As if on cue, the line popped from the outrigger clip.
We weren't trolling blue water for billfish, in this case. Far from it: The 42-foot Post Thomas Flyer drifted lazily in green water about 60 feet deep.
Capt. Jimbo Thomas had just made the 5-mile run southeast of Miami on a quest to catch one of the jack family's most wide-ranging and interesting species, African pompano. Found in tropical waters worldwide, Africans can spice up a catch almost anytime.
But few skippers have perfected a targeted fishery for the bright-silver, slab-sided coastal nomads. I heard that Jimbo, along with his brother (and first mate) Rick, had, so I called the Thomas boys the same day to set up a trip.
When I made that call in early summer, it quickly became evident that I'd have to exercise some patience. While anglers can and do hook African pompano now and again at any time of the year, only in November can one reasonably hope to target them successfully over relatively shallow structure.
That, says Jimbo, is when real numbers of the fish assault wrecks and reefs off Miami, especially certain wrecks and reefs. And on that November 2003 morning, the skipper had put us over one such reef, noting that African pompano had really gone off, right here, the previous November.
"It was great," he recalled. "We were doing doubles and triples; one morning we caught nine in less than two hours!" Most of those were released, Jimbo adds.
"And we could have kept on catching them! If we'd stayed, I'll bet we could have caught 20, but we decided to give them a rest, to move on and try for something else. I just hope we'll find 'em like that again this year."
And that was the cue, coming about an hour into our time on the fishing grounds on an idyllic bluebird morning, with only a light breeze rippling the waters off Key Biscayne.
"Right rigger!" came Rick's shout from down in the cockpit, as Jimbo chatted with me on the bridge. The closest angler, Twig Tolle, had grabbed the medium spinning rig. Calling on his skill and experience as an offshore veteran, the Miami native showed no inclination to rear back as the predator headed away with the live threadfin and the line tightened. Rather, he simply held the rod and waited for the circle hook to find its usual purchase in a jaw corner.
It did, and Twig let out a whoop as line began to pour from the spool of the Daiwa Saltiga 4500. That initial run continued for a couple of minutes without any sign of slowing, long enough for the fish to be 200 yards astern. ("I wasn't sure I was going to be able to stop it," Twig confessed to me later that day.)
Was it an African pompano? Jimbo wouldn't commit: There are just too many other species one can and will catch over the many artificial reefs and wrecks out here, he says, citing cobia, sailfish, king mackerel, amberjack, almaco, mutton snapper, grouper, yellow jacks and, at times, even dolphin.
But, he insisted, it was sure running like an African. And not running like an African. That is to say, this fish didn't run like the African pompano that many anglers luck into. That's because they're often caught over deepwater wrecks; in water 150 to 250 feet deep, they tend to fight more "jacklike" - short but dogged, persistent runs.
That's another reason Jimbo likes targeting the species in 60 feet of water. "Africans just don't run like that when you hook 'em in deep water," he told me, as he spun the stern a bit to give Twig a better angle. "But here, they fight great, especially that first run. Then they slug it out when you get 'em closer to the boat. They're tough fish."
That must have been the next cue since, with half a spool of line out, Twig managed to turn what we all hoped would be our first African of the day and gain a bit of line. It proved a stubborn brawler, by any definition - stubborn enough for Twig to decide maybe a gimbaled belt wouldn't be such a bad idea, as our other angler, Ray Douglas of King Sailfish Mounts in Pompano Beach, Florida, strapped it on.
Finally, when Twig had put most of the 30-pound braid back on the spool, we peered into the clear green water to see a big slab catching the rising sun's rays in bright silver flashes.
"There ya go!" Rick said. "There's your first African!"
And so it was. Moments later, Twig posed for photos, triumphant with a pompano of about 30 pounds. That's a good African for sure, though not uncommon in this seasonal fishery; Jimbo has seen them better than 40 pounds.
It Begins with Bait
At that point, I understood - as did my fellow anglers, particularly Twig - why targeting African pompano off Miami in November is worth the effort. Not only do these fish offer a shot at a species that many fishermen never get a chance to tangle with, but also they're a hell of a fine game fish and, on appropriate tackle, a good challenge.
