Spanish Gold on the Gulf
September 24, 2010
They may not be legal tender, but the spots on the side of Spanish mackerel can make Gulf Coast anglers' eyes gleam. Try these tactics to go for the gold this month!
By Bud Reiter
For a baitfish, it's got to be like the movie "Friday The 13th" come to life. One minute it's swimming along calmly, minding its own business, and the next it is in the midst of an army of flashing, darting, silvery monsters, replete with razor-sharp teeth and a take-no-prisoners attitude that leaves total mayhem and a plethora of dismembered body parts in their wake.
If you are a baitfish, running into a school of rampaging Spanish mackerel comes under the heading of worst nightmare. For anglers, however, it's kind of cool. In fact, it's a heck of a lot of fun!
Anytime you run into a school of voraciously feeding Spanish mackerel, you can bet the action will be fast and furious. There are plenty of striking fish, reel drags sing and the cooler quickly starts to fill with the makings of a fine fish dinner.
If you happen to do your angling in the Gulf of Mexico, it's also something you can expect to occur regularly this month. And some of those Spanish can be big.
"Within the last couple of years, we have seen some of the biggest Spanish that I have seen in 30 years on the water," says veteran Gulf guide Capt. Wes Rozier. "Fish in the 5-pound-plus range started showing up fairly regularly, and some of the Spanish were big enough that we had to look closely to see if they weren't cero mackerel or small kings."
Just where to get into this kind of action, however, is not carved in stone - at least, not in the Gulf, and certainly not in August.
Spanish mackerel are abundant in the Gulf, but their preferred locations during August can vary greatly. Locating Spanish may require a moderately lengthy run out to 15 to 20 feet of water. Or, if you time it right, you may run into feeding Spanish before you even exit the channel to the Gulf of Mexico from your launch point. The fish may also turn up anywhere in between. Here's a look at how to go about sorting out that set of possibilities.
As Capt. Steve Kilpatrick demonstrated, Spanish can even be taken on fly-casting gear in the summer months. Photo by Bud Reiter
WHERE THEY ARE In terms of a depth and cover situation, one of the most consistent spots in which to locate Spanish in the Gulf during August is somewhere in the 15- to 20-foot depth range. Regardless of where in the northern Gulf you are, there are schools of fish working that defined area. Unfortunately, it's a pretty broad area, so savvy anglers tend to search it quickly, and with an eye towards the key element that will draw Spanish mackerel - baitfish concentrations.
Anything that can attract baitfish also draws these deepwater Spanish. That includes live bottom, rockpiles, channel markers and manmade structures. That still leaves a lot of area to cover, but mackerel often give their location away.
They are not the most fastidious of feeders. In fact, they tend to be quite messy and leave a lot of bits of prey floating around. Birds have much sharper eyes than anglers when it comes to finding these bits, so savvy anglers pay a lot of attention to birds.
"One of the best tools you can have for finding these offshore schools of mackerel is a good set of binoculars," says Capt. Jimmy Keith, who has been guiding on Gulf waters for almost 20 years. "Anytime a school corrals a bait pod on the surface - where they do a lot of their feeding - they are going to leave a lot of baitfish parts, and the birds always seem to know where to find them.
"I wouldn't be surprised if there were some birds that actually followed schools of Spanish in that open water. They certainly have good enough eyes to look down into the Gulf and find a fish mass moving. That's about the only way I could explain the fact that almost every time you find Spanish ripping into a school of offshore baitfish there are already birds working the frenzy.
"You can cover a lot of water with a set of binoculars and spot those birds, and there will usually be Spanish, and other game fish, underneath them."
For those who might find a "look and see" trip to deeper waters to be a bit boring and farther than they want to travel, another option is to check out the same offshore grass bars and humps that often hold significant concentrations of seatrout during this month. Ordinarily these bars are in 10 feet or less of water. These are popular trout hotspots because the deeper waters are a bit cooler and the grass provides cover. These bars also draw baitfish, and Spanish move up on top of them to feed.
This can provide a very interesting fishing situation in which you can almost select their target. The Spanish are blasting on the surface, while the resident trout population is picking off the choice morsels that are sinking towards the bottom. Fish on top for Spanish, or get a quick-sinking bait (and it needs to sink fast to avoid the normally voracious Spanish!) below them for the trout.
Another smorgasbord situation, in a similar vein, is mullet muds. They, too, hold both trout and Spanish and can be found a lot closer to home in many areas.
These occur in a number of locales along the inshore Gulf Coast and are the result of migrating schools of mullet stirring up the bottom over sometimes surprisingly shallow areas of grass. In the eastern Gulf area, for example, mullet muds are common angler targets in depths as shallow as 6 or 7 feet, and within a relatively short distance of the coast.
The mullet provide an abundant forage source - the Spanish are often working the outer edges of the mud - and it's not hard to spot a mud. Nor is the movement of the baitfish unpredictable.
"If you find mullet muds in a given area one day," says veteran guide Steve Kilpatrick, "they won't be very far from that spot on the next day. We often just take a quick GPS number when we find a mud that has Spanish on it, and then we can return to that general area and relocate those fish on subsequent days. They are also pretty convenient to fish. Most are not very far offshore."
For those who would rather not travel even that moderate distance for Spanish gold, there is another option - one that occurs virtually throughout the Gulf. But you need to have your timing down pat.
"Some of the most consistent and convenient action in my area," says Jimmy Keith, "happens around passes and channels that connect the Gulf with inshore bays and sounds. The tide moves a tremendous amount of bait through
those areas, and the Spanish mackerel can really stack up there. The most productive period seems to be the first couple of hours after the tide begins to flood, regardless of the time of day. That's when a lot of baitfish that were pulled out of the sound on the ebb tide start to return in big concentrations."
