St. Lucie County Pompano Push
Winter brings great-eating fish within range of east coast surfcasters.
Ward Woodruff was in the weeds. For 30 minutes, he was reeling in pompano after pompano, while my rods remained still, just 20 yards down the beach. During that period, I ran through the full gamut of emotions, from inquisitive, to irate, frustrated, and finally, uncontrollable laughter.
“Don’t worry, they’ll be down your way when the tide comes in a little more,” consoled Woodruff. “The bar is too dry in front of you, but they’ll gradually move up on it to feed, so hang in there.”
That was like telling a dog not to catch a ball until it stops rolling. I’d hang out as long as I could, but if I had to watch much more, I was going to come unglued.
Sure as his prediction, one of my rods bent over about 10 minutes later, followed by a series of both rods bent, or waiting to be rebaited and cast. In less than 10 minutes, I had my 10-fish limit. (This is an archived article. New Florida regulations state that pompano limits are 6 per person per day, with a minimum size limit of 11 inches fork length.)
“You have to find the right water conditions,” explained Woodruff, as he rinsed his bag of sand fleas in the surf to wash the evening’s crud off the live crabs. “If the water is too clear, the fish bite at dawn, then shut down, and then the crabs eat your bait in the first few minutes. If it’s too dirty, the fish can’t find your bait, and don’t feel comfortable about their ability to escape predators like sharks or bluefish.”That was how the surf trip unfolded, as I tagged along with this veteran pompano fisherman while he moved from one end of the St. Lucie County line to the other, checking each beach for the right conditions to catch migrating pompano. By the time we found the fish, we were at the northern end of the county. North or south this time of year, everybody wants to know about surf fishing pompano.
The water Woodruff likes is a light blue or green hue, with a little stirred sediment. The water should be clear enough that you can easily see any rockpiles or submerged structure with a good pair of polarized glasses, but not gin clear, where the pompano can spot the 30-pound monofilament that makes up the standard pompano rig. “The ideal conditions are a 1- to 2-foot swell with not very much drift. The breaking waves stir up the sand on the bar, which exposes clams and crabs, and at the same time keeps the water clarity at about the right color,” said Woodruff.
Water quality, tide and bottom contour determine where Woodruff decides to fish, and like putting the pieces of a puzzle together, he sometimes ends up stumped. Days like our trip last February reflect the times the pieces all fit together.
Surf fishermen usually get started in November or December, when a good portion of the pompano population has moved into South Florida waters. The winter run lasts until the end of April, when the fish start heading back north and make their last strong push, before breaking up into smaller units that migrate north for the summer or become permanent Florida residents.
While Woodruff lives in Martin County, he prefers to fish the waters of St. Lucie County, starting just north of the Martin/St. Lucie county line.
“Martin County completed a beach re-nourishment project in April of 1996, that filled in a lot of the holes and covered the reef,” said Woodruff. “Now, every time there’s a hint of a wave, the replenished sand makes the water too murky to fish.”
The dredging project terminated at the northern end of Martin County, right at the St. Lucie County line, and the effects are immediately noticeable on the beach. For one thing, the width of the beach is smaller in St. Lucie County, but the water is cleaner, when only a few years back, it was the other way around. Rocky outcroppings are detectable in the trough, and there’s a well-defined sandbar roughly 40 yards from shore.
In Martin County, the sandbar is closer to the beach, and the trough has all but been eliminated and filled in with coarse, dark sand. In time, the sand will bleach out and distribute evenly to form a protective sandbar, but for now, its purpose is to guard against erosion.
The sandbar in St. Lucie County waters runs from the Martin/St. Lucie line to Fort Pierce Inlet, with intermittent breaks in continuity providing holes and swash channels for water to escape. North of the inlet, an inshore reefline runs all the way to Vero Beach, providing habitat for pompano as well as snapper, whiting, croakers and other nearshore species.
As for tide, the end of the incoming water through the beginning of the outgoing are the top times to fish most of the beaches. Some areas like the Radar Hole, north of Pepper Park, are low tide spots, where fish move off the reef and into the depression behind the structure as the water recedes. A high tide at dawn makes for optimum conditions, when low light may make up for clear water.
Woodruff starts his fishing trips long before the sun is up, usually heading to one of the beaches that had fish the previous day, or to the spot that had the best looking water the last time he was out. Either way, he has his rods set in 4-foot PVC rod holders pounded into the sand before daybreak. On the days when the fish are skittish, the best bite comes in the first hour of sunlight. Miss the bite, and you’ll be lucky to catch a single pompano, while the early birds may score four or five nice fish.
