Spanish mackerel in Florida waters are thicker than tourists on the beaches these days, and the once-seasonal species has become pretty much a year-around target for anglers who enjoy the javelin-shaped speedsters. Thanks to years of careful management throughout the southeastern coastal waters, macks are one of the few species where the bag limit has been increased rather than decreased. That limit now stands at 15 per day in Florida, making the species one of the few good targets for supplying a neighborhood fish dinner.
Like their larger cousins the king mackerel, Spanish are what is known as "coastal pelagics" among biologists. That is, they are migratory and remain in open water for the most part, but are more likely to be found within sight of land in most areas. The migrations follow baitfish schools north in summer, and south in winter.
There are at least two strains of Spanish mackerel, which biologists define by their migration pattern.
Gulf-group Spanish, as designated by federal and state fishery managers, spend their summers in the northern Gulf of Mexico between the Florida Panhandle and Texas. Around early October as water temperature drops below 68 degrees, most of the eastern Gulf group heads east and south, passing Cedar Key by the 15th to the 20th, and into the Tampa Bay area by the first of November. The western gulf group migrates west and south along the Texas coast and into Mexican waters.
Most of the migration has found its way to the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic Coast as far as Palm Beach in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream by the first of January, where they remain until early March.
Warming water keys a baitfish migration, and the macks go with them. By mid-March, lots of fish are again passing through the waters off Tampa Bay, and the main push winds up back in the northern gulf by mid-April.
Atlantic-group Spanish have a similar seasonal movement, summering as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts, starting south in late September after spawning, starting to arrive in South Florida about mid-October in most years. The majority mass just offshore from Cape Canaveral to Palm Beach Inlet for the winter.
The two groups intermingle off South Florida, but separate out into their respective clans as warm weather approaches for the spring migrations.
While this pattern is still generally true, there's evidence that the warmer average temperatures seen over the last 15 years or so appear to be delaying the southward movement of the main schools of fish. Whether you believe in "man-made global warming" or not, there's no question that sea water has been warmer longer in recent years, despite the occasional devastating cold blast like the one in 2010 that killed tens of thousands of snook and other sensitive species in Florida.
These days, it's not uncommon for lots of macks to remain off the Tampa and St. Petersburg Beach area throughout the winter, and anglers as far north as Jacksonville are enjoying good winter mackerel fishing when the cold fronts stay away.
Not only that, but mackerel have increased in size as well as number. Twenty years ago, a 5-pound Spanish was a rarity. Today tons of fish reach that size and larger. It takes a 7-pounder to turn any heads, and a 7-pound Spanish is every bit a match for a king mackerel of similar size. Spanish hit like a freight train and make long, reel-smoking runs at incredible speeds.
Biologists say mackerel reach spawning age at 1 year and about 14 inches long. Then the fish put on around a pound a year, maxing out at around 10 pounds at 10 years old. The life span for females is around 11 years. Males live about 6 years and reach a maximum of 6 pounds. The current International Game Fish Association all-tackle record is 13 pounds.
There are so many Spanish on the Atlantic Coast between Fort Pierce and Palm Beach that commercial cast-netters are able to catch them by the tons. They spot the massed schools on their depthfinders and toss heavily weighted nets over them.
Fortunately, this labor-intensive harvest method seems not to hurt the populations in the way that the big roller nets of the past did. Excessive commercial harvest by roller-rig nets, coupled with hundred-fish-a-day catches by recreational anglers were the primary reasons both Spanish and kings were in trouble in the 1970s. Spanish took about 25 years to recover. Kings have not recovered yet to anywhere near former abundance, though numbers are far better than they were.
Another interesting part of the Spanish recovery is how the fish tend to spread out when there's a flourishing population. It's not uncommon these days for Spanish to show up far up inside major coastal estuaries like Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. In the past they were found mostly along the beaches.
The fish now hang around almost all winter long in passes from Holmes Beach south to Naples feeding on "glass minnows." Those are the tiny bay anchovies- that often form big schools on the near-shore artificial reefs and wrecks, around the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and on nearly every channel marker on any major shipping lane into a west coast port.
On the Atlantic Coast, anywhere from Canaveral Inlet south is loaded all winter. Sebastian, Fort Pierce, St. Lucie, Jupiter and West Palm inlets are particularly rich fishing areas, with macks both around the jetties and within a 1/2 mile of the beaches between. To find the fish just look for the fleet of mixed cast-netters and recreational boaters and join in. It's an automatic limit of fish.
Catching Spanish is pretty much any way you like it, but the most exciting action usually comes for the dawn patrol. Macks frequently drive bait to the surface at first light, and a "bird tornado" announces the location of these feeding frenzies. Sometimes an acre or more of breaking water and skyrocketing fish make it clear exactly where the fish are located. Pretty much any fast-moving lure or live bait that hits the water is instantly inhaled.
