach. — Sonny.”

Then another:

“Call when you get this message. — Kenny.”

My first thought was “These guys must be nuts.”

But at noon, four hours after I arrived, we were back at their camp with a 120-quart fish box filled with fish, all accomplished in three hours of fishing. The action was so hot I never got cold, and with overhead cover loaded with working-class traffic, I never got wet despite a constant drizzle.

It was perfect.

Sonny Schindler, ringleader of Shore Thing Charters, used another word.

“Told you it was crazy,” he said. “If there’s one positive thing we got out of (Hurricane) Katrina, it was this crazy fishing pattern on the new Highway 90 Bridge. Every fall and winter, the pilings load up with fish, and once you find the right piling, it’s some of the easiest fishing we get all year.

“It’s easy in that we always get a boxful of fish, the techniques are simple, and it’s not much more than a mile run to get from the dock to the fish.”

That trip happened in November of 2011, six years after Katrina. Since then, fishermen along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast have discovered similar patterns at other bridges across the major coastal rivers.

Combined, they give fishermen a perfect way to bridge the gap between the more popular fishing seasons of fall and spring.

In addition to the Bay St. Louis bridge, there’s the big U.S. Highway 90 Bridge that spans the opening to Biloxi Bay, between Point Cadet in Biloxi and Ocean Spring’s Front Beach Drive, and the old Highway 90 bridge that the City of Biloxi turned into a drive-on fishing pier.

Pascagoula features two bridges, the U.S. Highway 90 Bridge that was built two years before Katrina and the Highway 619 Bridge that runs from U.S. 90 to the Naval Station.

Don’t be sheepish

The post-Katrina U.S. 90 bridges at Bay St. Louis and Biloxi are the best and easiest to fish for boaters. Both have easy access from nearby launches and each has miles of pilings that provide targets, both for fish to lay in ambush of bait passing on the tide and for fishermen to find those hungry fish.

Primarily, the targeted species are black drum, red drum — aka redfish — and sheepshead. 

Yes, sheepshead.

“People’s be crazy if they turn their noses up at sheepshead,” said Capt. Robert Early McDaniel of Biloxi’s WhipaSnapa charters . “It is one of the tastiest, lightest and flakiest fish we catch. They can be a challenge to clean but easy once you learn, and whether you cook them whole or fillet them, they are fine eating. Think of them as small red snapper — very similar in texture and taste, only not usually as big or as easy to clean.”

Sheepshead have become more popular in this age of increased fishing pressure on a declining fishery resource.

“I’m certainly not sheepish about sheepshead any more, and neither should you,” said angler Tommy Lewis of Biloxi. “Years ago, I used to complain about catching them — called them bait stealers — and threw every one of them back. I was fishing at the old Highway 90 Bridge one day and reeled up about a 6-pounder and this woman was out there walking, and she passed me while I was lifting it up in my drop net.

“She heard me telling a friend nearby that it was ‘just another one of those bait-stealing sheepsheads’ and she couldn’t believe I was just going to throw it back. She took my fillet knife right there on the bridge and cleaned that fish in a minute or two, and it was beautiful meat. She said, ‘Easy, peasy’ and tossed the fillets in my icebox. I went home and cooked them and was back out there the next day targeting them. She came back by, and I gave her about five, and she walked home, got her car and came back to get them.”

Puppy drum — aka small black drum — are another popular bridge dweller in the fall. The first cousin to a redfish is an equally good-eating fish as long as it isn’t too large.

“Once they get over about 22 or 23 inches, I don’t keep them at all,” Lewis said. “They get kind of wormy and mealy, and they just don’t taste that good. But a 14- to 20-inch puppy drum, now that’s fine eating. I actually prefer it to a keeper redfish.”

Mississippi doesn’t regard the black drum as a sportfish and has no regulations regarding daily creel or length limits.

The other species that finds its way on to a hook around the bridges is the redfish, although, “They aren’t nearly as plentiful as a puppy drum or sheepshead,” Shiyou said. “We still catch a few each day, and as soon as they hit, we’re pretty sure what it is. The sheepshead and puppies just kind of dig down to hold the bottom, but the reds they will try to take off on you.”

Piling on

The key to the bridge pattern is finding the hot pilings.

“Just because we fish a lot, we’ve got a few that we like on the Bay St. Louis Bridge,” Schindler said. “It’s easier for us because we’re out there so often, but it’s not rocket science for people new to the bridges. You just pick one (piling) and start. If you aren’t satisfied, just move to the next, then the next, then the next.… Sooner or later, you’ll hit on one that is holding fish.”

Schindler said most of the pilings he visits are in water between 10 and 15 feet deep. On the U.S. 90 Bridge in Biloxi, McDaniel has deeper water to check, some as much as 30 feet or more.

