Panfish in the Carolina surf

Nice pompano like this are not uncommon in the June surf.
Anglers don’t need to wade out into the surf to catch pompano and whiting.

Pompano and whiting are plentiful in the surf zone

One of the favorite species pursued by Carolina surf fishermen is Florida pompano, usually simply called pompano. The bright silver fish arrive when the water in the surf zone begins to warm in the spring. And they stay until the water cools in the fall. They are willing biters, usually feeding and typically within easy casting distance for even the most inexperienced casters.  

Another plus for surfcasters targeting pompano is they are usually accompanied by whiting in the spring and fall. Whiting, which are also called sea mullet and Virginia mullet, roam surf lines from the Gulf of Mexico to the mid-Atlantic with pompano. These fish please a lot of fishermen with good action and plenty of prime fillets for dinner. 

Catching pompano and whiting doesn’t carry the thrill of landing a stubborn cobia or large red drum at Cape Hatteras. But they please many fishermen along the Carolina Coast and many are carried home to become the guest of honor at fresh fish dinners.

Oak Island, N.C. isn’t a well-known surf fishing destination, but a group of fishermen here catch lots of pompano and whiting. And their techniques will produce anywhere that holds the two fish. They typically do well at area surf fishing tournaments and don’t miss meals when relying on their catch when fishing other areas. They offered some tips that should help other surfcasters improve their catches of pompano and whiting. 

Bobby Summey enjoys surf fishing and enjoys eating his catch. He said that pompano, along with whiting, are two of the tastiest panfish available for surf fishermen. Once the weather warms in the spring, Summey and a loose group of friends that alternates with Jimmy Adkins, Keith Whitworth, Jerry Moss and Breck Honeycutt, plus other occasional participants, gather on the beach several times a week to ply their luck for a fresh pompano and/or whiting dinner, talk and other things friends enjoy.

Sand fleas a/k/a mole crabs are readily available on Carolina beaches

Pompano can be picky

Summey said finding the bait they prefer is sometimes the most difficult part of this. Pompano like live shrimp and live sand fleas (mole crabs), especially sand fleas laden with eggs. Sometimes they like both at the same time. And sometimes it’s one or the other. 

When these live baits aren’t available, they use pieces of the freshest shrimp possible. Some fishermen revert to frozen sand fleas when live ones aren’t available. But this crew feels they get more bites using pieces of shrimp.

Summey said they take turns catching bait. Sometimes live shrimp can be purchased from area tackle shops, but they all throw cast nets and go to favorite spots to catch bait. Even though they have been friends and fished together for a long time, most have different favorite bait-catching spots. Obviously, more than one or two spots are available to catch bait in the area. 

They generally catch shrimp around low tide and keep in aerated baitwells until it’s time to use them.  

Sand fleas live in the sand at the edge of the surf and can also be caught in advance and kept. Summey and friends keep them in small buckets, with holes in the bottom to drain. The buckets are placed on cooling packs and kept in a cooler to keep them out of the sun, fresh and ready to go. Some fishermen use their hands and small shovels to dig up sand and sift it for sand fleas. And many tackle shops sell sand flea rakes.  

Whiting are also common catches in the same areas as pompano.

Look at low tide

Summey said sand fleas have a much easier time digging in areas of the beach with softer sand. And fishermen can look for these spots to catch them easier. He pointed out that beach renourishment projects have become regular at many beaches and they tend to pack sand in some areas and may loosen it in others. He suggested paying attention to the hardness of the beach. Finding the softer areas definitely makes locating and gathering sand fleas easier.

“Not all parts of the beach have equal fishing either,” Summey said. “You would think the fish would be close to the soft areas that usually hold more bait. This helps often, but it’s not a rock-solid thing. Sometimes the fish are attracted to something and hold over areas of harder packed bottom.”

