I’ve been ready for a cool change for a while, and I’m happy to see November is delivering just that. Not only are temperatures coming down, luck has been with us and red tide is gone for now (although it’s popping up in the Panhandle).
Water temps have been dropping, and the mackerel migrations are beginning to provide action and fresh fish dinners. Other fall species have been showing up too. We’ve had lots of new closures and regs to deal with, so check out the updated regulations in this week’s WaterLine or use the Fish Rules mobile app to stay up with current rules.
My best bet for now is Spanish mackerel, which are abundant from the local passes on out into the Gulf for several miles. Water clarity and temps dictate depths. If the wind has kicked up the sand, you’ll need to get out deeper into clear water. Mackerel don’t like murky water.
I like to troll with No. 1 Drone spoons and No. 1 planers on 30-pound conventional gear. Add about 20 feet of 40-pound leader and a ball bearing swivel to the back of the planer to reduce twisted leaders. I add a larger snap swivel ahead of the planer also.
If you can, get black planers and swivels. Mackerel like shiny targets, and black hardware helps reduce cutoffs. That’s also why I like a bright silver spoon — maximum flash gets more bites.
Trolling speed matters. With my spoons, I usually run about 6 knots. If you think lipped plugs or skirts are better than spoons, that’s fine, but don’t mix various types of lures and spoons in the same spread. They all work best at different speeds.
Look for bird or baitfish activity and circle the action. Avoid running through the action because it spooks the fish. With practice, you can learn to distinguish mackerel from ladyfish and jacks before you ever put a lure in the water. The mackerel will jump and show themselves.
Macks have needle-sharp teeth and can hurt you. Use de-hookers to save your fingers. The ones I’m keeping, I flip directly into an icy brine solution to keep the meat firm and tasty. It makes all the difference in quality. Keep whatever you can eat fresh (today and tomorrow) and release the rest for next time.
Spanish mackerel are fun, but the larger kingfish may also be available, if conditions allow us go out to deeper water. While most Spanish are less than 5 pounds, the average king is about 15 and they can get to 60 or bigger. Rigs for kings are similar; just bump up the size of your offerings.
If you’re not seeing action at the surface, watch your fishfinder and note the depth fish where are running. Then you can try various sizes of lipped trolling plugs, which are designed to dive from 10 to 40 feet. I do add a bit of wire leader with these, because they’re pricey offerings.
Colors vary, but any minnow-like color usually works. The old red head and white still produces and no one knows why. There are also some garishly bright patterns that sometimes catch fish too. Ask at your local tackle shop for up-to-date info and details on what’s hot at the moment.
If you plan to do any bottom fishing, pay attention to the rules. Gag grouper are open but red grouper, flounder and red snapper are closed; lane snapper are also closed in federal waters (more than 9 nautical miles from shore). Use WaterLine’s regulations page (it’s on page 8 this week) or Fish Rules to stay legal. If you’re trolling for kings with lipped plugs, we do catch a few gags that way. It’s an old way to locate new bottom structure.
Inshore, snook and reds are still closed, but we can keep three trout each up to a maximum of six per boat. Sizes have changed too; your fish have to be 15 to 19 inches. You can have one per boat larger than 19 inches.
We have plenty of fish to play with, but with stocks depleted due to years of red tide, the closures are supposed to help them rebuild. Unfortunately, the closed species just put additional pressure on the open species, depleting their numbers as well. It’s our government trying to help.
Both mackerel species are fine on the table, but sheepshead and mangrove snapper are also good choices to target for food inside. We may also see some pompano if we are lucky. I’m just glad we can keep something. Some like the catch-and-release fishery, and that’s great. But others like to bring home a meal or two for the expense and efforts.
We’ve had several cold fronts come through and we expect more to show up. Fronts bring wind and wind makes for sporty boating conditions, so please watch the marine forecast and stay safe. And remember that you can’t catch fish if you don’t go fishin’, so let’s go fishin’ soon.
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.