This past winter and spring, anglers along both coasts encountered consistent inshore action with ravenous Spanish mackerel. Hard fighters, tasty and respectable in their own right, shiny Spanish mackerel also make for great trolling baits. Educated anglers are always thinking ahead and never let an opportunity go to waste. If you were smart this past spring you froze a dozen or more 12- to 14-inch Spanish mackerel for the summer offshore season.
With juvenile dolphin and tuna invading area waters, there’s plenty of forage for big game and there’s no better time to hook a marlin when searching for more controllable targets. While most local crews encounter marlin incidentally while searching for dolphin, by presenting a large bait in your spread you will be able to capitalize when the opportunity arises. Horse ballyhoo and mullet provide larger profiles than typical offerings, but Spanish mackerel are arguably the most effective natural marlin bait in existence. Now you may think stitching and rigging a Spanish mackerel is a bit intimidating, but it really isn’t as challenging as it seems. Although mackerel can be rigged with circle-hooks fastened to the head, this approach is better suited for a perfect pitch bait when a big billfish investigates your spread. To rig your mackerel as a swimming bait you’ll want to place a J-hook in the belly.
Like all natural bait rigging endeavors, it’s important you start with the freshest offerings possible. If you are catching mackerel with the intent of storing them for future outings it is highly recommended they are brined prior to vacuum sealing and freezing. In addition, the right tools for the job include 300 lb. leader, an 11/0 J-hook, crimps and crimping tool, rigging floss, a closed eye rigging needle, ice pick and deboning tool.
After the bait has fully thawed and it’s time to start rigging, make an incision from the anal fin to the pelvic fin. Remove the entrails and thoroughly clean out the belly cavity. From here you’ll want to snap the backbone just behind the gill plate and debone the mackerel with a deboning tool or hollow arrow shaft. Give the tool a twisting motion as you work your way down the spine toward the tail. Push the tail to one side to break the spine and then remove the tool. With the mackerel now deboned it is much more limber and ready to rig.
Although rigging mackerel isn’t difficult, it’s crucial your leader pulls from the center of the bait’s head, or the bait will spin and appear unnatural. Spanish mackerel have a bony skull and an ice pick or a sharp hook point will help poke a hole through the head just in front of the eyes. Make sure the hole is perfectly centered so the bait swims with lateral uniformity. Now you can insert your hook through the stomach cavity so the hook eye rests in the baits mouth. Feed your monofilament leader through the hole in the top of the head, making sure it passes through the hook eye before exiting the bait’s bottom jaw. Crimping the leader will help shut the bait’s mouth. While you don’t want a giant loop, a larger loop is recommended over tightly crimping the leader to the bait’s nose. At this point the hook should rest approximately one inch behind the pectoral fin, leaving approximately half of the hook exposed. The last step involves stitching the bait together to shut the stomach cavity and reinforce the mackerel. This will also help prevent premature washout.
When stitching natural bait you’ll want to use a closed eye needle so the open latch doesn’t grab unwanted floss or flesh in the stitching process. Start by inserting the needle through the bait’s gill plate. Make sure to leave a long tag end to finish off the bait once you’ve stitched the belly. Make consecutive stitches through the bait while working your way toward the anal fin. Once you get to the end of your incision at the anal fin, lock the thread by going through the last hole twice. Now you can start stitching back towards the head of the bait going through the existing holes. When you get to the original hole make an overhand knot with the two tag ends and lock the gill plate shut. A final stitch will effectively shut the mouth and again prevent the bait from washing out. Pull on the leader and make sure the bait pulls from the loop and not the hook. Juvenile mackerel to 10 inches would make killer baits for wahoo, gaffer dolphin and smoker kings, but anglers are highly advised to fish Spanish mackerel greater than the required 12 inch minimum fork length.
Easy to master and super effective, swimming mackerel should be in your spread this summer. Blue marlin routinely roam Florida waters and there’s no better time to catch a big billfish in your own backyard. Remember, bigger is usually better!