The Sun Coast Mackerel Run

Now is the time to tangle with Spanish and king mackerel off Florida's west coast from Tampa north to the Big Bend. Here's what you need to know to join in the action.

Guide Jimmy Keith targets the hefty Spanish mackerel that are found in the passes at this time of year along the Big Bend.
Photo by William J. Bohica

It is hard to imagine anything that would ruin a baitfish's day more than the sudden arrival of a school of Spanish mackerel. From a baitfish's perspective, finding oneself in the middle of a mass of darting silver bullets armed with razor-sharp teeth and a take-no-prisoners attitude has really got to be a bummer.

About the only thing worse would be if the Spanish were the bigger, faster and more heavily armed king mackerel.

Running into either species ranks as a "real bad day" for any baitfish in the Gulf of Mexico. But it's not a bad day for anglers. When one encounters a school of rampaging Spanish, or some hungry kingfish, the action can be fast and furious. Your cooler can quickly start to fill with the fixin's for a fine fish dinner.

If you are cruising the Sunshine Coast this month, all of the above can, and will, happen. However, if you want the piscatorial version of a "Big Mac attack," you have to decide in advance whether the fish de jour will be Spanish or kings. Both are plentiful in the Gulf, but this month you seldom find them in the same place. Here's how to sort that out and make sure that reel drags scream and that stopping for ice on the way home to cool your catch becomes standard operating procedure.

SPANKIN' SOME SPANISH

Spanish mackerel are very abundant along the Sun Coast Gulf, and in recent years they have been getting larger. In 2004, many anglers reported finding 4- and 5-pound Spanish in areas where a 3-pounder used to be considered "big." During the spring and early summer, those big Spanish might wind up anywhere. While chasing cobia on the shallow 3-foot Homosassa flats in early June of 2004, I ran into a number of Spanish, including one that was over 30 inches in length. A few years earlier, a late May trip to the 6-foot grass flats off the Cotee River produced a 7-pound Spanish that beat a lot of trout to that jig.

As we move into July, however, do not count on routinely finding Spanish that shallow.

"One of the most consistent spots for finding Spanish in the Gulf during the heat of the summer will be in the 10- to 20-foot-depth range," says veteran Big Bend guide Jimmy Keith. "Just about anything that will draw baitfish can hold Spanish, and that includes deep grass, rockpiles, channel markers, and offshore humps and bars."

That still leaves a lot of water to cover, but there is a shortcut that anglers can rely on. Spanish mackerel are not the most fastidious feeders and tend to leave a lot of baitfish parts littering their dining area. The gulls and terns like that, and since they have much sharper eyes than any angler, they have little trouble finding Spanish on the feed. Savvy anglers have learned that being a bird-watcher can pay off.

"One of the best tools for finding offshore mackerel schools is a good set of binoculars," he notes. "Anytime you get Spanish feeding near the surface, which is their normal mode, they leave a mess, and the birds always seem to find it quickly. I wouldn't be surprised if there were flocks of gulls and terns that actually follow schools of Spanish in offshore waters. They certainly have the eyes to look down and see a mass of fish, and that's the only way I can figure out why every time I find a school of open-water Spanish feeding, there are always birds already working the fish. You can cover a tremendous amount of water on a plane while using those binoculars to find the birds. They'll find the Spanish for you."

If running 15 miles into the Gulf is more trouble than you wish to go through, or if your boat is not up to the task, there are a couple of closer-to-shore options that can produce.

The first is mullet muds. These occur in a number of locales along the Sun Coast and are the result of migrating schools of mullet stirring up the bottom, and sometimes over surprisingly shallow areas. It is not uncommon to find the muds in 6 to 8 feet of water and relatively close to shore. The mullet not only stir up bottom life that is favored as forage for many species of fish, but they also make a fine meal for Spanish themselves. Look for trout to be working right in the upcurrent edge of the mud, while Spanish mackerel roam the leading edges.

