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Jan 31, 8:13 PM

Pompano strikes Brevard beaches

Abbate remains among best at hauling in prize

By Bill Sargent

INDIALANTIC -- Crows-feet stretched from the corners of Bernard Abbate's eyes as he focused on the tips of two tall-standing surf rods for the telltale sign of a pompano strike.

"It's a good day. I catch 'em today," Abbate said, with a strong Italian accent, and a grin spreading across his face, tanned brown by countless days of fishing in the Florida sun.

A few feet away, a half dozen beach-goers circled around Abbate's five-gallon bucket, peering inside and inquiring about the seven fish stacked heads down. Five were pompano, and Abbate needed one more for a limit.

Within minutes, one of the rod tips started dancing from the jolting run of a hooked pompano. The small stature man rushed to the rod, pulled it from the sand spike and fought a silvery 3-pounder to the beach.

Abbate, a 72-year-old native of central Italy who moved to Florida in 1993 because of its fishing, is a daily fixture along the beachfront between Indialantic and Canova Beach, a short drive from his Indialantic home.

"I fish the surf all year, but this is my favorite time. This is time for the pompano," said Abbate, known as "Benny" by his fishing buddies. "Sometimes I go up north toward Patrick (AFB), or down toward Sebastian (Inlet). I know the holes," he added with a laugh.

Abbate is part of the droves of wintertime surf fishermen that line up their long surf rods along Brevard County's beaches. They're after the Florida pompano, a broad-bodied, crevalle-looking ocean fish with a deep forked tail that's prized for its uniquely favorable taste.

Because of its food value, Brevard fish markets and finer restaurants get top dollar for pompano. Whole pompano currently are selling for $6.50 to $7.50 a pound at retail markets, and a fancy dish like pompano almondine at better restaurants will approach $25.

But instead of buying the high-priced delicacy, many prefer to catch their own, and it's a fish that is not difficult to catch. Just take a few tips from experts like Abbate.

Some of the best pompano fishing along Florida's east coast occurs along Brevard's beaches, usually between early December and mid March, and this season local anglers are describing their catches as some of the best in years, especially for larger pompano.

Our Brevard coastline features deep troughs, runouts and in some areas rocks, and those become drawing points for the bottom-feeding sportsters that gather in schools looking primarily for sand fleas, their No. 1 forage.

Some of the more productive pompano waters this winter have been around the coquina and worm rock structure between Patrick AFB and Indialantic, and also in the rocks south of Sebastian Inlet. Rocky areas tend to hold the larger 3- and even 4-pound pompano, and a few to 5 and 6 pounds were reported caught in January. Smaller 1½- to 2-pound schooling fish have been more common between Melbourne Beach and Sebastian Inlet where the surf drops sharply into a deep trough.

Generally, Playalinda Beach east of Titusville produces pompano. But the numbers tend to diminish in the shallow beach areas like Cocoa Beach, although there will be occasions when fair numbers venture into those areas.

A 5-pound pompano is a prize catch, and will approach 20 inches in length. Under Florida's new six-pompano recreational daily bag limit which went into effect on Jan. 1, only one fish can exceed 20 inches. Few that size are caught. All others must measure within a slot limit of 11 to 20 inches to the fork of the tail.

Pompano fisherman Ned Brown, a retired Brevard County schoolteacher and coach from Indialantic, said the fact that pompano form into tight schools makes them more difficult to locate.

"We'll fish a spot for about an hour, and if we don't catch anything we'll move," Brown explained. "We'll work our way down the coast until we find the fish.

"Because they're a schooling fish it can be a guessing game, and the fish might be there today and gone tomorrow. But that's pompano," Brown said.

Also, there are times when pompano will hold in one area for days, even weeks, which has been the case in rocky areas this season.

Anglers like Abbate and Brown who know the waters and the features that hold pompano have an advantage in locating the fish. But even then the pompano may be concentrated along a short stretch of beachfront, perhaps only a couple hundred feet. And, depending on the tide period, they may be holding at varying distances off the beach from day to day. Generally, the best numbers are caught during the incoming and high tides.

Most anglers agree that the best bait, especially for larger fish, is fresh sand fleas. But pompano also will take cut clams and cut squid.

Much of the time the nickel-sized sand fleas -- also called sand crabs -- can be found buried in the wet sand along the edge of the surf. The best tool for capturing them is a long-handled sand flea rake, a wire mesh box-like scoop which allows the sand and water to filter out.

For those times when sand fleas are scarce, Abbate keeps a supply of frozen sand fleas. He catches them fresh and boils them until they turn orange in color.

"Sometimes I think they work even better than the fresh (sand fleas) because the pompano see the color," said Abbate, who also attaches pea-sized orange-colored beads to his drop lines as attractors.

Carl Hanson, a St. Cloud angler who drives to Brevard twice a week to fish for pompano, contends the beads resemble the cluster of orange-colored eggs on the undersides of the female sand fleas.

"I've fished rigs with and without the beads, and I'm convinced the beads help," Hanson said.

A typical pompano bottom rig features two or three hooks tied on dropper knots which allow them to hang perpendicular to the main line. A 3- to 5-ounce bank sinker or pyramid sinker anchors the rig on the ocean bottom. Bank sinkers can be cast farther, but if there's a heavy surf, or a strong current generated by wind, pyramid sinkers are necessary to hold the rig firm to the bottom.

Series fishermen make their own bottom rigs, using monofilament of 25 to 40 pound test, and tying dropper knots for the hook placements. Usually No. 4 kahle-style hooks are used. Two of the more popular hook styles are the Mustad No. 37142 and the Owner No. 5114.

Long 14- and 15-foot rods are commonly used, not because of the size of the fish being caught but because of the heavy rigs which sometimes must be thrown great distances to reach the schooling fish. A common mistake, however, is casting beyond the school. Anglers working multiple rods will cast their rigs at varying distances off the beach until the fish are located.

To increase casting distance, small diameter braided line, or monofilament of no more than 17-pound test, is necessary on the reel.

Any pompano fisherman will tell you that clean water is a must.

"I don't know where they go, but you don't catch them," when the water is dirty, said Abbate. "A southeast wind is bad. Northeast is not a good wind for casting, but it doesn't dirty the water unless it's a storm.

Abbate's wife, Nina, says her husband fishes in all types of weather.

"He's always fishing. He goes no matter what. I guess he loves it," Nina said.

I like the Pm for fishing for Pomps when the incoming tide is on its way in like today . Checked the surf this am when it was still raining and it will be hit and miss today with the wave action and drift but we will give it a go .
Don't care to much for cocoa bch because of the bch structure to flat no troughs . Clams I brine the night before and use about half clam per hook about 1/2 inch strip . Summer time I like to fish early in the am before it gets to hot .Anything else 222222 let me know .
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