April 13, 2011
High-speed chewing machine, scissors with fins, appetite and attitude – all fair descriptions of a Spanish mackerel. One of Florida's most aggressive predators, macks strike fast, run hard and offer tons of rod-bending, reel-screaming action.
With coastal water warming and huge baitfish schools offering easy pickings, hordes of mackerel slash their way through Florida’s bays and beaches each spring. Scoberomorus maculatus to those who study fish, this fierce predator patrols area waters in varying supply throughout all but the coldest months. Spring, however, sees seasonal aggregations that present the closest thing to legitimate non-stop action the sea has to offer.
On calm mornings, you’ll often find patches of white-water carnage the size of football fields where mackerel ravage pods of baitfish. Birds will often identify your quarry as they hover above the surface, keeping watch over a pack of hunting mackerel. Once the predators drive a school of baitfish topside, the ensuing feast yields abundant scraps for opportunistic seabirds to grab.
Multiple presentations will tempt mackerel. Top fishing options include:
A good tactic for locating fish, trolling allows you to cover water and find the bite zone. Deploy three or four rods with live pilchards (“whitebait”) or threadfin herring (“greenbacks”) staggered from right behind the prop wash to 100 feet back. Hook baits through the soft cartilage on the nose and pull them as slowly as your boat can idle. If the baits drag too straight or start to spin, hang a sea anchors or ventilated 5-gallon buckets off your midship cleats to slow your pace.
Target artificial reefs, rock piles and channel edges – common areas of mackerel aggregation. Pay attention to where your strikes occur, as there’s often a sweet spot that concentrates the fish. The common element will be food abundance, so monitor your bottom machine to note where the bait schools are holding.
Anchor and Chum
Try this approach when you’ve located a specific mackerel magnet. The same slow-trolling targets work here, as do channel markers, radio towers and other navigational structures. Position uptide from the spot and set up a scent trail with concentrated menhaden oil, frozen chum blocks and occasional baitfish – whole or chunks.
Caution: Don’t overdo it with the live or cut chum. Even gluttonous mackerel have their limits and if you fill their bellies with appetizers, they won’t hit the rigged baits. Your best bet is to hit the fish with a generous round of freebies to attract their attention and then toss only a few chum bits or a couple of livies every 30 seconds to keep them gathered within casting range. Leverage the macks’ natural feeding competition to hold your quarry close.
Free-lined live baitfish or shrimp will drift along with the chum toward the hot spot. Swarming mackerel typically greet the newly arriving food with instant aggression.
Mackerel lures needn’t be fancy – just shiny. Spoons, Gotcha plugs, bright jigs (silver, gold, pearl or chartreuse), and shallow running crankbaits will all attract toothy attention. Fly-rodders will find their 8-weight outfits with intermediate line and silver, white or chartreuse streamer flies effective, as well. Chum the fish into a frenzy and lay the fly right in the chow line. (Rig a 4-inch piece of light wire to your tippet or you’ll donate every fly you throw.)
Land-bound fishermen have developed an effective tactic for reaching out to the highly mobile macks hunting bait schools around piers and bridges with pedestrian access. In the basic spoon rig, pier anglers tie their 15-pound braided main line to one side of a 4-ounce in-line sinker; and to the other, they tie a 6- to 10-foot 20-pound fluorocarbon leader with a gold or silver squid spoon at the terminal end. Pier and bridge anglers cast by holding their rods downward, swinging the rig beneath the structure and then launching it forward. The weight sinks to the bottom and on the retrieve, the spoon flutters high in the water column to simulate a fleeing baitfish.
With any method, mackerel will attack with reckless abandon, so expect a few near misses along with the sure connections. On a hookup, let the mackerel run for a few seconds. Line tension and water drag will ensure that the hook take a solid bite. Prematurely jerking to “set” the hook usually results in a lost mackerel, so stay calm and start reeling once the fish puts a sustained bend in your rod.
Medium-action 6 ½- to 7-foot spinning outfits with 10- to 15-pound monofilament or braided line will handle even the biggest of Spanish mackerel. Average fish run about a pound or two, but zingers of five-plus frequently cruise Florida waters.
At any size, macks will make short work of thin monofilament, so tougher leaders are imperative. Some anglers opt for 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon leader, as the nearly invisible material yields more strikes. Even a small mackerel can slice through fluoro if he hits it at the right angle, but those who use this leader material prefer to play the averages by attracting more strikes.
On the other hand, No. 2 or 3 wire leaders will put the brakes on most mackerel by repelling their teeth. In clear water, mackerel often spot wire and shy away, but those that bite, generally get hooked. Essentially, wire may not produce as many strikes as fluorocarbon, but you usually catch more of what you hook.
At boatside, handle Spanish mackerel with extreme caution. Those teeth work just as well out of the water as in and macks can open a nasty gash in a split second. For safety, remove your hardware with a hook plucker or needle nose pliers. Keep your fingers at a safe distance or suffer the same fate as your bait.
Photo credit - David Brown