Walking the sandy beaches of Padre Island National Seashore on a cold winter morning can trick the casual observer into believing nearly all the marine species commonly found in the surf zone have moved offshore to warmer depths. But just because the surf is chilly does not necessarily mean all the fish have left. Take the Florida pompano for example, even its name suggests warmer water. Truth is though, to the delight of year-round anglers, this gem of a wintertime surf inhabitant can be present and even abundant in 60° water.
A distant cousin of the jack crevalle, pompano from our surf average about two pounds and are regarded as one of the tastiest fish that swims in the Gulf of Mexico. Being both commercially fished and farmed, their fillets are always in great demand among seafood dealers and restaurant operators. Fortunately, they have a very rapid growth rate and are very sustainable. While present in Texas waters all year, the winter months mark their greatest abundance in the surf as they congregate to feed on ghost shrimp, sand fleas, and coquina clams. And don’t let that tiny mouth fool you, pompano have voracious appetites, and can sometimes be seen to feed continuously for hours.
Fishing for pompano is relatively easy. Tidal movement seems to trigger the bite although the feeding pattern can also occur randomly some days. The key ingredients to achieving a successful pompano outing are cool water temps, calm wind, and gently moving surf. Most importantly, green or clear water seems to be their favorite.
Two to three days after a strong front usually provides a calm period. High atmospheric pressure and sunny skies immediately behind the front will help warm the surf. Personal experience shows that pompano will be most active when the water temperatures run in the 62°-70° range. I call this the “pomp zone.” Of course we target this optimal window with great expectations but I have also caught them when the water was as cold as 55° and as warm as 85°F. So there are exceptions to every rule. Usually though, when you fall outside that optimal temperature range, you can expect solitary fish more often than schools.
The most effective way of catching pompano is simply fishing on bottom with shrimp or Fishbites, or a combination of both. Fishbites is a synthetic bait that includes natural scent ingredients. I prefer small circle hooks in 2/0 to 4/0 size. I make my own leaders out of fluorocarbon material of 40 to 60 pound strength. Some people add beads or “bling” for added visual appeal but I keep it simple, relying on the bright hues of the Fishbites to do the trick.
My typical pompano rig includes two or three hooks and multiple hookups are not uncommon when the bite is on. I will often start out using a strip of Fishbites tipped with a small piece of shrimp. The only downside to adding the shrimp occurs when the hardhead catfish are abundant. And speaking of hardheads – while nobody keeps them for bait or table fare – they are still important members of the ecosystem and food chain and deserve to be released the same as any highly-prized game fish. So, a word the wise, ditch the shrimp when the hardheads are thick and stick with the Fishbites.
Pompano tend to come in very shallow, especially if they are feeding on the small coquina clams. However, the higher concentrations tend to hang more reliably on either side of the second sandbar. There are occasions when long-casted baits will work to your advantage. While not necessary, matching up a good rod and reel for long-casting may give you an edge and perhaps let you find the fish when you normally may not with a closer cast.
My pompano setups are a combination of spinning and conventional reels, paired with an ideal rod such as a Breakaway LDX or GDX. These ultra-lightweight surf blanks are a dream to cast. The length of the rods also helps maximize casting distance when the pomps are lying on the far side of that second bar. These are my personal preferences in tackle but I see many other setups being used successfully.
So, you have a nice mess of delicious pompano, what is the best way to prepare them for dinner? There is basically no wrong way – some prefer fried fillets but I think they are much better suited to baking in the oven or slow-cooked in the smoker. Smoked pompano is my favorite of all smoked fish. If you want to go the extra step, use smoked pompano fillets to prepare a dip and you will be the star of the party!
Another popular method is to cook your pompano whole as you would a flounder. I've also stuffed or bacon-wrapped pompano which is out of this world. Anytime I ever get into quite a few, I tend to go the smoker route. I then vacuum seal them after they are cooked so they are ready to eat anytime in the future. Due to being quite tasty, they don't last long in the freezer, thus the continual hunt for more!
Pompano are also a great wintertime shark bait. Being a hardcore sharker, it is often a toss-up whether to harvest for food or bait. If shark action is slow, I will certainly choose to harvest for food. If the water conditions are prime and sharky, I will not hesitate to set one or two aside for bait. They are the perfect size to rig whole with a 20/0 circle hook. While the blacktip sharks will destroy these if they are present, you'll ideally target the larger sandbar sharks. The sandbars are our biggest of the usually encountered cold water shark species. Normally I wouldn't sacrifice a tasty pomp for shark, but these bold and energetic sharks have a winter window that only a few people take advantage of. If using a prized dinner fish for bait (and please know that it is legal) increases my odds of hooking a big sandbar, I'll take that chance.
We are very fortunate here in Texas to have a great variety of saltwater fish to play with. And even more fortunate that most of the species are not just edible, but downright excellent in the food category. And with all that said, the Florida pompano are among the best of the best. Whenever clients catch pompano on my charters and take them home to cook, I usually get a call soon afterwards to let me know how much they enjoyed them.Pompano are not the largest of gamefish, but on semi-light tackle they’re a blast to catch and are a perfect treat for kids to reel in. During the winter months when everything seems slow and desolate, I always set a few rods for pompano and you may be very surprised at the results. And if you really start getting into them thick, the excitement can quickly turn a cold day on the beach into something fun and rewarding.