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WITHIN REACH

As the sun rose over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on Jan. 1, 2005, Frank Marrapodi was exactly where he wanted to be.

"I try to make it out here three or four times a week," the 81-year-old said as he jigged for glass minnows off the Gulf Fishing Pier. "When all else fails you can always find bait at Fort De Soto."

Marrapodi, like many die-hard pier fisherman, once owned a boat.

"I had a 32-footer that I had built in Norway," he said. "I used to fish offshore Long Island, deep water, all the time."

But Marrapodi sold the custom craft when he moved to Florida nine years ago. He enjoys the convenience of being able to drive up to the pier and fish, regardless of how hard it is blowing offshore.

"Because we have two piers (Bay and Gulf), you can usually get out of the wind on one of them," park supervisor Jim Wilson said. "The anglers love it."

During the winter, when cold fronts roll through the area on a weekly basis, anglers can get their fishing fix by hitting any one of Pinellas County's piers.

Several, including Fort De Soto's county-run facilities and the state fishing piers built atop the foundations of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge, have professionally designed artificial reefs that draw bait and game fish within casting reach of the spans.

Clearwater's Big Pier 60 has a cast of regulars, as does Redington Long Pier, where anglers catch everything from king mackerel to tarpon.

"I make it down here about four or five times a year when I visit the inlaws," said James Abbot, a 64-year-old angler from Homosassa. "I always have luck."

Cincinnati's Mike Discepoli, also in Florida visiting relatives for the holidays, slipped out of the house New Year's morning to see if he could keep his winning streak going.

"The last few days I have been catching a lot of pompano off the pier," he said. "Most of them have been keepers."

Wilson, an avid angler who often fishes from a kayak in Fort De Soto's sheltered backcountry, said the park's "regulars" are in tune with the seasons.

January marks the start of sheepshead season. Fort De Soto's Bay Pier, the older of the two piers, has wooden pilings, and as a result more barnacles.

"The pier is loaded with sheepshead," said Wilson, who checks on the fishermen every day. "This is the time of year when they really start to turn on."

In a couple of months big schools of bait will begin to flow back into the bay. Large schools of Spanish mackerel won't be far behind.

"I catch bait now, stick it in my freezer and then use it when the mackerel are running," Marrapodi said.

A by-product of Spanish mackerel fishing is an occasional kingfish.

"I have hooked four or five over the years," he said. "They usually don't stay on very long, but I have managed to land a few."

Marrapodi's biggest kingfish was 22 pounds. "Not bad consider I was using 12-pound test and 15-pound leader," he said.

Anglers on Redington Long Pier and the North and South Skyway fishing piers land large tarpon, snook and king mackerel on a regular basis.

And just minutes after being interviewed, Abbott, the angler from Homosassa, lost a huge spotted sea trout off Fort De Soto's Gulf Pier.

"When they get that big they are hard to bring up," he said. "I had a couple of other guys helping me, but it just broke the line."

Abbott didn't seem too concerned. There are worse ways to bring in the New Year.

"It is just great being out here," he said. "You can't beat it."

As the winter wears on, fishermen will continue to flock to Pinellas County's piers, keeping their skills sharp for spring.

"As the weather warms, the fishing will only get better," said Wilson, the park supervisor. "Spring is always our most popular season out here."

Up next:GOINGS ON

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