September 30, 2010
You don't have to get far off the Sunshine State's east coast this month to tangle with three members of the mackerel family. Kingfish, Spanish and wahoo provide some exciting possibilities! (July 2006)
For several years, there has been a consistent echo of reports up and down Florida's east coast based on spectacular mackerel catches. Capt. Jack Jackson puts it plain and simple:
"In the past four to five years, there has been a noticeable increase in the size and number of Spanish mackerel our clients are catching in the Indian River Lagoon. There's also been an increase the amount of baitfish these mackerel have to eat in this lagoon system. I guess it's a sign of a healthier system," he concluded.
Capt. Jackson has been running a guide service out of his Vero Tackle and Marina Shop for more than 20 years, and this is the best mackerel action he has ever experienced in these waters. Actually it's not usual to catch Spanish of more than 5 pounds during parts of the year.
Recently, in fact, a female client fishing with Jackson caught a Spanish mackerel of a tad more than 9 pounds. Probably it would have been a new International Game Fish Association line-class world record, had it been submitted to the organization.
But the outstanding mackerel fishing isn't limited to Florida's central east coast. During the Hog's Breath King Mackerel Tournament earlier this year in Key West, a trio of 60-pound-plus king mackerel took the three top places on the leader board -- and to place in the top 10, you needed a kingfish well over 40 pounds.
It seems like only yesterday when I was fishing outside Port Canaveral with Ric Hinman and Capt. Scott Ashmore aboard, the Rebel Rouser, Ashmore's dependable 23-foot Mako. We were about 18 miles southeast of the port, trolling several rigged ballyhoo and one semi-large mullet -- wired under a red-and-black, silver bullet-head skirt attached to a 4-ounce egg sinker. We'd been fishing farther offshore in 180 to 220 feet of water most of the day, with little action to show for it.
When we reached 128 feet, there was a distinct change from purple-blue water to more of a blue-green tint. We detoured over to pick up a pair of floating balloons, because sea turtles often eat such balloons, thinking they are jellyfish. Needless to say, balloons are rough on turtles' digestive system and can even kill them.
While circling around, before we could nab those troublesome balloons from the water, our stout tackle woke up from its long doldrums. Within minutes, we were graced by an outbreak of seriously memorable strikes. Ric made fast work of his first wahoo, nearly 40 pounds of sizzling speed and power.
Meanwhile, at the end of a 45-minute battle, Capt. Ashmore experienced the biggest surprise of his offshore fishing career, when he brought to the boat a 105-pound-plus wahoo, after it nearly stripped his reel twice. It proved that world-class wahoo fishing is within a short distance of our east coast. (Cont.)
THE MACKEREL STORY
For many years, anglers seldom found a more cooperative, abundant and delicious fish than Spanish mackerel. Each spring, just as tourist crowded our beachside communities and water temperatures started to rebound, a run of spring mackerel would invade our inshore areas. This fishery, along with the king mackerel that usually followed a little bit later and farther offshore, attracted thousands of anglers, who spent millions of dollars annually on tackle, boats, gas and accommodations.
As the '60s, '70s and '80s came and went, so did those great numbers of Spanish mackerel. The catches dropped significantly because of increased commercial and recreational fishing pressure. As Florida grew at a rapid pace, the mackerel fishery suffered. Eventually, the tremendous mackerel migrations and this wonderful fishery were almost consigned to things of the past.
In 1995, fortunately, the Save Our Sealife Amendment passed, which outlawed gill-netting in Florida's state waters. And with much tighter mackerel bag and size limits for both recreational and commercial anglers, we have witnessed a rebound of this fishery in the past 10 years.
Up and down Florida's coast, kingfish tournaments have become incredibly popular. And today's anglers are once again spending megabucks on targeting and landing mackerel.
Why are anglers so attracted to chasing and catching these mackerel? There are many reasons. But probably first, I believe, is because mackerel can be caught almost any time of year at some location -- and second, because it does take great skill to catch these toothy critters.
When we were kids, our standard technique was casting a white, deer-hair bucktail or nylon jig rigged on a 20-pound-test leader, which was tied to an 18-inch leader attached to either 8- or 10-pound monofilament line. We'd often sight-cast to feeding frenzies of Spanish mackerel slashing through tight schools of glass minnows near the surface.
That action took place from aging piers and in our young minds, there was nothing better to catch than a fat, 3-pound Spanish mackerel.
At times, these fish eat almost anything you cast at them. Other times, you can watch them feed and hardly coax a strike. A key to avoiding this latter event is to match the size of your bait or lure to the size of whatever they're eating.
One of the fastest and surest ways to find a school of feeding mackerel along Florida's east coast is to look for diving terns and gulls. A school of feeding mackerel will push a bait pod to the surface, where birds can take advantage of the minnows' vulnerability. Spanish mackerel are fast as lightning. They often move very quickly, making it difficult for both birds and anglers to track them down.
These fish can also be boat-shy, so be careful not to motor up too closely to a school of feeding fish. Drifting with wind or tide and casting can be an effective way to catch them at times. Recently, while fishing the south end of the Indian River Lagoon with Capt. Chris Magurie, we took a short ride outside of St. Lucie Inlet and immediately spotted a flotilla of small- to medium-sized boats fishing a concentrated area just south of the pass and only a few hundred yards off the beach. Once we reached this area, the water was clean and blue with a temperature of 74 degrees.
We spent the next hour, amid the many other anglers catching mackerel. The fish had not driven the bait up to the surface, so we let our jigs sink for five seconds before starting the retrieve. We tried several different colors of plastic baits, but these Spanish mackerel definitely preferred pearl white to other colors.
