June 15, 2005
The "prince" of mackerel can be the king of nearshore water along the coast during the spring months. Here's how the experts catch 'em.
I had always considered trolling to be the only serious method for catching Spanish mackerel, until one afternoon at dusk, lounging at the beach with the kids, I noticed a single, silvery fish bolt out of the water like a porpoise, just on the far side of the inshore sandbar.
When a second fish repeated the feat, I recognized it as a Spanish mackerel, and I immediately sent one of my daughters back to our cottage for one of my fishing rods. She didn't bring the correct one back, but even armed with a 6-foot spinning rod tipped with a lure more likely to fool a speckled trout, I waded out knee deep, started casting and, in five minutes, had two Spanish mackerel flopping in the sand behind me.
From that point on, I have rarely pushed a sand spike into the beach to hold a big surf "heaver" rod for bottom-fishing. A number of different casting and spinning rods have made the trek with me into waist-deep water as I tried to reach a pod of Spanish mackerel feeding 100 yards off the surf.
Of course, the great majority of Spanish mackerel are still caught from boats trolling spoons anywhere from a half-mile to five miles off the beach, but under the right circumstances, you can stay right on the beach and still catch these fish.
FISHING FROM BOATS
By far, the most productive way to catch Spanish mackerel is trolling in a small boat, because you can move to the fish in most cases.
Capt. Lloyd Eastlack, a former charter boat captain who now runs a tackle shop, said that he starts looking for Spanish mackerel to show up in the spring when the water temperature off the beach breaks through the 70-degree mark, with 72- to 73-degree water marking the best fishing.
Clear water is a key because Spanish mackerel are sight feeders. Most of the time, Eastlack says, you'll find the little mackerel feeding in a band of clear, clean water, and depending on wind and location, that can be anywhere from just off the surf to several miles off the beach.
An age-old method for catching Spanish mackerel from boats is to troll No. 1 and No. 00 Clark spoons at varying depths from the surface to 5 or 6 feet deep, using trolling weights in 1- to 3-ounce sizes and No. 1 planers. Typically, he'll use a leader of at least 30 feet tied to a barrel swivel. Most of the time, his leader will be 25- to 30-pound mono.
"You need the swivel to keep the line from twisting," he said. "And the long leader keeps the fish from seeing the swivel."
He'll usually split up a six-rod trolling spread with three of each. He may throw in a "bird" attractor, with a Clark spoon or a small plastic squid about 6 to 8 feet back.
Besides clear water, Eastlack keys on the movement of birds, hoping to find feeding mackerel wherever he finds birds diving on bait.
Once he locates the mackerel, he'll troll around the edges of the school, trying to pick off fish without spooking them. He'll change speeds depending on what the fish seem to prefer, and often, if another boat is on the same school and is catching fish, he'll try to mimic that boat's trolling speed, up to 4 or 5 knots.
Eastlack says that early-spring Spanish mackerel are usually good-sized fish, much bigger than the smaller schoolies that make up the majority of the catch during the summer. To key on those bigger fish, he'll drift smaller live baits, such as mullet minnows or smaller menhaden, usually on a 3- to 4-foot leader suspended under a float. He hooks the live baits through the nose with a No. 4 treble hook.
"Trolling is more productive, but live bait will produce bigger fish," he said.
Frank Folb, the owner of a tackle shop on North Carolina's Outer Banks, is married to a former surf-fishing guide and has caught Spanish mackerel in the surf for years. There is one predominant factor in catching these fish while your feet are planted firmly in the sand, and that's having clear water within casting range - no matter where you're fishing.
"You need clear water; if you can find some clear water, a lot of times you'll be able to see them jumping or working out there, and you can cast to them," said Folb.
On different beaches, facing in different directions, there are winds from certain directions that will clean up the water just off the beach. Learning which wind has that effect on your favorite surf goes a long way toward helping you catch Spanish mackerel. The water doesn't have to be calm, but it has to be clear.
From there, it's just a matter of having the right kind of equipment to put the right kind of bait in front of the fish.
Spanish mackerel are extremely speedy fish with excellent vision, and that steers you in the direction of reels with a high rate of retrieve, in excess of 6-to-1, in order to get your lure moving fast enough to draw a strike. Second, a Spanish mackerel's vision is so sharp that he'll see a wire leader or a barrel swivel, so Folb suggests tying your lure directly to the line you have on the reel - anywhere from 8- to 12- to 15-pound-test.
The preferred lures are shiny casting spoons. They come in an array of colors, and these fish don't seem to have a preference, sometimes homing in on pink/white, sometimes on white/silver, often just a lure with a shiny or hammered silver finish.
As far as rods are concerned, surf-spinning or baitcasting rods with a lively tip, but enough backbone to throw a couple of ounces of metal, are a plus. Folb has a personal favorite: a 9-foot rod that's designed to throw lures from 3/4 to 3 ounces.
Beyond getting the right equipment, it doesn't hurt to be able to cast a country mile and reel as fast as you can. That's about all the technique that's involved.
"You're reeling fairly fast, and if they hit your lure and take off, they're going to get hooked," Folb said.
Veteran fisherman Jimmy Ingle has caught hundreds of Spanish mackerel from piers, and although every pier has its own characteristics, methods for catching Spanish don't vary much from one to another.
Ingle said that he concentrates on fishing the first few hours of the morning and last few hours of the evening for Spanish mackerel, which seem to bite better around piers during periods of relatively low light.
Ingle said that fishermen who are targeting Spanish mackerel from piers and often from jetties generally use only two or three methods: casting, live baiting or jigging.
When he's casting, Ingle sticks with a heavy casting plug called a "Gotcha." It typically comes with a pair of treble hooks, usually gold hooks, and its sloped face is perfect for jerking in a side-to-side motion.
"You can cast it out blindly, but most of the time, I'll wait until I see Spanish mackerel jumping or starting to feed, or when I see bait," Ingle said. "You retrieve a Gotcha plug by snatching it with your rod tip. It imitates the action of a baitfish trying to get away from another fish because of that flat face, and it's heavy enough that you can cast it a country mile."
Ingle said that he always works his lure all the way back until it's almost directly under the pier, among the pilings, because a large percentage of his hookups come very close to the pier. "About 90 percent of my strikes are right by the pier," he said. "When I get it back close to the pier, I really start popping it with the rod tip - I call it 'dancing the jig' - because it will look like a little fish trying to get away or a little bluefish feeding on another fish."
Ingle said that fishing live bait is a second option, either hooking up a small menhaden, mullet or grass shad and fishing it under a float, light-lining it or fishing it on a standard two-rod king mackerel outfit (one rod is for an anchor sinker, the other for the bait, which is held close to the anchor line by a rubber band or clothespin that releases on the strike). Typically, Ingle wants his bait no more than 4 or 5 feet beneath the surface, and he doesn't want it far from the pier.
A third method for taking Spanish mackerel is jigging a gold hook rig right up against the pier. A gold hook rig is a series of gold hooks on dropper loops that are jigged vertically close to pier pilings. Ingle said that the mackerel will hit the bare hooks because they are attracted to the gold color.
There is typically no particular hotspot for Spanish mackerel on a pier. Ingle usually starts fishing about halfway out, and he will go all the way to the end of the pier. One thing he'll take with him, no matter where he's fishing, is a pier net to help land a hooked fish. The net is flat and circular and is lowered by a series of lines attached to its perimeter, then the fish is led over the net and pulled up.
"I lost the biggest Spanish mackerel I've ever hooked - probably 7 or 8 pounds - because I didn't have a net that day. I tried to hand-line him up and the hooks popped out. I've always carried a pier net since then."