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Cheerio to cero mackerel off Bimini reefs

2/7/2006

  • Editor's note: "George Poveromo's World of Saltwater Fishing" airs each Saltwater Sunday at 8:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2 television. Episode 6, depicting the cero-mackerel excursion below, debuts Sunday, Feb. 12; it re-airs Feb. 18 at 6 a.m. ET and Feb. 19 at 6:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2. For more on George Poveromo, visit www.georgepoveromo.com.


    For many south Florida anglers, including myself, Bimini is a home away from home.

    Located approximately 50 miles from Miami, this historic Bahamas island offers the opportunity to escape crowded local waters and catch some quality fish in the process.

    I've made countless visits to Bimini in my own boat, ranging in length from day trips to weeklong stays.

    We've fished for and caught most everything that swims within these waters, including billfish, tuna, wahoo, dolphin, grouper, snapper, kingfish, cobia, permit, tarpon, barracuda and sharks.

    In Bimini, deciding on what fish to target often is a difficult undertaking … at least for me!

    A very consistent fishery here (but one overshadowed by the glamorous game fish) is the run of big cero mackerel, which materializes along the reefs between May and December.

    Bimini has produced world-record ceros in the International Game Fish Association's men's 6-pound and 20-pound line-class categories, with fish weighing 12½ pounds and 16¼ pounds, respectively.

    Although most cero mackerel catches occur while chumming for yellowtail snapper, those in the know often have no problem setting forth and targeting these fish exclusively.

    Lou Volpe, a friend and longtime fishing companion, and I headed to Bimini in September to shoot an episode for my ESPN2 show, "George Poveromo's World of Saltwater Fishing," on how and where catch cero mackerel off Bimini.

    We were based out of the Bimini Sands Resort & Marina, a beautiful facility offering condo rentals and sales, restaurant and full-service marina.

    After reaching Bimini Sands at 10 a.m. and clearing Bahamas Customs and Immigration, we brought our luggage to our rooms, jumped back into my boat and sped south to a reef where we've always encountered cero mackerel.

    Two things are essential to catch cero mackerel: chum and live bait.

    The objective is to anchor over a thriving reef system between 30 and 70 feet of water, then chum, which draws in yellowtail snapper, grouper, barracuda, the occasional big king mackerel and, of course, cero mackerel.

    Our typical chumming strategy involves letting a frozen block of either Bionic Bait menhaden or Captain Mark's sardine chum thaw and disperse from a mesh bag tied off our transom. This emits an oily, fish-scented trail over the reefs.

    Each chum block lasts approximately 45 minutes, so we budget at least 10 of them for a day's fishing.

    Furthermore, we also supplement the slick with a mixture composed of one block of thawed menhaden chum, four logs of Double Strike herring chum, fine-grain chicken feed and a pound of silversides.

    These ingredients are mixed thoroughly in a five-gallon bucket, with just enough seawater to create a pasty consistency.

    Our "Bimini chowder" is ladled out heavily once we anchor, and at least several times an hour to spice up the slick.

    When the chum hits the water, it dissipates in a big cloud of oil and fish particles. The silversides and corn descending through the water also add flash, which further excites all types of fish.

    As mentioned earlier, live bait rallies the cero mackerel.

    Prior to clearing Miami's Haulover Inlet on our way to Bimini, we loaded my livewell with 15-dozen pilchards. At anchor, and when there are signs of cero mackerel around, we'll toss about a dozen live pilchards into the chum slick.

    This sudden infusion of forage drives the ceros wild, forcing them to compete with each other for food. Under these conditions, the fish become overly aggressive and easy to catch.

    Simply pin a live bait on a hook and cast it out. The strike usually is instantaneous. Live-chumming also enables you to fool these fish with lures.

    As is usually the case, Volpe and I found the ceros quite aggressive upon our arrival.

    However, after we culled a few fish, they grew wise and ignored our baits. When this occurs, one has two choices: Keep using the same baits and rigs and hope you get a strike; or get creative and coax them into striking.

    We always choose the latter!

    Our typical cero mackerel rig is a 4/0, short-shank hook tied to six inches of 38-pound, single-strand wire leader. The wire leader, in turn, is joined to the 12-pound fishing line with either a tiny barrel swivel or an Albright knot.

    Ceros have sharp dentition that cuts right through even a heavy monofilament or fluorocarbon leader. The setup above is dependable for when the ceros are aggressive.

    However, to catch ceros that have grown wise to your baits, get rid of the wire leader.

    In this situation, I'll attach a few feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon leader to the fishing line with a Bristol knot. I'll then tie a long-shank 4/0 or 5/0 hook to the fluorocarbon leader.

    Ceros won't notice the fluorocarbon nearly as much as the wire. However, they easily can bite through the non-metallic leader material. And that's where the long shank hook comes into play.

    When the fish strikes the bait, it usually does so near the head. Providing there's no slack in the line and the angler quickly reels tight to the fish on the strike, the cero's teeth will clamp down on the long shank of the hook — and not the fluorocarbon leader.

    Of course, lines still will frequently get bitten off when using this tactic, but you'll also catch a few extra fish.

    Most cero mackerel average 3 pounds. However, there are numerous 5- to 10-pounders around to make matters interesting.

    And, of course, there always is a chance of getting a shot at a fish that breaks the double-digit mark, which is considered a true trophy.

    Ceros are scrappy fighters, so don't use tackle that is too heavy or you won't experience their speed and power.

    Volpe and I fished on spinning reels spooled with 12-pound hybrid line.

    A big cero quickly can run out a hundred yards or so of line, then head deep along the reefs. This is where the fight gets difficult, as many big ceros are lost after the fishing line brushes against the reef.

    When a hooked fish slows, apply heavy pressure in an attempt to keep the fight well above the reefs.

    A large landing net is ideal, as it doesn't harm fish you plan on releasing or damage the flesh of those you plan on keeping.

    Fresh cero mackerel filets, incidentally, are truly sensational, especially on the grill.

    Volpe and I enjoyed yet another tremendous trip to Bimini. We caught cero mackerel on live baits and lures, with Volpe scoring the biggest fish of the trip — a whopping 13-pounder.

    In between the cero bites, we caught plenty of plump yellowtail snapper. I took the biggest 'tail — a 3½-pound fish on a Yo-Zuri swimming plug.

    Bimini is a place I just can't seem to get enough of … and for good reasons!

  • Editor's note: "George Poveromo's World of Saltwater Fishing" airs each Saltwater Sunday at 8:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2 television. Episode 6, depicting the cero-mackerel excursion below, debuts Sunday, Feb. 12; it re-airs Feb. 18 at 6 a.m. ET and Feb. 19 at 6:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2. For more on George Poveromo, visit www.georgepoveromo.com.