With passing frontal boundaries and stretches of chilly weather headed our way in the coming months, several fun fisheries will be popping off. Though more glamorous species like sailfish in southeast Florida, redfish in the Panhandle, kingfish in the Keys and so much more take center stage for most anglers, let’s not forget about the spunky Spanish mackerel. These fish don’t grow as large as king mackerel and aren’t as tasty as cero mackerel, but they present themselves in huge numbers virtually statewide this time of year, provide tons of fun on light tackle and aren’t too shabby on the dinner table when eaten fresh and processed correctly.
Though there are many game fish species that can be caught regularly around the Sunshine State, Spanish mackerel deserve some recognition of their own. There’s certainly something to be said about a target that will give you a run for your money on light tackle, fill the cooler and bring smiles to anglers of all ages. Additionally, while fishing is fishing and there are no guarantees, this wintertime fishery welcomes novices and skilled anglers alike, as the swarms of Spanish macks take to the shallows and provide fun for all.
There’s no denying that Spanish mackerel are nowhere near the top of anyone’s bucket list when it comes to dream fish, but the ability to find and fool these fish with consistency in the coming months is quite an asset, particularly given the uncertainty of winter weather patterns that could prevent you from getting offshore or doing what you originally intended. Even if you make these frisky fighters your Plan A, there’s no shame in leaving the dock with intentions of a Spanish mack slay fest.
Many seasoned anglers will tell you that Spanish mackerel are often by-catch when chasing more glamorous targets, or a backup plan for when the more famed game fish don’t cooperate. This notion leads many anglers to think the Spanish mackerel are easy to catch and don’t require the same amount of preparation, knowledge and effort as other species. While this is often true, it’s still fishing and we’ve learned to never underestimate these fish, or any fish for that matter. We’ve spent many a morning trying to catch live bait on quill rigs, only to have every baitfish we hook scarfed down by a hungry Spanish mack. Then, only a day later when we set out with light spinners to capitalize on their presence, they’re nowhere to be found. Just like any other fish you target, they can humble you if you’re not careful.
Therefore, we suggest approaching this fishery with the same diligence and dedication you would give to any other. Sure, this is a bit more laid-back than kite fishing for sailfish in a stiff northeast breeze or trolling a spread of wahoo lures, but you still want to do everything you can to stack the odds in your favor. When they’re biting, they’re BITING, but finding the fish and getting them to cooperate is not always a walk in the park.
Naturally, there are many factors to consider when homing in on any one species, and it’s not different for the undervalued Spanish mackerel. One of the first considerations that must be addressed is location, and this just might be the most important factor. When thinking location, don’t think you’re going to need a set of waypoints. Rather, these fish are often on the move, marauding in search of their next meals. This time of year, there are certain areas that certainly provide excellent results, mainly the southern reaches of the state. On either coast and particularly in the Florida Keys, passing cold fronts usually ignite the bite and get these fish going. Wherever you decide to search for these fish, you want to focus your efforts on areas that feature forage and structure. Though they are pelagic and migratory in nature, Spanish mackerel commonly associate with reefs and wrecks in a range of depths, usually 20 to 80 feet.
Targeting these fish encompasses several techniques and approaches, and choosing one comes down to personal preference. One of the simplest and most popular methods is trolling small lipped plugs and spoons over promising areas. However, even if you’re trolling, it’s tough to keep the boat moving and ignore a concentration of Spanish macks. These fish hunt in schools, often large ones, and we recommend stopping the boat whenever you get a few bites and fishing that area. Once you pull the throttles back, chum is your best friend. Deploying a block of ground chum will bring the fish into casting range and keep them there. From here, live pilchard are always a top menu item for these fish, but many find it more enjoyable to stick to artificial presentations. These fish are incredibly aggressive, particularly when there’s chum in the water, and any flashy lure that moves quickly through the water with erratic movement is likely to get bit. Small spoons or bucktail jigs are popular choices, though lipped casting plugs are excellent, too. When using lures that come rigged with treble hooks, we strongly suggest swapping the trebles out with inline J hooks.
When it comes to tackle, a simple setup is all you need. Spanish mackerel don’t grow to be very large, so light spinning or fly gear is your best bet. These fish certainly fight harder than their size would suggest, so spool your spinners with 10 to 15 lb. braided main line, leaving plenty to accommodate the initial drag-screaming run of a large mackerel. Rod selection is also important here, as you want a rod that is long enough to provide adequate casting distance, strong enough to drive the hook home when a fish bites and sensitive enough to detect the lightning-fast strike of a fast-moving Spanish mackerel. Achieving this balance in a setup is easier than you think, as most inshore outfits typically used on the flats for redfish, trout and more are perfect for this fishery. Even when you’re trolling for these fish, there’s no need to bump up to traditional trolling gear, as the light spinners will do just fine.
Finally, one of the most important factors you need to consider is leader material. Spanish mackerel possess incredibly sharp teeth that will slice right through leader that is too light. For this reason, many anglers find it necessary to jump straight to single-strand stainless steel or titanium leader material. While this will ensure maximum bite protection and you’ll certainly land more fish, these leader presentations are often easily detected by Spanish mackerel and their keen eyesight. Instead of wire, consider using a few feet of 60 lb. monofilament instead. While these fish are certainly capable of eventually biting through heavy mono, you can usually land a few on the same leader before having to re-tie. This may seem tedious, but you’ll get more bites, particularly in clear water where mackerel become more wary.
Spanish mackerel are by no means the most prized game fish roaming our near-shore waters. However, these scrappy fighters provide a great deal of fun on light tackle and can be real day savers when other targets won’t cooperate. Additionally, don’t discount their table fare, as fresh Spanish mackerel on the grill can be incredibly tasty. This winter, when cooler temps and unpredictable weather can throw you a Monkey Wrench, count on Spanish mackerel for consistent action.