If there is one fish that anglers consider to be the Holy Grail of all saltwater species, it’s the permit. Nothing is more difficult to fool with a fly, pulls harder when hooked, or looks better in a photograph than these big crab eaters. Permit are common reef and wreck dwellers all over Florida but they’re rarely seen in the shallows anywhere north of Biscayne Bay and the Keys. We occasionally have them here on the flats off Pine Island Sound and Matlacha Pass but your chances of sight casting to one with a fly rod are on the slim side in this neighborhood.
Fortunately, our waters are full of a very close runner-up to the permit this time of year and that’s the pompano. These two fish, both members of the jack family, are nearly identical in everything but the size department. Pompano rarely exceed 6 pounds while a few world record permit have been caught in excess of 60 pounds. Pompano are also much less choosy in what they’ll eat. Sand fleas are the live bait of choice for surf fishermen but shrimp, small crabs and cut bait will all work as well. The same thing goes in the fly department and I’ve caught pompano on at least a dozen different patterns from Clouser Minnows to Merkin Crabs. Once they feel that hook, they’ll rip off line just like their bigger and more glamourous cousins. A full grown pompano will definitely dump your 8-weight reel into the backing but you’ll also be able to land it in just a few minutes. A full grown permit on the same tackle can take close to an hour.
If you want to sight cast to a pompano right now the best place to look is on the sandbars in Charlotte Harbor. Burnt Store Bar on the east wall is several miles long and holds plenty of these fish at low tide. They look jet black in the water and move much faster than mullet. I have my anglers toss at anything with a forked tail and if it’s not a pompano I’ll usually have them hooked to a big ladyfish or crevalle. Neither one is good to eat but both are a great fight on a fly rod. Pompano also love to hang on the backs of stingrays this time of year and I always tell everyone to cast right on top of them. A lot of different predators follow the rays waiting to grab a fleeing shrimp or crab so this is an excellent way to pick off a nice redfish or cobia, too.
Of course, one of the best things about pompano is eating them. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the most delicious inshore species in Florida. They usually sell for at least $20 a pound at the seafood market and are also one of the few species that are excellent no matter how you prepare them. Sliced raw, marinated as ceviche, or lightly grilled, it doesn’t matter. Pompano have a buttery flavor and an almost lobster-like texture to their filets. They’re also easy to clean as long as you’ve got a flexible knife.
So head on out to the Charlotte Harbor sandbars around high noon with your 8-weight and a shrimp fly this month. If you see some darker fish with forked tails, bean them right on the head. If it’s a mid-size pompano you’ll get an immediate hit and a fight like few other fish that size can offer.