As the winter season brings cooler air and dropping water temperatures to the Southeast, Florida Keys anglers highly anticipate the migration of prized game fish like sailfish and wahoo. Fishing in the Florida Keys during the coming months really takes off, thanks in part to the mass influx of ballyhoo milling around Atlantic patch reefs. More so than any other time of the year, these near-shore shallows come to life with a gamut of reef dwellers that migrate inshore to ride out the chilliest months of the year. While the exciting opportunities with various snapper and other highly desirable species abound, there’s yet another sleek predator that hunts the same waters with incredible precision and agility—cero mackerel.
When cool weather prevails, the action heats up along Atlantic patches.
Quite possibly the most menacing mackerel of all, cero are regularly encountered in Florida Keys waters from December through March. While king mackerel grow much larger and Spanish mackerel are encountered with greater consistency and abundance around the entire state, cero are elusive, often solitary hunters that are highly prized for fierce fighting attributes and delectable table fare.
However it is you go about catching them, live ballyhoo are crucial to successful cero mackerel exploits.
During the winter, showering ballyhoo and diving birds on the reef signal the action of pursuing predators below. It is here along lively structures where ceros provide a true treat for light tackle enthusiasts in the know. This often forgotten fishery is exactly why you’ll see local anglers regularly fishing the fertile patches associated with Hawk’s Channel. They know when ill conditions exist offshore and water temperatures are falling, reef related predators make a big push to the shallows, and cero macks are no exception.
Whether you’re anchored off Hawk’s Cay or points of hard bottom further west in search of these hard fighting fish, you’ll need to start by placing a block or two of frozen double ground menhaden chum over the side. In short order you should see ballyhoo cruising along the surface and engulfing the tidbits of meat melting from the block. Your next move should be a well placed throw with a ½ inch mesh cast net. Ballyhoo are delicate and for offerings that are more capable of enduring time in the livewell they can also be caught one at a time with tiny gold hooks on 4 lb. test leader. A small cork and tiny piece of shrimp or squid tentacle will do the trick. However it is you go about catching them, live ballyhoo are crucial to successful cero mackerel exploits.
Average ceros tip the scales at five to seven pounds, but in the Lower Keys there are true giants that linger in the lower teens. In fact, the world record cero mackerel was captured in Key West and weighed a whopping 17 pounds! To keep fights sporty you’ll want to select a suitable medium action spinning or casting outfit. Ceros are blazing fast and can peel off an impressive amount of light line in a hurry, so a silky smooth drag system and ample line capacity are prerequisites for success in case you hook a true beast.
From your 10 or 12 lb. mainline, connect a section of 25 lb. fluorocarbon leader with a blood knot. From here, attach a 12-inch wire trace of single strand or titanium leader. With either you should avoid the use of a swivel and connect the two materials with nothing more than a streamlined Albright knot. Cero mackerel are voracious feeders with incredible eyesight and even the smallest flash from a shiny barrel or snap swivel may elicit a strike and result in a cut off from an enraged mack on the attack. Complete the terminal presentation with a 3/0 treble attached with either a haywire twist or tiny crimped connection to the titanium.
As your chum slick continues to flow, cero mackerel will usually let down their guard and start swimming within view. When you are ready to fire off a cast, carefully cull a ballyhoo from the livewell and insert a hook from the treble downward through the soft V in the top of the ballyhoo’s mouth. The hook point should face toward the ballyhoo’s nose. Like all mackerel, cero rarely if ever feed lethargically. When they race in for the kill guns blazing it will either be a dead on hit or a complete miss.
If you are free lining a live ballyhoo and line starts peeling off the spool keep the bail open and let the mack run with its intended meal for a few seconds. Close the bail and make sure to come tight before lifting the rod tip. Besides live ballyhoo, shrimp and pilchard work well, but I find that it’s always best to accumulate forage at the same location you plan on fishing.
Clearly, you’ll see that cero mackerel are similar in appearance to Spanish mackerel, with the main difference being distinct yellow lines or dashes on ceros as opposed to only yellow dots prominent on Spanish mackerel. While targeting cero mackerel, don’t lose sight of the fact there are a host of additional predators occupying the same waters that equally enjoy feeding on ballyhoo. That’s one of the greatest things about fishing Florida Keys reefs…you never know what to expect! Prepare accordingly and you’ll be able to take advantage of any opportunity that arises.