My son Justin loaded our 20-foot Jones Brothers skiff in the pre-dawn dark as I double-checked the tackle. All we would need for this excursion were a couple light rods with Penn 9 levelwind reels, bead-chain sinkers and Clarkspoons tied to 30-pound leaders.
“It’s been a long time since I fished for Spanish,” Justin said. “Think we’ll catch some?”
He had moved away from Wilmington, N.C., where he had grown up, and wanted an easy, productive outing during his visit home. By sunrise we were catching Spanish mackerel two at a time.
Abundant, aggressive aerial acrobats, Spanish mackerel earn straight A’s from saltwater fishermen throughout the South. Found inshore in rivers and bays and from the inlets to well offshore, these shiny, hard-fighting gamefish make incredible streaking runs on the hook and can fill a cooler in short order. The most popular technique for catching Spanish is to troll with spoons. They also hit jigs and plugs. One of the best is the Gotcha tube lure, which can be both trolled and cast with deadly effect.
Anyone with a tackle box full of lures that nothing else will strike can use them for Spanish mackerel. Even B-drawer bass lures get bit when Spanish are slashing baitfish on top. Here are a handful of spots where you can target them this fall.
1. Carolina Beach, North Carolina
Shane Snow, who operates Fish Witch Charters (910-443-0356) and runs a 42-foot Carolina Express, says Spanish mackerel fishermen make up approximately 60 percent of his clientele, and that fishing for Spanish around Carolina Beach couldn’t be easier.
“Just buy some spoons, rig them and go,” Snow says. “The most important thing to remember about Spanish is not to put your thumb anywhere near their sharp teeth.”
Snow primarily looks for mackerel along the beach. If they are deeper, he searches for schools with his depth finder. Once he locates them, he trolls six lines—two downriggers with No. 3 planers, two planer rods with No. 1 planers and two top rods with 1/2-ounce trolling sinkers. The lures are gold or silver Clarkspoons.
Bonus Fish: While any other schooling fish might bite, Snow was surprised when his anglers caught seven sailfish in one day. Surf fishermen can purchase beach-driving permits and catch redfish from the sand.
Don’t Miss: Among the local attractions, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area has a Civil War fort and a North Carolina Aquarium (ncaquariums.com).
2. Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina
Capt. J. Baisch runs Fishfull Thinking Guide Service (843-902-0356;
fishthinkguide.com) and Baisch Boys Bait and Tackle. He says he catches Spanish mackerel from the Murrell’s Inlet jetties to the artificial reefs.
“I like to hit Paradise and Pawley’s Island reefs,” Baisch says. “But if I see Spanish on the jetties, I start there.”
He trolls for schoolies with a No. 1 planer and a Christmas tree rig with a Clarkspoon. On the reefs, if Spanish are boat shy, he casts a Clarkspoon Stick Jig.
“For the biggest Spanish, I slow troll live menhaden or anchor and chum with live finger mullet. When Spanish start chasing the mullet, I switch to tossing them on No. 4 trebles.”
Bonus Fish: Be sure to have a spinning outfit rigged with a big jig at the ready for sight-casting to cobia.
Don’t Miss: Murrell’s Inlet MarshWalk has live entertainment and a slew of restaurants.
3. Tybee Island, Georgia
Capt. Jimmy Armel (912-239-7309; fishingtybee.com) mainly heads offshore in his 31-foot Sportsman center console to catch Spanish mackerel at Savannah and KC reefs, though sometimes he catches them within sight of land.
“I start with three-dozen live menhaden and plenty more iced down for chum,” Armel says. “If the fish are schooling, I slow troll live menhaden. If not, I drift or anchor over structure and chum.”
How well they bite depends on the tide, he says. “When the tide is strong and the Savannah River is flowing hard, I might catch Spanish along the beach, but they are finicky. That’s when I troll a Clarkspoon on a popping cork rig. The cork’s commotion attracts Spanish to the spoon.”
Bonus Fish: There’s a good chance of hooking a king mackerel or cobia here. Boaters can launch at Lazaretto Creek ramp.
Don’t Miss: CoCo’s Sunset Grille will cook your catch. Fresh Spanish is wonderful on the plate.
4. Sarasota, Florida
Capt. Jim Klopfer of Adventure Charters (941-371-1390; fishinglidokey.com) catches Spanish mackerel at artificial reefs. His favorites are the Alan Fisher and Lynn Silvertooth reefs, which he fishes from a 22-foot Stott Craft bay boat. He also catches Spanish in Big Sarasota and New passes on the way out to the reefs.
“If you see bait on the surface, cast a floating Rapala on a 30-pound test fluorocarbon leader and you will catch Spanish,” Klopfer says. “Once you get to the reef, chum with pilchards, then hook a live pilchard on a No. 1 longshank hook, drop it overboard and hang on!”
Bonus Fish: Target snook in the passes with float rigs baited with live pilchards or shrimp.
Don’t Miss: Back on land, consider a visit to Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.
5. Grand Isle, Louisiana
Capt. Daryl Carpenter with Reel Screamers Guide Service (225-927-6388; reelscreamers.com) says Spanish mackerel are abundant around Grand Isle. He catches them both in the surf and from his 24-foot Blazer bay boat. Grand Isle has several charter operations and two public ramps at Fouchon and Leesville.
Surf fishing for Spanish mackerel is excellent along the beaches of Grand Isle State Park, as well as from the park’s ocean fishing pier. Simply cast a Gotcha to the surfacing schools in the waves and prepare for battle.
Bonus Fish: Grand Isle also boasts a tremendous speckled trout fishery. “Speckled trout anglers call Spanish mackerel trash fish because they cut the leaders off their popping cork rigs baited with live shrimp,” Carpenter says.
Don’t Miss: Stop for a meal at the world-famous Starfish Restaurant (starfishmenu.com).
How to Rig for the Inevitable Bycatch
Anyone fishing for Spanish mackerel is bound to catch other species, especially king mackerel and bluefish. It’s important to know the difference between kings and Spanish, though, as they have different size and bag limits. Gold spots, prominent on Spanish mackerel, are not the best indicator because small kings can have spots. Instead, look at the lateral line. A king’s has a pronounced dip below the dorsal fin, while a Spanish mackerel’s lateral line has a more gradual slope.
All three species are attracted to the same offerings. They strike live, frozen and strip baits. They also hit fast-trolled spoons and Christmas tree rigs. None will turn down a casting spoon, hair jig or hard-plastic lure.
The type and size of the leader is the key to enduring strikes from these toothier species. Spanish mackerel are the most finicky and can be extremely leader shy. A typical short leader for Spanish is tied with 30-pound-test monofilament. However, when the water is clear, an angler may have to use 30 feet of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon for trolling a spoon behind a planer.
When kings or bluefish are in the mix, heavier hard monofilament leaders of up to 70 pounds may be required. If even that doesn’t stop cut-offs, wire leaders are the last resort. Choosing a leader is a balancing act because the more visible it is, the fewer the Spanish mackerel strikes.