Officially known as menhaden shad, schools measure in acreage terms rather than numbers. Huge schools can be seen flipping their tails at the surface, moving along with the tidal currents. They are usually fairly close in to the shore, sometimes right behind the breaking surf, but can be found as far as a mile or more offshore.
There is security in numbers, and security is what these fish need. They are a favorite food for many saltwater species up and down the coast. Redfish, cobia, king mackerel, tarpon, and sharks are some of the major predators that will follow these bait pods.
Fishing with pogies requires a bit of specialization, but no more than the average angler can handle. They are delicate fish and will not survive well without plenty of aeration and cool water in the live well. The live well needs to be large and preferably round. Any corners in a live well of pogies will have the fish nosing into those corners making them get “red nosed” and substantially reducing their shelf life. Most live wells in today’s boats have at least rounded corners on their box shaped wells. Larger boats are built specifically with round live wells to aid on preserving the bait.
Pogies are not usually purchased from bait shops because they do not survive well in captivity. People fishing with pogies catch their own, using cast nets in the pods of baitfish on the beach behind the breakers. Often one good cast of the net will catch more pogies than the average boat needs.
Fishing with pogies can be done in a variety of ways. In the spring, following the bait pods will be cobia and large redfish. They feed on these pods, and often you can see. Fishing for them involves either anchoring and fishing live pogies both freelined and on the bottom in the area of the bait pods, or site fishing and tossing a live pogey bait to a waiting marauder.
Oversized redfish (larger than twenty-seven inches in length) are common; some very large cobia will be caught as well. The ever present sharks provide some thrills to anglers fishing with this method, some of them ten feet in length!
Later in the year toward the summer king mackerel begin to move in toward the beaches in their spawn. They are often seen just behind the breakers “skyrocketing”, a term for their high vertical leaps when feeding in a school of menhaden.
Kings are caught slow trolling pogies – slow means as slow as the boat will go – in water from the breakers to as far as two miles offshore. Live pogies are freelined behind the boat, and put down at varying depths on downriggers.
Plastic skirts in varying colors, predominantly pink, chartreuse and white, are placed on the nose of the pogey. These skirts help attract the fish and help protect the pogey’s nose and mouth. If the boat is moving too fast, the pogey’s mouth will be forced open, causing it to drown, or it can start spinning. Slow troll means just that – keep the boat in motion only enough to keep the live baits from swimming ahead of the boat.
Anglers trolling pogies often use commercially prepared “menhaden milk” or menhaden oil, dripped from a container along the side of the boat. Pogies are very oily fish and their odor is a significant attractor for game fish.
Using odor as a tool, the hot summer months along the southeast Atlantic coast will find anglers anchored along cuts and sandbars within a mile of the beach. That means tarpon time!
A somewhat arduous task, tarpon fishing with pogies is becoming very popular. This method requires a lot of fresh, dead pogies and some very lively pogies. Boats anchor long the deep edge of a sandbar or channel that comes out of any given inlet. Once anchored, two live pogies are freelined on two rods, and two live pogies are fished on the bottom behind the boat.
The dead pogies are cut up and tossed overboard into the current in a never ending chum line of pogey pieces and smelly pogey oil. Tarpon catch the scent of pogies and follow their noses up to the live baits. Some very big tarpon are caught using this method.
Some of the largest sharks to be caught are caught while tarpon fishing with pogies, so be ready.
Pogies may not be the universal bait, but for all the fish that they catch, they are a pretty good substitute until one comes along.