For those who love fishing for Spanish mackerel, this is the time of year.
There are more big mackerel around now than there have been in 25 years, thanks to tight commercial harvest regulations, and this is the peak of the migration past our shores.
There are resident macks that hang inside Tampa Bay year-round, but most of the giants are pelagics, following the baitfish schools north in spring, and south in fall. The fall run passes through Bay area waters roughly between mid-October and Thanksgiving, sometimes later if cold weather is slow to arrive.
These fish are huge, for the species. Fish 5 to 6 pounds have become common, and even 7- and 8-pounders are not unheard of. When macks get to these sizes, they have the same speed, power and endurance as young king mackerel — but there are more of them and they’re usually easier to find, often well up inside our larger bays.
Captain James Wisner of Tampa is a master at catching the giants. He holds two International Game Fish Association world records for the species — one in conventional tackle, one in fly tackle.
Wisner’s tactics can work for any angler who’s eager to tangle with a big mack.
Basically, he locates spoil bars and reefs that come within 5 to 8 feet of surface, surrounded by deeper open water of 10 to 20 feet. These are natural feeding areas that attract large mackerel, and Wisner adds some sweetener to put them in a feeding mood. He anchors uptide of the bar or reef, puts over a couple bags of chopped baitfish or shrimp chum, and then begins pitching wounded live sardines or threadfins into the flow.
As soon as mackerel announce themselves by blowing up on the wobbling sacrifices, he puts out a live threadfin or sardine, nose-hooked on a 2/0 short-shank bait hook. He sometimes adds a size 6, 2x-strong treble hanging back along the flanks on a short piece of No. 6 black wire, particularly if kings are also around.
If the water is clear and calm, Wisner typically opts for 30-pound-test hard mono or fluoro leader; lower visibility makes it easier to fool the big mackerel. He avoids wire unless cutoffs become a repeat problem, because wire cuts down on the number of strikes.
Tackle can be anything down to light spinning gear. (One of Wisner’s records is an 8-pound, 7-ounce mackerel caught on 4-pound-test.) However, if you don’t want to break off 10 for every one you land, it’s better to go with at least 10-pound-test, and braid works much better than mono. A 3,000-size Shimano or Daiwa reel will hold enough line to whip even an 8-pounder, though you have to hope a 20-pound king doesn’t come by and snatch the bait, as sometimes happens in this terrain.
An easy place to practice the tactic is around the spoil bars created by dredging the Tampa Bay ship channels. There are dozens of these, ranging from the Sunshine Skyway bridge to Port Manatee. Check a nautical chart for locations and pick the shallowest humps in the deepest water. The right terrain and strong tide flows to spread the chum are all it takes.
Big macks also hang around nearshore artificial reefs; around the bars along the edges of the larger passes including Egmont, at St. Martin’s Reef off Hernando Beach; and around the ends of the Cross Florida Barge Canal and the Crystal River Nuclear Plant Canal in the North Suncoast area.
Macks are good but not great table fish. For those you keep, you’ll want to bleed them immediately and get them iced down right away. At the cleaning table, fillet them and remove the skin.
To get rid of the fishy tasting red line and the “pin” bones or floating bones in a single step, cut a vee down the middle of the fillet around the red meat. It’s a quick trick that makes boneless mackerel fillets easy to come by. Add a little Teriyaki and a hot broiler, and you’re good to go.