Hooking Up

Fishing on the Gandy

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'Hey.""Hey. Catchin' anything?"

"Nope. But there's some bait runnin' down there."

"In the channel here? Or further down?"

"Right up here, in the current."



They say the west side of Gandy's Friendship TrailBridge is the better side for fishing. Of course, it's mainly St. Pete fisherman who say that. But there is a deep channel that runs under the bridge's historic low-hung wooden catwalk on this end, and the diehards who fish big rigs and big baits for powerful brutes like snook and cobia seem to prefer it.

I like it because it's alternately quieter and more eclectic than the Tampa side. On weekend nights, serious sport fishermen mingle with couples on dates, whole families literally trying to catch their dinner, and drunken young idiots blasting the local booty station on portable radios while playing catfish baseball. (For the uninitiated, the term "catfish baseball" is a catchall that may be applied to any casually cruel seaside distraction in which an inedible, or "trash," fish gets fatally mangled.) People aren't allowed up onto the TrailBridge proper after dark, but fishing or watching others fish must be enough, because the catwalk below the bridge can be crowded and noisy from dusk to dawn when the weather's right.

On weekdays, particularly after midnight, the catwalk is populated by a smaller but often more intriguing collection of insomniacs, retired widowers and boatless lifers. Sometimes there are several, other times a scant few, and the possibilities for interaction range from interesting to nil.

And that's fine too. Most of the folks out at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday morning are here, like me, as much for the solitude, ocean sounds and clean breeze as the fishing. Thoreau went to Walden to find clarity, simplicity, insight — all of which are noble words that can be called the fruits of some peace and fucking quiet, a big empty garden where you can hear your thoughts grow. Dropping live bait off a public pier may be one of the lowest-budget versions of angling imaginable, scoffed at by offshore guides and flats flycasters, but when the price of admission is pretty much negligible, there's no pressure to justify it as anything other than a nice trip outside.

Sometimes wind is a problem at the Gandy. Tonight it's not. The moon, one day waning but still nearly full, sits low, fat and yellow-orange; such a sight is often called "a snook moon" by people who heard an older fisherman say it once and think it makes them sound like they possess a deeper understanding of What It Is to Fish, or something. The term is somewhat warranted, however. That big moon pushes a roiling incoming tide northward under the catwalk, and most ambush predators feed actively in a strong current.

Despite the promising conditions, the west-side parking lot is fairly empty, the outside catwalk even more so. There are few interactions as I carry my gear down the walkway, other than a few examples of the classic, obligatory head-nod-and-quick-glance-into-the-fish-bucket combo. It never fails: even if you just got there, and your rods aren't even put together, everybody's got to take a peek. Maybe they want to know what kind of bait you're using. More likely they want to know if you've got beer. While alcohol is strictly prohibited on the Friendship TrailBridge, that doesn't necessarily stop both the tactfully inconspicuous and wildly obvious alike from working a little smuggleage. Beer and bait are barter around here — if you've got enough of one, you'll never go long without the other.

Three-quarters of the way to the catwalk's end, I can see that my favorite spot — under the final light, where baitfish gather over shallow-water sand and pompano feed in the spring and fall — is already staked out. Damn. Five hundred yards of pier, a dozen people and three of them are in my spot. My. Spot. My spot. This is the part where one must remind oneself that anyone who crowds a party already in place when the catwalk is almost empty is an asshole, and then not do it. So settle for the next-to-last light, which for all intents and purposes is exactly like the last light, barring the fact that it's not, you know, my spot.

The railing wood is solid but strangely spongy, saturated with years of a spray so fine you don't even feel it until the later point at which you realize everything, including you, is wet. I drop a baitfishing line, heavily weighted and strung with six comically tiny golden hooks, to the bottom. A large blue heron wanders over and inspects my bait bucket, eyes me reproachfully when he finds it empty, and minces spindly legged on down the catwalk.

Three times in 30 minutes, something big and inexorable hooks itself on the tiny barbs, and I go running down the planks with my woefully undersized rod bent double and giving up line, until the lightweight monofilament meant for minnows parts. It's nice to think they were cobia, or perhaps heavily sedated tarpon, but in all likelihood I'd tangled with three big stingrays too thick-skinned to notice they'd snagged themselves. Still, adrenaline is adrenaline, and that's all I'm to get this morning.

In a couple of hours, it becomes obvious that nothing else is going to happen for a while. The bait will be easier to spot when the current lessens, but it'll be almost light by then. It doesn't matter, though. It's beautiful, it's balmy, it's quiet, it's bug-free. It's been one of those rare occasions when I've had all of the time in the world to sit outside, watch the water, crack an illicit beer or three, and write this column.

Requiem for a Coffee ShopDowntown St. Petersburg's Phoenix Coffeehouse, which rose caffeine-jacked from the ashes of The Realm and was the destination of a Field Trip some weeks back, has closed its doors. We smell Big Coffee behind it. Our condolences to the shop's staff, regulars and all those underage St. Pete nightlifers who must now choose between staying home and joining the street gangs. It was a cool little place. And, seriously, kids, don't go joining the street gangs. Go fishing instead.

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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