Fisherman casts away the night at the Sunshine Skyway fishing pier

ST. PETERSBURG — Skyway Fishing Pier State Park, at the mouth of Tampa Bay, is a democratic place. It is a poem and a curse, a bouquet of smells bad and good, a place where the rich and poor rub elbows, where laughing gulls laugh and leviathan grouper lurk among the pilings, plotting, always plotting.

Mostly the state park — a long pier on the Manatee County side of the bay and a shorter pier in Pinellas — is a place for second chances. If you didn't catch a fish yesterday, you might get lucky today. If you lost your way in your old life, perhaps you will find it again in your current one.

William "Scooter" Robinson, whose vantage point is from a wheelchair, knows this.

He broke his back a quarter century ago. His doctors told him correctly that would never walk again, but the news still came as a shock. He lost his job, his wife, his self-esteem.

Look at him now. He is the unofficial mayor of the Skyway Pier State Park, the go-to guy for everything from bait to a kind word. He will show you how to rig up to catch a kingfish. His Honor will listen to your gripes about how the world is treating you, though at some point he might advise, "Quit feeling sorry for yourself.''

One more thing.

The mayor of a fishing pier has to know how to catch a fish.

"He could catch a grouper in my toilet,'' says pier regular Rick Dittman. "He jokes about being a cripple. Cripple my a--.''

• • •

Scooter, who received his nickname as a diaper-wearing rug rat, likes to fish when the tide is low and when the tide is high, when the tide is flowing toward Tampa and when the tide is flowing toward Egmont Channel. He likes to fish in the rain and in 30-degree weather.

"The main thing is I want my tide to be moving,'' he says. "The fish like a moving tide and it makes them want to eat.''

"Zzz . . . zzz . . . zzz.'' That could be the sound of a slow-moving grouper, swimming off with his bait and drawing line from his reel.

"Zzzzzzz.'' A torpedo-shaped kingfish doesn't mosey. Its jet-plane speed makes his reel sing.

"ZZZ!'' Splash. "ZZZ!" Splash. Large and as wild as a bucking bronco, a tarpon punctuates runs with spectacular leaps.

"ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!''

Sometimes a gargantuan shark devours his bait and steams toward Mexico. His reel buzzes, screams, smokes.

Scooter, a salty 47, doesn't need to see the fish to figure out what he has on the end of his line. He can tell by the sound of his reel. He can tell by the way his rod bends. He can tell by the time of the year, by the phase of the moon, by the tide, by the bait he has chosen.

"Hey, can you guarantee me a grouper today?'' asks a pier regular.

"Hey, bubba. You forget how to fish?'' Scooter asks back.

He caught his first fish at age 4 when he followed his commercial-fishing granddaddy around like a puppy. Fishing ruined him for school; he was a seventh-grade dropout. As an adult, he tried scheduling construction jobs around his fishing.

He fished from boats and from seawalls, but his specialty was bridge and pier angling. A Tampa resident, he liked soaking his bait at the Courtney Campbell and Gandy bridges, Clearwater's Big Pier 60 and the Sunshine Skyway.

The Sunshine Skyway was built in 1954. It was revamped in 1969. A freighter crashed into the bridge during a rainstorm in 1980. The middle fell into the bay and 35 people died.

Bridges can have second chances, too.

The new 5 1/2-mile Skyway was finished in 1987, and sections of the previous bridge became the new fishing pier. The old Skyway Bridge and now the Skyway piers have long been great places to catch corpulent grouper, gamey tarpon and monster shark. Someone, somehow, managed to land a 1,200-pound tiger shark in the 1960s. In 1977, an eccentric denizen named Ron Swint began fishing from the bridge for "Old Hitler,'' his nickname for what he claimed was a too-big-to-be-true 20-foot hammerhead. "I'll catch him or die trying,'' he told people. Swint died a year later by his own hand. Tampa Bay anglers dream about the white whale, Old Hitler, even now.

On any given day, more than 50,000 vehicles hurry across the bay on the Sunshine Skyway, possibly passing above Old Hitler. And on any given day, Scooter Robinson can be found a few hundred yards west, rolling along the pier in his wheelchair as he goes about his work.

• • •

Scooter likes to tell people, "You can see anything from the pier.''

Sad people jump 193 feet to their deaths from the tallest point on the Skyway. He sees their bodies and calls the Coast Guard. He sees people distributing ashes of loved ones. He sees artists painting pictures of the birds. He sees giant manta rays, brave paddlers in kayaks, sharks swimming behind the kayaks, dolphin swimming behind the sharks and man-of-war birds soaring above the drama below.

