How to Fish Docks and Piers

Try these tips to find fish under those docks and piers you want to fish

Photo © Ron Brooks
Dock Fishing. Photo © Ron Brooks

Docks and piers are both forms of structure in the water. They are all very similar and we fish them in a similar manner. I like to think of them as an underwater structure that is sticking up above the water line. They are sort of like underwater structure that you can see.


Both of these types of structure are easy to locate - you can see them!! The piers and docks are obviously attached to the shore. That necessarily means you will usually be fishing in the relatively calm water. Someone says, "Hey, what about the ocean fishing piers - that's not calm water!" Well, first of all, you have no business fishing close to an ocean fishing pier. In some cases it is against the law; in all cases it is dangerous. There are people with heavy lead weights fishing right where you want to fish!!

So, the docks and piers I am talking about are inshore, in an inlet, waterway, river, or creek.

Tidal Influence

Tides run in and out all day long - ceasing only for as very short time at the peak of the high tide and the bottom of the low tide to change directions. These tidal flows are important factors when fishing a pier or dock.

  • DepthWater depth is important because where there is no water, they will be no fish. Tidal changes can range from only a couple of feet in the Gulf of Mexico to as much as 12 feet or more on the Maine coast. And, that variance can be revealing. Along the Georgia coast, the tide difference is around 8 feet on an average basis. Thirty miles south of the Georgia state line, that changes to around four feet. Some docks and piers are completely high and dry at low tide. In other cases, there is substantial water under a dock at low tide. These are the docks to look for. These are the docks that will hold fish.
  • DirectionAs I said, the tide is either running in or out. The water is either rising or falling. I generally like to fish the last of the outgoing tide all the way to low tide, and then the first hour or so of the incoming tide. I catch more fish at that tide stage because I believe the fish are more prone to feed then. Lower water means that baitfish can't get back into the shallows that a high tide creates along the shore. So, I find a dock or pier that has water under it at low tide and I look to be there around two hours before low tide.
  • AgeThis may be an odd piece of information for some anglers, but I also look for the older docks or piers. New wooden docks and pilings are generally full of creosote or some other preservative - and I just believe that stuff runs off the fish. While concrete piers don't have that chemical problem, both the concrete and wood docks that are new are void of any sea life.
    • Barnacles!! That's the key to an old dock. Barnacles draw other marine life. "Baby "everything" lives in and around the barnacles. Some pilings will have small clusters of oysters on them - we used to call them "coon oysters" because the raccoons would get to them at low tide and have a feast. You can find juvenile crabs, minnows, crustaceans - it's a regular nursery on a pole. And where you have that kind of animal life you have the beginning of a miniature food chain in one location.
    • Can fish be caught on new docks? Certainly, but by far I catch more fish on the older docks that hold the food pantry!

Fishing Methods

Using a trolling motor or anchoring, the idea is to remain stationary and allow your bait to do the moving. Lots of boats now use an anchoring pole system. Whatever the device, you need to position your boat either parallel and next to the dock or piling, or up-current from the dock or piling. You want to fish to the pilings so that your bait moves away from you and down to or alongside the structure.

  • Free LiningThe free lining is basically allowing your bait to naturally drift with the current down to and under the pilings or dock. I rig a hook with an 18-inch fluorocarbon leader and no weight or float. I use a double surgeon's knot to tie the leader to my line, so there is no swivel to distract the fish. I like to use live bait with this method - let a live shrimp or mud minnow or mullet simply move with the current from the boat to or alongside the dock. I free line on a dock that is relatively shallow - say three or four feet or water.
  • Floating a BaitI like to use a float rig when I want the bait to remain at a certain depth as it passes under or close to the dock or piling. Sometimes fish - particularly sea trout - will hold at a certain depth. Float the bait back to them at the depth they are holding and - wham, the float goes under. You may have to experiment to find that "right" depth.
    I use the float rigs around docks and pilings that are relatively deep - say 10 to 12 feet or more.
  • Bottom FishingOn some docks, I simply put a bait on the bottom close to the dock. Some fish - red drumflounderblack drum - are bottom feeders, and they will readily take a bait on the bottom. While live bait is definitely my preference, don't overlook fresh cut bait - mullet is a good choice - and bury your hook in a cleanly cut piece. Believe it or not, you will catch more fish and a clean bait - one that is freshly cut and neatly trimmed - than you will a ragged slope of fish filet.
    You need to make sure you place your bait as close to the structure as possible. These fish will position themselves on the back side of a piling or pole where the current is less strong. They wait there looking for food to come by. Flounder and fluke are masters at this ambush game.

Head Up Warnings

  • Most private docks and piers will have "private" things around them. I mean in the water on the bottom. Lots of dock owners put out crab or bait traps. They may have dropped this year's Christmas Tree under the dock hoping to attract fish. Whatever the case, be aware that there is likely to be something down there close to the dock that will snag your line.
  • Quiet!!! You are in a comparatively close quarter to the fish when you are fishing docks and pilings. The water is probably down toward low tide, and shallow. Any noise you make can and will be transmitted through the hull of the boat and through the water. Sound travels an amazing distance through water - even your loud voice! So - rig for silent fishing is the order of the day when you are up in a creek fishing docks. Those metal pliers hitting the bottom of the boat are like a rifle shot going off under the water. The fish spook and your catch are gone! And - you don't have to whisper, but you certainly don't want to be yelling.

On most of my inshore fishing, docks and pilings are the primary targets - but only when the tide is right. I watch the tide and move to the old docks when it gets about half way down. You can easily do the same thing - and these tactics hold true in almost every state. Try them.