May 05, 2022
Pompano, the tastiest members of the jack family, make themselves abundant both in the surf and in the larger bays of the Southeastern states starting in late March, with the peak in most areas being through May. They can also be caught sporadically all summer, and in fall there’s another surge in many areas.
The saltwater fish is found from South Carolina to South Florida on the Atlantic Coast, and from Key West to Brownsville in the Gulf. They’re great targets for surf anglers, and this is where most are caught, but there are plenty in the shallows at the edge of the flats, as well.
There’s no question they can be elusive at times, but armed with a bit of insider information, you can increase your chances of scoring these fantastic fish.
Pompano can be hard to find in water temperatures over 80 degrees or under 68, which means most of them winter in extreme south Florida or somewhere in the Caribbean. They also hang around offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Gulf Loop Current keeps the water warm. But they start their migration north and closer to the beaches in spring, following the warming water as many species do.
Particularly on the East Coast, the fish chase the 68-degree line north in spring and then back south in late fall. That’s why pompano addicts in Daytona Beach may drive all the way to Jupiter to fish for them in spring—there’s no point in fishing where they ain’t. By mid-summer, the fish along the Atlantic Coast will go as far north as Cape Hatteras, while in the Gulf, they’ll become hard to find in the tepid water inshore.
When they’re on the beach, rather than feeding directly in the runouts like redfish, blues, black drum and some other species, they tend to prowl the edges of the nearshore bar.
They also may trek inside the bar on high tide. Placing a bait or lure on the shoulder of the bar is often the best tactic for connecting.
When pompano travel inside the larger bays—as they do in considerable numbers in spring—smart boating anglers sometimes run the edge of the flats just above planing speed, making a large wake behind the boat. For reasons known only to themselves, pompano will frequently come out the water and “skip” along in this wake on their flat sides.
Where you see one there may be a dozen, so quickly turn the boat around, approach the spot as quietly as possible and cast baits to where the fish were seen, often around a channel or gut running off the flat.
Pompano don’t get very big—a 3-pounder is a whopper—and many who focus on catching them in the surf prefer much lighter rods than those used by most surf anglers. A steelhead rod 8 to 10 feet long is ideal. My personal favorite for artificials is the 9-foot, light-power, medium-action St. Croix Triumph TRS90LM, but some anglers like longer, heavier sticks to help them keep the line above breaking waves and to handle the heavier weights used for live bait fishing.
My St. Croix is rigged with a 2500- to 4000-size spinning reel and 8- to 10-pound-test braid. Again, this is much lighter than many surf anglers use for other species, but it gives these strong little fish a chance to strut their stuff. And it will often catch a lot more pompano than heavier gear, as the fish seem to be put off by stiff, heavy leader.
Most pompano are caught on bait, and sand fleas are by far the favorite natural. The fleas—actually mole crabs—are caught with a sand flea rake where the surf meets the sand. You can get a rake and instructions on using it at any tackle shop near a pompano beach. The fleas can be kept alive for hours in wet sand in a bucket as long as you keep them cool. Setting the bucket on a bag of ice works well when it’s particularly warm out.
Fish sand fleas on a pompano rig: two small floats on 12-inch dropper leaders attached to 1/0 to 2/0 octopus-type, short-shank hooks (Gamakatsu octopus circle hooks are especially good). Come through the sand flea’s “digger” from the bottom and out the back of the shell with the hook. Try not to crack the shell, but turn the hook point to drill through and keep the bait alive.
Most store-bought pompano rigs will feature 20- to 30-pound-test mono, but experts usually tie their own with 15-pound-test fluorocarbon. This reduction in poundage—particularly in clear water and low surf—draws a lot more bites than larger lines. The bitter end of the leader goes to a pyramid sinker of 2 to 4 ounces, which anchors the rig.
To increase your chances of drawing strikes, put out two or three rigs in sand spikes. If multiple bites occur simultaneously, don’t worry, as pompano often hook themselves on the octopus hooks.
If you prefer throwing lures (which allows you to keep moving until you find fish), choose a long-casting jig like Doc’s Goofy Jig in the 1/2-ounce size—with no tail. This bait casts like a bullet and has a crazy zig-zagging motion when jerked through the water. There’s also a model with a teaser fly attached to the eye ring, adding color to the attraction.
Another very lifelike jig is the Mr. Pompano from Bass Pro Shops. It’s just 1 1/4 inches long, but it weighs 3/8 ounce, casts a mile and is a very close replica of a sand flea. Most anglers favor pink, orange or yellow colors.
A Berkley Saltwater Gulp! Sand Flea on a small jig is another combo that’s hard to beat, combining action with a lifelike appearance, scent and flavor. Also very good are FishBites flavored baits. Cut the front half of a FishBites Fightin’ Shrimp off and slide it on a jig hook of matching size.
You won’t often find pompano in murky water, so when you plan your trip, think about wind direction and speed as well as any recent rains heavy enough to cause runoff. A low surf combined with clear water and plenty of bait showing outside the bar is ideal. But even when things are right, there are a few tips that will boost your catch.
Don’t ignore the nearshore trough—sometimes the fish are right there just a few yards off the sand, scooping up fleas. Stay well back and cast to any troughs that appear to be more than 18 inches deep before easing up for a try to the outside of the bar.
Pompano move. A lot. If the spot where you caught them yesterday does not produce within 15 minutes, pick up and move—try every hundred yards or so, or until you find an area with good runouts, diving birds and lot of bait evident.
Or switch to an artificial and start walking and casting until you catch a pompano. That may be the spot to set up and fish with live bait to fill the bucket.
Get on the nearshore bar if the depth and waves are moderate, and cast parallel to it rather than out into the deeper water beyond. Pompano usually run right along the shoulder of the bar looking for food, so this keeps your lure or bait in the strike zone.
DISH IT UP
Pompano are members of the jack family and subsequently have a fair amount of oil in their flesh. This can make them taste “fishy” if you fry them. On the other hand, when grilled, baked or broiled, they’re moist, tender and delicious.
A favorite recipe around our house starts with gutting the fish but leaving on the head and tail. The cavity is then filled with canned crab meat and baby shrimp sautéed in a bit of garlic butter with chopped onions.
Bake the whole fish on a baking sheet at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. When a fork easily goes through the shoulder, it’s done. The fillets can be lifted off the fish with a spatula, the skin peeled off and the crab/shrimp mix spooned on, followed by a squeeze of fresh lemon. Easy to do and hard to beat.