I usually start early in February to think seriously about the spring pompano fishing in Florida. I think about it casually in November and rather desperately in December, of course, though it is still too far away to affect my general viewpoint. But by February there are only weeks left to wait, and it becomes unmistakably clear to me that I have been working too hard, not getting enough sleep and worrying too much. These feelings are only intensified in March by the feeble intimations of a Northern spring.
So, around the first of April, I give in and go down to Florida, where the sun is warm, often hot, and the fishing is only fair to good but restful. We rent a cottage on the dunes of Singer Island at Riviera Beach, which is just north of Palm Beach.
All types of fishing are available in this area, and as strong as the temptation sometimes is to fish the outside for the big fish or wade the flats along the north end of Lake Worth for trout, snook or jack, I generally fish the surf for pompano and often catch a few. When I don't it really doesn't matter, for this is the lazy kind of fishing I need to start me breathing again.
On Singer Island the surf fisherman has a four-and-a-half-mile stretch of beach. To the north, another five miles of Juno Beach runs up to Jupiter Island, which is accessible from the town of Jupiter by an old, rickety swing bridge that spans the Intra-coastal Waterway. The Waterway cuts Jupiter Island into a 16-mile spit running north past Hobe Sound.
Any good day in the month of April along the expanse of sand from Riviera Beach to Hobe Sound you can count a hundred pompano fishermen, many of them old pros who have been fishing these beaches for a number of years. Most of them come from the Northeast and Midwest. They generally are retired, or semiretired. Two of the most ardent I know are a surgeon from Michigan and an Italian restaurant owner from New Jersey.
These pompano fishermen will change terminal rigs and fish for blues if a school shows in the surf, but pompano is the prime game. The pros each fish two or three rods. I have seen one man fish as many as five rods. Of course, many sell their catch to fish markets (average price 65¢ a pound), and five rods might help defray an important part of the fisherman's expenses.
For this kind of pompano fishing you need a surf outfit—either spinning or conventional—with a terminal rig carrying a two- or three-ounce pyramid sinker and two 2/0 hooks, one high and one low. For bait you use sand fleas (sand crabs to some)—dainty crustaceous creatures about the same shape and size as the first joint of a man's thumb. Sand fleas can be bought at bait stores for 25¢ a dozen, but it's more fun to catch your own with a flea trap. You can buy a trap for $5, or you can build your own, as did my friend Doc Thomas, an eye specialist from Dayton. Doc spent at least four full evenings and he won't say how many dollars on the trap. It's a beautiful thing, a work of art, shiny and well designed, but it's so heavy it takes two men and a small boy to work it, even though it is made of aluminum. I'll bet the 6-foot tubular handle ran him $7 or $8. Store-bought traps are made from steel wire mesh and have wooden handles.
The sand fleas are not too abundant, and you have to stalk them if you want enough for a day's fishing. (In summer along the south shore of Long Island the fleas are so common that children can scoop them up by cupping their hands in the sand as the waves recede and letting the water wash through the sand.) One of the best Florida flea-stalkers I know is a man named George Hunt. To watch a 6-foot 3-inch man like George stalk an unsuspecting colony of fleas is a surprising—and to some people mystifying—sight. First George will stand motionless at the ocean's lip for a full minute, scanning the hard-packed sand in the wash as each wave goes out. Then, lifting his long legs slowly and purposefully, he will tread softly up the beach to where he has seen a burrowing bunch of fleas. (This sighting of the fleas takes a good deal of practice.) Just before he reaches target he pauses for a moment to let one more wave break. Then he moves in like a lacrosse player and in one scoop fills up the trap with the little creatures.
You impale fleas on the hooks and cast out maybe 35 yards, put the rod butt in a sand spike, sit on the sand in the sun and watch the waves roll in. Even if you let your gaze wander and you aren't facing the rod you always seem to be aware of it and turn your head back the moment the strike comes. Pompano strike and fight hard for their size. A three-pound fish can be testy on a light surf outfit. These fish generally travel in schools. If you catch one you sometimes catch 10. Sometimes you catch none. But on these days the compensations are many. There is so much to see: overhead the graceful glide of a formation of pelicans; the coastal vessels moving slowly south, perhaps to the Gulf ports, perhaps to Rio; a shark's fin knifing the light-blue water's surface very near the surf; and always (well, almost) the sun, the wonderful, warming, healing sun.
About 4 o'clock in the afternoon you start thinking of how your pompano is going to taste when you have it for dinner—assuming you've caught a couple. There are many fancy ways to cook pompano, but my favorite, when I've been out all day and don't have time to bother, is this: clean the fish, cut off head, snip off tail and fins (no need to scale; pompano don't seem to wear them), then split. I leave the backbone in, but it's easy to remove if you want. I then mix a marinade of salad oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, place the fish in a shallow dish, skin side up, and marinate in the refrigerator for the time it takes to have a shower and a couple of cocktails. Then I broil it, skin side down, under medium heat, basting occasionally with marinade. When cooked, the fish should be a light brown and still moist.