How To Bridge Fish from your Boat

There is no doubt that fishing from a boat offers greater flexibility and more area to fish versus static fishing from land. Sometimes, however, it would appear that fishing from a land based structure out produces. Now you’re probably scratching your head in thought about right now, but let me explain. Those dedicated land based anglers have their spots, methods, and gear dialed in. It takes an extra bit of preparation to load the gear, drive to the area, unload the gear, keep the bait alive, walk to the spot and hope no one is on it, and set up camp and begin fishing. Surely those anglers don’t want to waste all that time and effort to come home empty handed. Now that’s not saying that boating doesn’t take some prep time as well, but to me it’s much less of a hassle to get the boat ready and launch. 

Some anglers often take for granted the most important aspect when fishing from a boat, which is knowing “how to” and “where to” present the bait, and “how to choose the right bridge.” With all that open water it seems that some anglers get confused and just start slinging lures, dropping baits, and fishing bridges that simply do not hold fish for long, if at all!  

One of the main issues I see with some anglers is that they fish in a “non-natural” nature when they have a lot of area to fish. They fish against the current, too fast with the current, across the current in long retrieves, etc. These are not natural approaches and fish know this! Many anglers also fish in the wrong depth, use the wrong tactics and often use the less productive part of the structure, which leads to spooking the fish before they even have a chance to hook up.

RULE OF THUMB: A good angler will spend a short period of time from a distance watching the intended area for signs of feeding fish or active bait.

Before your next trip take the following into consideration and see just how much of a difference it makes! For the purpose of this article, some of the methods such as feeding habits are targeted to the snook. Because many fish have different likes and dislikes, you’ll have to adjust accordingly. Overall, this article will accommodate most inshore saltwater species.
Analyzing the Bridge: There are a handful of aspects that I look for when choosing a bridge to fish. All of these aspects don’t have to be present, but if you can find all of them in one bridge then look no further!


1) DEPTH—Water at least 12 feet in depth will usually hold more fish year round. The deeper depth also cuts down on noise spooks and puts more water over the fish, which by nature makes them more comfortable. Locating the deepest water around a bridge almost ensures success, but don’t be fooled as many are by always fishing between the channel markers, as this isn’t always the deepest area. Just because boat traffic is routed through a channel with markers and bridge fenders doesn’t make it the deepest part of the water. Sometimes the actual channel is off to one side of the marked channel. Take a little time and read the entire area. Look for the angle of the current and scout the outer edges. Many times you’ll find the current has worn a deep cut or pocket on a bend. That’s where you want to be because that’s where the fish are!


2) CURRENT—I like fast moving current so I’ll look for bottle neck areas or bridges closer to open water. This creates a funnel effect and also, depending on the location of the bridge, can create some really nice wash out and cut areas as mentioned above. Fast current means that bait coming off the inside flats are tired and usually become disoriented from fatigue. Fast current also helps keep the fish cool in the summer and warm in the winter by pulling in mixed temperate water from surrounding areas. It acts as a very stable comfort zone and good feeding grounds. Fishing current can be a bit tricky, and where some anglers go wrong is fishing the same structure on both, incoming and outgoing. I have found that many of my spots are directional spots and only produce when the tide is either incoming or outgoing, but not in both directions. This is usually the case when a natural structure is formed, or the current in one direction is stronger than the reverse. Learning which tide to fish over what structure will only come with experience, although one can get a better idea by using a good bottom reader and observing that structure.


3) STRUCTURE—Fishing would be a pretty boring sport if it were not for structure. Structure is the key to finding and catching fish! They use it to rest, take cover and ambush prey. I tend to favor older bridges because they have more vertical structure and have accumulated more bottom debris over the years. Newer bridges have less vertical support, but what they do offer is a bigger base on the vertical supports which have a tendency to create eddies and current pools that hold a lot of schooling bait, and usually will contain remnants from the old bridge that has been torn down. Ambush predators take up position behind anything that blocks the current. One mistake that many anglers make when arriving to a spot is to fish the surface looking for fish behind the vertical structure. This may work if you see a lot of surface bait, but it surely isn’t my first approach, even when I see surface bait. The smaller fish are normally more active and apt to hitting surface baits, while the big boys tend to watch the action from a distance and strike from the depths, in reference to snook. Many ambush predators such as snook have a tendency to use bottom structure first and foremost. They will rest the calm side of the structure and fall back and dart upward into the current, striking the prey from below. Try running your bait on the bottom first and work your way toward the surface until you find the strike zone. If you see the fish striking on the top and want to get into some instant action, then by all means give it a go but don’t forget to work the bottom for the lunkers!