When the bite is in full swing, anglers fall into a rhythm, and can land a surprising number of fish in a short period. It’s the rare occasion that anyone has enough mouths to supply with a 10-fish limit–three or four fish are generally adequate for most households. Sometimes, however, it’s nice to put on a big family get-together with a pompano main course, such as the one I had planned when I fished with Woodruff on that successful morning last February.
Unlike the coastal communities to the south, St. Lucie County offers a good stretch of undeveloped land where public access is available in the form of small parking lots, dirt roads and public beaches. Most of the public beaches don’t allow fishing between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., when the bathers are utilizing the area, but there’s plenty of other options during the prime sun worshiping hours.
The beaches south of the St. Lucie II Nuclear Power Plant on South Hutchinson Island are popular fishing areas when there’s a current out of the north, and clean water is pushing the dredge sand from Martin County waters to the south. This same current brings dirty water south from Fort Pierce Inlet, murking up the beaches from the inlet to the Power Plant.
The 8-mile stretch of beach from the Power Plant to the Fort Pierce Inlet remains fairly undeveloped, with the exception of a small community just south of the inlet. This area receives minimal fishing pressure, and offers some of the best looking troughs and sandbars in the county. These beaches are best on southerly or easterly winds, and some of the more productive areas are the public streets in the developed areas that lead to small beach access strips.
North of Fort Pierce Inlet, the bottom topography turns from sandbar to reef. This type of structure holds fish when the water is exceptionally clean or the tide is low. Fish come onto the reef to pick up the small shrimp and crabs brought out to the reef with the tide.
If you plan to fish the reef structure, and aren’t familiar with the sand holes, it’s a good idea to use a lifter above the sinker to keep from snagging in the rocks. Lifters are 2- by 4-inch rectangular sections of plastic or sheet metal with a hole on each end. One end is attached to the snap at the bottom of the rig, the other to the line. When cranked, a lifter will bring the entire rig to the surface and away from the rocks.
When the time comes to put together a limit of pompano, it’s the little things that really pay dividends in more and larger fish.
Like most of the pros, Woodruff fishes with 131–2-foot, one-piece fiberglass Lamiglass surf rods and Ambassadeur 7000 conventional reels. The reels are modified by removing the levelwind and two of the four spool magnets, to increase overall casting distance.
On occasion, the extra 20 or 30 feet this affords makes all the difference in the world, but for the average angler, a surf rod of similar size and the same reel or a spinning reel will put the bait out far enough to catch fish. If you’re not going to modify the conventional reel, it’s a good idea to go with the spinning reels for convenience, and because you never know who might be handling the rod.
Over the years, I can think of more than a dozen occasions where I’ve had my hands full fighting a big permit or jack that sucked in a sand flea when the other rod has bonked over and I’d had to enlist the aid of the nearest sunbather or shell picker to reel in a fish.
One time, I had a 40-pound stingray on one rod, when the other bent double, pulled out of the sand spike and headed for the water. A female Canadian tourist who was standing on a nearby dune crossover came down and with a little encouragement waded into the water, where she found the rod and reeled in the largest pompano I’ve caught to date.
She was so excited to be fighting a fish that I didn’t have the heart to tell her the spinning reel was supposed to be on the underside of the rod. Though she held the reel upside down, she did land the fish, and I gave it to her as thanks for saving my outfit.
Quite often, beachcombers will shoot question after question at pompano fishermen, and before anyone knows why, the curious tourist is reeling in fish for the angler. So go with the spinning gear if you plan to fish for pompano as a hobby.
Casting distance is an important factor when pompano fishing during low-tide phases, but even more crucial to angling success is the utilization of the correct rig. The standard rig is composed of three dropper loops tied on 30-pound clear monofilament, with a snap on the bottom and a swivel at the top.
Kahle hooks are the standard for the fishery because of their effectiveness at penetrating the rubbery mouth of a pompano with little more than a tug, and then remaining solidly in place after several leaping, direction-changing runs. All the pros swear by 1/0 or 2/0 stainless Kahle hooks over the bronze or gold materials, because of their tensile strength and sharpness.
When inserting a dropper loop through the eye of a Kahle hook, it’s important to run the line up through the underside of the eye, instead of through the top, so the hook faces inward when on the line. Some pompano anglers feel the offset style increases the hookup rate by almost 25 percent over the normal straight set hook.
In addition, nearly every pompano fisherman I know uses some type of colorful teaser, along with the standard red plastic bead, to lure fish in clear water.