The action may end after an hour or two, but it can break out again at any time of day. That's particularly true as strong current flows build up at peak tides An eye on the sky is always a part of mackerel fishing. The birds see any feeding fish long before you do.
When the fish don't make it obvious, you can usually locate them by trolling a small single-hook spoon or jig. Often, putting a lure down on a No. 2 planer or a downrigger at 15 to 20 feet turns up mid-day macks. Once you hit a school, you can mark the spot with GPS and sonar units and return to cast or fish live baits.
Note that effective trolling speed for macks is quite a bit faster than for grouper or some other species — about 6 knots is a good average.
Mackerel feed as much by scent as by sight, so chumming can give you a huge advantage in bringing them to your hook. Frozen blocks of ground baitfish are available at most inlet marinas and tackle shops, including some that come in mesh bags all ready to be deployed. You simply tie one of these off the transom and as the block melts, the chum flows down current.
Anglers who fish live threadfins or sardines often use expired baits as chum, snipping the baitfish into fine pieces with poultry shears or using a meat grinder to convert them to fresh chum. An occasional live bait tossed into the slick adds flash and may bring macks "skyrocketing" out of the water.
Best spots to set up a chum line are around spoil banks near dredged ship channels, over near shore wrecks and artificial reefs, around marker buoys and in passes from the Intracoastal Waterway to open water. Pick a strong flow period and set up about a hundred yards up tide from the shoal, wreck or marker. As soon as the slick gets down to the structure, you should have macks finding their way to the back of your boat.
Just about any small lure that imitates a silver-sided baitfish is likely mackerel fodder, but heavy spoons like the Krockodile and Kastmaster that give lots of casting distance to allow plenty of range for high-speed retrieves often work best. A mackerel rarely hits an artificial that's not moving at warp speed, so rig up with a high-speed spinning reel mounted on a 7-foot medium action rod and loaded with 15-pound-test micro fiber line. Set the drag at about 5 pounds — this gives the larger macks a chance to show their amazing speed on the first couple of runs, and reduces the chance of pulling the hook.
Lipless crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap in chrome finish are also very effective, particularly for larger mackerel. When those fish are turned on they also readily attack noisy topwaters like the Tiny Torpedo, 5M MirrOlure and the Rapala X-Rap.
Swimbaits with molded hooks and weights, like the Tsunami series in 3- to 4-inch sizes, are highly effective, as are bucktail and nylon hair jigs. and the usual assortment of plastic swimmer-tail jigs in 3/8- to 1/4-ounce sizes.
Any jig can be made far more productive on macks by adding a tiny sliver of fresh-cut live shrimp to the hook. Though that bit of shrimp seems too small to have any impact, the fish can smell it, and a "tipped" lure catches five mackerel for every one caught on an unscented lure.
Macks are great fly-rod targets because they often feed on tiny "glass minnows", which are fry of the bay anchovy. Any small white or silver fly worked as fast as you can strip draws jolting strikes, particularly if you work the fly in a chum slick.
It's best to use 8-weight tackle and a reel that holds plenty of backing. Otherwise, it's not impossible for a big mackerel to clean your clock and make off that expensive fly line. Of course, king mackerel occasionally hang around the same bait as the Spanish, and if one of them inhales your fly, you still may not have heavy enough gears it
At times, when the fish are homed in on these 1- to 2-inch baits, they won't take a larger spoon or jig. But you can readily catch them by adding a 1/4-ounce rubber-core sinker to your leader and tying a glass minnow fly on the end. Again, use a very fast retrieve to draw the strikes.
TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER
When macks are thick and you're fishing live bait, there's not much need to worry about leaders. A piece of dark No. 3 wire 12 inches long does the job, and no Spanish turns away from a fluttering sardine or threadfin just because they spot that wire trace.
However, when you're casting or trolling artificials, it's a different matter. Macks can be extremely leader shy in clear water, particularly when the bite is not really on. Many times wire simply won't catch them. It takes a leader that can stand up to their razor-like teeth, but one that's near invisible.
Fortunately, fluorocarbon is the answer. With a density almost twice that of monofilament, fluoro makes a "hard" leader that's far more resistant to teeth than mono. Plus, with a refractive index close to that of clear water, it's very hard for the fish to see. About 18 inches of 30- to 40-pound test, tied to your running line with a double uni-knot, does the job.
Macks are excellent table fish — if you treat them right. That starts with getting them on ice as soon as they come out of the water, and eating them fresh rather than thawed after freezing. Thawed macks tend to be mushy.
Fillet and skin as with most fish — a sharp, flexible knife makes this quick work. The only tricky part is that mackerel have a line of small "floating" bones down the forward part of the lateral line, and these need to be cut out during the cleaning process.
A simple V cut on either side of the line, back to about the mid-section of the fillet gets rid of these bones. Trim away the rib cage, and also trim off any remaining red meat, which can have a 'fishy' taste.
In the end you have a light gray boneless fillet that's good baked, broiled, smoked, micro waved or pan-seared with a coating of olive oil.