Fishermen should note that sloughs, drains and sandbars along the beach are important features that help attract fish. Many of these same things that create rip currents also create bottom features that attract fish. It is wise to check out the beach at low tide and find areas with sloughs, drains or sand bars within casting distance of the beach. These areas will hold bait and attract fish when they’re covered with water. Return while the tide is rising and fish this area as the rising tide covers it.   

Bobby Summey shows off a pompano double.

Find the strike zone

“We use rigs that Jimmy (Adkins) makes,” Summey said. “He likes making them and they catch fish well, so we gladly use them. Jimmy’s rigs are double-drop setups, with the sinker at the bottom. They use loop-to-loop connections to allow easily replacing hooks. We like small circle and needle point hooks like the Mustad Ultrapoint and Eagle Claw Needlepoint Octopus hooks in size 2. These hooks hold the baits well and hook most of the fish on their own if we’re not paying attention – and we sometimes get involved in talking or something and don’t notice a bite until a hooked fish is bouncing the rod.”

The strike zone is the slough, when one is present, or where the farthest offshore wave is breaking on the bottom or sand bar. This is one good thing about south-facing beaches, like Oak Island; they rarely have big nasty surf. Sometimes reaching the outer breaker requires a hefty cast, but many times it is closer in and easy to reach.  

Summey and friends mainly use 10-foot conventional rod and reel setups. They are easier to cast once your thumb is educated to prevent backlashes. Fishermen who haven’t mastered casting with a conventional reel can use a spinning outfit.

“We start by fishing a live shrimp on one hook and a sand flea on the other,” Summey said. “When we see they have a preference on that particular day – and their preference changes – we switch to that bait. When live bait isn’t available, pieces of the freshest shrimp possible become the preferred bait.”  

Note: A local story tells of one fisherman who uses Pro-Cure Scent Gel in shrimp flavor to mask the smell of shrimp he is concerned aren’t fresh enough. This sounds a bit extreme, but this fisherman catches a lot of fish.

Oak Island isn’t known as a surf fishing destination. But Summey and friends eat a lot of pompano and whiting, plus speckled trout, gray trout, red drum, black drum, flounder and more they catch there. It’s more of a panfish place, with the possibility of hooking a trophy red drum, tarpon and more. 

These tips work well here for pompano, whiting and the other panfish in the Oak Island surf and should help increase your catch anywhere you fish.

Pompano travel in groups, so catching two at a time with double rigs is always a possibility.

More details about pompano and whiting

Pompano and whiting are popular fish with surf casters along the US Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. They are panfish, which feed along the bottom in the nearshore ocean. And this brings them within easy casting range of surf fishermen. They feed on small crabs, shrimp, minnows and other things they root out of the bottom, generally right at the edge of the surf line.

Florida pompano is the species found most often in the N.C. and S.C. surf. Pompano grow quickly and can reach 12 inches (approximately 1 pound) in a year. It is rare for Florida pompano to live longer than 3 or 4 years and weigh more than 4 pounds.

Whiting, which are also called sea mullet and Virginia mullet, are actually kingfish and are cousins in the croaker/drum family. There are three species of kingfish; northern kingfish, southern kingfish and Gulf kingfish. Northern kingfish have dark striping and a long spine extending from their first dorsal fin, while southern kingfish have dusky brown striping. Gulf kingfish have dull silver sides. All are caught in the Carolinas.

Whiting are not large fish, with most weighing less than a pound. Any whiting heavier than 1.5 pounds is considered large. The Gulf kingfish is the largest and may reach 4 pounds.

All whiting are fun to catch, willing biters and excellent table fare. They range from a few miles inshore in rivers and sounds to a mile or so offshore in the ocean. As with pompano, live shrimp, live sand fleas and freshly caught shrimp are the best baits for whiting. 

Whiting have excellent noses and can be particular about eating older baits. One successful charter captain suggested going to the seafood market and buying shrimp intended for the dinner table for the best results.

About Jerry Dilsaver 1172 Articles
Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, N.C., a full-time freelance writer, is a columnist for Carolina Sportsman. He is a former SKA National Champion and USAA Angler of the Year.

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