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Mackerel Mania

4/24/2010

When I talk to local anglers each Spring, one of the primary measurements for the tone of coastal fishing is the run of Spanish mackerel. Well, this spring seems be measuring up right nicely with hordes of macks slashing their way through the bays and beaches of Florida's Gulf Coast.

Scoberomorus maculatus to those who study fish, this fierce predator patrols area waters in varying supply throughout all but the coldest months. Spring and fall see seasonal aggregations that present the closest thing to legitimate non-stop action the Gulf of Mexico has to offer.

On calm mornings, you'll often find patches of white-water carnage the size of football fields where mackerel ravage pods of baitfish. Birds will often identify your quarry as they hover above the surface, keeping watch over a pack of hunting mackerel. Once the predators drive a school of baitfish topside, the ensuing feast yields abundant scraps for opportunistic seabirds to grab.

Nearshore reefs, wrecks and rock piles and channel edges are the main targets for mackerel anglers. Top fishing options include:

Slow Trolling: Deploy three or four rods with live pilchards ("whitebait") or threadfin herring ("greenbacks") staggered from right behind the prop wash to 100 feet back. Hook baits through the soft cartilage on the nose and pull them as slowly as your boat can idle. If the baits drag too straight or start to spin, hang a sea anchors or ventilated 5-gallon buckets off your midship cleats to slow your pace.

Anchor and Chum: Position uptide from a hard bottom structure and set up a scent trail with concentrated menhaden oil, frozen chum blocks and occasional chunks of cut baitfish. Free-lined live baits will drift along with the chum toward the hot spot. Swarming mackerel typically greet the newly arriving food with instant aggression.

Artificials: The rule of mackerel lures is simple — throw something shiny. Spoons, Gotcha plugs, bright jigs, and crankbaits will all attract toothy attention. Fly-rodders will find their 8-weight outfits with intermediate line and silver, white or chartreuse streamer flies effective, as well. Chum the fish into a frenzy and lay the fly right in the chow line. (Rig a 4-inch piece of light wire to your tippet or you'll donate every fly you throw.)

On the strike, let the mackerel run for a few seconds. Line tension and water drag will ensure that the hooks take a solid bite. Prematurely jerking to "set" the hook usually results in a lost mackerel, so stay calm and start reeling once the fish puts a sustained bend in your rod.

Medium-action 6 ½- to 7-foot spinning outfits with 10- to 12-pound line will handle even the biggest of Spanish mackerel. One- to 2-pounders are about average, but zingers of five pounds or more commonly cruise area waters. These fish are mean, fast and smart, so don't get your feelings hurt if a big one takes you to school. You won't be the first or the last.

At any size, macks delight in slashing through thin monofilament, so leaders are imperative. One school of thought says to use 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon leader, as the nearly invisible material yields more hook-ups. At the right angle, even a small mackerel can slice through fluoro, but those who use it prefer to play the averages by attracting more strikes.

Wire leaders will put the brakes on most mackerel by repelling their teeth. In clear water, mackerel often spot wire and shy away. Going light with No. 2 or 3 wire may not produce as many strikes as fluorocarbon, but you usually catch what you hook.

At boatside, handle Spanish mackerel with high caution. Those little choppers can open a nasty gash in a split second, so remove your hardware with a hook plucker or needle nose pliers. Keep your fingers at a safe distance or you'll feel the same thing your bait felt.

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart — Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.