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Natural gas line more like pipe dream for anglers

Big red grouper are one of the many target species living along the Pipeline and its mitigation sites. Wesley Chapel angler Kevin Crofton, left, and his father, Duwayne Crofton, carry plenty of live and frozen baits when they hit the pipe.

DAVID A. BROWN | Special to the Times

Big red grouper are one of the many target species living along the Pipeline and its mitigation sites. Wesley Chapel angler Kevin Crofton, left, and his father, Duwayne Crofton, carry plenty of live and frozen baits when they hit the pipe.

Fishing was not the primary consideration, but the sport certainly benefits from the Gulfstream Natural Gas Pipeline.

Built to bring clean-burning fuel from the Northern Gulf to Florida markets, "the Pipe," as it's known, has added a massive reef system that attracts a diverse array of sport fish.

The lineup varies with season, conditions and depth, but the list of likelies includes red grouper, gag grouper, scamp, amberjack, kingfish, barracuda, mangrove snapper, red snapper, yellowtail snapper, lane snapper, vermilion snapper, triggerfish and grunts. Even pelagic like wahoo and tuna occasionally patrol the Pipe.

Forage species like blue runners, cigar minnows and spots enhance the attraction by offering a good source for anglers seeking live baits.

Pipeline particulars

The 691-mile Pipeline begins at the Alabama-Mississippi border, runs southeast toward Florida, jogs around the Middlegrounds and the Steamboat Lumps Marine Conservation Area and continues into Tampa Bay, where it plugs into a routing station at Port Manatee. From there, the pipeline reaches across the state to its East Coast facility in Indiantown.

Essentially a 36-inch diameter welded steel tube with concrete overlay, the Pipeline with its various linking joints and emergency shut-off stations offers attractive habitat for deep-water denizens.

Environmental permitting said that the Pipe had to be buried from 200 feet and shoreward. Where bottom density prohibited digging, the Pipe sits beneath rock piles. Past 200 feet, the exposed tube reaches roughly diagonally northwestward.

Mitigation sites — piles of 1-ton limestone boulders planted to offset the unavoidable destruction of natural habitat — provide periodic oases of concentrated angling action. Smaller cement reef modules spread along the Pipeline's course further enhance the habitat.

Locate the action

Idle over the structure and look for "shows" of fish on your bottom recorder. Not every inch of Pipeline will produce huge catches 24/7, but targeting areas of high probability maximizes your time.

Look for the large, dense marks that indicate big fish, but also take note of the big blobs that mean bait schools. Predators follow the food.

Keeping the Pipeline and its related structures directly under your boat is never a bad strategy. However, occasionally snooping around the adjacent areas may turn up an unexpected sweet spot on a ledge or rock pile.

When populations become too dense on one site, some of the fish will venture off to find a new structure. Also, fish will retreat to nearby spots when fishing pressure on their main deal intensifies.

With the Pipeline or peripheral spots, test the site with a "drift drop" — cut the engine, drop baits and let your drifting boat pull them across the structure. If you're marking fish but they won't bite, it's probably not worth anchoring.

Tip: Some of the best Pipeline fishing occurs a couple of days after a patch of rough weather. High seas keep boats at the dock and after several days of no fishing, the fish are usually very cooperative.

What to drop

Conventional gear in the 50- to 80-pound class serves the general bottom fishing effort. Snapper seekers often fish medium-heavy spinning outfits with 30- to 40-pound line, but if a big grouper takes a liking to that rig, you'll have your hands full.

You can't go wrong with slip sinker rigs comprising 4- to 8-ounce weights (determined by depth and current), 60- to 80-pound fluorocarbon leader connected with swivels and 6/0-8/0 circle hooks. Use 4- to 5-foot leaders for live bait and 3-footers for dead baits.

Live baits often yield the biggest fish, but starting with dead baits puts more scent in the water, plus it starts a show that does the advertising for you. Keeper fish will eat frozen squid, sardines or Boston mackerel, but the smaller reef rats will buzz around the stinky stuff and all that commotion grabs the interest of larger predators.

Once you get the party rocking, diversify your offering by rigging live pinfish or sardines on a couple of rods. When dead baits yield small porgies, grunts, spots or vermilion snapper, rig these meaty baits on your heaviest rods and get ready for something big.

Even on the Pipeline, a good bite can suddenly stop. Fish are like that, but the good thing about this continuous marine highway is that groups of fish are constantly moving along its single lane.

If you're confident with your spot, have patience. The next carload of hungry travelers may be just up the road.

For Pipeline coordinates, refer to Waterproof Chart #155F ( Covering Clearwater to Venice, this chart provides reference points for the pipeline from Tampa Bay out past 200 feet.

Natural gas line more like pipe dream for anglers 08/28/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 28, 2009 4:30am]
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