For six decades, this historic pier off Clearwater Beach has given generations of anglers an enjoyable experience.
By Doug Kelly
So, what does one do when celebrating a 60th birthday? Is it:
A – go out for dinner.
B – party at home with family.
C – let people walk all over you.
Obviously, we’d choose the steak or cake, but not if we’re an inanimate object consisting of a long concrete platform. I’m talking here of six decades of piscatorial affection, a pier that juts from sparkling Clearwater Beach into the Gulf of Mexico.
Pier 60 – so named because it’s the western terminus of State Road 60 that crisscrosses Florida – is one of the few piers on Florida’s west coast still standing. That’s not due as much to brushes with hurricanes as the 24/7 devastation of anything situated on saltwater. Even with Pier 60 sporting concrete reinforced with rebars, it requires periodic structural updates.
Fishing from a pier does away with worries about sea sickness, sunburns and the costs of chartering or boat ownership. While piers can’t match the obvious advantages of mobility, it presents a safe and productive outing if going about it the right way.
My introduction to the pier experience occurred at age five. Dad would take the family on vacations to Mexico Beach in Florida’s Panhandle. We’d always stay in a screen-door cottage within walking distance of the pier. Early every morning and again at dusk we’d swish along the surf with our gear. With each step closer to the pier, the faster my heartbeat.
Those memory bouquets include the pitter patter of walking the pier’s creaky wooden planks. My official duty: catching baitfish, with which dad slammed the redfish by freelining them below in the deep shoreline trough. In the absence of a landing net, dad pranced off the pier and pulled the catches onto the beach – quite the fancy footwork, even with the occasional loss of reds bigger than me.
Play ‘Em at the Pier
Dad and I often fished Pier 60 when visiting Clearwater Beach in the 1970s. We’d first stop at a Tampa Bay mud flat and collect a bucketful of fiddler crabs. Once set up at the pier, Dad would lie prone on the pier on the up-current side. With his rod pointed straight down, he’d lower a fiddler a few feet in front of a piling. The current drifted the crab to the piling, and it would instinctively grasp onto it amid the barnacles.
I mimicked that at an adjacent piling, hoping amused passersby wouldn’t stumble on us. Their initial snickers ceased, however, when we hauled in slobber sheepshead in the drop net. We also caught snook and redfish.
Encrusted pilings – whether wood or concrete – beckon game fish, in particular crustacean eaters like sheepshead. As banded bandits and other gamesters roam from piling to piling, it’s smorgasbord time when they happen upon a crab adhering to a piling.
The bottom railings at Pier 60 block lying down a la my dad in years gone by. However, the same technique can be applied if a little less comfortably by safely leaning over the top railing. I haven’t found any fertile fiddler crab colonies locally, so buying the smallest crabs does fine.
All live baits trump dead, and few scaly hunters will ignore a writhing shrimp. However, I’ve done better at Pier 60 with sand fleas because few others take the time – or know where and how – to dig them from the beach next to the pier. Their short legs don’t cling to a piling like other crabs, but they’re effective fished near the bottom of pilings – just keep ‘em alive by employing a thin-gauge hook through the back shell.
Casting lures parallel to the pier when it’s not crowded can induce hits, but trolling often does better. Plop straight below a lead-head jig tipped with shrimp. Walk along the railing, hopping the jig one step every two seconds near bottom and close to pilings. Continue doing so back and forth. The near-vertical action usually fetches greater interest from snook, trout and the like than just soaking baits.
Graham Donaldson, manager of Pier 60 with an office in the bait house, said that annually about 250,000 visit the fishing end.
“Depending on the time of year, anglers catch Spanish and king mackerel, snook, trout, flounder, cobia, sheepshead, tarpon, jacks, sharks and occasionally grouper,” he said. “The water depth averages 13 to 15 feet and it’s mostly sand bottom with scattered rocks and remnants of a sunken reef.”
