Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Pompano Are Running

Dennis Mayne


The wind is blowing from the east like mad. Good for pompano, the east. The fish swim in from the east toward the pier at daybreak, and I am there to meet them. I find a spot next to a light pole to fish, and lean my pole against the rail. I put a bit of crab on my hook, and flip the bail. The wind is blowing straight at me, a deafening howl at a certain angle, but silent if my head moves just an inch to either side. I cast out as far and as straight as I can, but my lead jig only travels twenty-five yards or so. That damn wind is really blowing.

There are a number of others there all around me. Lean dark men with thick fingers. When the sun comes out, they will stand with one foot resting on the second guard rung like wiry birds of prey. Eyes like hawks under those polarized lenses, scanning the surface for cobia as they cast their jigs for pompano. But now, the sky is dark and the moon is out, showing a white line straight across the Gulf toward the horizon. Until the East starts to warm and the early sun begins to wake.

I trade my jig for a heavier one and begin casting again, a bit further out this time. I drink in that salty air and the smell of the raw blue crab from my hands. I smell tobacco smoke in the air and look down the line at an old man cupping his hands, his back to the wind. He turns back around and casts. The sun continues to rise and brings light to us. I see a silver fish make a great circle in the water to my right. I look up to see a man, rod high in the air, the tip quivering as it points toward the water. He winds and pulls, and the fish reaches the surface. The one net someone brought is lowered down to the water and the fish is led toward it. The netter scoops it up to the grinning fisherman. He unhooks it and measures it on his cooler. They have to be eleven inches from nose to fork of tail to be legal. He places it on the ice, wipes his hands on his jeans and returns to his post.

I see a few dark spots moving on the Gulf floor. Rays. They swim up, wings swooping, gracefully circling about underneath the water. Dancing for whomever to see. I see a pelican gliding towards the pier at an angle, following the east wind toward us. The fishermen raise their voices with hot oaths and wave their arms, shooing the great pest elsewhere. I've seen a man on with a fish, and just when it surfaced, a pelican with a lean and hungry look that had been perched on the light pole swooped down and with a terrific splash, broke the man's line and stole his fish all at once.

We don't like pelicans.

I see another pole bend to my left. He's on. He pulls and fights the fish, bringing him close to the pilings. He swears and ducks underneath the other men who have wound in already. He pulls and winds and eventually gets the fish to cooperate. It is small enough to bring in without being netted. I'm getting hungry for that thump and the sound of line being stripped from the reel and the strong pull of the fish running.

But pompano are sharp. If you want one too much, they can tell. You send off a stink that travels through your fingers, through the line, and radiates through the lead jig. I haven't had a catch in a while, and everyone around me is having tremendous luck. It's difficult not to want it.

"FIRST CAST!" I hear from the right. This means someone has spotted a cobia and has called the first shot for himself. Half the pompano fishermen abandon their rods and answer the call to arms with their cobia rigs. The spotter watches the fish come at him from the east and casts right in front of the dark cloud in the water. The fish sees the flashy feathery morsel dropped in front of him and gulps it in. The man with the sharp eyes feels this and pulls as hard as he can. The thick rod bends in the air, and the man jerks again and again, his feet coming off the ground. Cobias are notoriously capricious, swallowing a jig one second and an instant later spitting it right back out. The man is eager to catch that hook in its mouth and help the fish make up its mind. He fights him toward the pier and instead of a net, a gaff is lowered down and hooked into the fish and then brought up to the pier. About thirty pounds. The man gets his back slapped and hand shook to smiles all around.

The man to my right gets on, and I wind in my line as fast as I can to get out of his way, and then wham! I feel it. A nice bump on my line. I dream about that silver oval fish circling on the surface. As I wind in, my brain tells me something. Pompano feed on the bottom. Your jig was being wound in when it got hit. Damn. Sure enough, I see a long slender thing swimming out a bit. Spanish mackerel. As soon as I think those words, the line goes limp. Sharp teeth. Lost my jig. Dammit.

But that bump felt good.

I tie another heavy jig to my line and cast out with all my might. I reel slower than usual. I clear my mind. I close my eyes for a moment. When I reopen them, I see a hummingbird off in the distance. It flies close to a cobia jig down the line and dips its slender beak into the tuft of feathers. It flies backwards a few inches. It stares at the painted green jig with the bright feathers. "That's odd," it seems to think. It must be thirsty, for it tries the same with the next jig. And the next. And the next. Wings buzzing at a fantastic rate, it flies backwards again and in a fit of indescribable contempt, snorts as if to say "To hell with all of you," and then flies away to the North.

It's four hundred miles from Mexico to Florida. Across the Gulf. My father told me about hummingbirds trying to take a drink from cobia jigs before, but I'd never seen it until today. He said they migrate all the way across the Gulf to get here. I can't imagine what would convince that little bird to fly for days at a time all the way over a seemingly unending stretch of water. I thought about how big the Gulf is to me, now how big would it be to something as big as just three of my fingers? Four hundred miles, okay, how fast can a hummingbird fly? Five, eight miles an hour? Okay, so going five miles an hour, how fast could you get somewhere four hundred mi—

Wham!

Something gulped my jig and ran with it. My reel is whining to me, mourning the loss of line. I jerk back and set the hook. I pull and wind him in a little bit, and he runs again, having none of it. This is a good one. A netter. I let him run a little bit, then pull again. He gives in a little. I pull him and wind until I see a silver swoop below me. Someone grabs the net and lowers it to the water. I have his mouth above the surface and the net gracefully swings to him and dips him up. I wind in so I don't get tangled with the rope, and there he is. He flops and kicks and I get the hook out of him.

What a beautiful fish. Silver and fat, like a great porcelain oval dinner plate. Little bull nose and tiny mouth. Great forked tail with yellow tips. Beautiful. Only two or three pounds, but they fight like furies.

The fish has two thick fillets, one on each side. Their meat is sweet and flaky and nothing is better than a grilled pompano with some cole slaw and cheese grits and a cold Scottish Ale. I light one of my little off-brand cigars I have in my pocket with the wind at my back. I daydream of surprising her with dinner when she gets home from work. I'll bring the fish home and grill it for her with my butter and lemon sauce. I'll go by the wine place and get a bottle of that white that she likes and put it in the icebox. I can't wait to hold her in my arms with our bellies full of pompano and butter and wine. Happy, full, warm, safe. I'll be tired tonight. I woke up at 4:30 this morning, my day off. She'll do that thing where she runs her fingers across my forearm just to torture me. She did that once at a piano concert and made me fall asleep. No matter how hard I fought, my head kept dipping and my eyes wouldn't stay open. Her little spell. Remember her eyes when I finally woke myself up? Full of life and warmth and mischief. But I'll stay awake tonight. Even after a warm dinner and wine, I'll stay awake.

She'll try to lull me to sleep, but I'll be strong. Even if she puts her hand on my face, then squints at me because I didn't shave this morning. I'll just squint back at her and grin. I'll lift the bottom of her shirt and kiss just above her belly button. I'll lie down and wrap my arms around her and play with her hair.

Maybe I will fall asleep just for a little while.

I throw my line in the water one more time. I wind it in fast, embarrassed. I got too close to the guy's line next to me. I sigh softly to myself, then hook my jig onto the bottom eye of the rod. I grab my cooler, walk to the truck, and drive home to eat my pompano and cole slaw and cheese grits alone.

***

Dennis Mayne grew up in Panama City Beach, Florida. He briefly attended Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, where he wrote for the Humor section of the school newspaper, The Southern Accent. He currently resides in north Florida.

© Dennis Mayne

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012