Capt. Alex Crawford
February 24, 2004
Carrabelle - Saltwater Fishing Report
RITUALS OF SPRING
By Captain Alex Crawford
Every spring legions of cabin-weary, obsessed anglers show up on the Forgotten Coast in hot pursuit of their most beloved fish species, the ever-elusive Florida pompano. For these fishing enthusiasts, the hunt for the highly prized pompano is an all-consuming passion and the quintessential ritual of spring. Pompano have reached a legendary status here on the Forgotten Coast, primarily because they are hard to find, give a very respectable account of themselves on light tackle and are right at the top of the dinner list.
Recent stock assessments of Florida pompano have revealed that the species is overfished. The Florida bag limit has been reduced to 6 fish per angler per day, with a total length not less than 11 inches, measured at the fork of the tail. In the aggregate bag limit, one fish may exceed 20 inches, if one is lucky enough to catch a trophy of this size. The recent change in the recreational regulations indicate the fishery is in decline, a dramatic change from the post net ban days of nine years ago.
Finding a school of pompano is half the battle. Some seasoned pros will run their boats down the beaches in an effort to spook a school by chance. Pompano exhibit a highly unusual behavior called “skipping” on the surface. Their silvery sides can be seen on the surface in the boat’s prop wash. Once the school is found, the Captain comes about and sets up to thoroughly fish the area.
Pompano are particularly fond of crustaceans, including sand fleas (mole crabs), oyster crabs, shrimp and fiddler crabs. Feeding fish will be found around oyster bars, grass flats, bridge pilings, sandy beaches and near inlets with shell bottoms around dropoffs. Excellent spots to try will also include rips that create channels through flats and bars. Surf troughs are super feeding highways for hungry pomps. The best known areas on the Forgotten Coast for spring pompano are the east jetties at the Government Cut and the East Pass that separates Saint George Island from Dog Island. Fishing boats have an advantage in these spots, but fishing on foot is possible.
Incoming tides are best for pompano. Periods of slower current during the middle tide stages usually produces a better bite. As always, the best time to go fishing is anytime you can. To fish or not to fish, what an absurd question.
Water temperature and moon phases are important to professional pompano chasers. Traditionally, the magic inshore water temperature is 68 degrees, however pompano catches are reported earlier in the spring in cooler water. The full moons of March, April and May are considered prime fishing days. And it is always the hard-core anglers that go out before the sun and spend long hours with a wet line that seem to score more fish. Early to bed, early to rise, fish like hell and make up lies.
Sand fleas are filet mignon for pompano. Capturing your own supply of live fleas and keeping them alive for bait is optimal, but this process is an inexact science at best. On an incoming tide along the beaches you can take your trusty sand flea rake and get a full-blown cardio workout digging in the sand. These little critters are always hard to find when you want them in early spring. Walking the beach at the edge of the surf, you may spot their little antennae sticking out of the wet sand. Where you find fleas, you are likely to find pompano, so take your pompano rod on the flea search. Or, for the more pragmatic, casual angler, sand fleas can be purchased in tackle shops IQF, instantly quick frozen. As always, fresh live bait always outfishes fresh frozen. It is wise to take frozen fleas, fiddlers and fresh or live shrimp as back-up baits. Artificial soft rubber sand fleas are new to the market. The underbellies are painted orange to replicate a female flea’s egg sack. Next thing we’ll see is artificial flea lures impregnated with real sand flea oil. Pompano fanatics think outside the proverbial box and will break traditional boundaries to develop concepts for catching more fish. There are no limits to one’s creativity and ingenuity.
Keeping fleas alive is extremely problematic. If they are left in a bucket of sand overnight, they die quickly from the ammonia in their urine. Since they need to be kept cool, store them in a cooler with block ice in the bottom with newspapers on top and a mesh oyster bag. Or, simply drill small holes in the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket and keep it in a cool place, out of the sun. Misting them with saltwater periodically will help.
Tackle for pompano has evolved over the years in a highly specialized manner. Since the fish average around 2 pounds, light spinning gear will not overmatch them. Six or eight pound class spinners are perfect with the ability to make long casts from boat or shore. Pound for pound these little jacks pull like their big cousins. Light fluorocarbon leaders and small barrel swivels are appropriate and weights should be minimal to reach bottom. The most effective technique employs a ¼ to ½ ounce chartreuse jig tipped with a live sand flea sweetener. Some fishermen add an orange bead to the rig or a #2 trailer hook tied 12 inches behind the jig. Typical of all species of jacks, pompano have large eyes and are proficient sight feeders. The orange is a natural color attractor that looks like flea eggs. The jig should be jigged slowly along the bottom to kick up puffs of sand to simulate a flea burying itself.
Catching pompano on a consistent basis is tough to do. Even the very best find it a feast or famine sport. The good news is that in spring, when the sun warms the water, many other target species show up on the Forgotten Coast. So, not to worry if the pompano are hard to find, just change directions and go for redfish, trout, cobia or Spanish mackerel. Or, venture out into the Gulf for grouper, snappers or kingfish. Your choices are endless. But remember to take what you can use and leave some for our grandchildren’s children.
Captain Alex Crawford is a full time guide who has fished the Florida Panhandle offshore for 26 years. He specializes in grouper and snapper trips with light tackle on live bait. Custom trips for companies with multiple boats will be arranged.
Inshore trips targeting specific species and custom eco trips are available for birding, gator watching, shelling, picnics and barrier islands.
Contact Captain Alex for a fun and productive trip on Florida's Forgotten Coast.