“You get on the pilings next to the ship channel, and it’s deep,” he said. “I usually start there and move to other pilings if they don’t hold fish. Most of the pilings along the new bridge are anywhere from 10 to 20 feet. Know this; the deeper the piling the harder it is to fish. The deeper it is, the more the current, whether incoming or outgoing, can affect the vertical drop, and if you don’t put the bait right against the piling, you might as well be fishing in Barnett Reservoir. You’d catch just as many sheepshead and drum at The Rez as you would several feet away from the piling.”

Lewis doesn’t have a boat and, unless he’s fishing with a friend who does, he is limited to fishing from the old U.S. 90 Bridge fishing pier. He doesn’t complain and keeps right on going.

“I can vertically drop my bait down to the piling and be right on it,” he said. “I use a pretty stout, heavy-action bass rod and at least a 1- or 2-ounce weight, and I have used as much as 4 ounces in times of wind and/or heavy current. That way, I can make sure I’m getting my bait in the strike zone. I let it go all the way to the bottom and bounce it up and down, if I have to. Usually, if the fish are there — especially the sheepshead — they’re going to hit it as soon as it shows up.”

Lewis uses a converted crab net to get his fish to the bridge.

“Kind of funny looking but it works,” he said. “I’m 68 years old and I grew up in a family that loved to go crabbing. We had dozens and dozens of those drop nets growing up on Point Cadet. When I started fishing the old bridges after Camille (1969), I was knew exactly what I needed to get a fish up here. I took one of the nets and put a heavy-duty parachute cord on it with about 50 feet of length. When I get a fish up, a drop the net, pull the fish over it and then lift it up.”

Lewis had a tip for new bridge fishermen.

“If you need a clue as to where to fish, look around the bridge at the railing and on the road itself,” he said. “You will likely see some signs of fishing, either old smushed bait or blood stains from fish. Start there; somebody spent time there.”

No live bait needed

Because most of the tight-to-the-piling fishing is in the late fall and winter, live bait is difficult to find, but then, it’s unnecessary.

“Doesn’t require anything but dead shrimp,” Shiyou said.

“Cut bait works,” McDaniel said.

“If you’re targeting black drum and don’t mind catching a big one or two, you can use half a cracked crab,” Lewis said. “Those big mammer-jammers will slam a crab in a heartbeat. I’ll take a couple if I can find them, but I don’t like to catch those big ones because I can’t lift them up anyway.”

Gearing up is pretty simple. Most boaters use the same gear they would for redfish and trout: medium-heavy to heavy action spinning or baitcasting rods, 15- or 20-pound braided line and a 12- to 18-inch piece of 10- or 12-pound fluorocarbon leader. The egg-sinker weight, ¼- to 1-ounce (more in extreme depths), is usually attached to the braid above the swivel, with a bead to protect the knot. A 2/0 to 5/0 circle, octopus or Kahle hook — always stainless steel — is preferred, because sheepshead teeth will wreck wire hooks.

“Just take lots of gear, because you are going to break off a lot of it,” Schindler said. “In addition to barnacles and the piers, there’s a lot of post-construction rubble and stuff down there to break your line.”

Added Lewis, “Always make sure your fluorocarbon leader is weaker than the braid. It’s a lot easier and quicker to replace a leader than to have to put on a whole new swivel and sinker.”

Keeping current

As with any saltwater fishing, checking the tides and knowing when and in which direction the water is moving is critical in fishing the bridges.

“Any moving tide is better than a slow or slack tide,” Schindler said. “The moving water allows you to set up current and fish into the structure. Most fish feed into the current, so I think this makes it easier to sniff out the bait. It’s flowing into them.

“The only thing we change, based on the moving water is the amount of weight we use on our Carolina rigs or dropper rigs. Faster current, means more weight. Seldom will you ever need more than a 1-ounce weight. Just bring plenty of extras; there are plenty of big fish and plenty of snags.”

The new pilings on the bridges, with larger square bases just a few feet above the water, provide perfect targets.

“One of the great things about fishing the bridges is that anybody can do it,” Shiyou said. “You don’t have to be an expert caster to put the bait right where it needs to be. We anchor and position our boat about 10 to 15 feet away from the piling, and it’s a short, easy flip cast to land the bait on those big square bases. With an open bale or open spool on the reel, you drag the bait to the edge and let it fall to the bottom on free spool. That way, you know you’re in the right spot.”

The piling patterns across Mississippi’s Gulf Coast is an ideal way to beat the winter weather — short runs, quick catches, and easy fishing.

It is the perfect way to bridge the gap between fall and spring.

Bobby Cleveland
About Bobby Cleveland 1145 Articles
Bobby Cleveland has covered sports in Mississippi for over 40 years. A native of Hattiesburg and graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, Cleveland lives on Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson with his wife Pam.