Plan your trips on weekdays rather than weekends to ensure more elbow room and fewer line tangles. Best Pier 60 fishing takes place November through April. “In the hotter months, fish tend to move to deeper water in the Gulf,” said Donaldson, adding that even when water temps become warm good catches still occur around dawn and dusk.
The pier itself casts shade, but fishing down under demands doing so with rod in hand to quickly react if a strike so as to quickly work the fish away from pilings. I swear, snook seem to instinctively know that a piling is no friend of fishing line.
As always, current is crucial because it transports baitfish and other edibles, enabling non-pelagic fish to conserve calories by letting the entrées come to them.
Bob Holmin moved to Clearwater three weeks ago from Minnesota, and already he’s a Pier 60 regular. I saw him nail a bonnethead shark using a chunk of squid on a knocker rig – the de rigueur terminal tackle on Pier 60. It comprises a medium spin rod and reel with 20- to 30-pound monofilament line, and fluorocarbon leader connected to the line with a swivel. Above the swivel I add a bead and generally a two-ounce egg sinker. The bead helps prevent the sinker from fraying the swivel knot.
An egg sinker allows line to slide through when a fish strikes and swims off. If a pyramid or other type of solid sinker is fixed to the line or leader, fish usually spit out the offering when it feels resistance. Braided lines tend to tangle when meeting barnacle-laden pilings, so I’ve found monofilament more forgiving.
Freelining live baits in a mild current or fishing them on bottom usually outperforms cut baits. Pier 60 doesn’t sell live bait, but you can catch your own or buy it. Convenient to Pier 60 for livies is the Bait House across the street at the east end of the Clearwater City Marina. They charge $3.99 per dozen for shrimp and $8.99 per dozen for pinfish. Call ahead to reserve at 727-446-8134.
At Pier 60 I bring a loaded tackle box and three rods: one for catching live bait on a Sabiki rig or a #10 gold hook, one with a knocker rig and the other with a lure. Preferred locations: the corners at the end of the pier where it forms a T.
Arrive before sunset if night fishing to claim a location above one of the many pier lights. As with all night lights, they attract minnows and other small fish, and we know what that means.
A productive snook tactic at night when there’s sufficient moonlight is to fish the pier shadow. Cast beyond the shadow and hop a tipped jig just off bottom – you’ll probably catch more snook that way than anyone else.
It’s a good play to call Pier 60 when you’re planning to visit and speak with one of the employees at the bait house – they’re all affable and willing to advise as to what’s hitting on which baits and to recommend the appropriate terminal tackle.
Pier 60 Potpourri
- No fishing licenses needed at piers.
- All state fishing regulations apply: myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational.
- Always make sure of clearance behind you when casting.
- Keep a respectful distance from others even if they’re catching fish.
- When a fish makes a run, ask nearby anglers to reel in because they don’t want tangled lines either; be willing to extend the same courtesy.
- Use a drop net to hoist fish rather than a treble hook on heavy line to enable injury-free releases.
- Not allowed: fishing under the pier from the beach, alcohol, pets or diving.
- Boats must maintain a distance of at least 100 feet.
- To lessen attracting sharks near the beach, no chumming of any kind is allowed.
- Don’t leave a mess – clean your spot before leaving.
One of the great assets of fishing Pier 60 is that it’s amid one of the America’s best-rated beaches, surrounded by the enticing city of Clearwater – my hometown. Check out ColorfulClearwater.com, a blog that brings to life the people and events around town, and visitstpeteclearwater.com for details about accommodations, dining, night life and tourist attractions.
I ask just one favor: If you see me on Pier 60 dangling a crab next to a piling, fetch a drop net because I promise you’re going to witness a wild and wooly sheepshead show.
A Peerless Pier
In 1926, the U.S. War Department filed an application to build a pier in Clearwater Beach and did so in 1937 when the winds of war stirred. Known as the Municipal Pier, it became obsolete – likely victim of wood construction.
