Confessions of a Surf Fisherman

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t was the phone call I’d been waiting for: “Meet me at my house and we can fish for pompano from South Beach.” The call was from Manny Briceno, the former Vero Beach-based real

estate agent turned full-time fisherman and the holder of the unofficial world record for pompano — an 8.8 pound beauty he caught off South Beach Park in April 2012. (Although he weighed the fish in front of several local witnesses, his record is dubbed “unofficial” because he did not have it officially weighed in Fort Lauderdale.) Venezuela-born Briceno, 55, who has become world-famous since his catch, is known as “King Pompano” and “King of the Beach” and is considered one of the area’s top surf fishing experts. I am a novice surf fisherman and the prospect of meeting — and learning from — Briceno sent a small shiver up my dorsal fin. I had landed the big one. I felt as if I was a hapless duffer and Tiger Woods had just agreed to give me some pointers on straightening out my pitiful backswing. I ask Briceno, “What do I need to bring?” Without missing a beat, he replies, “A sense of adventure. We’re after another world record!” As anyone who frequents Vero’s and other regional beaches can attest, it’s easy to spot surf fishermen and fisherwomen casting into the sea throughout the year. Indeed, from veterans tugging fully kitted-out surf fishing carts to novice anglers making do with simple rods and reels, surf fishermen are popping REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION © VERO BEACH MAGAZINE


up on more and more beaches up and down Florida’s 1,197 miles of shoreline. The peak season is considered to be from November through May, but there is good fishing all year. And the sport is growing in popularity. “Every year we see increasing numbers of people, both residents and tourists, getting into surf fishing,” says

The excitement of surf fishing is luring Briceno away from a life in real estate. Now he spends as many days as he can on the beach and behind the counter of his bait shop.



John Detmer, a veteran Space Coast

go after, including snook, snapper,

based surf fishing guide who regu-

bluefish, Spanish mackerel, permit,

larly presents seminars on the sport

whiting, redfish and more. Vero Beach

sponsored by the Florida Fish and

boasts a great variety of these fish,

Wildlife Conservation Commission.

thanks to the massive migrations that

“That doesn’t surprise me,” says

move through the area.

Detmer, “because surf fishing costs

At the top of many surf anglers’

are minimal, and it can be as thrilling

“must have” lists are the delicious

as deep-sea fishing.”

and hard-fighting pompano that live

Noel Kuhn, veteran surf fishing

in the waters of the western Atlantic

guide and founding member of the

from Brazil to Massachusetts. They

Florida Surf Casters Club, agrees:

spawn from March to September

“’Thrilling’ is a great word. It’s hard

off the East Coast and then head

to match the excitement of hooking

south for warmer waters. Vero Beach

a 100-pound blacktip shark from

anglers know that the schools of

the shore and fighting it as it leaps,

yellow and silvery pompano will

exploding, 20 to 30 feet out of the

usually make their appearance off the

water!” While sharks are admittedly

Treasure Coast once the waters reach

exciting, there are many more fish in

the mid-60s to low 70s, around early

the sea that surf fishermen regularly

November. They then move north

around May, when the water gets too warm for their liking. They attract thousands of hopeful shore-based anglers to Vero Beach and the surrounding region. Once a school is spotted, word spreads quickly. As one writer noted, “Nothing draws anglers to a stretch of beach faster than schooled-up pompano, and with cell phones, Twitter and Facebook, the word goes out quickly.” Known as fierce fighting fish, pompano also owe their popularity to their taste. “In a word, they are delicious,” says Andrea Fecteau, manager at the Ocean Grill. “We get pompano fresh every day and it’s rare when we don’t sell out of every serving.”


Others agree — it’s rare to find fresh

a local real estate firm, Briceno

pompano for sale at markets for less

bought a boat and began fishing

than $30 to $35 per pound.

as a way of “getting away from

“I wasn’t kidding when I told












you I am hoping for another world

25-foot boat — “It got to be too much

record,” Briceno says as he greets

of an expensive headache” — and

me at his relaxed bungalow a block

took up surf fishing. After local fish-

from South Beach. He flashes a broad

ermen taught him the basics, from

smile and adds, “Sometimes I get this

reading the tides to using the right

special feeling that the ‘big one’ is

bait and jigs, he came to love the chal-

out there waiting for me. I think to-

lenge and art of surf fishing. “I was

day looks good.”

hooked,” he quips.

As he gathers a couple of long

As we walk to South Beach

surf casting rods, a 15-foot carbon

through the oceanfront Sea Cove

fiber Shakespeare rod, as well as the

Condominiums, Briceno stops in his

Ugly Stik that he caught his world-re-

tracks and explains, “Then in April

cord pompano with, he explains how

2012, a few hours before sunset, ev-

surf fishing transformed his life.

erything changed.” He points to the

“Ironically, I grew up in Venezuela

nearby beach and remembers the day

and used to go out fishing for days

he cast his sand-flea and Fishbites

at a time with my father on his com-

bait far out into the surf and placed

mercial fishing boat. But I hated it.

the rod into the rod holder he had

Smelled bad, was too confining, and

wedged into the beach.

I was always anxious to get back to

Suddenly, his reel began scream-

land. I was more interested in girls

ing, and before he could race to it, it

and horses than fishing.”

was pulled out of the holder and al-






Briceno’s bait shop carries everything from live crabs to hot sauce to this rig you can cast with a golf club. For another dollar, he’ll throw in the club.

most into the surf. “Once I rescued

“It’s hard to match the excitement of hooking a 100-pound blacktip shark from the shore and fighting it as it leaps, exploding, 20 to 30 feet out of the water.” – NOEL KUHN

“Surf fishing is one of the most direct connections you can get with nature.” – MANNY BRICENO

toward the surf, whip the rig out into the water and let the rod do the work. Open the drag a bit. Use a No. 4 pyramid sinker in calm waters, a No. 5 or 6 in rough waters.” He seems completely in his element. And he makes it look so easy. Within minutes his reel is whining and he eventually pulls in a foot-long Spanish mackerel. He changes his pyramid sinker because it is drifting too much in the swift current. He catches another mackerel, then a hard-fighting baby jack. Then I watch him take five steps to the surf, where he expertly whips his line out some the rod I realized I’d hooked some-

pompano earned him, he began

250 yards before placing it into one

thing amazingly powerful; it had al-

selling more and more of the “King

of his rod holders.

most dragged me into the water,” he



He never takes his eyes off the

explains. “It felt like I had hooked a

he had designed. His “hobby” was

tips of his two rods. As the wind

shark.” The tug of war was on.

becoming more of a full-time job.

picks up a bit and clouds begin to

For almost an hour Briceno bat-



Three years ago he opened the King

streak the early-evening sky, he asks

tled his catch, expertly playing the


me, “There’s really nothing like this,

fish as he used his drag to reel it in,

in Vero Beach. He offers fishing

then let it race out again. Then, about

lessons, guided tours, gear, bait and

Before I can answer, he tells me,

20 feet from shore, the fish jumped

more than 100 different pompano

“Surf fishing is one of the most direct

out of the waves. “I’ll never forget

rigs of his own design.

connections you can get with nature.





is there?”

that incredible flash of silver gold

Today on South Beach he shows

You never know what you are going to

against the setting sun. I had a mas-

me how to dig up sand fleas for bait,

get. There’s no boat helping you pull

sive 8.8-pound pompano!” He also

the basics of reading the currents and

in, or fight, the fish. It’s just you and

had the unofficial world record.

how to surf cast: “Rod straight up

the fish. Sometimes you win. More

over your head, take four to five steps

often the fish win. Beautiful, no?” `

With the publicity his record