Sinker style is another important consideration. Strong longshore currents can make it difficult for a sinker to hold bottom. The prevailing wisdom is that four-sided pyramid sinkers hold better than the three-sided sinkers. The specially designed spider sinker is an even better bet. This sinker comes in 4- and 6-ounce weights and boasts a pair of wire arms held in place by beads and a well-formed ridge in the lead. The wire stabs into the sand and holds the line, then quickly disengages with a strong pull on the line. Back on the beach, the arms are easily set back into place with a push of both thumbs.
With the right rigs, a decent collection of long rods and a full tank of gas, the average surf angler can prowl the waters of St. Lucie County, running from beach to beach in search of clean water, a good tide and pretty bottom. Of course, a handful of bonked over rods is another good sign.
A red plastic bead sliding on the leader above the hook is an old standby for pompano fishermen. Some anglers take the attractive concept a step further, threading another teaser directly on or above the hook. Such pompano teasers are usually a florescent yellow, chartreuse or orange, and can be fashioned from a variety of materials. Tops on the list is an off-yellow foam kickboard found in the swimming pool section of most Wal-Mart stores. Using a small section of brass pipe that has been sharpened at one end, the pipe is hammered into the kickboard to slice the tubular sections of foam that comprise the pompano teasers.
Neoprene coolie cups are another pliable material that will make a good teaser. Cut the cup from top to bottom in half-inch-wide strips, and then cut the strips into half-inch squares. Paint the strips with florescent spray paint, let dry, and then store in your tackle bag.
One of the best teasers to come along the last two seasons were large, bright chartreuse or clear glow beads that are threaded onto a hook and cemented into place using a toothpick and some model airplane glue. The beads are about the same size as the old foam teasers, but virtually indestructible in the claw of a calico crab.
No one knows exactly why or how teasers work, but some anglers say they keep the bait off the bottom and out of the reach of crabs or olive snails which quickly eat the sand fleas, leaving the angler on shore unaware he has no bait. Another theory suggests the fish are attracted to the colors as they swirl around in the ocean currents, and they strike out at the moving beads. This theory is corroborated by the occasional pompano hooked in the cheeks outside the mouth, as the fish actually grabbed the bead, instead of the bait. Whatever the reason, teasers work, and will dramatically increase your catch.
Sand Flea Preparation
Sand fleas are by far the most popular bait for pompano in the surf. These little crabs burrow into the sand with each receding wave, leaving telltale V-shaped tails sticking out. Most pompano anglers use a metal sand flea rake to
catch their baits, collecting sand, shells and sand fleas in one fell scoop, then utilizing the next wave of water to sweep the sand out of the rake, thus exposing the baits.
Sand fleas can be kept alive by placing them in layers of dry sand, which must be changed daily. Though only the size of a thumbnail, sand fleas excrete their wastes into the sand, thus eventually filling the bucket with a toxic mix of moisture. Washing the baits by dumping the entire contents of the bucket into a sand flea rake and rinsing them in the surf for several minutes will suffice. Remove any dead sand fleas, and place the baits back into the sand for another day.
Another good method for keeping sand fleas is to place them in a mesh chumbag, then wrap the bag with a towel soaked in salt water, and place the entire package on a cool pack (keep baits separate from ice, as fresh water will kill them). Again, the baits and towel must be rinsed daily in seawater, then rewrapped and placed back on ice. While fishing, the angler can remove the baits from his cooler and bury the chumbag full of fleas in moist sand close to the water, or rinse the fleas and dig a deep hole and place the bag in it.
During periods of cool weather, which often correspond with the best fishing, sand fleas are difficult to obtain, as they burrow deeper into the sand to escape the cold. Serious pompano fishermen store an ample supply of bait in the freezer–usually leftover sand fleas from previous trips.
Sand fleas must be blanched in boiling water for four to eight seconds before freezing. If not, they tend to become brittle, and fall off the hook when cast. If cooked for too long, they become soft, and again, cast off the hook. After dipping the bag of sand fleas in boiling water, run them under cool water in the sink, then place them in individual plastic sandwich bags of about a hundred fleas per bag. A single bag is usually enough for a morning of fishing, and two or three bags are needed when the action peaks.
This past winter, many pompano fishermen took to adding orange, red, green or yellow food coloring to the water to bring about a color that would make the sand fleas more attractive in dirty water. Three or four teaspoons of vinegar are added to the water, then 10 to 15 drops of food coloring, depending on the color the angler is looking to obtain. More dye leads to more color. Red and orange are popular early in the winter, while green or yellow work best in the spring. Green and yellow can be combined to give the baits a chartreuse hue.
Once defrosted, the sand fleas cannot be refrozen, or they will turn black and be unappealing to pompano. Keeping several frozen bags of sand fleas on ice allows an angler access to multiple baits while keeping the baits stored for use on another day. FS
First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, January, 1999.