Pompano Purists

This delectable fish is targeted by a tightly knit group of detail-oriented anglers. Prime time is now if you want to get in on the fun.

Perhaps no fish off of the Louisiana coast is more of a mystery than the Florida pompano, especially considering the regard it holds in fine dining establishments across the nation.

Though not many amateur chefs are able to pull it off with the fish’s high oil content, few species have a higher reputation of delicacy than this beautiful member of the jack family.

Many know the reputation of the pompano and eagerly dive into the preparation of the fish, only to come up disappointed. Old school restaurants such as Antoine’s in New Orleans and Chalet Brandt in Baton Rouge have in no small part made a reputation for themselves with their pompano dishes, while many nouveau cuisine purveyors shy away from the species.

Learning the secrets of pompano can result in a trip back in time. Unfortunately, the older gentlemen who helped pioneer the sport seem to act as if you were asking for their bank account number when inquiring about the whens, wheres and hows of pompano fishing.

The fuel dock at Cypress Cove Marina can be a terribly desolate place during the winter season when the season’s fierce northerlies bring down the thunder on the productive, though sporadic, offshore fishing season off of the mouth of the Mississippi River.

But there are weekend mornings when the folks making up the weather forecasts give the go-ahead when you would swear that the leaders of the fishing community had suddenly declared war on offshore species.

Capt. Al Walker’s 26-foot Glacier Bay was ready for action amongst the tuna-driven frenzy last December as I climbed aboard and greeted his charter for the day.

While most all other vessels were aiming to get a jump on pelagic species gathered around the Midnight Lump — a time that gives new meaning to the term “silly season” — Walker’s crew had a different yellow-finned fish in mind that, unbeknownst to most, requires just as much stealth and finesse.

Walker learned the craft from his father and the small fraternity of pompano anglers, men who were and are true artists in the way they go after the delicate species.

Through a very limited commercial fishery, pompano remain one of the few fish taken by gill nets during an August through October season that is relegated to Breton and Chandeleur sounds. This time of year sees great numbers of the fish populate the shallow, sandy beach fronts of the area, though reports of warm weather catches of them are few and far between.

Winter is when news of pompano catches trickle through the fishing grapevine as fish congregate around shallow (40-60 feet) oil and gas platforms. And trickle might be far too strong of a word.

“It’s really a historical fishery and extremely secretive (among most who practice it),” said LSU Ag Center biologist Jerald Horst. “The fishery has pretty much died out, but the population certainly hasn’t.”

Horst says that the commercial industry concentrates its efforts on more shallow fish on sandy bottoms. Strike netters such as these — and there are only six licensed pompano netters in the state — are probably not given enough credit for being the hunters that they are, able to discern species and movement through subtle dimples and other movements in the water.

“They don’t set their nets around rigs or any other structure,” said Horst. “They cruise an area looking for sign and can tell if a school is mullet, speckled trout or whatever and how they’re moving and how they will react.”

Pompano grow quickly, reaching 8 inches and sexual maturity by age one. They prefer 82-98 degrees, and spawn in summer and early fall.

Back in the days when the old Schwegmann’s supermarkets had signs that read “Sportsmen: We Buy Your Catch,” pompano and the specialized art involved in their taking was in its hey-day, and largely contributed to the secrecy involved in their harvest. It was a time when most all other offshore species were sold for shockingly inexpensive prices with a few exceptions.

Spilling the beans on the silvery fish with a yellow stomach could mean a glut in the market and significantly less money in the inner circle’s pocket.

“When everything else was pretty much dirt-cheap, pompano was a relatively expensive fish,” said Horst, pointing out that even last year, commercial landing data showed pompano prices right at about $4 per pound.

Horst looked at commercial landing data back to 1972 detailing prices of pompano relative to two of the more popular fish in the Gulf, speckled trout and red snapper. In ’72, snapper, which traditionally has been one of the most expensive fishes in the Gulf, averaged 38 cents a pound, while trout went for around 26 cents per pound. Pompano went for just over a dollar per pound.

Ten years later, pompano went for $3.32 per pound, while trout got 90 cents and snapper went for $1.45.

In ’92, snapper jumped to almost $2 per pound, while trout stayed around a buck. Pompano fishermen received the princely sum of $3.67 per pound.

The ride down South Pass was uneventful, but got a little bumpy as we hung a right at the pass and cruised past the Mud Lumps, proceeding to the rigs in the East Bay field. The clean green water held promise as we pulled up to the first rig out of at least a dozen choices.

Walker is a well-known member of the highly evolved clan of offshore charter fishermen using the latest in finesse fishing techniques for hefty yellowfin tuna, the undisputed glamour species among the fleet.

While well-practiced in the light tackle pelagic game, Walker is old-school when it comes to pompano fishing, rattling off names of old-timers who taught him the secrets of the fish and fishery. That combined with his extensive diving schedule gives him a leg up on the fish.

“When I’ve got a trip for pompano, I generally know where to look based on several things,” he said. “I’ll get a report from pompano fishermen that I know, I’ll see them on one of my dives or will fish rigs that have historically held fish.”

