Panhandle Pompano: Simplifying The Age-Old Art of Surf Fishing

Florida surf fishing
Sometimes all it takes to find satisfaction is planting a few rods in the sand and watching the sun set. And, who knows, you might just get bit!

SALTWATER FISHING SEEMS PRETTY COMPLICATED — you need a big boat with multiple engines and have to be in places hard to pronounce. That stuff is awesome, just look at the other pages in this magazine. But think of how you probably started fishing, with a handdug worm and a little hook. With sport fishing, rarely is the focus on something easy. But fishing doesn’t always have to be hard. Sometimes it can be easy. It can be relaxing, and it can work for just about anyone.

Picture this: It’s 5 o’clock in the afternoon. No work looming. It’s snowing up north. But not here. The sun is just above the horizon, kicking out shades of orange and pink, reflecting off the emerald-colored water — and you’re just sitting there in the warm, white sand.

When I first moved to Florida, I wasn’t a full-time charter captain yet. I didn’t even have a boat. I went out almost every day and sat on that sand and watched the waves crash. I had surf-fishing experience from growing up on the East Coast, and I told myself I was going to live off what I caught. That lasted about five hours before I went to the grocery store and bought some chicken to grill.

I had tried really hard to over-complicate things and missed the point of it. Sometimes you just have to sit there and wait. Once I could smell the chicken on the grill — that’s when things started to click. I stopped worrying about catching dinner. I was sitting on one of the prettiest beaches I had ever seen and was just fishing. No fuel, no maintenance, no stress, no work. It didn’t matter if I was 9 years old or 90 years old.

Pompano surf fishing in Florida
Pompano are one of the best-tasting fish in the sea and catching them from shore doesn’t have to be a complicated affair.

Then that “oh, sh*t” moment happened. I thought my rod was going to get dragged to Mexico. How awesome is that? Guess what? Grill was already hot, too. I had to learn how to fillet pompano pretty fast. One day I’ll capture that strike on camera — but it happens in a flash and never when you’re ready.

Surf fishing is not what you think of when you think of sport fishing. It doesn’t need to be confusing or hard. I started off buying live baits, ice, aerators and spent time digging for fresh baits. I always tried to take note of lessons learned and, over the years, things quickly simplified. More often than not, from my notes anyway, I found the bite was at least equal on artificial bait. I’ve found certain colors and scents had more success than others, noticeably chartreuse shrimp or orange sand flea “flavors.”

Think of what your target species is feeding on when you choose a bait. There are a dozen manufacturers now of artificially scented baits, some with incredible engineering stories and history. I heard one was invented when someone cut their foot while clamming and noticed the shrimp react to the cut. I’m not suggesting someone goes and cuts their foot, but thank you to whoever did that for making my life easier.

surf fishing in the Panhandle
Pompano are a Florida staple and it’s easy to see why. They can be caught from the beach and cooked up into a fantastic meal.

PRO TIP: I also think a lot of guys use baits that are too big. A pompano’s mouth is about the diameter of my thumb. I size my baits to match. Sure, if it was a tournament or something, your success goes up with bait options. I’ve seen great catches from some of the guys on all kinds of baits — soaking shrimp in soda, catching buckets of sand fleas and even throwing jigs. But for me on my days off — and for the majority of visiting anglers to the Florida Panhandle — success can’t come much easier than just a sand spike, a resealable bag of baits, a 9-foot rod and a two-hook rig with a 3 oz. pyramid sinker. 

Some days, I wouldn’t even take a chair. I’d just sit there, watch the sun go down (with probably a cocktail or three) and wait. If I need more than a 3 oz. sinker to hold the line straight, I’d probably carry a bigger cooler down instead of the fishing gear and stop trying to force something.

sunset surf fishing
Even if pompano are your target species, at sunset on the beach you just never know what might swim by. The author with a nice panhandle redfish caught at sunset

Luckily, our water is very clear, and it makes reading the beach and choosing a fishing spot easier than other beaches. Once you start looking at the water like that, you’ll never be able to look at the beach the same way again. You can many of the features, either through the water or by watching the waves break. Fish like to travel in the troughs between sandbars, looking for rips and cuts to feed in. Look for a change. Look for something deeper and darker — either a rip, a hole or something different. Think like a fish. Where would you swim and feed if you were out there? Put your bait there. If you have multiple rods, stagger and adjust them based off the area the bites come from. I’ll have just enough drag to let the circle hook set itself, and I might tighten it up a bit depending on the fish.

Florida pompano fishing
If you need a break from your daily grind, hunting pompano can be a great distraction. Just take a walk on the sand and let your worries fall away

One of the most exciting parts of saltwater fishing is that almost anything can eat that bait. Don’t be surprised if it’s a giant redfish, tiny pompano, black drum, catfish, whiting, jack crevalle, Spanish mackerel or sharks (Yes! We have sharks and they do enjoy swimming the same beaches you do!) I even watched my fiancée fight a plastic bag for about 10 minutes. Like I said earlier, that’s fishing.

You don’t typically read about surf fishing in a magazine. It’s not as glamourous as sail fishing or tuna, but this type of fishing can be done here year-round. Anyone can do it, and there’s almost always something swimming by. Most importantly, just enjoy it. Watch the sun go down, enjoy the sound of the waves, keep your eye on that rod tip — and don’t worry about boat fuel for a few more weeks.