Out on the pier, Scooter builds bait tanks, explains the importance of the moon and tides to nimrods, lends his cell phone and orders small-minded anglers to return undersized fish to the sea. Recently a wide-eyed naif asked where he intended to fish. "I'm thinking of trying the water tonight,'' he replied.

John Steinbeck would have loved the Sunshine Skyway and Scooter Robinson the way he loved Cannery Row and his novel's main character, Doc.

At the pier, as in Cannery Row, everybody knows everybody else's business. Folks laugh, argue, jabber, tease. Grizzled, chain-smoking regulars try to tolerate the more genteel tourists who arrive in SUVs and don't know diddly about fishing.

The pier smells of rancid bait, fish blood, body odor and yesterday's chicken salad sandwiches. Scooter's nose long ago stopped noticing.

Sometimes the black wheels of his chair turn white from seabird excrement. Pelicans, like homeless men, wait for good fortune to smile upon them. Pier policy forbids feeding the birds, but some anglers disobey.

Old men in filthy ball caps sit on the curb and fall asleep, fishing rods propped between legs, feet braced on the pier railings. A woman sunbathes on a blanket; a young angler text-messages between bites.

At night, hard core working-class people replace the daytime tourists and retirees. Sometimes Scooter notices parked vans rocking romantically. One time he saw a passionate couple making love in the open.

Those who distrust babysitters bring their babies, who nap in portable cribs shaded by umbrellas. Mom reels in an 18-inch ladyfish that dad might later use as bait — if he has the nerve. Large animals with large appetites dwell in the dark under the pier.

Sometimes, when Scooter is reeling in a handsome grouper, something prehistoric and ominous materializes from the gloom and swallows his trophy as if it were a Junior Mint. A goliath grouper, as the species is called, can weigh 500 pounds.

"Here's what it's like to have one on your line,'' Scooter says. "It feels like you have the bottom, only the bottom is moving. It feels like maybe you've hooked a pickup truck driving away in low gear. And the thing is, the goliath don't even know he's hooked.''

Zzz, zzz, zzz.

"He'll go under the pier and get between the pilings. You ain't going to pull him out of there.''

Scooter, who has a powerful upper body, has tried. A couple of times, he has felt a goliath lifting him from his wheelchair. When the line pops, it's a relief.

• • •

Scooter once caught an 18-pound black grouper, enough for a couple dozen sandwiches. He caught a 19-pound snook, a 14-pound cobia and a 9-pound mangrove snapper. He caught a 75-pound tarpon and a 40-pound kingfish. He landed a 200-pound bullshark.

All this from his wheelchair.

The wheelchair became his legs in 1984. Working construction, he was on a crew installing a heavy gazebo in a Tampa back yard. Edging it off the trailer, the crew misjudged the tipping point. An older and experienced worker would have jumped out of the way. Scooter was 23 and thought he could handle the gazebo. He can describe the sound of his spine cracking to this day.

He was in the hospital for a year. His powerful body withered away. He fell into a deep depression. His 20-year-old wife, already caring for their infant son, was overwhelmed. After their marriage ended Scooter comforted himself in unhealthy ways. It took a while, but he beat his addictions.

Fishing helped complete the exorcism of the demons. "Maybe I substituted one addiction for another,'' he says. "But at least fishing is healthy.'' Fueled by Mountain Dew, he spends 70 hours a week at the pier, including two late-night shifts a week when he sells bait.

• • •

Around midnight, the mayor of the Sunshine Skyway parks his 2003 Ford van next to the baithouse. He taps a button, the door slides open, and the van's elevator lowers him and equipment to the pier deck.

He catches a bucket of hand-sized grunts known locally as pinfish. He impales a pinfish on a hook and lights a Marlboro. He has been trying to quit, but smoking a cigarette is part of his good-luck ritual after he throws out his line for the first time every night.

Other anglers amble over to chew the fat and to watch. Scooter, after all, is a good teacher of his craft.

The grunt drifts with the tide. Scooter keeps his thumb and forefinger on the line so he can feel the bait.

"Ah, it's nervous,'' he says.

Tonight's lesson: Pay attention to a nervous bait. Ask the question, "Why is that bait nervous? Is a shark circling? Is a goliath grouper emerging from the shadows?''

The bait settles down, and so does Scooter, who reels in his line, snuffs out his cigarette, looks at that dark water and teaches another lesson.

"They call it fishing. They don't call it catching. That's what keeps it interesting to me.''

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727)

893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.

. If you go

Skyway Fishing Pier State Park

Park is open 24 hours. Entrance fee is $3 per car, $10 for RV/camper. Call (727) 865-0668; www.

floridastateparks.org/skyway.

Fisherman casts away the night at the Sunshine Skyway fishing pier 06/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 5:45pm]

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