Our weather is changing. There may be more cool spells ahead, but this week has been warm and humid. I’ve already observed white pelicans migrating back north. Plants are budding and citrus is blossoming. Best of all, I’m catching some Spanish mackerel. Larger kings are sure to be close behind.
The baitfish are moving in and everything is ready to spring into life. Area waters are looking great right now — clean and clear! It’s time to find out how our fish populations fared. I’m optimistic and I believe we will enjoy awesome action this spring. Our area’s fishing, boating and tourism all require a good run to recover and survive.
Let’s talk about some signs to look for, and how to enjoy our mack attack. Terns were nicknamed mackerel birds by the old-time fishermen. They indicated the return of baitfish, and fish migrations follow their food. Striking fish are obvious indicators; if you are lucky enough to see fish, go for it. Remember that if you circle or drift quietly around the activity you catch more fish. Happy fish feed and scared fish run away.
You might encounter other boats with bent rods. They don’t own the ocean, but you will find life is better if you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Make friends and earn respect. Be courteous. You could break down and need that boat to rescue you.
You need the right gear and rigs. My best suggestion is to hire a local guide that fishes the way you want to learn. The second-best advice is to make friends at your favorite local tackle shop. Get to know key staff members and ask for help. They are in business to assist you. Just please remember that your purchases keep their doors open. Don’t pick their brains and then shop online.
I recommend purchasing several of the items they suggest because sharp teeth steal rigs. As the word gets out, lure stocks sell down. You may only have one opportunity to buy your choice rigs. Always match the gear to the size of your target. Spanish on king rods are boring, and kings on Spanish tackle can be too much to handle.
With mackerel of any species, you need to carry plenty of ice to maintain the quality of your catch. Always ice fish immediately and chill completely. Mackerel have firm meat if iced properly but get mushy when mishandled. Try brining them as they come into the boat. Immediately immerse fish into icy cold slush. Just add some clean salt water from the Gulf to your cooler of ice. You will be amazed at the improved quality of your fish.
Everyone has a favorite way to prepare fish. My Spanish mackerel choice is broiled with Duke’s mayo. Lay your fillets skin side down on a foil-lined baking sheet and season them with Everglades and Old Bay, then place under a red-hot broiler until seared. Baste liberally with Duke’s, place back under the broiler and watch close. When they begin to turn golden brown, shut off the broiler; close the door and let them sit a few minutes (longer for thicker fillets). Remove, serve and enjoy. I like a spatula to serve the fillets and leave the skin on the foil.
King mackerel are great for sushi and ceviche. If you don’t like the raw texture, try them grilled, smoked or blackened. We sometimes marinate them in soy sauce and Italian dressing, or apply spice rubs. Smaller fish are best but larger ones smoke great. I make fish spread from smoked kings, again using Duke’s mayo (no, they’re not bribing me, it’s just good stuff). Some like cream cheese instead. Either way, add seasonings and enjoy.
You won’t find a faster, more exciting fish to tangle with than mackerel. We have plenty of fish and liberal bag limits. We encounter schools that have fish exploding all around us in peak runs. Big kings smoke reel drags with their speedy, powerful runs. Always beware of sharp, toothy fish coming in the boat and in the cooler!
Use wire for kings but keep terminal gear to a minimum. These are sharp-eyed fish and we find them in clear waters. Mackerel are always on the move. They have to be; they have no swim bladders. They literally don’t ever stop swimming.
We are blessed with numerous options to stay up on weather patterns. Try observing several and average out the odds for your area. The last day before a cold front is the warmest because south winds precede fronts. North winds are the chilly days. Northeast to easterly winds are offshore. We frequently encounter good fishing in our nearshore Gulf waters during northeast winds. Just be sure near hore waters have cleared from the onshore windy days. It can get windy too, so play it safe. Never risk your life and others taking big chances.
Florida’s waters are beautiful again. Let’s enjoy these blessings, but don’t forget to stay on top of options to reduce our nutrient inputs. Celebrate our recovery, but remember we didn’t fix anything. Cool water subdued our problems. No one knows what we can expect long-term, but it’s obvious we must slow down the degradation of our waters.
And remember, you can’t catch fish if you don’t go fishin’, so let’s go fishin’ now!
Capt. Van Hubbard is a highly respected outdoor writer and fishing guide. He has been a professional USCG-licensed year-round guide since 1976, and has been fishing the Southwest Florida coast since 1981. Contact him at 941-468-4017 or VanHubbard@CaptVan.com.