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By Jennifer Michaels

Entertaining kids on a budget when traveling is a challenge I welcome. It’s always fun to stumble upon activities that keep little ones entertained, but cost less than taking the entire brood out to dinner. On a recent West Coast Florida vacation, I discovered how to have the night of a lifetime for four with a budget of less than $50.

Our adventure-seeking on the beaches of St. Petersburg/Clearwater led us to Pier 60, which jets out into the Gulf of Mexico. We stumbled upon an experience as exciting as spending a half day on an expensive offshore charter. Pinellas County owns the bragging rights to some of the best fishing in the Sunshine State and we decided to find out why.

In a one-hour span, my 7-year-old son caught 13 fish (He was, of course, intent on counting how many more he pulled in than his 10-year-old brother.) The little guy also decided to bring his biggest "prize" home wrapped in a plastic newspaper bag to show Grandma, who wasn’t too happy to discover a dead trout in her freezer that didn’t comefrom the grocery store!

We owe our success and discovery of this low-cost activity to a Pier 60 volunteer named Tom Karambelas, who has been passionately helping tourists and locals discover what the local salt waters have to offer. He’s been a regular on the pier for more than a decade, heading out in the evenings to teach kids how to find patience and a love of the outdoors.

It didn’t start out so easily for us. You see, we spent one entire aimless afternoon on the same pier with nothing to show for it. We watched as the more skilled set pulled up dozens of striped sheepshead fish that looked good enough to eat. We even saw a 5-year-old girl catch a pinfish with a SpongeBob fishing pole. (Now, that was depressing!)

Sensing our disappointment and frustration, the man we now call our "fishing angel" introduced himself to us.

"Come out here at night, and I’ll guarantee you’ll catch tons of fish. I’ll show you exactly what to do," Tom assured us.

So, the next night around 6:30 p.m., just before the sun set into the Gulf, armed in disbelief, we came. Wondering if this "man with promises of fish" would show up, we trudged down the pier with our two hopeful boys. We figured if nothing else, we would enjoy the salty breezes and fresh air we can’t get enough of since we flew south from Chicago.

City folks like us were a bit skeptical that this volunteer fishing assistant, who shows up simply to help the less fortunate fisherman master his hobby, would actually solve our woes.

Sure enough, Tom was true to his word. With our $7.25 rental rods and a pack of $3.00 squid from the bait and tackle shop at the end of the pier, the fishing was better than a stocked lake. The fishing fee is $6.30 per adult, $5.25 for seniors and $5 per child under the age of 11. Observers pay a minimal $.50 fee.

Tom rigged our rods with double hooks (the smaller hook the better for kids and first-timers) and small chunks of squid. (I certainly won’t be dining on calamari any time soon!)

The minute my son dropped his line, he pulled up a butterfish. Within the hour, he had caught numerous catfish – and even a silver trout. Patience is the virtue my kids often lack, so this quick-to-catch sport brought lots of smiles.

An added bonus in that the pier offers free "Sunsets at Pier 60," featuring free nightly entertainment, crafts, music and street performers. The kids enjoyed watching fire jugglers and performing street monkeys in between catches.

After fishing, celebrate like the locals with some fried Oreos (for $3.95) and some homemade key lime pie ($3.95) from Frenchy’s Original Cafe not too far down the road.

If you do go Clearwater Beach night fishing, don’t forget to ask for Tom. You won’t make the kids a promise you can’t keep if you tell them the fish will bite!

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Jennifer Michaels is the owner of where she aims to help parents simplify travel with kids. She is the former Family Travel Expert for VISITFLORIDA and writes guest blogs for

Tagged: Family time, Florida

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