January 20, 2023
When I detect a window, no matter how small, during an otherwise sketchy weather week, I go fishing. If I see that window days in advance, all the better.
On January 9 of 2022, the Magic Seaweed online swell forecast chart that I depend on showed a 2-3 foot swell coming down from 3 days of overhead stuff on the 10th, to be followed by yet another “uphill climb” to nearly 7 feet, 36 hours later. The forecast graph looked like a roller coaster, so I freed myself up and hit the beach south of Fort Pierce Inlet.
The water color was acceptable, a nice misty blue, by midday with a high falling tide. Wind was light southeast. I was told it was muddy the previous day, so the sediment sure fell out fast, despite the silty material typically laid down south of the inlet. My hopes were high.
I baited up three of my 12- and 13-foot rods, and launched 5-ounce sinkers and baits short, medium and long. The water color gave me confidence. I had caught a 6-fish pompano limit at this spot a couple weeks earlier, but the bite along Hutchinson Island since then totally fizzled, other than a few fish here and there. Everyone figured the record-warm December was to blame, and anglers well north of us were in fact enjoying a pompano run as far north as St. Augustine, quite unusual in January when water temps normally plunge into the low 60s and even high 50s.
But not in 2022! The fish were comfy as clams in that 75-degree soup, with no reason to run south. The “Coconut Telegraph” aka Facebook was buzzing with pics of big catches of pomps, and even more whiting, and an occasional permit, from Melbourne north. I entertained the thought of making the drive. Maybe a full day in some new digs would improve my attitude. The alternative would be to wait them out, in hopes that the strongest cold front of the year would be the frigid finger that would surely chill things down up there and send waves and waves of silver my way.
OR WOULD IT?
That’s the part that separates the tinkerers from the hardcore surf nuts—the uncertainty. As the old Tom Petty songs goes, the waiting is the hardest part.
Without trustworthy intel, you are forced to be the bird dog. Someone has to go find the fish first, right? I’ve been that dog plenty of times, with mixed results. When you are solo and manage to nail them, it’s a great feeling. Ya get a little giddy. The fish taste even better. When you blank out, a ribeye steak tastes pretty good, too.
PARKING LOT TELLS A LOT
Once you get some local experience, you can recognize the right vehicles, either parked, or traveling between beaches. A couple of trucks with rod racks means there might be a bite at a particular beach access. If it’s vans and sedans with out-of-state tags, don’t get excited. When I first got into pomps 25 years ago, an old mentor, Ward Woodruff, told me, cars and vans means only “short-rodders,” or the whiting crowd. “Yankees,” he would chuckle. So it is obvious that the older trucks, with racks and rust, and those big commercial coolers in the bed are a helluva clue that the beach might hold fish. But, the experts get skunked too. Just not as often as you will!
SCAN THE BEACH FIRST
Unless I had fished a beach the prior day, I always take a peek at the water before unloading my gear and committing. How is the water color? Muddy? Skip it, unless you have a thing for catfish. Or bluefish. Off-color? Too clear? That can be kiss of death, too. Seaweed? Move on. Are there other surf anglers? Is there room for me? Are they spaced out?
If rods are not bending at the moment, check the body language. Are they standing intently, behind their rods? Are they re-baiting and casting? Or gathered in gaggles, like geese? Shooting the breeze? Sitting on chairs or coolers? It might be over, or never happened at all. I’ve enjoyed a hot pompano bite one day, with lots of others, only to return the next day—with even more anglers because word got out—and never get the first bump. Lots of head-scratching and utter disbelief. Just remember: Fish can move, and quickly. Some days, you’re the windshield, some days, the bug.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
The most agonizing part of this game is waiting out the bite. How much time is enough? If water conditions are good, the tide to your liking, and the stars seem aligned, when do you pick up and move to another beach? I find that three hours is a long time to stare at rod tips without any action. Some folks can park in a chair and change baits all day. Not me. I normally scout out other beaches after a spell and set up again wherever the water looks good. It has saved the day for me. And, my approach has also backfired: Sometimes the bite does happen long after I depart. But that’s all part of it.
THAT GUY’S KILLING ’EM!
