Spanish mackerel, the warm-weather rockets of the nearshore waters, are a favorite quarry of Gulf Coast anglers.
Gulls and terns circle overhead and start diving and screaming as they crash into the water in hot pursuit of something below. Liquid splashes and flashes indicate something is moving at a very high speed below the surface, telling the waiting anglers all they need to know. The center console boat makes a short run and puts the anglers close enough to the water riot that they can easily cast and reach their targets.
It only takes one cast by each angler to put some bend in their rods and pressure on their lines. The struggles are not long. About three minutes later, both anglers have their catches boatside. Long, slender fish are carefully removed from the hooks and placed into an ice chest.
And then the anglers are back to the fun—casting, retrieving as fast as possible, and then fighting a short but very spirited struggle with another strong and speedy fish.
As long as the baitfish last, the action continues. Cast after cast, the anglers continuously have fish on their lines and smiles on their faces.
This is Spanish mackerel fishing on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, and if there’s a better way to spend a day, most anglers don’t know of it.
What are They?
Even though Spanish are not the biggest fish in the Gulf—a big one will weigh five or six pounds—they are one of the most popular summer season gamesters. Long and slender, they sport a profusion of golden spots on their dark green backs, a contrast with silver sides. They also have a mouthful of teeth that would put razors to shame.
Other than their attractive looks, the thing that makes Spanish a popular target is their speed. These fish are rockets! When a Spanish takes an angler’s offering, that first run is impressively fast, and it’s a lot of fun to hear the reel screech and feel the power of the their speed as they try to escape.
When actively feeding, Spanish are eager strikers on any fishing lure that remotely looks like their prey. Anglers who can cast a long way and retrieve their lures at a high speed are almost guaranteed to catch Spanish.
Another prime advantage of fishing for Spanish mackerel is that they are schooling fish. When one is caught, others will follow in short order. It’s possible for anglers to fill an ice chest with Spanish very quickly.
Anglers do have to be careful to distinguish between Spanish mackerel and immature king mackerel. As youngsters, kings look very much like Spanish, even down to the same spots on their sides. The problem with this confusion for anglers is that keeping an undersized, immature king mackerel can be expensive.
King mackerel have very strict size requirements, and anglers who are checked by law officials may be in trouble if their “Spanish” turns out to be young kings. The best way to differentiate between the two is to look at the dark lateral line that runs from the gills to the tail. For Spanish, this line tends to be fairly straight with no dips. For kings, this line takes a strong dip down at some point along the fish’s side.
Also, look at the dorsal fin of the mackerel in question. If that top fin is dark and solid black, the fish is a Spanish. If the dorsal fin is lighter grey, the fish is probably a small king, so let it go.
Another special consideration for Spanish mackerel anglers is that when Spanish are brought in, they have a particular way of shaking their heads and bodies, which often throws a lure or snags an unsuspecting angler’s hand with the lure’s hooks. I’ve been hooked by lures in the mouths of Spanish more than any other fish. Anglers should let them calm down for a few seconds before trying to remove hooks.
Where are They?
Visitors to the Gulf Coast of Alabama are in Spanish mackerel territory just as soon as their toes hit the saltwater. Spanish are caught from the beaches, in the Gulf, and considerable distances into the bays that connect to the Gulf. As far up Mobile Bay as the Fairhope Pier, Spanish are found during the summertime. They are everywhere. But they move constantly. A place where Spanish were thick yesterday may not have a single fish there the nest day.
Of course, some places are better than others. It’s not only possible but probable that an angler walking along the beaches of Alabama will be within easy casting distance of feeding Spanish. If birds are working close, feeding and diving, that’s good place to start. A long cast out into the Gulf followed by a high-speed retrieve will very soon reveal if Spanish are in the neighborhood.
A prime place for light-tackle Spanish anglers to try is the Gulf State Park Fishing Pier. This long structure gives walking anglers plenty of access to Spanish. From the middle of the pier out to the end, many Spanish are caught on a daily basis from the State Park Pier. Watch anglers who are catching Spanish to see how they rig and what they are doing to catch the mackerel; then do what they do and join the fun.
If a boat is available, (it might be nothing more than a kayak launched off the beach on a flat day with small surf), anglers have wide choices of places to fish for Spanish. Just outside of Perdido Pass, the pass at Little Lagoon, and the pass of Mobile Bay are very good places to find hungry Spanish.
Captain Dan Kolenich guides anglers on fly and spinning trips for Spanish. “Spanish come into the bay,” he says, “but I have to say when I go looking for them, I head for the Gulf. I look for water along the beaches that is 15- to 20-feet deep. This is usually on the outside of the bar.”
