By Walt Rhodes
Standing on the casting deck of the 17-foot boat, my fishing partner was stunned by the sight ahead of him.
Like a bed of nails rising through a pile of glowing coals, the spadefish school sliced an ocean surface colored orange by the morning sun. We eased closer to the feeding fish with the trolling motor. The fishes’ movements stayed rhythmic.
Within striking distance, my partner cast his bait. The tiny sliver of translucent jellyfish sank very slowly, almost suspending. We both watched intently as the bait, unnoticed by the fish, drifted downward.
The mass of swirling spadefish continued to mill about on the surface. We could also now see a similar cyclone of fish below the surface. As if on cue, portions of the school turned left, while others swept to the right.
The movements appeared chaotic when viewed from above, but everything must have been choreographed, since none of the fish collided.
With no takers on the first cast, my partner gave his bait another toss. This time it caught some eyes.
Four spadefish that had been frolicking with other spades around a free-floating jellyfish broke rank and headed toward my partner’s offering. It didn’t drift like a feather this time. The sliver of bait was being jostled from side to side as each spadefish took its turn nibbling on the jellyfish piece.
The bait was getting smaller. Less than a micrometer of jellyfish flesh separated the hook from a spadefish’s lips. My partner’s line started to straighten as the bold spadefish began sneaking off with the remaining bait.
The fish went deeper as the other three spadefish followed. My partner snapped his wrist when the line went tight. The hook hit home instantly. The spadefish surged out of sight and my partner held onto his rod for dear life. Line stripped off his reel like a punctured can of Silly String. With both hands gripping the spinning rod, all my partner could do was lean backward against the pressure of his first spadefish.
A game of give-and-take ensued, but my friend began winning back line. After a few more tussles, the gallant spadefish was coming to the surface in a circular ascent. Other spadefish, obviously curious, tailed behind the defeated fish in a funeral-procession manner.
Many anglers have felt that if God had made a 10-pound bluegill, then that would be the ultimate fighting fish. But in a sense, He did make such a fish: We call it the Atlantic spadefish.
Spadefish resemble a gigantic angelfish that has escaped from someone’s aquarium. Imagine a squashed and squared-off football with a tail. Beautiful in color, spadefish have four to six striking black vertical bars that contrast against a silver body. The fish is often confused with similar-sized black drum and sheepshead. However, you can tell the difference because spadefish lack the chin barbels of a drum and the dentures of a sheepshead. Spades average about 6 pounds, with anything over 9 pounds considered a trophy fish.
The stature and coloration of the spadefish reveals its behavior. It is not built for high-speed chases of prey nor does it lie camouflaged, waiting to nab unsuspecting baitfish. Rather, spadefish are schooling fish that eat a variety of small marine animals and are one of the few species that relish jellyfish.
Very small spadefish form schools that spend the first year of their lives around nearshore structures, such as oyster bars. Anglers on beachfront fishing piers will occasionally catch juvenile spadefish. As the fish grow and get older, the schools move farther offshore to wrecks, rockpiles and artificial reefs. This is where most fishermen enter the picture.
The great thing about fishing for spadefish is you do not need all of the fancy equipment and large boats often associated with offshore fishing. Anyone’s favorite 16-foot-plus creek boat is usually suitable, seas permitting.
Most of the fishing action for spadefish takes place over artificial reefs within 10 to 15 miles of the coast. In some areas, reefs might not be present. If that is the case, head to the nearest offshore navigation structure, such as a light tower supported by pilings. Spadefish move fairly far offshore and deep to escape cold weather.
During the warmer months, roughly from May through September, they will be found on the near-shore structures.
Although many anglers fishing reefs have seen spadefish, most people are at a loss as to how to catch them. The trick is to cater to their delicate eating habits.
Spadefish are nibblers that go bonkers over cannonball jellyfish. Cannonball jellyfish, called jellyballs, range in size from a ping-pong ball to a grapefruit. They feature a translucent, rigid dome that is rimmed with a rusty color. Lacking dangling tentacles, cannonballs can be safely handled.
Getting the bait is half of the fun. With a landing net in hand, station someone on the bow of the boat and idle slowly on the outside of jetties or just offshore of the breakers. You will notice the baits drifting near the surface. If you have some young anglers on board, this makes a great activity for them (but be sure they wear a life jacket). About half of a five-gallon bucket will suffice for a day’s trip. Keep some water in the bucket so the jellyfish do not dry out.
If you are unable to locate any jellyballs, ask any nearby shrimp boat. Stay clear of them while they’re dragging and motor close enough to ask when they are sorting their catch.
To use the jellyballs as bait, remove the core and slice the dome into strips about the size of an average Band-Aid. The top of the dome seems to be tougher, so put it farther up the hook shank with the maroon edge near the barb.
Jellyballs are the most commonly used bait off the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia. The abundance of cannonball jellyfish seems to taper the farther north you go. If you can’t seem to locate any jellyballs, small pieces of shrimp, clam or squid will suffice. Again, cut the bait into strips about the size of a Band-Aid.
Spadefish might be delicate in their eating habits, but they lose their minds when it comes to fighting power. These are powerful fish with stamina.
Because of the fish’s brawn,
strong tackle is needed. Medium spinning or bait-casting tackle is recommended. Select a rod that has a gentle tip but a strong backbone. Reels should be spooled with 12- to 17-pound-test monofilament line.
Terminal tackle is simple for spadefish. No neon lures with triple treble hooks are needed. You merely attach an 18-inch leader of 20- to 30-pound-test line with a barrel swivel to the main line. The most common hook size is No. 1 or 1/0. You don’t need any weight because the entire rig provides enough mass to be cast as well as sink slowly. If it’s breezy, you can pinch on a small split shot to aid casting.
Now that you’re armed with bait and rods, head offshore. Spadefish are often found right on the surface in the vicinity of structure.
Most surface schools are spooky, however. You should leave the anchor in the hold and motor upwind of the school. Once the boat drifts close enough to the fish, cast a piece of bait. The best bait position is a few feet from the fish. If it lands over them, they will often spook.
Let the bait drift aimlessly in the water column. You don’t need to twitch it. Spadefish are accustomed to feeding on free-floating food, and any unnatural movement will send them scattering.
Once the fish show interest, let them nibble and grapple with the bait. One fish will eventually begin to move off with the bait. Let the fish go, and when your line goes tight, snap your wrist to set the hook. You need to have a smooth drag. If your drag isn’t good, a surging spadefish will pop your line. Once you’ve tired a spadefish, you will need a landing net to get it in the boat. The fish’s small mouth and odd-shaped body makes hand-landing it nearly impossible.
Because spades are schooling fish, a hooked fish usually attracts the attention of other fish. You can usually offer a bait to these trailing fish before landing the hooked one. Another approach to keep spadefish near the boat is to tie a line from the stern of your boat with a few jellyfish strung on it. This acts as a chum. Once the fish locate it, you can toss baits right to them. You can also lower this rig to the bottom near the structure if no spadefish are on the surface. Once you feel the fish eating the jellyballs, slowly raise the string up and the fish should follow it.
A calm ocean with a gentle swell is best for spotting the fish. The fish can be on the surface throughout the day, but early morning seems to be the most consistent time.
Now that you know how to catch these always-seen but seldom-caught fish, give it a try this summer. You may be in for the fight of your life.
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