ST. PETERSBURG — Whenever Jamie Foster meets a first-timer in the bait shop of the twin Skyway Fishing Piers, she stops what she's doing and thanks them for stopping by.
"This is a family-friendly pier," she says. "And you won't find a better value. Your $4 pass is good for 24 hours, so why don't you hang around, enjoy the sunset, then come back tomorrow morning and do a little fishing."
Foster, who works for the company that manages the pier for the state, knows what she's talking about. Her family has managed the Skyway and other fishing piers around Florida for more than 20 years.
"This is a great place where you can come and fish every day and not break your budget," she said. "You can catch just as many fish as an angler in a boat."
With kingfish, Spanish mackerel, snapper, grouper (and let's not forget sharks) caught on a regular basis, you won't find many better man-made structures from which to fish.
So it's not surprising that the folks from Take Me Fishing, a nonprofit organization whose sole mission is to increase participation in recreational fishing and boating, picked the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park as one of the Top 100 "Family Friendly" places to boat and fish in the United States.
The Skyway Fishing Pier, which came in at No. 3, was one of five Florida locations to make the top 10. The others include Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key (No. 2), Everglades National Park, Homestead (No. 4), Lake Kissimmee State Park, Lake Wales (No. 5) and Blue Springs State Park, Orange City (No. 8).
"We looked at several factors in coming up with the rankings, including amenities, public access and the number of fish species available," said David Rodgers, a spokesman for Take Me Fishing. "We then put the nominees out on our website and our social media site and let the public pick."
The fishing piers were once part of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge that was built in 1954 to connect St. Petersburg with Palmetto. In 1969 a second similar span was constructed alongside the 1954 structure to accommodate southbound traffic while the original bridge was converted to northbound traffic.
During a violent storm on May 9, 1980 the freighter Summit Venture hit a bridge support, causing 1,200 feet of the center to collapse, killing 35 people. The original 1954 span was converted back to carrying two-way traffic. A new Sunshine Skyway bridge was completed in 1987.
The center spans of the old bridges were then demolished and removed and the approaches were renovated to create the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park. The St. Petersburg side opened in 1994 and is a half-mile long. The Palmetto side is 1½ miles long and opened in 1996.
"This place is really something special," said Tom Watson, assistant manager for the state park. "While there may only be 2 miles of pier, we like to say that's 4 miles of fishing. And as far as I know, it is the largest fishing pier in the world."
The Skyway, like most fishing piers, has its cast of regulars. There's Big Mike McGrath, the unofficial "Captain of the North" fishing pier and Jim "Jitterbug" Phillips, who most days is behind the counter of the bait shop, offering free advice and telling fish tales.
"I've had some pretty memorable catches out here over the years," said Phillips, who honed his angling skills as a boy on the St. Petersburg Pier. "But the one everybody always wants to hear about is the lemon shark."
Tampa Bay is known for its big sharks — lemons, bulls, even the occasional great hammerhead. The twin Skyway Fishing Piers, located at the mouth of the bay, see them all swim by sooner or later.
It was a spring evening three years ago when Phillips and some friends tossed a large cownose ray off the south span of the pier and let it drift with the outgoing tide toward the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Around 10:30 p.m. a 16/0 reel rigged to a rod thicker than a pool cue bent over to the rubble below.
"The shark had grabbed a bait and it probably ran a quarter mile out to the end of the pier, with us chasing it," Phillips said. "Now this was a big reel, and I was harnessed, so every time we came to a light pole, I had to unhook myself, hand the rod to a friend around the pole, and then hook back in and keep fighting the fish."
Phillips got to the end of the pier and then the shark swam back toward land. So he repeated the procedure — light pole by light pole — until they finally landed the 11-foot lemon shark on the rocks at the base of the bridge.
"We just looked at it for a while, but I am a conservationist so we cut the line and watched it swim away," Phillips said. "But it just goes to show — out here on the Skyway Fishing Pier, you never know what you are going to catch."
The Skyway Fishing Pier State Park is open every day. Last year 212,306 people stopped by to fish. Admission for 24 hours is $4 per car plus $4 per adult and $2 for children 12 and under. For information, go to floridastateparks.com.