Captain Dana James, another fine area guide, says, “Spanish can be found in Mobile Bay or out in the Gulf. Dixey Bar is a good place. And the in-close gas rigs as well as the gas rigs in the bay can be good.”
Captain Dana continues. “My best advice for finding Spanish is to fish a moving tide. In or out doesn’t matter, but Spanish just don’t bite as well on a slack tide. I like early in the morning and late in the evening for best Spanish.”
What Kind of Light Tackle?
Since Spanish are not such very big fish, anglers who target them should select their fishing gear appropriately. Using gear that is too heavy really cuts down on this fish’s ability to show its blazing speed.
Typical freshwater bass fishing tackle is perfect for Spanish in the Gulf. This also makes Spanish very popular with vacationers to the coast. Just about any reel that holds 200 yards of 12 pound test line and has a good drag system will work for Spanish.
One bit of rigging that is absolutely crucial for Spanish is a good leader. If Spanish mackerel teeth hit 12-pound monofilament line, that line will quickly shred in two pieces. Some anglers prefer a short—eight inches—light metal leader which connects the lure or bait to the angler’s line. The problem with metal leaders is that Spanish have very sharp eyesight. Some days they will not strike any lure or bait rigged on wire while eagerly devouring lures and baits on monofilament.
“I like to use spinning gear,” Captain Dana James says. “Shimano Stradic 3000 or 4000 series reels are very nice. I use 8 lb test line with a 30 lb fluorocarbon bite leader. I do get occasional bite-offs, but it helps to not use bright rigging. I don’t use silver or gold swivels. Flat black is best because the shiny stuff will be hit by other Spanish and cut off.”
As for selecting lures, Captain Dana has this advice. “A speck rig (a two-jig rig) works well on Spanish, and Sidewinder silver spoons in 3/8 oz weight work great. I also use ‘jerk-jiggers’ such as Gotcha plugs. Work these like underwater ‘walk the dog’ actions. Give the lures a stop-and-go action with frequent twitches. Spanish like fast. Try to find what the Spanish want on a particular day and adjust to the fish.”
When live bait fishing, Captain Dana says, “I would catch a bunch of two- to three-inch pogies, put a couple of split shot above the hook—I use a #8 treble hook—and fish this around rigs and other stuff. I sometimes use a cork or let them swim free.”
For the ultimate light tackle fun, anglers who know how to use a fly rod can have an absolute blast catching these laser-fast speedsters. An eight-weight fly rod set-up is perfect for Spanish mackerel. And it’s heavy enough to give an angler a chance to handle a much bigger king mackerel if one happens to be running in the same school with Spanish. That happens fairly often. Make sure the fly reel has plenty of backing line in case a really big Spanish or small king bites.
“Once you hook a Spanish, you had better be prepared for a fight,” says Captain Dan Kolenich. “They will run up to a hundred yards, depending on their size. Most will run out and then head back toward you and resist letting you put them in the boat.”
Captain Kolenich adds, “I usually use a 50 lb test mono leader. If the fish are big, I go to wire, but I prefer the action of mono. My favorite fly is a silver mylar streamer with a red head. For spinning gear, a silver Gotcha is my choice. These guys are great fun on a fly rod or a spinning rod. They run fast and fight hard. Watch out for their chompers. Always check your leader for frays and replace if necessary.”
Good for Fight, Good for Food
Once an angler has caught a good mess of Spanish mackerel, the fun is just beginning. Unlike many other members of the mackerel family, Spanish are very good to eat. I prefer a mess of Spanish fillets over most other fish.
When cleaning Spanish, make sure you get every piece of skin off the fillet. Spanish are pretty easy to fillet but their skin is thin and tears easily. When the fillet is removed from the bones, there will be a line of dark meat running along the middle of the fillet. You will want to cut this dark meat out and discard it. It can give a stronger taste to the meat.
Spanish are good on the grill, but my favorite way to cook them is to roll them lightly in flour and cornmeal mix and then fry them in butter.
So, there’s not much left for us to do but head for the coast, rig up right, and have a ball as we catch a big mess of Spanish mackerel. Then we can enjoy them for supper later that evening. That’s just about perfect.
Spanish Mackerel Regulations
Alabama’s regulations for Spanish mackerel are very liberal. There is no size limit and the little Spanish of 12 inches or so are very good when fried up whole. Each angler can keep 15 Spanish per day. Make sure the Spanish being kept really are Spanish and not juvenile king mackerel. Kings must be 24 inches long. As noted in the article, look for the lateral line to determine whether a fish is a big Spanish or a small king.
Important Contact Numbers:
Captain Dana James
Captain Dan Kolenich