Even though we exp
erienced quite a few cutoffs from these overly aggressive feeders, we stuck to using 30-pound monofilament leaders because the fish shied away from wire.
Beginning in early summer, Spanish and king mackerel often move very close to our beaches, making it possible for shore-bound anglers to reach them. In fact, you can usually bet that each summer, a few of the largest kingfish -- known as smokers, for the way they heat up a reel when hooked -- are going to be caught within a long cast from the beach in 8 to 10 feet of water. I can tell you from firsthand experience that 40-pound kings do skyrocket from chest-deep water around Satellite Beach.
Slow-trolling live baits is one of the more effective techniques when targeting summer kingfish along Florida's Atlantic coast. The key to consistently finding and catching solid numbers of king mackerel is locating their food source. While kingfish aren't usually picky eaters, at times they can focus on a short menu of favorites.
Depending on what region of Florida's Atlantic coast you are fishing, ribbonfish, greenies (threadfin herring), pilchards, pinfish, blue runners, mullet or croakers are all good choices of baits to use when slow-trolling.
In my opinion, it's difficult to find better bait than a fresh and lively 6- or 7-inch menhaden. Also called porgies or bunkers, menhaden migrate seasonally along the Atlantic seaboard and often move into Florida's east coast inshore waters by late spring and early summer.
Many anglers and charter captains on the central east coast start their day's fishing by catching menhaden before they venture offshore. In fact, many captains consider it a waste of their time to head out without a livewell full of menhaden.
Those giant schools of menhaden can be located in several different ways. Keep your eyes peeled for pelicans diving repeatedly in one area. It's usually easier to let pelicans find the bait for you. If this doesn't work, look for menhaden flipping on the surface, just outside of where the surf breaks and usually in 6 to 15 feet of water. Also another dead giveaway is to find an area of concentrated muddy water -- a sure sign of a school of menhaden feeding near the bottom.
Once you find these baits, you can use a cast net that sinks fast to catch these speedy critters. If the net doesn't get down in a hurry, the threadfins can outrun it. It also can be very difficult to catch menhaden at times when the water is very clear, because they see your net coming and escape before it encircles them. Finally, menhaden often become boat-shy in clear water or when they've been disturbed by boat traffic.
Dead baits also take kingfish in a pinch. Normally, commercial king mackerel fisherman use rigged dead menhaden or split-tail mullet to take their catch. And many smoker kingfish have been caught while drifting dead cigar minnows or dragging ballyhoo rigged on a sea witch.
During the summer, the ocean temperatures along Florida's east coast often become very stable, regardless of the depth of the water. When this occurs, then wahoo -- the king of all mackerel when it comes down to size, speed and strength -- can be caught in the same areas as Spanish and king mackerel. This doesn't happen every day and it's an exceptional feat to land all three mackerel species in one day -- but it does happen!
If you're looking for a hotspot to accomplish such an angling feat, one place comes to mind: the blue water outside of Port Canaveral. Phil Lillo, captain of the Fish Finder, has probably pulled this off more than anyone else.
When fishing for smoker kingfish on the 8A or Pelican Flats reefs, Capt. Lillo purposely rigs his rods with heavier leaders and triple-strength No. 4 treble hooks so that his clients have a much better chance to land any giant wahoo that may take the bait. Over the years, Phil's anglers have boated wahoo in the 90- to 110-pound range while fishing these areas, and one even caught an IGFA world-record 167-pound wahoo outside Port Canaveral.
Wahoo are typically found in good numbers up and down Florida's east coast in late June through July. That's when they head towards the inshore reefs to feed on king and Spanish mackerel.
"We've caught quite a few wahoo that had chunks of kingfish in their stomachs when we cleaned them," Capt. Lillo pointed out.
He usually employs a heavy No. 5 single-strand wire leader for kingfish. But Capt. Tom Van Horn, an inshore fishing guide from Chuluota, prefers using the lighter No. 3 or 4 single-strand wire set up on his stinger rigs for kingfish. Because of the kings' keen eyesight, Capt. Van Horn believes these rigs get more strikes because they are less visible. He uses a very short 12-inch piece of leader wire connected to an 8-foot strand of 40-pound fluorocarbon leader with an Albright knot.
Usually, he then uses a piece of seven-strand braided wire to connect a stinger treble hook. This gives the rig more flexibility, helping the baitfish look more natural when swimming, but also hooks any fish that short-strike. Such near-misses often occur when the kings realize that the bait isn't swimming in a natural manner.
You don't necessarily need heavy tackle to fish for mackerel in our waters. But if you're serious about targeting the biggest of the wahoo and kingfish, you had better have a reel full of 400 yards, minimum, of 20- to 30-pound-test line.
To increase your catches while slow-trolling live baits, it's very important never to drag them behind the boat. To slow-troll live baits more successfully, you must keep a watchful eye on the speed of your boat and, at the same time, stay attuned to the bait's ability to keep up with the boat. With live baits, it seems that the slower you troll, the more effective the fishing.
Capt. Lillo provides one hot tip regarding the effectiveness of chumming while slow-trolling. You don't need to use much chum to increase your productivity. In fact, all you have to do is take a few of the less frisky menhaden from the livewell, cut them up into little pieces and scatter them behind the boat every couple of minutes as you move along. Try this chumming technique on your next trip, and you will discover its benefits.
It looks like Florida's east coast will continue to experience world-class mackerel fishing for at least the next several years, and there's no better time to fish the Atlantic Ocean than this month. So grab your gear and head east in search of the three macks!