Although our first pompano happened to grab the 30-pound-braid rig, the four other rigs (all Daiwa Black Gold spinners) held 20-pound mono. That's ideal, Jimbo says. He acknowledges that 16- or even 12-pound is fine in the hands of an experienced angler, but, of course, the longer fight time sometimes makes release dicier.
On the other hand, not all Africans are released anyway. Another attribute of this game fish is its very tasty flesh. There's no reason to believe that populations of the species should be in trouble in any way, and Florida's bag limit should help keep things that way - just two fish per boat per day.
Jimbo notes that he has seen boats come back to the dock with well over that limit in late fall and early winter when they hit it just right, whether out of malfeasance or simply ignorance.
Fundamental to the Thomas Flyer's success is the right bait and plenty of it. That meant our day started well inside Government Cut, looking for pilchards. Sometimes a few minutes is all it takes to get bait; on other days, Jimbo says, it can be more difficult. The entire length of this channel (all the way west to Miami) was traditionally wide open to all small boats, but now heightened security measures keep most of it off-limits. That means when pilchards school up en masse next to the cruise ships, the Thomas Flyer can't get to them.
But on this morning, we were fortunate to find pilchards in sufficient supply right alongside MacArthur Causeway (which connects Miami and south Miami Beach), and Rick filled the livewell with two casts of the net. From there we headed out toward Jimbo's African pompano grounds, but with one more stop en route.
At the "bent range marker," we crowded around the stern to sabiki up as many threadfin herring as we could as quickly as possible. While pilchards certainly work for just about every predator that swims offshore, Jimbo prefers to use them as live chum and save the larger, hardier threadfin, or "greenies," for live baits.
The bent range marker, about a mile off Government Cut, is just that - a rusty range marker that has been leaning like the Tower of Pisa as long as Jimbo can remember. It's a popular spot with many bait-seeking skippers; Capt. Bouncer Smith followed just after we arrived with a party of anglers eager, as were we, to sabiki up their bait and go fishing.
Once on the grounds, the Thomas boys drift or slow-troll with five lines: one outrigger line on each side fishing a surface bait, a flat line off the stern also fishing a surface bait and, in two gunwale holders just ahead of the transom, two down lines. All baits are rigged with circle hooks. (Jimbo says he still prefers J-hooks for some species, but circles do the job nicely for African pompano). To each hook Rick ties a 50-pound mono leader of about 15 feet. On the deep lines, he slides on a 3-ounce sinker, which generally stops at the Albright knot until the angler hooks up. At that point, if things are working right, the pull constricts the knot enough to allow the egg sinker to slide over it and on down. Rick says that during a fight with a big fish, he'd rather have the sinker at the bottom of the leader than throwing its weight around at the top.
Rick stays very busy, and that's part of his strategy for success: He's continually changing out live baits, rotating around the five rods to keep them fresh and active. He also throws out live chum now and then to keep up the interest level of predators that might be in the vicinity.
Last Bait, Limited Out
Chumming with live pilchards is a proven technique to call in hungry Africans, Jimbo says. While at times they may be feeding right along the bottom, these fish range widely in the water column and can even be seen sometimes crashing bait at the surface. "Years ago, we'd see 'em [feeding on top] at this time of year, but we didn't realize what they were until we were close enough to see them pushing their big silver heads across the surface. Then we realized."
In fact, says Jimbo, the Thomas Flyer started targeting Africans seasonally only about five years ago after friends of Jimbo's who do a lot of diving told him of seeing many big pompano around these shallow reefs. Over the next couple of years, he and Rick began to make an effort to catch them and began refining their techniques.
By midafternoon, we'd lost a fish that might have been an African pompano, but in any event, we hadn't yet caught a second. I'd had reason to hope, recalling that Jimbo had said that for some reason, Africans seem to bite better in the afternoon. He concluded the inevitable, that the fish just hadn't moved in as they had the previous year. But before the day had ended, we could claim a boat limit. At the last minute, about 4:30, the last line out with our last live bait took off toward the Miami skyline. As the only soul in the vicinity, I did my part, grabbing the rod.
I could pretty well guess this was not a fish well over 30 pounds, but it gave a good account of itself before reaching the boat, where we could see that it was another African pompano. It looked to be only 20 pounds or so. Still, not a bad fish - and it's always nice to be able to say you caught a limit.