One last spot to consider is the inner areas on the bays and sounds themselves. In some areas of the Gulf, Spanish invade surprisingly shallow waters, and it is not uncommon for anglers fishing for trout and reds to run into them over shallow inside grassbeds. Other potential inside hotspots are bridges. For some reason, larger Spanish often show a pronounced tendency to concentrate around bridges with a deeper channel under them. A strong tide and a lot of moving baitfish can definitely get them in a feeding mood in such places!
TACKLE When it comes to the tactics that take Spanish, they can be almost as diverse as the terrain you find them in. Most experienced anglers have a favorite technique, but the truly savvy ones are quite willing to shift tactics and often have a wide selection of lures on hand. While Spanish mackerel can be some of the most voracious feeders you find, there are also some occasions when they can become remarkably finicky, and you may have to run through an extensive portion of lure inventory before finding one they'll hit. Sometimes even that fails, and live or cut bait may be needed to put fish in the boat. These occasional bouts of reluctance can occur under a number of conditions but seem to be most frequent when Spanish are feeding on tiny glass minnows.
Another factor with Spanish is their teeth. They are like razors and make short work of standard monofilament leaders. For this reason, many anglers opt for a short length of wire leader in the 18- to 27-pound class. Other anglers, however, feel that even the thinnest coffee-colored wire can reduce the number of strikes. Their solution is to use a length of 30- to 60-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon line, check it frequently for abrasions, and re-tie when needed. As one veteran guide explained, you get more hits with fluorocarbon, but you also get cut off more often than with wire. But he likes for his customers to get more hits, even if they lose a few more rigs and fish.
As far as tackle for Spanish goes, they can be scrappy fighters and make some surprisingly long runs. But a 10-pound Spanish is huge, and even that size fish can be handled on a medium-action spinning rig with 10-pound line and the appropriate leader. Stout tackle is hardly required.
When it comes to deciding what to tie on the end of that rig, you have a lot of choices.
When looking for the deeper offshore Spanish, staying on the move is the best path to success, and trolling is universally accepted as the most effective technique. But, of course, keep an eye out for surface-feeding action while you're on the move.
BAITS In this situation it is hard to beat a couple of flashy spoons near the surface and about 100 to 150 feet behind the boat. Clark Spoons (in various colors and sizes) are popular, but virtually any silvery spoon in the 2 1/2- to 4-inch range can be effective. Those cover the near-surface waters, but many knowledgeable anglers also pay attention to depths below by adding a couple of bullet-headed nylon or bucktail jigs to the trolling spread. These run a bit deeper than the spoons and can be made to run even deeper by slipping a 3/4- to 1-ounce egg sinker onto the main line a few feet above the jig. White is a good jig color to start with, but some anglers hedge their bets by running one in white and one in a brighter color, such as pink, orange or chartreuse.
This is an excellent technique for locating fish in open waters. But once a concentration is found, casting to them can often be more effective, and certainly more fun! There are a number of lures that work well in that role.
Spanish mackerel normally prefer a moderately sized minnow-imitating bait, moving in a quick and erratic manner. Fast is important, but "darting erratically" can be even more important in many situations. Silver spoons are an ideal lure for this, and there are many that work well.
On days when the fish are overly picky, savvy anglers use 1- to 1 1/2- inch versions of the same spoons and add enough weight a couple of feet ahead of the lure to achieve casting distance. Another option is the various 1/4-ounce nylon or bucktail bullet-head jigs. All imitate baitfish and can be worked in a quick and erratic manner.
One modification that can make them even more effective is to add a 3-inch length of wire leader to the rear hook and attach a No. 4 treble hook to it. Spanish are slashers and often miss the main spoon. The stinger hook will get a lot of those short-strikers.
Lead-head jigs with a soft-plastic trailer also work. But anglers running into a school of Spanish can go through a 20-count pack of tails so quickly that they soon see the wisdom of metal or bucktail lures.
While a fast and erratic retrieve is normally the most effective with these lures, some anglers have discovered that when the surface is covered with smaller Spanish, the larger fish in the group are often cruising leisurely below them and picking off the crippled baitfish. It can pay, at times, to just let the spoon or jig flutter down below the surface action. Hooking bigger fish can sometimes result.
Another option, and a very exciting one, is tossing topwater plugs. If you relish a topwater strike, toss a floating lure at a Spanish. They do not mess around! A 4-pound Spanish delivers a surface strike that would shame a significantly larger trout or redfish. They crush the lure!
These mackerel are also quite hard on topwater plugs, stripping paint and otherwise rendering them unfit for polite company, so you don't trot out their favorites. This is basically where "old topwater plugs go to die," so use up the ones you were going to trash anyway, and you can send them out in a blaze of glory. As for topwater-lure types, those with a quick walk-the-dog action are often best, and having propellers is an asset. Above all, make commotion. Size and color seem to make little difference as long as the plug has a basic resemblance to a baitfish and is worked aggressively. By all means, use a wire or heavy monofilament leader.
If topwater lures are not exotic enough for you, consider a fly rod.
"When you get into a bunch of feeding Spanish mackerel," explains Steve Kilpatrick, an acknowledged fly-rod expert who was the first guide to ever have a customer land a 200-pound tarpon on the fly, "you can have a lot of fun with an 8- or 9-weight outfit. That's especially true if the fish are feeding on small glass minnows, because you can match that hatch with a small white streamer with some Mylar flash tied in. Just get it to the fish, strip it quickly and erratically, and hang on."
Actually, that's pretty good advice for any Gulf angler chasing Spanish this month, regardless of the gear and tackle employed. Once you find them, the action can often be as hot as the weather!
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