Hit the Road Jack

A glint of silver caught my eye 50 feet in front of me, and I snapped the lure to a grass edge a few feet beyond the flash. The lead-nosed VuDu Shrimp hit the sand quickly and I popped it hard a couple times, eliciting an instant tap but no hookup. I watched the big pompano swing and miss a second time, aggressively tracking the fake crustacean until finally inhaling it just a dozen feet from where I hunkered down in knee-deep water.


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Photo: Jerry McBride

Anyone who’s stalked pompano on light tackle over shallow grass flats can delightfully recall the pulsating rod tip, violent turns and drag-searing runs by what appears to the uninitiated as nothing more than a big panfish disguised in a lowly jack’s body. But in reality, landing pompano requires a delicate dance of maintaining a tight line without pulling the hook from its rubbery lips.

Despite belonging to the jack family, migrating pompano are universally regarded far more favorably than typical South Florida snowbirds. However, the notion that pompano are just another refugee from northern winters may be at least partially mistaken. While there are limited studies, evidence suggests the migration entails a considerable east-to-west, deeper-to-shallower movement. Pompano apparently spend their summers spawning offshore rather than heading for the Hamptons. While much of the pompano’s biology remains to be clarified, research indicates larvae hatch well offshore and make their way to tranquil beaches as juveniles. They grow approximately one inch a month, reaching legal size in roughly a year.

That’s when the intrigue begins, as the adults draw the fanatical interest of competing recreational and commercial factions. There’s no arguing that pompano hold immense economic sway for such a small fish. Desolate winter grass flats suddenly blossom with a hundred boats of every description when the tasty jacks show up. Commercial fish markets, restaurants, local tackle shops, guides and specialized tackle manufacturers all want a piece of the pie.

Locating pompano schools is half the battle. However, pompano employ a weirdly unique way of announcing their presence, skittering sideways in panic across the surface like skipping frisbees at the approach of boats and even kayaks. Some boaters simply run until they send pompano flying. This technique was quite effective in the old days, when commercial fishermen surrounded the fleeing school with gill nets, but skittish pompano are far more difficult to collect on hook and line.

The trick is to anticipate when they’ll arrive, or find out immediately when they hit town. Word of mouth from reliable sources and collecting data from social media can tell you when to start looking for action on the flats. Pompano are creatures of habit, and in my hometown they stop by the same old sandbars, channel edges and potholes every year. Unfortunately, pompano are fickle fish, inundating a grass flat one day, but 20 miles north, south or offshore the next…sometimes with no apparent rhyme or reason.

In general, the colder the winter the farther south they congregate and the longer they stay. During cold winters, a particular flat may be productive for months at a time. Warm winters provide little incentive for pompano to stick around South Florida for extended periods.

Other factors come into play as well and biologists researching sustainability for aquaculture have shown that pompano can gradually acclimate to a wide range of water conditions. However, they don’t like dirty water. Nor do they tolerate rapid temperature changes, and adults are rarely found in areas with salinity levels less than 25 parts per thousand. And of course they have to eat. Florida’s Gulf Coast experienced a stellar pompano run last year, but all of those environmental factors may have contributed to the poor southeast showing. Abnormally warm weather, turbid freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee, and the widespread loss of seagrass through our local estuaries negatively impacted water temperature and quality, salinity and the supply of crustaceans and mollusks upon which pompano thrive. Pompano are sensitive to change and rapidly relocate to more favorable conditions when need be. Last year the vast majority of fish stayed farther north or settled along the surf, and the action in the Indian River Lagoon left little to write home about.

I have a minimalist approach to pompano when fishing my home waters of Stuart. My lure selection consists of just two baits—a 3-inch Egret VuDu Shrimp, and the longstanding favorite Doc’s Goofy Jig. While they appear to have very little in common, both are small enough to fit nicely in the pompano’s somewhat diminutive mouth. Both also feature a chunk of lead that sinks quickly and hits the bottom hard enough to create a puff of sand, which draws the interest of bottom-sniffing pompano. I prefer the VuDu in crustacean colors like tiger, brown, gold or natural. It’s perfect for bouncing the mixed grass and sand bottom where pompano often hunt, or for dredging deeper potholes and channel edges which pompano slide into when the tide drops out. The heavier Doc’s Goofy Jig—simply a painted, banana-shaped chunk of lead—excels when fishing deep, fast channels and prospecting sandy flats, especially on high wind days. Fishing technique is similar for either lure—let it hit the bottom, pop it hard, and allow it to settle before snapping it upward again.

Some days the difference between a crab-stuffed pompano fillet and a chili dog for dinner comes down to how far you can cast. Light spinning rods loaded with 10 lb. braid fling tiny lures incredible distances. I prefer a fast-action rod for most species, but a rod with a soft, parabolic bend somewhat cushions the pompano’s unmatched acceleration bursts and tight turning radius. Like many artificial applications, lures tied with a small loop knot dance more seductively. With Spanish mackerel and bluefish in the mix you’ll want to avoid any terminal tackle and tie the braid directly to the leader. I prefer 30 lb. fluorocarbon, but if bluefish or mackerel aren’t an issue you can drop down to 20 lb. leader.

Boat anglers can effectively drift deeper flats, but wary pompano don’t accommodate hull slap and tall silhouettes in clear, shallow water. Anchoring and chumming with cut shrimp, clams or crushed sand fleas is another option given good tidal flow. My preferred technique is to anchor the boat or kayak and sneak around flats and bars on foot, sight fishing or casting at grass and channel edges. Pompano often bird-dog other critters that flush crustaceans out of the grass, so watch for silver flashes around schools of big mullet, rays and even manatees grazing over shallow bottom. While this approach works for me along the southern stretches of the IRL, the same applies no matter where you fish in the state.