While muds can pop up almost anywhere along the coast, their movements are not unpredictable. Savvy anglers who locate a mud one day often take a GPS fix and can return to the general area the following day and reconnect. By simply following the path of the migrating mullet, they can often string several days of quality fishing together.

Another option is not to chase the fish, but rather to let them come to you. All this approach takes in many areas of the Gulf is a tide table.

"Some of the most consistent, and convenient, action in my area," Keith says, "happens around channels and passes that connect the open Gulf waters with inshore bays, or around the keys. The tide moves a lot of water and baitfish through these deeper channels, and the Spanish can really stack up there if you time it right.

"My experience has been that the most productive times are the first three hours of the flood tide, regardless of the time of day," he continues. "That's when a lot of the baitfish that were pulled out of the bays on the ebb tide will begin to funnel back in big concentrations. You would think that the same thing would happen on the lower end of the ebb, but that's always been a spotty tide for me. The first of the flood usually sees the best pass action."

Irrespective of where you find the fish, there are a number of tactics that take them. Most fishermen have their favorites, but savvy anglers keep their options open. While Spanish can be voracious feeders, there are times when they can be quite finicky. You may have to run through a selection of lures, and maybe even employ live or cut bait, to entice them. This is especially true if they are feeding on glass minnows.

Another factor is their teeth. They are razor-sharp and can make short work of monofilament lines. Many anglers opt for a short length of wire leader in the 18- to 27-pound class. Use a haywire twist to connect 10 inches of coffee-colored leader to the main line and lure and you are covered. Some anglers, however -- this writer among them -- feel that wire can reduce strikes. A short length of 30-pound fluorocarbon leader provides almost as much protection while at the same time increasing hookups. Fish it on a 6 1/2-fo

ot spinning rig spooled with 10- to 12-pound mono, and you have the means to handle the biggest Spanish that swims.

What adorns the business end of the rig is a matter of choice, and there are a number of effective ones.

Chasing deep-water Spanish requires staying on the move and being observant. Watching for birds while trolling is a solid tactic. Trolling a couple of 2 1/2- to 4-inch flashy Clark spoons (or similar models) behind the boat at about 100 feet covers the surface areas. Experienced anglers often add a bullet-head nylon bucktail jig to the spread. Use a 1/2-ounce sinker placed two feet ahead of it to get the lure down farther than the spoons. White is a good color to start with in jig selection, but sharp anglers hedge their bets by also including one in a bright color, like orange, pink or chartreuse.

This is a great technique for locating open-water fish, but once a concentration is found a shift in tactics can fill the cooler faster.

Spanish mackerel normally prefer a minnow-imitating spoon, jig or plug moving in a quick and erratic manner. Quick is important, but erratic may be more so. Most chrome spoons in the 3- to 4-inch range can do this. On some days, especially when glass minnows are the forage de jour and Spanish get finicky, shifting to a 1 1/2-inch spoon can pay off. You may need to add a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce bullet or egg sinker to the rig a foot or so above the lure to cast this smaller size. Another option, and a popular one, is casting 1/4-ounce nylon bullet-head jigs.

One modification that can make any of the above more effective is to add a 3- to 4-inch coffee-colored wire leader to the rear of the lure and attach a No. 4 treble hook to it. Spanish are slashers when they eat, and they're not always as accurate in their initial attack on the bait as many anglers might hope. They are notorious short strikers, and that "stinger" hook can nail a lot of them.

While a fast and erratic retrieve is normally the best bet with these baits, if you are in deeper water but small Spanish are wasting your time, try letting the lure sink five or more feet before starting the retrieve. Larger fish are often lying below, and if you can get the bait past the little ones you can start hammering the big ones.

Quick sub-surface baits are killers on Spanish. But if you want some real fun, tie on a topwater plug.

MORE INFORMATION

To book a day of guided mackerel fishing along the Sun Coast with Jimmy Keith, give him a call at (352) 472-7295.

To access water temperatures in this portion of the Gulf of Mexico via the infa red satellite scans of Terrafin SST-View, go to their Web site at

www.terrafin.com. Next follow the link for Florida. -- NW Regional.

