Pompano Profits
by Bill Morris

It’s a common joke that fishermen spend more dollars per-pound on their catch than any market could possibly charge. But if there is one species that might put your ledger into the black, it’s the pompano. These fish — which carry the highest market price in the country — are right now feeding in the surf zone from the Outer Banks south, and the best time to catch them is through the first two weeks of October.

A close cousin to jacks, the Florida Pompano (Trachinotus carolinus) looks a bit like an oversized aquarium fish with its deep silvery body shading to metallic blue on top and golden yellow below. (Picture a chrome flounder turned sideways.) But it is the delicate, slightly nutty flavor that makes pompano a top-shelf entrée in the fancier restaurants of Palm Beach and New York City. Demand for this species is so high, and the commercial catch so small, that you will rarely see it on a menu or bed of fish-house ice anywhere in North Carolina.

How good does a pompano taste? According to the United Nations Global Species Database (available at Fishbase.com, year after year pompano is the highest-priced marine food fish in the U.S. The very idea of catching a fish you probably couldn’t afford to buy should be plenty of incentive for anyone to grab a light surf rod and head for the beach. If you find some sand fleas there, you don’t even need to carry any bait.

“Last year was a great year for pompano,” says Hoagy Hoggard of Tradewinds Bait and Tackle on Ocracoke. “This year they’ve been catching quite a few, too. And it should get better as the water cools off up north.”

The best way to find pompano is to first find a stretch of beach that has a good population of sand fleas (also known as mole crabs). These quarter-size crustaceans can be seen burrowing back into the sand as a wave recedes. The fish hover in the shallow surf zone, eating the crabs as they wash out.

Catch the sand fleas and you are well on your way to catching a pompano. Serious fishermen will use a shovel to load crab-bearing sand onto a screen fashioned from “rat wire” (hardware cloth), then separate out the bait like a miner panning for gold. You can also simply dig them out with your fingers and hold them in a bucket with a little salt water. Look for the “soft shells,” crabs that have recently molted. Hoagy Hoggard says that the females with small orange egg sacks on their bellies are even better.

“Most people go from the underside through the top to put a sand flea on the hook,” Hoggard advises. At Tradewinds, the terminal tackle of choice is a standard two-hook bottom rig with #4 kayle-style hooks decorated with red beads and held down by a 3-ounce pyramid sinker. Strong hooks are necessary because the pompano’s sideways body and deep-V tail make him a tough fighter, especially in breaking surf. Use a light wire hook and you’re begging to lose the fight.

Pompano are truly warm water dwellers; they live in temperatures ranging from 68 to 88 degrees, but you will find more fish and more active fish when the surf is 77 degrees and above. Like most temperature-sensitive species they are migratory, which means that the fishing south of Cape Hatteras tends to get better as northern waters cool in the fall. Ocracoke is one of the best places to catch fish as they migrate south.

“Last year,” says Hoagy Hoggard, “our fishing was the best when the water got down to fifty-four in Hatteras and it was still eighty on Ocracoke.”

Sand fleas aren’t the only bait that works. Fresh shrimp will also catch pompano, although a spot or sea mullet may win the race for your bait. A definite advantage of using sand fleas is that they will stay on your hook until the right fish comes calling.

Most of the pompano caught are under one pound. It only takes a two-pounder to get a Marine Fisheries citation. There is no size limit, and no creel limit. Get in the right zone and you may fill a cooler with this high-priced delicacy.

Pompano are relatively easy to clean. Just lay the fish flat and cut from the tail toward the head with a flexible fillet knife. Like other jacks they have a tough skin, so skinning the fillet doesn’t require an expert touch. Because there is no strong-flavored dark meat that must be removed, pompano can also be grilled, baked, or braised whole — after cutting out the guts and gills.

How many times have you spent enough money on bait to buy all of your catch, and then some? If you’d like to get out of the hole, even for a day, the pompano may be your best chance. Get yourself a yard of “rat wire” and go fishing.

Bill Morris lives and works in Straits in Down East Carteret County. That same sound country is the setting for his first novel, Saltwater Cowboys. Morris is a regular contributor to Our State, NCBoatinglifestyle, and Wildlife in North Carolina magazines, as well as the Raleigh News and Observer outdoors pages. More at: Croakerneck.com
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All fish illustrations by Duane Raver, Jr. from the book
Fisherman's Guide: Fishes of the Southeastern United States N.C. State Museum of Natural History Raleigh, N.C. 1984