I have had a largely love-hate relationship with surf fishing my entire life. And yet, year after year, I still find myself hucking lead and bait into the waves.
It is the triumph of hope over experience. And it’s instructive in a far larger way than just fishing.
Surf fishing, at its core, is being in the right place at the right time. And of the two, time matters more than place.
Let me state at the outset that I am not a good surf angler. I am a good generalist angler, and a very good bottom fisherman, but there are many sub disciplines of angling that I range from shitty to just OK. Surf fishing falls into the OK bucket.
The beauty of surf fishing is that it’s the People’s Fishery. Anyone can walk up to a beach and try their luck. All it requires is a good sinker that won’t flail around on the bottom, some bait, patience, and, well… luck.
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I’ve tried my luck on beaches from the Jersey Shore to the Great Lakes to Mexico and the North Pacific, with varying success. Most recently, I joined my friend Joe Baya on the beaches of the Florida Panhandle to try to catch a pompano.
Pompano are a delicious cousin of a jack that are normally easy to catch, and are wonderful cooked as grilled pompano. But this is where the love-hate relationship comes in.
For four years, Joe and I have tried to catch pompano on beaches from Alabama to Florida. After absorbing the initial hype — Joe kept saying something like, “Aw man, they’re easy to catch. Let’s just catch a few and then fish for cobia.” — and then employing my usual pessimism, I was unsurprised when we caught no pompano that first trip.
We gave it a good go, but nada. I was disappointed, but not shocked. After all, it’s surf fishing.
I spent my teen years and early 20s pursuing striped bass and bluefish on the surf in New Jersey and Long Island, with very mixed success. Hours and hours of nothing. Lost bait, snagged gear, crushed hopes.
But just as I would think about hurling my rod and reel into the Atlantic, I’d see it bend double, drag screaming, line running out towards Ireland. I’ve caught 40-plus pound stripers off the surf, angry bluefish topping 20 pounds, and, further south, red and black drum of epic proportions.
I once caught 10 good-sized bluefish as fast as I could fling my diamond jig back into the water — a frothing, vicious maelstrom of fish and blood and shouts and joy. It is a memory singular in its ferocity.
But it happened only once.
The next year, Joe and I tried fishing pompano with a “guide,” which seems to consist of a dude with the right gear, and, maybe, a spot that is slightly better than every other spot on the beach. Maybe. As you might be guessing from this last sentence, we got skunked once again. Oh well. I was fine, but Joe was getting irked.
The year after that, we tried our best, but horrific spring winds foiled us. Of course, the day after I left, the conditions were perfect and Joe caught several. Grrr…
My most emotional surf fishing experience was on Block Island in 2001. I was married for a time, and as that marriage crumbled, I went to the beach to clear my head and cast a line into the sea. Over and over I cast a lure that looks like a little eel, called a Slug-go, with no bites.
I was using a simple spinning rig, far smaller than the gigantic surf rods my peers were using. But they were casting bait, not a lure, and I wanted to be active. As the sun started to sink, the lure almost got ripped off my line by a striper. A real one, a keeper (striped bass needed to be at least 28 inches at the time.)
There was no way I could control this fish with my light tackle. So I ran up and down the beach, following the fish, ducking under everyone’s surf gear. Finally, after what seemed like an hour (but was likely only about 10 minutes), the fish tired and I managed to get it close enough to grab. It wasn’t huge, but at 32 inches long it was a pretty, keeper striper. And I was happy, at least for a while.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago, when Joe and I tried one more time to catch a damn pompano. Again we tried a guide, and again we got skunked. Tides or wind thwarted us. Who knows? But Joe was riled. For so long, his method of pompano fishing had been to set lines, slather on some sunscreen, sit back and crush beers while waiting for the fish, which always came eventually.
So that afternoon, we walked a different beach at low tide. Low tide allows you to see the features of a beach that are well underwater when the tide is high. Dips, cuts, structure and such, all hold fish in higher water. Finally we found a spot with fresh water draining into it, a significant cut with twin sand bars with dips beyond. “We’re fishing here tomorrow,” Joe said.
We woke early the next morning, went to the spot and set lines. At first, nothing. Sigh. Then the sun started to warm the surf, and finally the rods bent! At long last, I reeled in a pompano. Then another. So they do exist!
Alas, we needed to leave the beach early to drive from Destin to Dauphin Island in Alabama, but we’d achieved our mission, after four years of trying.
Now I understand: Experienced pompano anglers will read this and explain to me that I needed to be in this place at that time, use “X” bait, or whatever. Like I said, I am not a great surf angler. I do what I can.
But this is the thing: Surf fishing, like many things in life, consists of a little decent preparation — the right rods, bait and sinkers — and a lot of luck. Pompano, bluefish, sharks, stripers and drum all cruise the beaches. They can literally be anywhere. Yes, there are places where you’re more likely to hook into one, and that matters — but only along the edges of probability.
Patience and perseverance are the takeaways. A great many things in this world consist of a little decent preparation, and a lot of luck. Succeeding means knowing the former, then having the ability and the determination to wait out the latter.
I find many things in life require luck and patience and being in the right place at the right time. At least with surf fishing, such a confluence results in dinner.
Also: I feel like a slightly backwards 10 year-old for giggling at the phrase “[I am] a very good bottom fisherman.”
You’re always a pleasure to read, sir.
My son, who is stationed (USAF) near Destin, and I have many, many hours fishing for Pompano at Navarre, Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa, etc. We enjoyed your latest Pompano recipe and have had moderate success. Aside from catching and cooking Pompano we have had a lot of fun "tricking" out our surf cart. Similar to how hunters enjoying working on their hunting cabins we have taken to upgrading our cart prior to every trip.....so Hank next time you're on the panhandle and you see a couple guys with a grey wheeled beach cart, that has a solar powered fridge and propane grill on it, stop over and we'll cook you a great Hank Shaw venison sausage, and maybe, just maybe, some fresh pompano.....LOL. Thanks again for another great read.