Archive for ladyfish

Pompano on the fly

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , on April 26, 2018 by stflyfisher

Hey, are you Jeff Lowery? You sure look like him. He’s a fly fishing legend around here. 

Shout-out from an old beach bum in Destin, Florida

He looked like Jim Harrison, the famous writer, squinty-eyed, wrinkled, and tan as old leather. It was the second time in two days he had asked me if I was Jeff Lowery.

“You asked me that yesterday”, I said with a grin. “Oh, well you sure look like him”, the old beach bum replied. “He’s a fly fishing legend. He fishes from a step ladder on the first bar”. And with that he promptly moved on down the beach in his quest for the elusive fly fishing legend.

I had arrived early with the morning sun painting the beach and dunes sugar-white and the calm surf in hues of emerald and azure. The first and second bars were clearly visible with the deep blue of the troughs beyond them. The first bar was out 25 to 50 feet. That is where I needed to wade to intercept fish that cruised the trough and crashed bait against the shallows of the bar. It was late-April and the fishing report was that the pompano run was a strong one.

permit pompano spearfishing today

A tale of two cousins…

Pompano are a smaller cousin to the permit – the saltwater fish of fly fishing dreams and one of the three gamefish of the tropical saltwater fly fishing “grand slam”, the other two being the bonefish and tarpon.

Pompano can range up to 8 lbs., but finding fish over 5 lbs., is rare. Even so, they are built for speed with their forked tail and tall compact body. Their saltwater habitat is typically inshore and nearshore warm waters (70-89 °F), especially along sandy beaches, oyster bars and over seagrass beds. Because of their temperature preferences, pompano migrate northward in the summer, and toward the south in the fall. Their range extends from Massachusetts to Brazil, but it is most common to areas near Florida. Like permit, pompano feed on crustaceans: sand fleas, small crabs, and shrimp. But they also eat mollusks and small baitfish. They are a member of the jack family (Trachinotus carolinus) and like most jacks, are very fast swimmers and live in schools. They are bottom feeders with very short teeth made for crushing and their mouths are rubbery, much like a carp.

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The Permit – picture courtesy of Gray’s Taxidermy

I was not sure how to fish the pompano run so I started with a small clouser in blue and chartreuse. The 9 weight cast it well on an intermediate line and a 6 foot leader tapered down to 15 lb test. There was little wind to knock the fly down and almost immediately I felt solid taps on the retrieve. As I lifted the fly to re-cast, several small fish came screaming by the fly. I’d deal with these feisty fish all day, dime-bright bullets with tails of egg yolk yellow.

After a few more casts to the deep blue edge of the trough I felt a soft grab, somewhat tentative, followed by a few head shakes and then the jolting of the line and bright flashes in the water. The fish suddenly “grew” in size and made off on a run that pulled my rod down to the horizon, bucking wildly, and had me doing everything I could to keep the slack line feeding cleanly through the rod guides. In no time I had the line on the reel, the drag screaming as the fish tore off to sea.

At times I gained on the fish, then it would reverse and peel out. This continued for 5 minutes and then wondering and hoping it was a pompano, my first pompano, I saw its gleaming deep side and the forked tail. I waded back off the bar into a small trough and up the beach. The fish slowly tired, but still fought in the surf. I walked up the beach some more and dragged the fish out of the surf.

It was a pompano – speed demon of the gulf surf! Its body shone bright in the sun – hues of silver and light blue, its back dark gray with hints of yellow on its underside and the tail fin. The fish had inhaled the small clouser so I clipped the line as close as I could and released it, feeling good about catching my first pompano.

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My first pompano on what would turn out to be one of those days to remember…

I waded back out to the first bar. The water was still relatively cool but the sun warmed me. The day brightened and the sea around me turned on with color. I now tied on a fly that imitates a sand flea, one of the principal foods of the beach-running pompano. Like permit, the pompano has a downcast mouth made for eating the bottom dwelling sand flea, among other crustaceans.