The historical aspect of finding fish is an important one in that pompano congregate around rigs that hold the shellfish on which the fish feed. Walker says that only about one out of 30 rigs in the proper depth hold mollusks and, therefore, fish.

Along with that, pompano hold tight to “warm layers” on the rig. These areas of warm water are another aspect that Walker utilizes due to his extensive diving experience around the rigs. Knowledge of a rig’s dynamics is critical to efficiently working a field.

“The fish can be holding right on the bottom, at mid-depth, or just 20 feet down depending on where the warm layer is located,” he said.

Horst says there are many other reasons that pompano have such a small following, beginning with their diet.

“They’re shellfish-eaters, sand fleas, fingernail-sized clams. One thing they don’t eat is any kind of finfish, and that has a lot to do with the reason people don’t catch many,” said Horst, indicating that most lures used for speckled trout and redfish imitate baitfish, though they’re thought to be shrimp imitations.

And that brings up the biggest reason of all why pompano have been largely forgotten.

“The speckled trout and redfish angling is so good and so popular in this state that most people don’t fish for anything else,” said Horst. “This is a fish for specialists.”

Light spinning outfits with a combination of pompano jigs and shrimp-tipped jigheads reached the captain’s specified depth quickly, and soon rods were bucking with life on the other end of the line as the wind and chop seemingly multiplied by two in an instant.

As the fish grudgingly came to the surface — two hardtails — the delicate ballet of a charter captain began. Walker gave careful instruction of how to land the fish and not ruin the carefully crafted leader.

One hefty hardtail was left dangling in mid air, and the 8-pound-test quickly parted. Walker gently corrected the offense and set about fashioning another leader and line to line splice while keeping a wary eye on the platform’s position to the boat in the bucking seas. The leader-making process would repeat itself many times during the day as hardtails and bluefish piled on in between pompano bites.

“Some days it’s like this. This isn’t an easy fish to catch by any means, but there are times when I’ve taken over 600 pounds of fish off of one rig. When you dive these rigs, you see just hundreds of these fish,” said Walker.

Though the food source is crucial, according to Walker, the size of a structure is not at all. Some of his favorite areas are those very small in size, allowing him to work thoroughly in a short amount of time.

“Small rigs or even single pipes are much easier to fish,” he said.

Walker didn’t mind breaking down the specifics of terminal tackle, which is one of the keys to success with pompano.

“I start with 8-pound Stren fluorocarbon leader material tied directly to the main line. No swivel. That’s an important step. You’ll get a lot more bites without any hardware,” he said.

A blood knot or the much more-easily tied Uni Knot connects a 10-foot section of leader to the main line, usually light mono with a spinning combo designed with sensitivity in mind. When the fish are not as finicky as usual and present in great numbers, Walker will go as high as 20-pound leader and hoist the fish into the boat two at a time.

Medium-action rods are a good way to go given the relatively heavy pyramid sinker attached to the bottom of the leader. Pyramid sinkers, Walker says, get past the trash fish such as hardtails and bluefish, which wreak havoc on the specialized tackle involved with pompano fishing.

A dropper loop fashioned at least 3 feet above the weight serves as the line for the hook and the rig is not jigged, but kept in place to bob with the current and waves.

“Bett’s speck rigs have hooks that are small enough for a pompano’s mouth. I cut the (hair) tail very short and tip it with a very small piece of shrimp,” said Walker. “There’s a pompano rig made by Tight Line Tackle in Mississippi that’s a really good one. I like the ¼-ounce in either white or chartreuse.”

This brings up another aspect of the sport that may well keep many anglers away. Walker is quick to emphasize that this is an extremely specialized sport requiring specialized gear. Scrimping on tackle will bite you, and little of it is cheap.

“You go through a lot of tackle out there, and you’ve got to have it all. It’s every bit as expensive as tuna fishing (with the sabiki rigs, leader material, hooks, etc.),” he said.

On the more reasonable side of rigging is Walker’s use of a plain H&H 1/16- or 1/32-ounce jighead. Success with this and a piece of shrimp is a welcome relief to using commercially made pompano jigs. Mass produced they are not, and they’re priced accordingly. They also do a superb job of attracting hard-charging, oversized (for most purposes) hardtails — a fish decidedly not designed for 8-pound-test, especially when landing one with a 10-foot leader — and leader-chomping bluefish.

Because pompano do not chase their prey like finfish-eaters do, the bite is usually a bit light compared to the hard rap delivered by other species when they suck in a bait head first. Fortunately, pompano are not especially quick in spitting a bait, and the angler is left with a heavy feeling on the end of the line.

“They’re much easier to catch than either a triggerfish or a sheepshead,” said Walker.

The ideal season for pompano is generally from the beginning of December through mid January, though it can begin much earlier depending on the water temperature. Walker says that cold river water later in the season generally ends things, driving the fish to deeper water.

 

Capt. Al Walker can be reached at 504-621-1326.

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