Fish Identification

There are dozens of species of mackerel found throughout the world's oceans. They come from the family known as scombridae, the same as two other important food fishes, tuna and bonito. This page will mostly focus on the two most famous types of mackerel for anglers in North America, the king and Spanish mackerel.


The king mackerel has two dorsal fins , the second followed by eight or nine finlets. The lateral line, which abruptly curves downward below the second dorsal fin, distinguishes the king mackerel from the Spanish mackerel. Each side of the jaw has about 30 strongly compressed triangular teeth. Spanish mackerel are dark blue or blue-green above, pale and silvery below. Their sides are marked with many small, oblong, dull orange or yellowish spots that are prominent both above and below the lateral line.

Maximum Size

The world record catch for Spanish mackerel is 13 pounds (5.89 kg). King mackerel, the biggest in the mackerel family, can grow to be over 90 pounds (40 kg).

Geographic Range

Mackerel Fishing
Spanish Mackerel.

King mackerel inhabit Atlantic coastal waters from the Gulf of Maine to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Highest concentration in the Carolinas and southern Florida. Spanish mackerel inhabit coastal waters of the western Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Maine to the Yucatan Peninsula.


King mackerel are sub-tropical fish that tend to swim at depths of 40 to 150 feet (12–45 m). Many of the bigger-sized ones come closer to shore while smaller fish keep their distance from any land if they can. Spanish mackerel prefer sandy bottoms at much shorter depths, typically in the 10 to 40 foot range (6-2 m).

Life Span

Spanish mackerel live 5-8 years on average, while kings can live up to 15 years, though usually only females approach that age as they grow to be bigger.


King mackerel feed mostly on schooling fish, secondarily on crustaceans, and mollusks on a very limited basis. Atlantic thread herring and scaled sardines are the king mackerel's main source for food. Spanish mackerel have similar feeding habits, though anchovies are of bigger importance, especially near Louiana and the northern part of North Carolina.

Migrations and Spawning

Spanish mackerel move northward each spring before spending summer in the northern part of their range, and migrating south in fall. In spring, summer, and fall, they are most abundant in the northern Gulf of Mexico and along the east coast of the United States up to Virginia. Their major wintering grounds are off south Florida.The onset of spawning progresses from south to north. Spawning begins in April in the Carolinas, in mid-June in Chesapeake Bay, and from late August to late September off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and Long Island, New York.

There are two major migratory groups of king mackerel: one moved southward through the Florida Keys, entered the Gulf of Mexico in late winter and spring, and then continued northward along the west Florida Continental Shelf, spawning in the summer moths in the northern part of the Gulf before returning to south Florida in the winter. The second groups moves north from southeast Florida and as far north as Virginia, but generally no further than the Carolinas.These fish spawn near Florida from May through August.


Mackerels are a major food source for a large variety of sea creatures. Marlins, sharks, seals, whales, tuna, dolphins, birds, and much more will snack on either the Spanish or king mackerel if given the chance.

Information courtesy of NOAA.

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