I prefer having other anglers on the beach with me, for obvious reason. You can better gauge whether fish are there. But, if you’ve ever watched that guy 50 yards down the beach bailing the pompano while your rods don’t even quiver, it’s a buzz killer. Pay close attention to what he might be doing that you are not. Watch him cast. Are you fishing baits at a similar distance? Is he making a half a throw? Or launching 100- yard bombs? If you have two or more rods, simply vary your distance until you hit a couple of fish. Could bait be the difference? I normally carry salted clams, or blanched fleas, but I now depend on synthetics such as Fishgum or Fishbites. That covers the bases. Sometimes you have fish in front of you, sometimes you don’t. On many occasions, I’ve noticed rods going off to my right or left regularly, but eventually started getting strikes, too. I’ve trained my binoculars on guys down the beach to verify they were dragging pomps in. I recall a February afternoon in 2021 when the number of bent rods to my north slowly subsided, and within 15 minutes I was doubled up for 15 minutes to limit out. Obviously, that suggested that the mass of fish was swimming straight down the beach, southbound. Theories abound—some say the pomps move in and out with the tide. I think they move laterally along the beach, always on the move.
THE GREAT BAIT DEBATE
Surf anglers increasingly fixate on bait choice. You’ll hear, “They only wanted live fleas today,” or, “ I caught my fish on the yellow Fishbites.” And some even swear by a particular float attractor color for a particular water color.
I think pompano eat all the time, given the way they move continuously and their rapid growth rate.
One thing is certain, your bait should be fresh. Avoid old frozen shrimp, sand fleas that are turning black from spoilage, or clams that are getting a little stinky.
ABOUT THE SHARKS
Nowadays it seems anglers are out to eradicate every shark in the ocean that has the audacity to take a hooked fish off the line. Along the Atlantic Florida beaches, spinner, bull and other sharks home in on schools of pompano. Accept it. The only way to prevent getting “sharked” by the so-called tax man is to pack up and fish elsewhere. It’s the responsible thing to do. And the fact is, the more anglers on the beach, the more hookups and the greater attraction for sharks. It can become a circus pretty quickly and it’s a shameful waste of the resource. Last time I heard a guy complain that he lost 20 pomps to get his 6-fish limit, I wanted to throw him to the sharks!
WHAT GEAR DO YOU NEED FOR POMPANO?
You can catch surf pompano with an array of tackle. When they are close to the sand, inside 50 yards, they are fair game for “short rodders,” and if the surf is tame, you can hold bottom with as little as 2 ounces of lead. But when there is strong current, a swell over 3 feet, or strong onshore wind, you need to beef up.
The purpose of the 10- to 13-foot rods is twofold. One, it’s to keep your line higher off the water over the wash so that your bait stays put. Two, long rods allow for longer casts, and those heavy action sticks also have the power to cast sinkers in the 4- to 6-ounce class that are a must many days. Pyramid and bank sinkers suffice when the surf is tame but the best choice is the so-called Sputnik with the “anchoring legs” that hold best.
Choose from spinning or conventional reels. I use both. My casting distance is pretty equal with either. The spin reel is more user-friendly, and especially in a brisk headwind when overrun can happen. With a conventional, or baitcast reel, you have to fine-tune the spool control to decrease that likelihood. My favorite spin outfit is a 13-foot Lamiglas (glass rod) paired with a Penn Spinfisher Long Cast 5500 series reel. I spool with 14-pound mono, and do likewise with my Akios or Penn Squall conventional reels. I don’t like braid for surf fishing because I believe the stretch of mono helps keep my sinker on bottom when the surf is up. To each their own, however. Some anglers tout added casting distance with braided line.
Bait rigs are similar across the board, with personal tweaks. I fish the standard 2-hook dropper rig, and tie mine with 2/0 Eagle Claw circle hooks. Kahle hooks are an option. Both find a fast hold when a pompano takes the bait. If the water is cloudy I add a colorful float above the hook. I believe it helps fish see the bait, and adds a little flotation to hold it off the main line. I use 20-pound-test Ande Ghost mono for my rigs. It’s not shiny like some monos and has good abrasion resistance. I use a top quality swivel at the top of the rig and a Duo Lock snap at the end for attaching my sinker. The rig is about 30 inches long overall, the hook droppers are spaced evenly apart. FS
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine March 2022