 

Big Spanish love topwater plugs and absolutely crush one! This writer has seen 4-pound fish that would put a 10-pound snook to shame on the strike. Size and color seem to make little difference, although erratic "walking-type" plugs seem to generate the most vicious response.

That is the good news. The bad news is that Spanish are tough on topwaters. Do not throw your favorites. Select the ones that are on their last legs, because they will be worthless once the Spanish get through with them. Consider Spanish on topwater as the place old surface baits "go to die." They will get a glorious sendoff! A big Spanish slamming a topwater plug is an awesome sight.

CORRALLING THE KINGS

While Spanish may be found relatively close to the coast during the summer months, kings are seldom as obliging. During the spring and early summer and again in the fall, the highly migratory kings can invade some surprisingly shallow water, and I have actually seen occasional fish cruising the same 3- to 4-foot Cedar Key flats I was sight-fishing for cobia.

Once Gulf waters warm during July, however, longer boat rides are the rule.

"Kings don't like water temperatures above 85 degrees," says Gainesville tournament angler Pat O'Neal, "and much of the inshore waters will be warmer than that by mid-July. The key for summer kings anywhere in the Gulf is to find an area with a water temperature between 75 and 82 degrees. I use an Internet temperature sea scan service called Terrafin SST-View, which provides an infrared satellite scan of the Gulf that can show these cooler-water pockets. That's a much more consistent way to find kings than just running at random while watching the temperature gauge."

Where those cooler pockets are can depend upon the weather. If the Gulf coast receives a southwest wind that blows steadily for several days, cooler water is pushed towards the shore, and the proper temperature may be found over water depths as shallow as 40 to 50 feet. It is not a regular occurrence, but worth taking advantage of when it happens because the alternative is a long run.

"Once you get past the first week or so of July," O'Neal notes, "you need to head to the deeper waters of the Middle Grounds if you want to consistently find Gulf kings in hot weather."

That can be a major undertaking, since the Middle Grounds are about 66 miles out from Cedar Key. But with water depths in the 100-foot range, the water temperature is within the kings' preferred range, and there is an abundant supply of bait. For a kingfish looking to beat the summer heat, it is as good as it gets. The area is large, however, with a considerable amount of rock and live bottom, and it is all good habitat. To locate kings within it, O'Neal looks for the same thing the kings are seeking -- food.

"Baitfish schools on the surface are one of the most important things I look for," he explains, "once I have the right temperature range. I will also watch my recorder for submerged baitfish pods, but my experience has been that if the bait is down it's because there are no predators actively pursuing them. Surface activity is the key, and birds will often help you find it.

"It doesn't even have to be kings running the bait," he continues. "I like to see Spanish or bonito because kings eat those, and if they are working bait, there's a good chance there are some kings working them."

Once surface activity is located, slow-trolling live bait is the preferred technique. The basic rig is no different than that used anywhere king mackerel swim -- an 18- to 27-pound wire leader with a 1/0 bait hook in the nose of the bait and a dangling No. 4 treble hook on a 5- or 6-inch wire leader coming off of that.

Collecting live bait, however, is not always easy.

"Collecting bait in the Gulf is not quite as simple as tossing a cast net on a bait pod, like you can on the east coast," O'Neal notes. "Sometimes y

ou can find mullet or Gulf menhaden and cast-net them. But a lot of times we have to rely on 6- to 8-inch cigar minnows, blue runners or threadfin herring. These we have to jig up on Sebiki rigs around the channel markers, and it pays to have that tackle with you, because it is often the only way you'll collect live bait in the Gulf."

Sometimes even that may not work and O'Neal has to rely on trolling dead bait. That could be any of the above species in a recently deceased state, or legal-sized Spanish mackerel or brined ribbonfish. With dead bait he invariably adds a Duster-type teaser to the rig on the nose of the bait and is convinced it generates more strikes.

Irrespective of the bait used, however, O'Neal is firmly convinced that finding the right water temperature range is the biggest key for Gulf kings this month, and he'll run a long way to locate it.

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