A high-salinity "terminal" fish, the jaw structure of a Spanish mackerel presents a top and bottom jaw of the same length. They're designed to look in front of them, they feed in large schools, and because they drive their small baitfish prey to the surface, they make diving birds show you where they're feeding. In all, they're fun to catch, easy to catch, and not so bad to eat if you know a few tricks.
Like all of our 101 articles, all of the issues we discuss here – from live bait to lures, and from tackle to eating the fish -- are covered in depth if you dig into the resources available to you at TheOnlineFisherman.com.
When to Find Spanish Mackerel
Watch for diving birds anytime from March through September and even early October. In the heat of summer they're all over the bays and inland waters, and we've caught them while fishing for redfish next to oyster bars and on grass flats drifting for speckled trout. Pelicans might get into the fray, but we're talking about small terns – white (usually) with black beaks that dive in loops, touching the surface as they grab pieces of the chewed bait.
Diving birds are a dead giveaway that some kind of open-water predator is feeding. The birds are feeding on the bait and the bait would not normally be so close to the surface - or unable to "sound" (dive deep) to get out of the birds' way. A lot of different predators cause this activity, but in the spring, summer and early fall the frenzy often means Spanish mackerel. Try drifting into the school using the wind or even the breeze. You see this happen in calm windless water at times, but more often than not you can get upwind of the feed and drift in. It's a sure-fire way to catch one on a fly-rod. They're not particularly spooky when they're covered with blood and chunks of recently-killed baitfish, but you can make them sound if you run right into the school, or even too close. Use the wind, stay quiet, and you'll catch them.
The birds are not usually big enough to eat the whole baits, which become only table fare once they're mangled into pieces by fish with teeth. If there are a cloud of birds diving and swooping as they approach, and flying off the surface of the water with food, then something's going on just below the surface. From March until June they're mostly offshore, then onto the beaches and passes. By July they're so close to the beaches and piers you can catch them standing on the wood, ground or sand. In the summer and until the early fall – like the first couple of weeks in September, you can catch them on the flats and near the tops of the big bays. They eat a lot and are easy to find and catch.
Where to Catch Spanish Mackerel
Spanish Mackerel are open-water fish. Even when they're inshore (which they often are) they're not hanging out waiting for bait; they are chasing it. They school around it, they send out scouts to tighten the schooling targets, they tighten the prey into balls, and they take turns eating them. This herding behavior is not commonly discussed, but if you watch the schools form like we have, you see this behavior in kingfish, Spanish Mackerel, and even ladyfish. They seem to be swarming randomly within the bait schools, and they do get so excited that it's not like they're marching in lock-step. However, when they begin feeding on schools of baits like threadfin or anchovies or scaled sardines, or any of the school baits like Spanish sardines (not related), they seem to keep the bait in a ball near the surface.
Tackle for Spanish Mackerel
The tackle used for Spanish Mackerel will vary depending on your taste, but there should be some constants that will make it easier for you. Since Spanish Mackerel are not the biggest fish in the sea, the tackle you can use can range anywhere from light to medium, but one thing must hold for any setup – you have to be fast with it. Spanish Mackerel are incredibly quick and hit fast, so you need to cast far, reel fast, and be ready to set a fast hook.
Spinning Tackle for Spanish Mackerel
A lot of the mackerel we've caught in our lives have been from boats. Fishing from the beach, a pier, or fishing waist deep in water on a grass flat near the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean is different than fishing from a boat. Spanish Mackerel also hit a certain way. Because they are ‘terminal’ fish, they run up and grab baits and keep running. They might grab a bait sideways and turn it to swallow it lengthwise to their throats, but they do all of that while they're running. They're terminal fish, and designed to grab fast bait. That means that the best all-around lure for Spanish Mackerel is a spoon or other heavy (relative) casting and retrieving artificial. Distance casting – not so important when snook-fishing in tight backcountry – becomes much more critical when you're trying to reach a flock of diving birds like you'll seek when targeting Spanish Mackerel from boat or shoreline. An extra five or ten feet of casting distance can mean the different between only a few fish and one every cast.
We like longer spinning rods for Spanish Mackerel fishing – as long as eight feet. We prefer medium action in the rods we use, rather than the action (flex) in the rod being near the tip, which means having it about midway into the blank (measured from the tip backwards towards the handle). If the fish are big, or are mixed in with much bigger kingfish, a heavier duty rod with more backbone and perhaps faster action is called for.
Conventional Tackle for Spanish Mackerel
To accommodate for the often-hooked kings that are sometimes eating the Spanish Mackerel, and to grant additional leverage, a lot of anglers fishing for open-water species use "conventional" tackle. Comprised of a rod with a trigger grip, the conventional rod puts the reel on top of the rod -- not below it -- as is the case with spinning gear. This added leverage plus the technology of "level winds," which keep the line building up on the rotating spook even as you retrieve, makes them better suited for fishing from piers. Conventional tackle is also recommended for trolling lures at high speeds.
Fly Rods for Spanish Mackerel
Spanish Mackerel, being open-water terminal predators, are always looking for flashes. And nothing can flash quite like a well-tied saltwater "streamer" fly. Made to look like baitfish, and often small enough to simulate even tiny anchovies (a favorite of some people on pizzas and all fish in the water), a fly is a killer lure for mackerel.
If you can cast a fly-rod in the often-windy conditions of open water, surf or windy grass flats, you can very well cast to a mackerel. Let a boat drift into a feeding school of them in the bays or open Gulf waters, and you can catch them 10 feet from the boat – perfect for anglers new to the ‘long rods,’ as we often call them. Most fly-anglers fishing in open water use large rods – 10 or even 12 – but the fly-rods we use for redfish and snook that often measure in the much more comfortable 8-weight range – work just fine for mackerel in open or close inshore waters. Just match the tackle to the conditions, and if you intend to release fish, try to use ultra-light tackle less often than mid-range gear.
Baits for Spanish Mackerel
Spanish Mackerel are not picky eaters – they will eat just about anything. You can sure catch them with beautiful scaled sardines, but you will often catch just as many on a slice of cut squid belly, frozen chunk bait, or strip bait from previously frozen bait. Again, Spanish Mackerel are terminal feeders – built from the bones out to see and catch smaller fish in front of them. Although sardines are great baits, they don’t hold on to the hook as well as a mullet or another hardier fish when casting far or trolling.
Lures for Spanish Mackerel
Spoons - we could really stop there and you would never want for a tough fight and the ability to catch them until your arms are sore and the ice box filled. Other heavy, metal baits work just as well, but silver spoons are incredibly effective for Spanish Mackerel, especially when spoons are fished fast at first and then slower if you don't immediately draw hits.
You can also try the "Countdown" method if the fish are running deeper in the water column – which they often are. If you see birds flying high and there are a few of them looking around as if they're waiting for something, they usually are. In season, in the warm months, the macks are often below the surface. They might be just above the bottom, midway in the water column or just below the surface. They often swarm three feet under and you can see clouds of them as they pass below on their way somewhere to eat.
To do a countdown, cast the spoon and begin counting slowly when it hits the water. One, Two, Three, Four, etc., until it hits the bottom. Bring it back and clean the dirt off it. If the count was six before it clunked in the dirt, cast it out, count to three, and begin retrieving the spoon. It will be approximately halfway down the water column. Do it again, this time counting to five. Retrieve the spoon just above the bottom. Do the same thing and this time count only to one and start retrieving. Also pick up the rod tip, let the spoon sink, reel a bit, pick up again, and do it over and over, forming a shape as the spoon comes back to you. It will find mackerel if they're there.