All along the southeast Florida coast from Sunny Isles Beach to the Treasure Coast, the sands are lined with rows of extra-long surf rods tended by anxious anglers watching for a bite.
It’s a good bet that most of those fishermen are hoping to catch Florida pompano, the tasty, disc-shaped, silver-and-yellow members of the jack family now nearing the peak of their northward migration in nearshore waters.
Unlike their jack cousins, pompano make much better meals and can be more difficult to catch. Since they began their unofficial, annual “run” in mid-March, these Frisbees of the surf have bestowed both feast and famine on the legions of shore and pier anglers poised for their arrival.
One day last week, for example, Hollywood Beach anglers Tamray Kam and Kim Presto got no bites fishing in the morning, but caught their limit of six per person in just a couple of hours early that same evening. Presto even reeled in three doubles in less than a half-hour.
“This is a real good bite,” Kam said.
But if conditions aren’t just right, the bite will be off that fast.
Veteran pompano anglers hate clear, calm water. They want to see green, milky — but not muddy — ocean waters to counter the fish’s keen eyesight. Some say tide does not matter as much as time of day; early morning and late afternoon are peak fishing hours.
While the voracious, fast-moving fish will eat different kinds of minnows and crustaceans found along the beach, the go-to bait for Gold Coast anglers is the sand flea, or mole crab. Some bait shops and fishing piers sell sand fleas, but serious pompano anglers catch their own — usually with a specially-designed rake that looks sort of like a carpet sweeper. Sometimes, catching bait is more difficult than catching the fish themselves.
Experts say prime time for bait hunting is on high tide just before dark. Walking carefully parallel to the surf line, they look for small “vee” formations in the sand as the waves roll out, sort of like water washing over shells. Those are the fleas’ feelers, and the raker has to move fast to dig them up.
For those who blank on sand fleas, fresh shrimp also work well when the bite is hot.
Armed with several dozen sand fleas, surf casters usually employ multiple 10-to-15-foot rods lined up in PVC holders with sharp ends that anchor in the sand.
A typical surf rod has a medium tip for ease of casting and detecting the pompano’s bite from 100 yards away. Heavy spinning reels usually are loaded with 20-pound line tied in a “chicken rig” with up to four 1/0 Kahle hooks on spur lines weighted with a five- or six-ounce pyramid sinker to hold the bottom. Each hook holds a sand flea and is decorated with chartreuse or hot pink beads, bits of sponge, cut-off pieces of bass worms, or fragments of children’s play mats.
Pier anglers who don’t need to cast as far as fishermen on shore typically use lighter spinning gear with fluorescent Doc’s Goofy Jigs, Captain Joe’s “the jig” or Nylure jigs tipped with fleas or shrimp.
The bite was so fast and furious one evening last week on Hollywood Beach that Kam and Presto got plenty of exercise jogging up and down their line of rods — casting, reeling in fish, and checking baits.
“Whoa! There’s the pole again!” one of their fellow fishermen called as both were occupied with two other rods.
But, at Kam’s urging, Presto held back on retrieving the line with the jerking rod tip.
“Wait for doubles and triples,” he told her.
She did, and scored three doubles in the span of less than half an hour — all much larger than the legal minimum of 11 inches fork length.
Recipes for delicious pompano are almost as numerous as the anglers trying to catch them. But with at least a few more weeks to go before the fish disappear for the season, anglers are bound to come up with a few more originals.