Boating Life

Spanish Mackerel Fishing Tips

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August 31, 2023
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Ingman Marine
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Fishing Seasons
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August 31, 2023
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Ingman Marine
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Fishing Seasons

Spanish mackerel, also known as mackerel, spotted cybium or bay mackerel, is an incredibly popular species for the recreational fishing industry. The recreational harvest amount in 2021 alone equaled 16.8 million pounds! Part of its popularity lies in the fact that it is found up and down the east coast, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. It is also highly sought after because it is often used as bait for big game fishing and makes for delicious table fare.

The Rules and Regulations

The Spanish mackerel fishery was not regulated prior to the 1980s, thereby resulting in overfishing by commercial harvesters and recreational anglers. Because of crucial regulations being enacted and management that is now overseen by NOAA Fisheries and the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Councils, this species now has healthy stock levels. These organizations have to monitor two subpopulations – Atlantic Spanish mackerel and Gulf Spanish mackerel – because unlike king mackerel, Spanish mackerel do not move freely around the Florida Keys. The stocks are monitored separately by the respective councils, using April 1 – March 31 as the fishing year. Fishing for this species is open year-round, but the managing entities can close the season early if quotas are reached.

The management of this species includes the following measures, for both Gulf and Atlantic waters:

  • A minimum size limit of 12" fork length, allowing the fish time to mature and spawn
  • A daily bag limit of 15 per harvester
  • A requirement that this species must be landed with its head and finds intact
  • A prohibition on purse seine and drift gillnet gear - allowable gear includes hook and line, beach or haul seine, spear and cast net

For more information or clarification regarding the rules and regulations for Spanish mackerel, check out the Fish Rules app.

Identification

The coloring of this species begins with a bluish-green back that fades into silver down its sides and onto its belly, with irregularly shaped golden-yellow or olive-green spots all over. This is different from the cero mackerel, which has golden-yellow steaks along its midline. It’s size and lateral line also set it apart from the king mackerel; the Spanish mackerel is much smaller and its lateral line slopes gently to the tail from behind the gill cover, rather than abruptly dropping below the second dorsal. The bay mackerel is covered in tiny scales and can reach up to 36 inches in length.

When and Where

The great thing about this species is that it is easily found on either side of our home state of Florida, in all water depths, ranging anywhere from open water to grass beds and reefs to shallow estuaries. The bay mackerel forms giant, quick-moving schools and travels as far north as New York and as far south as Mexico. It prefers temperatures above 68° F, so the schools will travel north in the summer and south in the winter. Spawning occurs from spring to summer in the offshore waters of North Carolina and Virginia, or shallow, coastal Gulf waters.

Spanish mackerel tournaments are very popular all over the state. Check for local tournaments in your area.

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Fishing Tips & Tricks:

Schools of mackerel are quite easy to target for several reasons. For starters, they are aggressive feeders and tend to clump their prey together and push them to the surface, which will likely attract birds. Also because of their aggressive feeding habits, they are easily lured with a variety of baits, both artificial and natural. Their diet often consists of small fish and invertebrates, such as crabs, shrimp, squid, needlefish, sardines, herring and others. On the flip side, schools of bay mackerel are prey to dolphins and sharks, so keep your eye out for feeding time if you’re brave enough.

Techniques that anglers are fond of include casting or trolling with dusters, jigs or small shiny spoons. Bait-casting or light spinning with 10-15-pound monofilament should do the trick, but you’ll want to use 30-60-pound monofilament leader because of this fish’s sharp teeth.

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