Spanish mackerel in Florida waters are thicker than tourists on the beaches these days, and the once-seasonal species has become pretty much a year-around target for anglers who enjoy the javelin-shaped speedsters. Thanks to years of careful management throughout the southeastern coastal waters, macks are one of the few species where the bag limit has been increased rather than decreased. That limit now stands at 15 per day in Florida, making the species one of the few good targets for supplying a neighborhood fish dinner.
Like their larger cousins the king mackerel, Spanish are what is known as “coastal pelagics” among biologists. That is, they are migratory and remain in open water for the most part, but are more likely to be found within sight of land in most areas. The migrations follow baitfish schools north in summer, and south in winter.
There are at least two strains of Spanish mackerel, which biologists define by their migration pattern.
Gulf-group Spanish, as designated by federal and state fishery managers, spend their summers in the northern Gulf of Mexico between the Florida Panhandle and Texas. Around early October as water temperature drops below 68 degrees, most of the eastern Gulf group heads east and south, passing Cedar Key by the 15th to the 20th, and into the Tampa Bay area by the first of November. The western gulf group migrates west and south along the Texas coast and into Mexican waters.
Most of the migration has found its way to the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic Coast as far as Palm Beach in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream by the first of January, where they remain until early March.
Warming water keys a baitfish migration, and the macks go with them. By mid-March, lots of fish are again passing through the waters off Tampa Bay, and the main push winds up back in the northern gulf by mid-April.
Atlantic-group Spanish have a similar seasonal movement, summering as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts, starting south in late September after spawning, starting to arrive in South Florida about mid-October in most years. The majority mass just offshore from Cape Canaveral to Palm Beach Inlet for the winter.
The two groups intermingle off South Florida, but separate out into their respective clans as warm weather approaches for the spring migrations.
While this pattern is still generally true, there’s evidence that the warmer average temperatures seen over the last 15 years or so appear to be delaying the southward movement of the main schools of fish. Whether you believe in “man-made global warming” or not, there’s no question that sea water has been warmer longer in recent years, despite the occasional devastating cold blast like the one in 2010 that killed tens of thousands of snook and other sensitive species in Florida.
These days, it’s not uncommon for lots of macks to remain off the Tampa and St. Petersburg Beach area throughout the winter, and anglers as far north as Jacksonville are enjoying good winter mackerel fishing when the cold fronts stay away.
Not only that, but mackerel have increased in size as well as number. Twenty years ago, a 5-pound Spanish was a rarity. Today tons of fish reach that size and larger. It takes a 7-pounder to turn any heads, and a 7-pound Spanish is every bit a match for a king mackerel of similar size. Spanish hit like a freight train and make long, reel-smoking runs at incredible speeds.
Biologists say mackerel reach spawning age at 1 year and about 14 inches long. Then the fish put on around a pound a year, maxing out at around 10 pounds at 10 years old. The life span for females is around 11 years. Males live about 6 years and reach a maximum of 6 pounds. The current International Game Fish Association all-tackle record is 13 pounds.
There are so many Spanish on the Atlantic Coast between Fort Pierce and Palm Beach that commercial cast-netters are able to catch them by the tons. They spot the massed schools on their depthfinders and toss heavily weighted nets over them.
Fortunately, this labor-intensive harvest method seems not to hurt the populations in the way that the big roller nets of the past did. Excessive commercial harvest by roller-rig nets, coupled with hundred-fish-a-day catches by recreational anglers were the primary reasons both Spanish and kings were in trouble in the 1970s. Spanish took about 25 years to recover. Kings have not recovered yet to anywhere near former abundance, though numbers are far better than they were.
Another interesting part of the Spanish recovery is how the fish tend to spread out when there’s a flourishing population. It’s not uncommon these days for Spanish to show up far up inside major coastal estuaries like Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. In the past they were found mostly along the beaches.
The fish now hang around almost all winter long in passes from Holmes Beach south to Naples feeding on “glass minnows.” Those are the tiny bay anchovies- that often form big schools on the near-shore artificial reefs and wrecks, around the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and on nearly every channel marker on any major shipping lane into a west coast port.
On the Atlantic Coast, anywhere from Canaveral Inlet south is loaded all winter. Sebastian, Fort Pierce, St. Lucie, Jupiter and West Palm inlets are particularly rich fishing areas, with macks both around the jetties and within a 1/2 mile of the beaches between. To find the fish just look for the fleet of mixed cast-netters and recreational boaters and join in. It’s an automatic limit of fish.