Surf Fishing for Pompano on the Emerald Coast
Emerald Coast Pompano Fishing
From a fishing perspective, Florida is a remarkably diverse state. The Keys—the southernmost part of the state (and the continental United States) —is internationally known among fly fishers for it’s bonefishing. A little farther inland, around Miami and Palm Beach, Peacock bass, an exotic, tropical fish native to the Amazon River introduced into Florida in the mid-1980s, are popular among freshwater anglers. The Atlantic coast is a favorite among deep-sea fishermen trolling for sailfish, while on the other side of the peninsula, around Tampa, snook are a perennial favorite. Farther north, in the Big Bend area which is one of the few parts of Florida’s Gulf which has a live rock bottom, sportsmen can actually troll for grouper—typically a deep-water species—in seas as shallow as twenty-feet. Inshore, redfish, speckled trout and flounder are plentiful. One can even snorkel for scallops in some areas during the season.
Then there’s the “Emerald Coast” region of Florida—typically thought of as the area from Pensacola on the west, to Panama City on the east. Here, the shallow, sloping sandy beaches and crystal clear water lends themselves to surf fishing and, among surf fishermen, pompano are the fish of choice.
Pompano , are members of the jack family. Like their cousins, they are harder fighters than their size might suggest. Most adults run between 12 and 18 inches and typically get up to about three pounds. However, they can pull as hard as a fish twice their size. Best of all, unlike many of the other members of the jack family—crevalle, hardtails, etc.—from a culinary point of view, pompano are highly prized.
If bait fishing, you’ll do best fishing for pompano with sand fleas. Preferably, live ones. Also known as “mole crabs,” sandfleas are small crustaceans (typically about one or two inches long). They bury themselves just under the sand at the edge of the surf. A knowledgeably person can spot their snouts poking up out of the sand as the waves recede, creating small “V-shaped” wakes in the water. If you’re fast and know what to look for you can catch them by hand but it takes some practice.
Unfortunately, live sand fleas are practically impossible to buy, although frozen ones are sometimes available at local bait shops. Thankfully, the Berkely people have begun offering Gulp-brand sand fleas. An artificial, scented bait, the Gulp version looks just like a real sand flea but has a far stronger scent and, due to the tough material from which it is manufactured, will stay on a hook for hours at a time (hopefully it won’t take you that long to catch one).
To fish sand fleas, hook them through their backsides, coming up from underneath and out of the top of the hard, carapace (shell) as shown below.
Use a weighted, surf rig with pyramid or similar sinkers to hold the bait in place in the surf. The surf on the Emerald Coast can be unpredictable. One day it can be as smooth as glass, while the next day may be as rough as anything you might see on the Atlantic side. Your sinkers will need to be up to whatever the task at hand is on any given day.
While we’re on that subject, rough days in the Gulf are deceptively dangerous to surf fishermen. Travelers from other parts of world often dismiss the Gulf as harmless, having spent time in the massive waves of the Pacific or around South Africa or Cape Hatteras. By comparison, the Gulf—even on a bad day—doesn’t appear to amount to much.
This may be true in terms of the size of the waves, but the problem is the sand underneath. Unlike other, heavy surf areas, Gulf sand is not well packed. It is extremely loose and washes away instantly when even a moderately-sized wave rolls in. So, while you might be standing in no more than knee-deep water, facing a wave that—at most—comes up to your waist, you are in far more danger than you realize. On a red-flag day, when the wave comes in it will often wash as much as two-feet of sand out from under you. Now you’re suddenly in chest-deep water…maybe deeper. To add to that, however, the sandbars will begin collapsing from the surf resulting in vicious rip currents. Where you once were in calm water barely to your knees and only a few feet from shore, you may suddenly find yourself now in over your head and being rapidly swept out to sea.
Watch the surf flags, obey them, learn about rip currents and—if you’re going to go in anyway despite the warnings—at least leave next of kin information where it can be easily found. Also, please make your family promise not to sue the county after the funeral because of your bad judgment.
Okay, enough of the lectures. Back to fishing.
In addition to sandfleas, you can also fish for pompano using something known as a “pompano jig.” Some fishermen consider the pompano jig to be the most effective approach to taking pompano and, in fact, one of the most versatile artificials for many other species as well. They are a typical, bucktail-streamer lead-head jig, but with the bucktail cut short—just past the bend of the hook. Fish them on the bottom using a slow retrieve with an occasional twitch of the rod to make them jump and kick up a little sand.
There are also “pompano floats.” Similar in appearance to a pompano jig, these have hollow, plastic heads and float. They are fished similarly to a sandflea. Put them on a weighted rig with about six-to-twelve inches of free line and let them sit. They will float above the weight, dancing in the surf.
Okay, so now you’ve caught one (or, preferably, a few) pompano. Whaddaya do with it?
Cook them, of course. Pompano are extremely light tasting (i.e. not “fishy”), but with a surprisingly rich, almost buttery, flavor. In fact, pompano are sometimes referred to as “butter fish” because of their richness.
One of the more popular approaches is to simply remove the entrails and bake the fish whole with olive oil and your spices of choice. If you planned ahead and put out a crab net or two in a brackish lake or bayou, you can lightly steam the crabs, clean them and stuff the pompano with the crab meat. In fact, one popular version of this approach involves drizzling the fish with Hollandaise sauce once it comes out of the oven. Pompano en Papillote is also a popular dish in may New Orleans restaurants.
There may be a lot of fish in the sea, but few are as fun and easy to catch and taste as good as the pompano. Try it…you’re going to like it. If not, just drop them off at my house. I’ll take care of them for you.
Finally, as always, make sure you know—and obey—all applicable laws and regulations for the area you’re in. Your visit will be a lot lazier if you don’t have arrests or citations getting in the way of your loafing.