Here’s how to get a jump-start on some great Spanish mackerel angling action!
It’s a scenario that plays out many times from spring through fall along the coast. You are running the boat from one redfish or seatrout drop to another when you come upon a cloud of gulls diving and circling above the water.
Beneath, the surface is frothy with baitfish skipping away across the water trying to escape from splashes where predators are slashing into their school.
Such a sight simply demands that you throttle back and make some casts into the melee. If you are using light tackle matched with a light line, chances are your cast results in a sudden jerk, followed by slack as your line is cut. On the other hand, if you have heavy enough gear, you are hooked up to a fish putting on an erratic sub-surface fight. When it comes into view, the greenish back, flanked on each side with yellow to gold hued dots, identifies the fish as a Spanish mackerel.
Spanish are popular sport fish throughout their spring-through-fall migratory range from Mexico to Cape Cod on the Atlantic Coast, as well as all along the Gulf Coast. However, there are probably just as many caught by chance encounters as by anglers actually targeting them. Either way, few fishermen pass up the opportunity to put a few on ice to take home for dinner.
Let’s take a closer look at these fish, when and where they show up and the best ways to catch a few when you do find them.
More about Spanish Mackerel
Spanish mackerel have a green back while their sides exhibit a silvery hue. Those sides are marked with three lines of yellow- to gold-colored spots, which provide the easiest way of identifying them. However, young king mackerel also exhibit such markings, though their spots are smaller and fade away once the fish reach about 10 pounds.
It is also worth noting that in the southern portion of the Spanish’s range, they can be confused with the cero mackerel. Those fish have some yellow spotting as well, but also have gold-colored dash marks running along their sides.
Another important part of the physiology of these fish is their teeth. The Spanish mackerel’s jaw is lined with a row of sharp incisors that rival those of the bluefish. You definitely don’t want to “lip” this fish.
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The world-record Spanish mackerel was taken just off Ocracoke Island in North Carolina and tipped the scales at 13 pounds even. In general this species grows to lengths of around 33 inches, with the females getting bigger and living longer than males. Any Spanish larger than 20 inches likely is a female.
Spanish mackerel spawn offshore, beginning when they reach maturity at one year and about 14 inches long. Based on the species’ migratory habits, the fish on the Atlantic coast start that courtship in April along the North Carolina coast. In the Gulf of Mexico the spawn is about a month later with the mackerel on the north Texas coast.
The flaky white meat of the Spanish mackerel also makes it a favorite for table fare. Mackerel filets can be baked, fried, broiled or even smoked. Additionally, Spanish often are used in preparing sushi. Those facts are why chance encounters with the species are welcomed by anglers, even if they are not targeting the mackerel.
Mackerel on the Move
A key factor in angling for Spanish mackerel is understanding their annual migrations. Knowing when the fish show up in the area you are fishing is a key to catching them. These movements are two-fold and tied to the seasons.
Virtually all the Spanish mackerel of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts can be found in the winter around the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. For the most part the two migration groups, however, are separated. The Atlantic fish stay to the east of the Florida Keys, while the Gulf fish are near the southwest Florida shores.
The Spanish begin to move out of south Florida as the water temperature rises in the late winter months. On the East Coast the migration reaches the shores of North Carolina around the beginning of April. Of course, all the fish are not moving in a single mass, nor are they all going to travel the same distance up the coast. In April they can be found all along the eastern seaboard from Florida to the Outer Banks of the Carolinas. In fact, this eastern population will go as far north as southern Cape Cod, Massachusetts, by the month of July.
Over in the Gulf of Mexico the migration starts at roughly the same time, culminating on the shores of south Texas in July.
With the arrival of the first tinges of fall, usually in the month of October, the mackerel in the Carolinas and Texas waters begin to reverse course. By the onset of winter, all of these fish are again concentrated back in south Florida.
Where to Find Them
Knowing that the Spanish mackerel migration has reached our area doesn’t mean we have the puzzle of finding them completely worked out. Like all species, Spanish have their preferred habitat that we also must locate. As with most saltwater fish, they also move around, so pinpointing more than one such patch of favorable habitat is the key to dependable fishing.
The first of the preferences that comes into play is the mackerel’s love of sandy bottoms. More often than not, this means finding them in open water off the beaches. Then you need to look for the proper depth. The preferred depths for the schools of Spanish are from 10 feet down to 40 feet. On occasions, however, they may be holding or chasing bait as deep as 80 feet.
As with any rule, these habitat preference don’t always hold true. Spanish are encountered in bays, tidal creeks and even residential canals. But those fish represent the “chance catches,” rather than presenting fish that can be targeted.
Once you are over sandy bottom with the right depth of water, luck becomes your next best friend. When feeding, Spanish mackerel invariably are moving in schools. They follow the pods of baitfish, waiting for the opportune time to herd them to the surface and viciously slash through the massed minnows.
When that happens, the gulls quickly spot the action and home in on it. Whenever targeting Spanish mackerel, or anytime you are just running across the water, keeping an eye out for swirling, diving seabirds is your best bet for finding feeding schools of mackerel.
Getting a Hookup
Now that we have the feeding frenzy in sight, fishing tactics are the final factor in a successful day of Spanish mackerel fishing. Harking back to the earlier mention of the species’ teeth, wire or at least heavy-test shock leaders are needed to resist their bite. If you aren’t using wire, check the leader on a regular basis for a weak point and change it when needed.
Spanish feed almost exclusively on small minnows. Their usual targets are menhaden, alewives and threadfin herring. Despite the forage that is present, once a feeding melee begins, the mackerel are not very picky. Throwing almost anything shiny or colorful into the action likely will provoke a strike, but silver spoons or jigs are usually successful.
Patience pays off at these times too. Often the fish will strike short or miss getting hooked. Keep the lure moving fast and that fish will be back or another one will attack. Often three or four hits occur on a single retrieve before getting a hookup.
When a frenzy disappears, it’s time to put on a shiny spoon or crankbait and begin trolling the area. The school likely is still near, but just moved deeper.
Summing It Up
Whether you head out for a day of trolling over sandy bottom or prefer to mill about letting the gulls do the searching for you, locating feeding Spanish mackerel can provide plenty of action. And best of all, we are just now getting into the prime months of the year for tangling with these fish.