It seems strange to be talking about catching Spanish mackerel in the middle of February. It seems more like a discussion to be having in late March or maybe April. But actually, we really should have been talking about them earlier this year. People fishing off Tampa and Sarasota have been catching macks for the last several weeks. In fact, we’ve been getting reports of mackerel from up that way all winter long.
This is not what’s supposed to happen. The normal cycle is that mackerel swim south in the fall from the northern Gulf of Mexico, winter off the Keys, then swim back north in the spring.
But what drives that is water temperature and baitfish abundance. We haven’t had enough really cold weather to push the macks as far south as they usually go. On top of that, the baitfish haven’t left the area either.
So now the question gets even more unusual: Why have they been hanging out around Tampa and Sarasota, when we have just as much food for them and water temps that are just a bit warmer, which should be more to their liking?
The answer is, I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure you don’t either. But I do know this: We should take advantage of the fact that they’re here. Less wondering, more catching, right?
For a lot of you snowbirds, this will be a new experience. Mackerel usually show up right about the time you’re leaving for the Great Frozen Northlands. There’s a lot of ground to cover if you’ve never targeted this species before, so we’re just going to hit the high points here.
TACKLE TO USE: Most Spanish weigh less than 5 pounds, so the heavy gear is unnecessary. The gear you’d use for trout or redfish will be fine. Heavy leaders will reduce the number fish that bite through the line. I suggest 60-pound fluorocarbon. Wire is a problem, as these fish have great vision and will often ignore your lure if you have a wire leader. Connect your line and leader with a knot, not a swivel. Mackerel will often eat tiny baitfish, and that’s what your swivel looks like.
BAITS TO USE: Small baitfish and shrimp work for mackerel, but most anglers prefer artificials because they’re easier to cast and retrieve. Good choices: Small bucktail jigs, silly jigs, single-hook spoons. Poor choices: Anything expensive (unless you want to buy more of them), anything soft plastic (they’ll tear these up fast), anything with treble hooks (mackerel teeth are already sharp enough; you don’t need any extra sharp things when you’re trying to unhook them).
WHERE TO FIND THEM: Mackerel are open-water fish, and usually prefer to swim in areas at least a few feet deep. One of the best ways to find them is to watch for terns, gulls, pelicans and other birds diving on baitfish. Often there are mackerel pushing that bait to the surface. Watch and you may see mackerel jumping as they attack baitfish. Even if there are no birds, look for baitfish at the surface and mackerel jumping through them. (Don’t confuse them with mullet.)
METHODS TO USE: You can cast or you can troll. If you elect to cast with artificial lures, avoid twitching or jerking the lure — just reel, moderately fast and steady. Twitches result in bite-offs. If you’re trolling, use a ball bearing swivel right at the lure to prevent line twist. Speeds can vary, but usually 5 to 9 knots is about right.
SHOULD YOU KEEP THEM?: Maybe. If you only like the mildest of white fish, Spanish mackerel may not be for you. They’re not strong-tasting, but they do have a little flavor. They need to be iced well (see below). If you don’t have ice, let them go. Mackerel need to be at least 12 inches (snouth to center of the fork) to keep, but that’s pretty puny. A more realistic size is at least 15 or 16 inches.
HOW TO RELEASE THEM: These are delicate fish, so minimal handling is best. Unhooking tools are great because you probably don’t have to touch the fish. If you are handling them, use wet bare hands, not gloves or a towel. Get them back in the water as quickly as you can.
HOW TO HANDLE THEM FOR THE TABLE: Mackerel die quickly in a live well and spoil quickly if not kept on ice. Ideally, make a slush of ice and seawater and get them into it right away. Bleeding is an optional step; if you want to do it, do it right away and get the fish in the slush. Filleting is easy — in fact, these may be the easiest of local fish to fillet. Be sure to remove the pin bones and strip of dark meat from each fillet. Process each fish as you remove it from the cooler, then get the fillets right back on ice.
HOW TO COOK THEM: Spanish mackerel are not as oily as jack mackerel or Boston mackerel, but they’re still a little oily and don’t fry well. Broiling and grilling are both excellent methods. If you have a smoker, you can try some smoked, which is the favorite method of many locals.