By CAPT. FRED EVERSON
When Capt. Mark Thomas called me early one morning to invite me on a trip to catch some pompano he knew the answer before he called. He knows I love to fish for them because pompano are truly amazing. A 15-inch fish fights like it weighs 15 pounds, and to top it off, they eat pretty well, too. So yes, indeed, I was on the road to meet him at Southshore Tampa Bay’s Cockroach Bay boat ramp 20 minutes after he called.
Pompano are practically indistinguishable from similar sized permit, but that doesn’t really matter – size and bag limits are for both species are combined in Florida: five fish between 11 and 20 inches, with one fish over the top of the slot allowed in the bag, and two oversized fish per vessel.
We motored across the bay in Mark’s 22-foot boat, headed towards the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The bay was dead flat calm and the ride was pleasantly cool for the last week in July. It would get very hot later in the morning, but there was a light breeze when we made our first drift across the flats in front of a pass.
One of the good things about drift casting jigs for pompano is the variety of other fish you are apt to encounter. A pompano jig is merely a miniature bucktail jig tied with a short skirt – usually nylon replaces the deer hair. Beats me what fish think they are, but most gamefish love them; including redfish, snook, trout, tarpon, cobia, shark, jacks, and ladyfish. The pompano jig is a great way to downsize your lure when fish are finicky. Drifting a flat and catching fish while casting artificials is a pretty cool thing to do in the heat of summer.
My choice of rod for this type of fishing is a very long spinning outfit rigged with 10-pound test line. Some guys like the braid, but for casting artificials I still prefer mono; it’s just less trouble when making repetitive casts. It is also easier to tie, and with a fish that surges as pompano and permit are apt to do, it is more forgiving. I tie my own rods on seven weight fly rod blanks, trimming three inches off either end to get it down to a manageable casting length of eight foot six inches. I have tried fishing these blanks at nine feet, and they are too unwieldy for my taste. I also fit them with a five-inch butt – shorter than what you might expect on a long rod, but easy on the wrist in the repetitive casting of artificials. The whippy tip of the rod is ideally suited to firing pompano jigs between ¼ and 1/2 ounce for distance.
When you are blind casting a flat, the farther you cast, the more water you cover, the more fish you catch. With summer water temperatures on Tampa Bay in the high 80’s and low 90’s, poor water clarity precludes sight fishing. I like to fling the jig as far downwind as I can, and then hop it back across the bottom with a slow, jerky retrieve. You can tell a pompano from everything else that hits the jig, because they will often tap it a few times before finally eating it. Then the fun begins. These fish are pure muscle and take drag way out of proportion to their size.
Some dedicated pompano anglers prefer live bait, and sand fleas are the number one choice for the saucer shaped fish. Fiddler crabs are a close second, and shrimp will do when neither of the first two choices is available. This is fine when fishing from a beach with several rods in sand spikes, but I find blind casting from a drifting skiff is busier, and productive most of the time. The other thing about fishing with pompano jigs is that you never know what will eat it.
The key to a successful drift is constantly paying attention to where you are when you hook up. Keep an eye on various landmarks and try to triangulate you position so you can repeat it. You could use a GPS, but since the fish are moving, you don’t need that kind of precision. I enjoy trying to position the boat to get it to drift through the right location, and no matter what I do, each drift is a little different. That is another aspect of pompano fishing appeals to me; every drift is fraught with anticipation.
Capt. Thomas and I fished the Gulf side of a bridge on an outgoing tide with a light breeze blowing the same direction as the tide. Occasionally a pompano would skip in our wake as we idled into position for the drift. This is the optimum condition in drifting for pompano, and we while we were not disappointed, it was no blitz. We caught several ladyfish before I felt a little tap-tap, followed by the hammer. The rod doubled over and the drag whined and the first pompano was on. I was fishing a 3/8-ounce jig that featured an egg shaped chrome-plated head and a short yellow skirt of nylon, tied with red thread. It has caught many pompano, and a bunch of other species. It gets hit so often, I like to give the thread that secures the skirt a coat of half-hour epoxy to make it hold up better. Even so, if you catch a few ladyfish on it, they chafe through the glue.
When the first pompano hit, Capt. Thomas made a mental note of our boat position so we could repeat it on the next drift. With the wind and the tide, each drift across the flat lasted about 20 minutes; then we would fire the engine up and try it again.
We caught one pompano each on the next three drifts – hardly a blitz, but certainly worth the effort – especially considering the table qualities of the pompano.
A few days later I tried the same flat again with a fishing buddy Gabe from Brooklyn, NY. The bay was flat as a pancake in the early morning, so we took my 17-foot skiff. The Skyway is only a 12 mile run from my lift on the Little Manatee River, and during the early morning hours of the summer months, wind and weather do not present much of a problem so long as you keep an eye on your surroundings. If a thunderhead pops up and the air temperature drops, it’s time to run for home.
This day we had an incoming tide instead of the preferred outgoing. We only caught a couple of pompano, but we also caught some other fish including ladyfish, jacks, trout, a small cobia, a bonnethead shark and a remora – all on the same little pompano jig. I also had one jig cut off, presumably by a Spanish mackerel, but it could have also been a shark. Whatever I might think the jig looks like, it seems a number of different species thinks it looks like something good to eat, so I always have a good supply of the little jigs on hand in a variety of sizes and colors.
Drifting a flat casting artificials to great tasting fish during the doldrums of summer is my idea of a great day in Florida, whether the fish bite or not.