Vlahos sandflea

This sand flea pattern was just the ticket for the pompano that ranged the surf the day I fished. This fly was designed by Nick Vlahos and sold on his website (www.sandbarflies.com). The pattern I fished was sold at the SanDestin Orvis store and is called Vlahos’ Marbled Sand Flea.

I fished this fly deeply with short twitches and it wasn’t long before I was fast to another pompano. These fish are truly built for speed in the shallower waters of the surf, and it was evident why when I watched large porpoises in the outer bar that were likely feeding on these fish.

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Dolphins were not the only predator for pompanos on the day I fished. This fish fought hard for being so critically wounded by what was probably a small shark.

As the sun rose higher in the sky I could see the pompano is schools cruising up and down the beach. I was able to sight-fish them, casting ahead or just short of the school. Though pompano are known for their Jekyll and Hyde feeding personality, on this day the “pomps” were turned on and lit up. Most casts I made were followed and the fly would be attacked even when it meant an about-face. While the sand flea fly was very effective, switching to clousers and other bright saltwater streamers didn’t seem to make much difference.

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This fish displayed some yellow on its fins and a somewhat darker gray/blue back.

The fishing continued red-hot most of the morning into the early afternoon with 30 fish landed and quite a few more lost. Quite possibly the ultra clear water conditions and bright sun eventually ended the active bite. Pompano are known to prefer turbid waters so maybe too much sun was a bad thing.

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The beautiful Emerald Coast of Florida…

After 5 hours of epic fishing in the sun-drenched clear waters of the Gulf, I decided to give the rest of the day back to the fish. I had that good tired feeling as I walked the two miles to the beach access with the sound of a screaming reel and the sight of a deeply bent fly rod accompanying me the whole way. The pompano definitely put a smile on my face and a skip in my step and I was thankful to have met such a beautiful gamefish. I will be sure to return next spring, hoping the timing is in tune with the spring migration and maybe too, in time to meet my apparent fly fishing clone, the legendary Jeff Lowery.

 

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Fishing with the ladies…

Posted in Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , on September 2, 2017 by stflyfisher

My connection with Destin, Florida is an interesting story, one to be revealed in a blog post at a later time. For now, let’s just say I have good reason to frequent this sunny Florida panhandle city – part of the beautiful “Emerald Coast”.

I recently wrapped up a week-long visit to Destin, complete with family and “plus ones” in tow. As busy and hectic as the vacation schedule was, I still had time to fish the early hours while the rest of the house snoozed away.

Destin sits on a long peninsula of land between the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay – a large saltwater bay, 129 square miles in size, that is fed by the gulf tides and estuary rivers to the north.

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An aerial view of Destin. Picture courtesy of flyfishaddiction.blogspot.com.

In addition to an abundance of places to fish in the salt, the area is dotted with ponds and lakes that hold largemouth bass and panfish. So depending on the weather and sea conditions, an angler has a choice of bay fishing, surf fishing, and pond/lake fishing. There’s rarely a time when a line has to sit dry for long.

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Miles and miles of white sandy beach await the early morning fly fisher…

For most of this visit I chose to fish the surf. I had previously fished Destin in the spring and fall, focusing on the bay. I’d heard summertime had a significant “trash fish” bite, but among that rubble was a gem of a fish that had a reputation as a great adversary on the long rod: the ladyfish…

ladyfish

The ladyfish is a ray-finned fish also referred to as skipjacks, jack-rashes, or tenpounders. They are coastal-dwelling and found throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the world but occasionally venture into more temperate waters. Ladyfish prey on smaller fish and shrimp. They can grow to over 3 feet in length and may reach 20 pounds in weight. More commonly, they are found to range from 12″ to over 20″. The body of the ladyfish is a tapered spindle shape with an oval cross-section. Their eyes are very large as are their mouths. Their incredible aerial acrobatics in combination with a hard mouth allows them to throw a poorly set hook quite easily. They are largely silver and white in color but their backs are a light olive to sand color with a beautiful band of pink where their color transitions to silver.

