By scaling down in the summer surf, there’s no telling what type of tasty treat you’re apt to encounter.
The New Jersey and Delaware coastal surf always offers up some summertime surprises. From July through Labor Day, our local beaches are packed with summer visitors from all over the country who come to enjoy the beaches.
And some of those visitors are also coming from the Southeast as well, and stay with us all through much of the fall!
This was my log entry for October 12, 2016 – “Unbelievable! Lavallette. High at 4:50 p.m., seas 4- to 5-foot heavy water solid, greenish blue. Fished at 2 p.m. with clams, light east 5 knots, at 3:15 bagged clammed 28-inch striper and then, rod tip was freaking out with something small on it – POMPANO!”
That’s right, a pompano, and it wasn’t the only one reported in the surf in 2016. Scores of tackle shops, especially in South Jersey in the Sea Isle City, Ocean City and Cape May areas, noted that anglers were pulling pomps from the suds, with some of them actually reaching quality status of 1 to 2 pounds. Anglers who were successful mainly focused on tossing out rigs and clam baits intended for kingfish, another seasonal visitor that has already turned up in 2017 along the South Jersey surf zone.
I’ve surf fished for pompano scores of times in Florida, and the same tactics can be utilized to hook up with them locally this season.
Time to Fish
The first pompanos I recall seeing in New Jersey were when I spied a bunch of small shadows flitting about in the sloughs of a clear July surf in 1999. As the school became trapped in the inside slough of a dead low tide sandbar, I threw a cast net onto the skittering shadows. When I pulled the net in, I had a dozen small pompano in the pull, something I had never seen before. As pompano generally like warmer waters, July through October offers up the best shot at finding the silvery ghosts when water temperatures can range from 65 to 75 degrees.
Mike Cunningham, owner of Sea Isle Bait and Tackle in Sea Isle City has also been privy to the presence of pompano. “We always seem to see them during the mullet run in early September. I remember throwing our cast nets in the Sea Isle surf for mullet in 2002 and pulling up over 200 pounds of pompano, some were almost up to 1-1/2 pounds too,” Cunningham said.
Though I personally have caught pompano at all times during the day, the best bite seems to be around daybreak to around 10 a.m., and then from around 5 p.m. on into dusk, though the fish will feed all throughout the day. The real key is to understand the right water conditions to fish. Tropical shaded, blue-green, semi-stained water is prime coloring, as the fish like to have a little bit of roil to stir up the bottom.
Usually light 5- to 10-knot easterly onshore winds and 1- to 3-foot surf is enough to create a little bit of whitewater as the waves push over the bars on the lower tides. When waters are just a tiny bit churny, they seem to turn up the mole crabs, calico crabs and clams, thus prompting pompano to feed. Low tide hours reveal nice cuts and sloughs to toss rigs into, while high tide hours the pompano will cruise on the outer edges of sand bars.
“I notice that the guys catching pompano last year were fishing the center island sands at Sea Isle, and when we netted mullet last year, there were some schools that were hanging around the jetty pockets,” noted Cunningham.
Surf rods and reels for pompano fishing can generally be lighter in makeup, with enough power to still be able to cast weights up to 3 ounces. I use an 8-foot medium action rod, such as a TICA or St. Croix matched with a 5000 Shimano Sustain reel. Spool up with 30-pound Power Pro braid. As for rigging up for pompano, surf rigs are very similar to what surf anglers use to catch northern kingfish in our area. Start with a hi-lo rig, comprised of 30-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader, a 50-pound Spro barrel swivel, two dropper loops spread 16 inches apart looped with size #1 baitholder hooks or 1/0 Octopus hooks and a 2- to 3-ounce bank or pyramid sinker on the overhand loop end.
Bells and whistles are welcomed for pompano, as fluorescent yellow or chartreuse beads or pill floats fixed above the hook attract fish. The same pill float rigs sold for kingfish in our area work just fine for pompano. “I find most guys are just using kingfish float rigs,” said Cunningham. “But they are substituting out for a little bit larger hook like a sea bass type baitholder hook.”
Pompano like to feed on the front sides and back sides of sand bars, patrolling the edges of the bars looking for meals that wash over with the currents. Cast into those sloughs, or land your rig right on top of a sand bar, then drag it until it falls off the ledge and into the hole or cut. Where there is one pompano, there will be more as they feed in schools. I recall in my Florida days catching a half dozen at a time on the surf sticks as they moved through in waves to feed.
A variety of baits are available for pomps, but the main courses usually consist of fresh clams, bloodworms, shrimp and above all – mole crabs, aka sand fleas. I’ve always called those little buggers sand fleas but technically they are mole crabs as true sand fleas are transparent little surface hoppers that are smaller in size, and we don’t see them too often at the Jersey Shore.
To procure mole crabs, I dig them up right in the soft sands of the slope of the undertow. You will see their airholes bubbling up as the waves retreat. The closer you get to the wash drop, the more mole crabs you will find. Either simply use your hands to shovel up the soft sand on the receding waves to collect them, or even get in the water and go underwater in the undertow, feeling around with your hands to pluck them out of the soft sands. The fastest way to gather mole crabs is to obtain a “sand flea” rake and simply rake them up in the collection box. Lance whole mole crabs onto the hook.
If you have trouble gathering mole crabs, then fresh bits of clam, bloodworms or shrimp work just fine. Cut shrimp and clam baits into small 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces and lance them on the hook. You can also opt to use Fishbites strips if bait is hard to find.
It’s worth a shot to target pompano this year in Jersey waters. Commit to a few days of specifically throwing the right rigs with the right gear and see if you can break the mold by scoring some fresh caught Jersey pompano!