It seems like the fishing is on fire right now. How many times have you heard us say that October is the best month for fishing in Southwest Florida? You’ve heard us reference “Red October” at least a thousand times. But our winter species are coming in, our summer species are still here, bait is everywhere, and we’re in the spawning period of several species. What can be better than that?
This is the time of year you should be loaded for bear when you leave the dock. The boat should be packed with rods and reels of all sizes and just about every bait you can scrounge up. You can actively and successfully target anything from trout to tarpon out there now. But I’m going to concentrate this week on a fish that doesn’t get a lot of fanfare: Spanish mackerel.
Spanish macks are wonderful fish to catch. They’re easy to find, easy to target, and there are usually tons of them around. They put up an excellent fight. They are great for kids because they provide instant gratification. And they are great table fare — even better than usual as they’re one of the few fish you can keep now.
Finding Spanish mackerel can be pretty easy, especially on a calm day. They should start skyrocketing out of the water when any bait is nearby. They can also froth up the surface if they aren’t jumping. All of that will gain the attention of sea birds. So … just look for the birds. If you see a handful of birds all circling one small area there is a good chance you’ll find either mackerel or ladyfish. And recently the macks have been schooling with the ladyfish.
Bait is easy because you don’t need to castnet whitebait. When people ask me the best Spanish mackerel lure is my reply is simple: Anything shiny and cheap. Those should be your parameters when looking for artificial lures. Then buy at least a half-dozen of them. Macks have a mouth full of scalpels and will easily cut your line.
But the nice thing about Spanish mackerel is if you have them frothing at the surface and skyrocketing, just about anything you throw at them is fair game. Even the strangest and goofiest lures will fool a mackerel if it’s busy eating.
Now, about that mouth of scalpels: These are fish you probably don’t want in your landing net. They can and will destroy a net with their sharp teeth, so instead I just swing them onto the boat. Just make sure everyone knows you’re going to be doing it so the deck area is clear. You don’t want one of these fish latching on to someone’s toe.
I prefer to find frothing mackerel, and I have a specific reason. If you happen to catch a Spanish mackerel, the chances of him being alone are slim. And if you’re using everyday line and leader, he will probably bite you off. But usually, it’s not the mackerel you caught that bit you off. It’s his buddy. If there is anything on your line making a bubble trail underwater like a knot or a swivel, or if part of the bait is hanging out of the hooked mackerel’s mouth, his buddy will strike at it — and off goes your mackerel.
But when they’re frothing at the surface, each mackerel is concentrating on its own baitfish and not what the others are doing. When they’re not trying to literally steal food out of their schoolmates’ mouths, your bite-offs will decrease.
One way to prevent bite-offs is with steel leader. I use the 26-pound test AFW Surflon Micro Supreme. The name is a mouthful, but this stuff is great. It’s a steel leader that you can tie just like monofilament or fluorocarbon leader. How easy is that? No pliers, no crimps, no special wire knot tying tools. It holds up very well to Spanish mackerel teeth, and unlike moving up to 50- or 60-pound monofilament leader, its small diameter lets your artificial swim naturally.
Silver spoons are about as easy and cheap as you can get for Spanish mackerel. They cast a county mile too, so you can stay away from the school and avoid pushing them away with your boat. I like a fast retrieve with any mackerel. These are high-speed predators with excellent eyesight, and a fast retrieve looks like escaping dinner.
A lot of people look down their noses at mackerel when it comes to table fare. Those people have probably had bad experiences with the disgusting canned fish called jack mackerel. Don’t let that ruin these fish for you — although the name is similar, they’re not even related. Jack mackerel are related to blue runners and cigar minnows, not Spanish mackerel and kingfish.
I’ve found that the less you do to Spanish mackerel, the better they taste. Fillet them like any other fish. You’ll see a streak of red meat in the center of the fillet. If you leave it in, the meat will have an oily fishy taste. Clean all that red meat out. (As a bonus, that will also remove most of the bones from the fillet.)
I just mix up some olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic and coat the fillets, then cook them on the grill or pan-fry them. They main thing you need to remember is that they don’t freeze well at all. Only keep them if you intend on eating them that night. If you have more than you need, give some away to friends, family or neighbors. But keep a list of who got some, so you don’t lose track of who owes you favors later.
Capt. Cayle Wills owns and operates Bad Fish Charters on Charlotte Harbor. Contact him at 941-916-4538 or Capt.Cayle@ReelBadFish.com. You can also visit him online at ReelBadFish.com or Facebook.com/BadFishCharters.