It was January 1965 and the Louisiana Conservationist, the official voice of the Louisiana Wild Life (yes that’s the way it was spelled then — Wild Life, not Wildlife) and Fisheries Commission, led off with an article on Louisiana’s wonderful winter offshore fishery.
Writer Paul Kalman focused on pompano. “Veteran charter skippers swear that the offshore rigs are like a bottomless cornucopia in that they continually attract new fish to replace those removed by the angler.
“ ‘We have caught pompano and snappers steadily at the same rig for several days in a row without experiencing any decline in the overall size of the catch,’ declares one of the most successful skippers who sails from the port of Venice near the mouth of the Mississippi. ‘If our catch starts to fall off, we simply move on to another rig, giving the original rig a chance to rest. When we return in a few days, we usually find our catches at this first rig to be right back up to par.’
“Last Winter, this particular captain made such huge catches of pompano that he was able to buy a fine new cabin cruiser with the proceeds realized from the sale of his fish.”
Strange to think of today, many charter skippers kept all or part of their customers’ catch to sell on the market, with the purchase of a simple commercial fishing license.
Pompano were the highest priced fish in the entire United States.
Fishermen loaded their boats with pompano caught on small nylon-skirted jigs with their hooks sweetened with pieces of shrimp.
This went on all through the early and mid-1960s. From November through February, it was a slaughter. Then they were gone. Oh, you’d catch one here and one there, but the boatloads of pompano stopped.
Where did they go? Where did they go?
No one really knows. Today, it would be fashionable to blame commercial fishermen’s nets. But no one netted pompano in those days and few of the speedy fish were caught in shrimp trawls.
Of course no one knows where the big bull croakers that paved the bottom at rigs in a little deeper water in the 1960s went either. Shrimp trawls were blamed for their disappearance. We had zillions of little bait-sized croakers in the 1970s, but no big ones.
Now the shrimp fleet is reduced to a fraction of what it was. But we still have gobs of little bitty croakers and still no big ones.
Pompano, properly known as “Florida pompano,” have always been a glamorous enigma. They are simply one of many members of the jack family — a close relative of the disgustingly bloody-fleshed crevalle jack, what we in Louisiana call a jack crevalle.
But the pompano’s oily flesh is esteemed in a state that likes its fish to have fillets that are white-fleshed, dry, and flaky.
The glamour attached to this fish almost certainly started in 1827 in the kitchen of Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans.
There, chef and owner Jules Alciatore prepared a dish he named “Pompano en Papillote,” in honor of visiting Brazilian hot air balloonist Alberto Santos-Dumont. Legend has it that the dish was based on “Pompano Montgolfier,” a dish Jules’s father Antoine had created honoring the brothers who invented the balloon.
The dish that made this fish famous is a pain in the neck to make, not something that one would want to do as an everyday thing at home.
You start by cutting parchment paper into a heart-shaped piece. Cooking oil is slicked over one half of the paper. Onto this is spooned a French velouté sauce made with shrimp stock, to which white wine, shrimp, and crabmeat have been added.
The pompano fillet is then placed on top of that and the other half of the paper is folded over the seafood and the edges sealed all the way around. The packet is placed on an oiled baking sheet and baked at 400º F for 10 minutes.
Each diner slices open his or her own browned packet. The smells are scrumptious.
Modern day catches of pompano in Louisiana, both recreationally and commercially, are insignificant compared to what they were in the past. Strike nets, a form of gill net that is fished actively to surround a school of the speedsters, are still legal, but only a small number of people are permitted to use them.
Fishing the nets is confined to open waters in the fall and early winter. In a self-defeating cycle, many restaurants have quit purchasing Louisiana pompano because of erratic supplies.
This reduces demand, which reduces price, which reduces the incentive for fishermen to work, which of course further reduces regular supplies.
The story is different recreationally. The fish are still in our waters, although seemingly not in the numbers they once were. The old-time recreational pompano specialists, who all sold their catch and could hardly be considered sport fishermen by today’s standards, are all dead or utterly decrepit.
Their skills died with them.
Today, pompano are a “gee-whiz” fish. A boatload of speckled trout fishermen fishing most of the day may catch one or two of them. Since their oily flesh makes them unsuitable for frying alongside trout, an odd pompano here or there in an ice chest is relatively worthless.
If anyone out there knows how to find ‘em and catch ‘em, I would love to hear about it.