Pompano Unhooked

Where are all these fish running to, anyway?

If you’re looking for the jackpot of pompano inshore, look for water the color of money—of green, crisp cash money, right? Look for them, but that doesn’t mean that’s where they’ll be. The last time I had the pompano bite going strong I was fishing with Sam Heaton of Johnson Outdoors, and we were in his Gheenoe way up the St. Lucie River, in murky water the color of thin mud, about two feet deep, right next to docks, with a barely moving outgoing tide—all the supposedly wrong conditions for a good bite. And we were catching them just fine.

Heaton with pomp.

Like many precepts of pompano positioning, the color of water principle doesn’t always hold water—especially inside inlets, where they’ll take up positions to feed for days on end where their food is and where the temperature is right, water color be darned. Along the beaches, pompano bites certainly do coincide with cash-money and powdery blue water conditions, where the pomps can see to feed and detect predators. Sam Heaton confessed that the reason the pomps had gathered in that particular spot inshore that day was the bank of periwinkles that grew there—one of the pompano’s favorite foods inshore and along beaches. It was one of their local feeding stations, I was glad to learn.

Another popular assumption along both east and west coasts of Florida is that pompano swing north and south with the seasons from the Panhandle down to the Keys, from Jacksonville down to Pompano Beach—but this assessment also oversimplifies what pompano are really up to in our waters. Increasingly, anglers and researchers are coming to the understanding that different geographical regions have distinct populations of fish that may move inshore-offshore while they also move north-south. That explains why shallow saltwater anglers along the central parts of both coasts can find pompano in the Intracoastal and bay waterways in the middle of summer—perhaps during those cold water upwellings offshore—and why pompano bites may take place in April in both the Ten Thousand Islands and in Destin. Both species, pompano and cobia (discussed last month) may move inshore to spawn or to feed or likely both, and what spurs them primarily is water temperature.

The new view of the pompano species’ movement is not so far removed from the cobia pattern, but many anglers already accept it as the reality. Some anglers around the state will tell you that pompano never really leave their areas, they just move out to deeper waters when the winters make inshore waters too cold for them.

Biologist Kathy Guindon, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI), conducted the state’s only fishery independent study on pompano back in 2000 and 2001 in the Tampa area and she’s a trove of info on the species.

“I started on pompano in 2000,” Guindon says, “and back then I had the idea, and it’s still generally held, that these fish migrate north and south with the seasons, but soon I realized that it appeared to be more of an inshore and offshore migration based on their favored water temperatures (26 Celsius/78.8 F) which dictate their movement and whether there is enough food resources to keep them there (mollusks and crustaceans). They can stand a range of temperatures around 78 F, but they may die if the water gets into the low 50s.”

Inshore, pompano behave a lot like permit. They’ll move up onto the flats as the tide rises and feed in shallows of a few feet or less, and retreat to channels when the tide falls.

Guindon’s study revealed that pompano spawn much closer to shore than was previously thought—just as South Carolina biologist Mike Denson’s studies revealed concerning cobia.

“Originally we thought that they were offshore spawners, but we found some fish with hydrated eggs much closer to the shore than I ever would have expected,” Guindon explained. “Spawning happens off the beaches, not inside the passes or inlets or in the Intracoastal. I think that they might spawn near the passes. One fish can spawn multiple times in a spawning season, but we don’t know the frequency. We do know that they spawn evening and night.”

Peak of the spawning on the west coast is April and it continues into May and then even into the summer, Guindon says. The little fish will stay along the beaches until they get to about 6 or 7 inches and “then they kind of move offshore to deeper waters. On the spawning night a female pompano will fill her eggs with water so that they float, and it appears to happen at sunset and overnight.

“In August and September you’ll find them in the upper reaches of the bay,” she says, “where the water is shallow and very warm. They’ve spawned and are feeding heavily, and that’s when you get the big ones in the estuaries. I think in the wintertime, these fish move to deeper offshore waters that have a higher temperature, but I don’t think that anyone knows exactly where they are when they’re not around the beaches and the estuaries—except to say that the temperature and food availability would have to be right for them.”

Likely the most accurate description of the movements of pompano is that the various sub-populations of fish in the Gulf and in the Atlantic (they are the same population genetically, though the population of pompano in Puerto Rico is different genetically) move within a certain range while exhibiting “high site fidelity”—as the researchers say—to their home surf zone nursery habitats. Only thing is, nobody really knows for pompano (or for tripletail or cobia for that matter) how big those fish sub-populations are or how big their range is.

One model that may explain the pompano’s behavior comes from a tagging study of the Australian swallowtail dart (Trachinotus), a very much pompanolike fish. In that tagging study, about half of the fish were recaptured less than 1.6 miles from their release site. Few went farther than 40 miles and the farthest moving fish went approximately 165 miles, according to a summary of the study in the FWRI 2007 Pompano Assessment, which is available to read online.

I bounced these ideas about the pompano’s range and migrations off one of my primary sources of pompano information: Larry Finch, a.k.a. Fishman. Finch is a Jacksonville resident who travels the state widely to fish and who delivers the Angler on Foot seminars at Florida Sportsman Expos, most recently in Fort Myers and Fort Walton Beach. I caught him by cell phone while he was catching fish—what else—standing ankle deep in surf in New Smyrna on a cool January afternoon.

“I do think the fish will move inshore and offshore in response to temperature and there are resident fish in many areas that are always around. This past fall was a good example. In November, we were catching them good in Jacksonville, and then we got a cold blast and the fish took off. The next fish that came down stayed offshore as they moved past Jacksonville, but then the water had warmed up down on the south side of St. Augustine, and those fish came in and that’s where we started catching them again. They’ll definitely hold and feed in an area where conditions are right for them. I also know that they move in schools of different size fish. Some days they’ll be 4-pound fish, some days there will be 2-pound fish.

“I don’t base my understanding of their movements on what the newspaper says are the water temperatures, but I put my feet in the water and feel it. I know when it’s so cold it will drive the fish south out of New Smyrna.”

For anglers, Finch’s method of combining instinct, experience and time on the water in his geographical range is an unbeatable strategy for knowing where the fish are from day to day, week to week. But why, you may ask, do our fishery managers not definitively know such vital migratory information about these species for their entire range? The still hazy but emerging picture of the way these coastal species move and live has developed out of the hard work of researchers, with the help of anglers, despite the lack of a strong state and federal initiative and commitment to learn more about them. Consequently, there’s a perennial lack of funding to study these difficult to-track species.

“We’ve worked really hard to get earmarks for studying independent research,” says Behzad Mahmoudi, research scientist and member of the FWRI Pompano Stock Assessment group. “And our managers need to decide that we need this information, both at the state level and at the federal level. We have a very good estuary fishery independent survey, one of the best in the nation, but our coverage of coastal fisheries is not as extensive. It’s not because we haven’t thought about it, it’s because of financial constraints. For X amount of money you can do a more thorough job with estuarial fish than with coastal species. These studies are really intense and you need good spatial coverage, how far inshore, offshore, depths and information over the course of many days, and what kind of sampling gear and over what time series. These are difficult studies.”

As an editor at a fishing magazine, I’m hoping for more significant research on these species, so I can track them better myself and make sure that they’re around in 20 years. Meantime, we’re left trying to piece the picture together with the help of little clues that come in the form of odd fishing reports, the occasional scientific study devoted to a species, and the observations of those who’ve spent their lifetimes on the water.

And still, they move in mysterious ways. - FS

First Published Florida Sportsman March 2012