4) SHADOW—Older bridges are usually lower and therefore create very sharp and dark shadow cover from the sun, which runs to the bottom. Shadow cover is as important as structure, as it allows the fish to blend into its surroundings, stay cool in the heat of the day and provides an extra since of security for the fish. Find a bit of bottom structure in the shade and you’re sure to leave with a smile!


5) LIGHTS—This is simply a complimentary feature and makes for a great night fishing bridge. Just as the bridge provides a daytime shadow, these lights will give off a nighttime shadow where predators will lurk to ambush the bait in the light. Fishing the leading edge of a shadow line on the high side of the current is the ideal area to work. Any bridge with a pronounced shadow line will produce fish. Usually, predator fish will endure the current for extended periods when there is an influx of bait. You’ll often see them make an occasional appearance to the surface and roll off back into the shadows. Tarpon are well known for rolling on the shadows and drifting back. These short periods of rolling and drifting keep the fish energized while they feed. Most fish have a cycle that consists of spending a bit of time in the current and chewing on some helpless bait, then rolling off to take cover behind a vertical piling for a brief period, then returning to start the cycle again.


6) BAIT—Spend some time observing from a distance. Look to see where the bait are schooling, if they are active, what species they are, what pattern they move in; meaning which way they seem to spook , etc. By watching the bait you can get a good idea as to where to cast, how to present your bait and how to retrieve it.  


Bump the bottom:

Cast your lures up current from the bridge and let it “sink to the bottom!” Try to cast beyond the shadow line and let the current do most of the work to bring the lure back to you. You’ll want your lure to sweep over or near some structure within the shadow line of the bridge. Your rod tip should be just high enough to ensure the lure continues to bounce and tumble along the bottom. You’ll want to match your line retrieval to the current as to not aid the lure back, but to guide it should it slow on a snag. Don’t rush the lure!  

Cross retrieve:

Cross retrieving requires a natural appearance, and pulling a lure steadily across a strong tide over 30 yards simply isn’t natural. Bait fish do not exert this much energy as they’d have nothing left to escape predators. It is for this reason that you should use a stair step retrieve. Cast far enough up current so that you can work your lure back to you properly. The last bit of distance to you should be minimal. Your method will be to let your lure sink and drift, followed by a 10 foot retrieve, then another rest and repeat. This gives the appearance of a struggling bait fish trying to escape the strike zone. It make take some trial and error at each location to get the retrieve to match the current, but I’ve found this method to be well worth the effort.

Top Water
Top water retrieves are a bit easier because you can see the lure. One method that I like to use when retrieving along the base of a structure such has a long bridge basin is to bump the lure against the structure. This can be achieved by manipulating the lure via bending the eye to one side or shaving some of the lip with a knife. I have a few lures that I’ve modified for right and left retrieves. By bumping the bait against the structure you are giving off the appearance of a nervous or wounded bait. When I use live bait such as shrimp or whitebait I simply let the current to all the work and cast as you would normally, letting the bait drift through the zone naturally.

Bottom (weighted)
The standard for bottom fishing is to use a weight and let your bait sit in the current. Some anglers put the weight on the bottom and suspend the bait a bit off the bottom, while others do the reverse. I prefer the reverse and place the weight above the bait in a free slide setup. With this setup, I use a swivel to attach the leader and also to stop the weight from reaching the hook. Rather than letting my bait sit in the current, which is far from natural, I’ll set the weight and slowly let out line so the bait drifts down with the current at a slower rate than if free lining. Once I’ve let my bait drift beyond the zone I’ll lift the weight and let everything drift back even further while slowly retrieving. This gets the weight and bait out of the zone and up toward the surface where you can retrieve without spooking the fish. For this method you’ll want a weight that barely holds in the current, or even one that slowly drifts along the bottom. Using a weight that is too heavy will not allow you to get your weight into the current and drift it along with your bait out of the zone when it’s time to retrieve, thus pulling your bait up current.

Gear choice is pretty simple.  Anytime I’m fishing around a bridge I expect to catch fish of decent size, unless I’m fishing for smaller species such as mangrove snapper, in which case I’ll lighten up on the gear. For bigger species I like to use 30 pound braided line and 40-60-pound fluorocarbon leader for the abrasion resistance. My rod of choice is a 7-foot seeker 709-7s, 20-30 pound class. This rod has enough versatility to handle smaller fish and provides plenty of backbone for ripping those big snook away from structure. I prefer spinning class reels with high quality drag systems. For hook choice I tend to favor a 3/0 for most inshore fishing for species such as the snook.  

If you like this article and want to read the entire piece, which contains much more detail on this subject and many more, please check out my newest book entitled Florida Inshore Angler. Publication date not yet announced .

Keep your Tip Up^
Allen Applegarth