By CAPT. FRED EVERSON
Since the inshore net ban was passed in Florida more than a decade ago, Spanish mackerel have made an incredible comeback in the waters of West Central Florida. There are Spanish mackerel in Tampa Bay all year long, but it is in early spring, summer and fall when the big schools ravage baitfish up and down the bay.
The catching part can be easy when the macks are slashing through bait that’s balled up on the surface, but a little forethought will go a long way in perfecting an approach to mackerel fishing. Spanish mackerel are toothy, and will cut off hooks and lures unless your leader is up to snuff. Wire leaders may prevent tackle losses, but mackerel specialists claim wire leaders deter strikes.
Finding mackerel on Tampa Bay is seldom a problem spring, summer and fall. They will hang close to the schools of bait around the ship channels, and on the range markers. When you see bait on the surface, there will generally be macks nearby. Sometimes the bait will ball up in a tight wad, and you will actually see the mackerel flying through it. Seagulls diving on schools of threadfin herring is a sure sign that the macks are feeding – the birds are picking up leftovers from the mack attack. Other times, mackerel stay deep, and may not hit artificials as readily as live bait. Rigging for mackerel can be an exercise in frustration if it’s not geared to this razor mouthed fish. Spanish mackerel have sharp teeth that can slice through 30-pound monofilament. A wire leader will prevent cut offs, but it can also deter strikes. 60-pound mono is a about right for macks, regular fishing line is fine but mackerel hit leader knots on occasion. Twenty-pound test monofilament stands up to this better than the light line used on the flats.
Abrasion resistant microfilaments or braids work well, but occasional cut offs will ever be a part of mackerel fishing.
My favorite mackerel lure is a one-ounce chrome spoon. I like it rigged with a #1 live bait hook, with the barb bent down to facilitate removal. I also fix a black or green barrel swivel to the lure with a split ring. Treble hooks are not necessary for these willing fighters. Gang trebles will necessarily slow things on a hot bite, complicating hook removal, and can do serious injury to fish you may want to release, and despite their voracity, mackerel are fragile. There is a minimum size of 12 inches and a limit of 10 fish per angler in Florida.
The big advantage to the chrome spoon with a single hook is that you can fish it with live bait, or a strip of cut squid when they won’t take the naked artificial. A nose hooked pilchard or threadfin herring will cast and retrieve just fine on the spoon. When rigged with natural baits, I will let the spoon go all the way down to the bottom; this method covers the entire water column.
The speed of the retrieve with bait on the lure should be much slower than with bare metal. Soon as something edible is attached to the spoon, it seems to be more productive when you give the fish a chance to smell it. But with a bare lure, try to generate an impulse strike by taking the lure away, imitating a panicked baitfish trying to escape.
On days when I run out of spoons, a three eight ounce jig head rigged with a live bait will do the trick, but it won’t cast as far or cover the water column as fast. The shorter overall length of the jig will also put the mack’s teeth on the leader more often, which creates a greater likelihood of cutoffs.
Use a long shanked hook for mackerel when fishing real bait, – it puts more distance between the mack’s teeth and the leader. On a slow bite when the only thing they’ll take is cut bait drifted through a chum slick, make every fish count by keeping the mack’s teeth off the leader. If the fish is allowed to swallow the bait, a cut off is likely.
Some days mackerel are particularly rambunctious and will hit everything you throw at them. The down side to this is that you go through tackle because they will bite at the line as it moves through the water. Other times, they become sullen and have to be chummed up. A cast net and a bunch of threadfin herring will usually put the mackerel in the mood, but it requires more patience, and a larger net with larger mesh than what would normally be used for pilchards in shallow water. A ten or twelve foot net with 7/8-inch mesh is about right for threadfins.
One of the great rewards of catching mackerel is that they are good to eat -- in flavor, and in promoting good health. Spanish mackerel are high in the Omega 3 oil that is very good for the heart. I often hear the complaint from some anglers that mackerel are “fishy” tasting. I suspect that perception is related to poor handling of the fish after they are caught.
Mackerel need to be put on ice immediately after being landed for two reasons. One is to keep the fish firm and fresh tasting, and the other is to keep them from making a bloody mess of your boat. Mackerel bleed freely, and will choke up all of the stuff they have been gorging themselves on, which is good cause to avoid treble hooks. When I get a hooked keeper ready to land, I open the cooler lid and jack the mack right into the box. The barb-less hook usually falls right out, so I can close the cooler lid and get back to fishing. Any mess the thrashing fish makes is confined to the cooler.
A good rule of thumb is to kill only the fish you will eat that same day. Mackerel do not fare as well when refrigerated overnight – better to freeze what you won’t eat the day of the catch. Better still to kill only what you can eat that day.
Few fish are easier to filet than Spanish mackerel. A sharp knife and a flat surface covered with newspaper make it anti skid and easy to clean. I run the knife blade down to the backbone behind the gills, then turn it parallel to the spine and slice off the filet. Turn the fish over and repeat. I remove the skin in the same manner, starting from the tail. Then I cut the filet in half, right down the center of the bloodline. I take great care to trim away all of this dark colored flesh. After that and a good freshwater rinse, it’s ready to be cooked according to your favorite fish recipe.
Spanish mackerel are wonderful game fish – very sporty on the same tackle employed in flats fishing. Speedy, strong, and willing, the mackerel fight is way out of proportion to the size of the fish. And to top it off they are plentiful, accessible to near shore anglers, good to eat, and good for you.