A new pier was needed that could better withstand the ravages of winds and tide. On June 28, 1962, such occurred. Made of concrete with rebar reinforcements, Pier 60 came into being.
Structural maintenance occurred in 1994. “Replacement of pilings became necessary because the concrete was spalling due to the ribar rusting,” said Gary Johnson, who at that time served as Clearwater’s Engineering Project Coordinator. “That’s very common in reinforced concrete structures over saltwater.”
Renovations took place in 2018 as well. Operated by the City of Clearwater, it’s become a premier tourist attraction.
Even before you step onto the pier, three pavilions are home to an extensive kids’ playground as well as street entertainers daily from 6 to 9 p.m. (sunsetsatpier60.com). A snack bar serves burgers, fries, ice cream, sodas and such. At sunset, vendor tables set up along the first segment of the pier offering crafts, souvenirs and curios.
No fishing is allowed off the first half of the 1,080-foot pier, but it presents a lovely vista of beachgoers below and seabirds above. It’s all-the-more thrilling with occasional sightings of dolphjns, manta rays and manatees. Three covered shelters with benches offer a shaded respite, and you’ll hear lots of languages spoken that makes for an international merging of mirthful people.
A large store separates the front and back reaches of Pier 60. Besides sundries, clothes and souvenirs, you can buy fishing gear and tackle.
To go beyond the store and access the pier extending farther into the Gulf, you pay $1 per person if just watching the action and $8 per person if fishing. A medium spinning rod and reel with a knocker rig can be rented for $8; it’s $4 for an 8-ounce bag of frozen shrimp or finger mullet, or a 1-pound bag of frozen squid. An inclusive $20 package and discounts for kids and seniors are provided.
Two drop nets aid in hauling up catches (free use with ID provided) along with a bait bucket – aerators and batteries available for purchase. You can bring your own tackle, bait, cooler and chairs with a maximum of three rods per person.
Besides covered shelters, the fishing portion of Pier 60 provides numerous cutting boards as well as receptacles for trash and fishing line. A fillet table is provided with a hose and running water.
Parking costs $3 per hour at the adjacent city-owned lot, which during peaks time is full. Additional parking can be found nearby if you don’t mind a short hike to the pier. If bringing a lot of gear, invest in a fishing cart. You can also access Pier 60 from area locations on the Jolley Trolley (clearwaterjolleytrolley.com, 727-445-1200) or by ferry (clearwaterferry.com, 727-755-0297).
Pier 60 is usually open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., but those hours can vary seasonally. 7 Causeway Blvd., Clearwater Beach, www.myclearwater.com/government/city-departments/marine-aviation/pier-60, 727-462-6466.
Pier 60 Put-On
While in high school in 1967-68, Clearwater resident James Mason fished Pier 60 for Spanish mackerel with friends. “One of them made a jar of pickled mackerel and it tasted fantastic,” said Mason. “I asked for the recipe and at first he said no due to it being a “family secret,” but finally relented. Fast forward to the early 1990s when I brought pickled herring to a friend’s home for dinner. I told him the story about it originally being someone’s family secret. He laughed and showed me an old book by fishing writer Herb Allen that included the recipe. My old friend had scammed me!”
A Matter of Convenience
Rex Smith from Tampa has owned many boats over the years, but now and then prefers a jaunt to Pier 60. “It’s easier at times to not deal with trailering, unloading and loading at a marina, plus there’s the cost to fill the gas tank.
“On the pier, there’s all the conveniences you want right at hand with no salt spray or hassles,” said Smith, who’s been a Pier 60 visitor for over 30 years. “If you go early or late in the day when the tide is right, you can do well. I’ve caught snook, reds and trout on the same outing, and even if I only catch junk fish, it’s peaceful and easy on the body. I usually bring a friend so we can alternate handling the drop net.”
They come from all over! Snapshots from Pier 60 memory book.
This article originally appeared in Florida Sportsman Magazine in February 2022 and was republished with their permission. Feature photo by Kelly S. Kelly.