Aug. 2005

Go Light for Spanish Mackerel
By Joe Malat


Bluefish and Spanish mackerel lures. Got-Cha plugs (top) are a local favorite for pier anglers. Stingsilvers are preferred by surfcasters or boaters. Note the Uni-Knot loops and the monofilament leaders tied to each of the lures. Joe Malat photo

Spanish mackerel are warm weather visitors to the Outer Banks. They arrive at the southern end of the state in late spring, and meander northward along the entire Tarheel coast, following the warm water and are pursued by anglers throughout the summer.

These fast swimming, sleek, and silvery fish travel in schools. At times they can be finicky and difficult to catch, by free jumping out of the water, while steadfastly refusing to take a bait or lure. However, that is the exception rather than the rule.

Surf, pier, and boat anglers all have opportunities to catch the macks, but boaters have the advantage, and trolling is the most popular method of catching Spanish mackerel.

If the fish are interested in eating a lure, the best way to catch a limit is to adopt the strategy employed by most of the charter boat captains. Typically, they will troll a small Clark spoon, on a monofilament leader, usually 20 to 30pound test, and weight the lure with an in-line trolling sinker, from 3 to 6 ounces. Long leaders catch best. Ten feet is a minimum, and on some days it may be necessary to double that distance.

A fast trolling speed is necessary to entice these fast swimming fish. When the fish are holding close to the bottom, downriggers or planers allow for a more effective presentation of the lures. This can be especially true on very hot, calm days when the fish are active near the surface early in the day, but move deeper in the water column as the sun moves up in the sky.

That's the way to catch a lot of Spanish mackerel, but not necessarily the most fun. Dragging a 3-pound fish behind a six ounce trolling sinker or a planer is not my idea of a big time. I like to "lighten up," to let these fish show their stuff. My favorite outfit is 7-foot spinning rod and matching reel filled with 8-pound test monofilament line.

Spanish are an inshore fish and are readily available to anglers with a boat that can safely navigate the inlets. Most of my Spanish mackerel fishing is done around Oregon Inlet, and if the macks are my target for the day, I try to be launching my boat at first light. Of course, this means braving the onslaught of mosquitoes and no-see-ums at the boat ramp, but it's worth the torture!

The macks are most likely to show themselves early in the morning, while the ocean is calm. I usually run to the bridge and back off on the throttle as I approach the structure. Moving at a fast idle, I'll start to look for jumping or breaking fish, and birds working over feeding fish as soon as I pass the Oregon Inlet Bridge. More than once I have found fish within a couple hundred yards of the bridge.

When I see fish, I may idle up to the school, or maybe cut the engine and approach them with the electric trolling motor, until we are close enough to throw a lure to the fish.

Most often the macks are feeding on small silversides, so it's best to use a lure that will "match the hatch", such as a 1/2` to 3/4 ounce Hopkins, Kastmaster, a Bass Pro Shops Strata, or a Got-Cha type jigging lure. Got-Cha lures work well when the fish are deep in the water column, a situation that frequently occurs during the hot, sunny days of summer.

Macks have sharp teeth, but keen eyesight; unfortunately the security of a wire leader will discourage strikes. A few fish are lost when their razor sharp teeth slice through it, but eighteen inches of 20 to 25-pound test mono attached to the running line with a blood knot lets the small lure work naturally, plus the leader provides a "handle" to lift the fish into the boat.

These fish hit a lure like they mean it, and a 2 or three pound Spanish is a ball to catch on the light rod. They'll zip all around the boat in short, strong spurts. Once a school offish has been located, everyone on the boat often hooks up with the first cast. By the time all of the fish are boated, the school has sounded or moved away, so the hunting process starts all over again.

When the mackerel are breaking, free jumping, and showering bait, but refusing to eat an artificial lure, they will rarely refuse a live bait. It's impossible to fish with the little silversides the macks are usually eating, but a small finger size or smaller "mullet minnow" is hard for the macks to resist. I try to cast net a couple dozen mullet around the boat ramp, and throw them into the live bait well, "just in case".

Again, I use the light spinning rods, and rig a miniature live bait rig, similar to what we use for king mackerel. I might use one treble hook, a bronze finish, very small # 6 or a # 1 short-shank, bronze finish, single live bait hook. Wire is necessary here, since the macks often eat the entire bait, but I use only a few inches of single strand, bronze finish # 5 wire, attached to a short piece of 20 pound mono with a # 12 miniature black swivel. The live bait will not cast nearly as far as a lure, but adequate distance can be achieved with the light rods and line. If the macks don't go after the mullet immediately, they often smack it as it settles a few feet in the water.

I rarely keep more fish than my family can eat immediately, so I'm not interested in catching my limit of ten fish per day. The soft meat of Spanish mackerel is tasty when prepared fresh, especially on the grill with a lemon and butter sauce, but the macks do not freeze well, another reason not to load the boat with fish.

This summer, when the macks attack, stow the trolling outfits, break out the little rods, and "lighten up" to have a maximum amount of fun from these sporty little fish.

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