After arriving at our place and settling in, I rigged my 9 weight fly rod with a full intermediate line and took a quick golf cart ride to the beach. I walked east beyond the swimming area and began casting a size 2 chartreuse and white clouser minnow. It wasn’t long before I was hooked up and witnessing first-hand, the incredible high-jumps of the ladyfish.

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Ladyfish are known as the “poor man’s tarpon” due to their incessant aerobatics, as captured here in this picture courtesy of Doug Olander.

I fished the surf for several days and found varied fishing conditions for these surf-side torpedoes. One day the surf was flat as a mill-pond and I spent much of the day running up and down the beach chasing ladies crashing the beach. Their devastating attacks on glass minnows in the shallows reminded me of bluefish blitzes. On other days the surf was up and the ladies were still biting but were spread out and cruising resulting in a slow but steady bite. One hot afternoon I found them on almost every other cast, though they were not showing themselves as they were on the calmer days.

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I’ll estimate I caught at least a hundred ladyfish over a 4 day period and probably lost another 50 in the process. Ladyfish are built for blitzing bait – a long sleek body, deeply forked tail, big eyes, and a big mouth all make for one terrific gamefish for the saltwater angler.

One group of Mississippi fly fishermen respectfully refer to the ladyfish as the Mississippi tarbone and point out that local anglers can experience much of the thrill of catching tarpon and bonefish without having to leave Mississippi waters.

I found the “ladies” to feed very aggressively and take almost any fly I threw at them. While I didn’t try topwater, I’m sure a large popper thrown into their blitzes would have resulted in regular hook-ups. At times they would feed actively in large schools and could be seen porpoising as they chased bait in the shallows. The most effective flies were shiny, silver, or white. A white clouser with some flash combined with a fast retrieve that imparts plenty of action to the fly is all that is needed to catch these lightening bolts of the salt.

While sometimes difficult to hook, ladyfish will strike again and again on the retrieve. Their mouth is very abrasive; leaders should be checked frequently for fraying. On the advice of the local Orvis fly shop, I used a small bite guard of 30 lb mono as ladyfish are not at all leader shy. And I’d recommend not using expensive or intricate flies because they will get chewed up and stripped to a bare hook in no time! A 1/0 stainless hook tied with a lot of flash and some white hackle or deer hair will do the trick. Don’t spare the glue or epoxy! Simple and bullet-proof will work well.

The fish I caught ranged in size from 12″ to over 24″. Any ladyfish will fight hard but when they get over 18″ you will quickly be grinning ear to ear with their blistering runs and spastic leaps. I caught several larger ones that put a serious bend in my 9 weight and made long reel-screaming runs followed by tarpon-like leaps.

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A nice-sized ladyfish caught while wading. Photo by Captain Baz Yelverton.

I fished my 9 weight rod because one never knows what will show up in the surf, including redfish, jacks, and sharks, but I could have gone lighter. A 6 – 8 weight rod would work just as well and reduce arm fatigue from casting. A floating line can be used when the fish are in close but I prefer an intermediate or intermediate sink tip to get down in the water column. A simple 30/20 lb mono leader 5 to 8 feet in length is all that is needed on the business end. Flies do not need to be big, but I found that a larger hook helps increase hook-ups.

Ladyfish are sometimes cursed by anglers because they can aggressively interfere with fishing for other species. Redfish anglers, for example, will stalk a flat only to hook up with a ladyfish and spook every red on the flat. But I welcomed the opportunity to waltz with the “ladies”. I could count on them to join me on the floor with every cast. I could delight in their high leaps from the emerald waters of the Gulf straight up to the bright blue Florida sky. And I’ll certainly be back to ask for another dance with them come next summer.