It offers the best fishing Tom Smith knows, luring him on a 50-mile round trip that takes him from Palmetto to St. Petersburg and its well-known Pier. Smith, 75, claims a special spot at the far end, in the shadow of the closed inverted pyramid that sits on the structure jutting more than 1,000 feet into Tampa Bay.
"I've been fishing out here for 20-something years and this is always been my favorite place," Smith said, leaning over the wooden fishing pier, his line cast expectantly in the waters below.
But for more than half a year, Smith's favorite place had been fenced off to keep trespassers from the shuttered Pier building and area around it. Change came with incoming Mayor Rick Kriseman — who has promised a new pier by 2015 — when he ordered the fence down and recently reopened the pierhead.
The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce applauds the move.
"We've all been concerned about the fence and the message it sends to our visitors, as well as the visual reminder to our residents that we still have much work to do," chamber president and chief executive officer Chris Steinocher said.
"I'm excited the mayor is making our Pier one of the early priorities and showing pride for how we are seen, as well as how we see ourselves."
Small sections of the fence still remain, however. They're to keep the public off the lower landing and dock areas, said David Metz, the city's director of downtown enterprise facilities.
"The reason is these areas may be unsafe and require repair work," he said.
But fences and 24-hour security can't prevent all mishaps. Seminole resident Lisa Ann Mitcherson, 25, drove through a security barricade and crashed into the inverted pyramid Wednesday. She was charged with DUI. The city will submit a claim to her insurance company for the more than $5,000 in damage, Metz said, adding that there are no plans to increase security.
Downtown residents Betsy Reynolds, Jean Platz and Gene Towery, who regularly incorporate the Pier into their morning walk, also are pleased with the increased access to those who want to fish, walk, jog and bike.
The women said they walk three days a week, in different directions, down Central Avenue, toward the Old Northeast and Snell Isle, and to the Pier. It's nice to have the area completely open again, they said.
Nearby, Wayne Waters, 55, in black rubber boots, hauled in a catch of about two dozen flapping mullet. Though he was casting his net along the Pier approach, Waters, a St. Petersburg native, also expressed pleasure that the area farther east had been reopened.
"Me and my father have breakfast on Sunday and then we walk around the Pier," he said. "I think they (closed) it prematurely."
Former Mayor Bill Foster's decision to close the inverted pyramid and its surround last May was supposed to be a precursor to a controversial replacement plan later rejected by voters. City officials must now determine whether to build a new pier or renovate the inverted pyramid some devotees are intent on saving.
But Pier politics weren't on Smith's mind as birds skimmed the water and he waited for his catch.
Outside the Pelican parking lot, a security guard sat ready to ward off vehicles forbidden beyond that point. And the Pier's popular pelicans, which only a few months earlier eagerly swooped in for fish handed out by humans, sat like sculptures on their perches.
A small group clad for warmer weather had chosen this particular day for a photo shoot. "It's a nice setting," said Sarah Rosplock, 27. "You don't have to do much."
Charles Arbeen, 55, who grew up in St. Petersburg, but now lives in Washington state, was rekindling memories.
"I just wanted to see what was going on here. I love the view out here," he said, adding though that he was "saddened by the state of the Pier."
The building itself remains tightly secured. The cost to maintain limited systems in the building, along with allowing access to the Pier approach and the recently reopened pierhead is about $30,000 a month. That includes maintenance and 24-hour security.
At his preferred spot, waiting patiently for sheepshead to bite, Smith hooked one. It measured 11 ¾ inches.
"They got to be 12 inches before you can keep them," he said, in reference to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regulations.
The fish went back in, but his enthusiasm didn't wane.
"I tried Anna Maria Island and other places close to me, but I don't like them as much as this," he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.