Arrival of Spanish Mackerel Means Spring is Here
One of the species that heralds the arrival of spring on the Alabama Gulf Coast is the Spanish mackerel, a migratory species that winters in south Florida and Mexico and travels back to the northern Gulf in the spring.
The Spanish mackerel is an abundant species and easy to catch in a number of ways. Slow-trolling for Spanish mackerel and small king mackerel just off the beach is very productive from the middle of the spring through the summer and early fall months. The anglers on the end of the Gulf State Park Pier regularly catch Spanish mackerel on Gotcha plugs, fast-swimming crankbaits or live bait.
Speaking of live bait, the warmer weather has caused the bait to head to the pier and other known gathering spots and should be easy to catch with a cast net, if you’re in a boat, or Sabiki or bait rig if you’re on the pier. Hardtails (blue runners), finger mullet or menhaden (pogies) work very well for live bait. If the live bait is elusive, head to the store and get fresh frozen cigar minnows or ribbonfish (silver eels). Numerous tackle/bait shops in the Orange Beach/Gulf Shores area will have the frozen bait and terminal tackle needed for mackerel fishing.
When it comes to terminal tackle, stick with the black matte swivels because the Spanish and small king mackerel, which show up about the same time as the Spanish, will hit anything that flashes, and you don’t want them to cut your line with their sharp teeth. You can use relatively light line, say 15-pound-test, but you’ll need a nice leader of 30-pound fluorocarbon or small-diameter steel leaders, either solid or the twisted kind like Sevenstrand.
When it comes to trolling for Spanish, all you’ll need is a seaworthy saltwater boat with several rod holders so as many baits as possible can be dragged in front of the fish.
From the second sand bar to about a mile offshore are the likely locations where you’ll find Spanish. Trolling between seven and 10 knots with Halco and Clark spoons will likely result in numerous hook-ups. Try deploying the lures at different depths behind the boat with a couple of spoons near the surface and several down in the 6-foot range. Pick up some planers at the bait shop to make sure the spoons stay at the desired depth.
If steady trolling is having limited results, you can try a tactic that is popular along the Alabama coast called bump and drift. The boat captain will bump the throttle to get the lures moving behind the boat and then kick the motor into neutral to let the baits slowly drift toward the bottom. Often the fish hit when the lures are falling, so when the motor is kicked in to gear, there will be a fish on.
Bird-watching is another Spanish tactic by keeping your eyes peeled for diving birds, which could reveal the location of a school of Spanish slashing through a school of baitfish, and the birds will be diving on the leftovers. Make sure you have a couple of rods rigged with casting spoons or lures to take advantage of the opportunity.
Small king mackerel and a mature Spanish mackerel look very similar. The best way to tell the difference is to raise the dorsal (top) fin. If it is dark, almost black, near the long spine, it’s a Spanish. If the dorsal fin is solid gray, it’s a king.
If you don’t want to launch your boat at the beach, several charter boats offer trolling trips for mackerel. Visit the Alabama Charter Fishing Association for a list or charter boats available and other charter information.
Because Spanish mackerel are so abundant, the daily bag limit in Alabama is 15 per person with no size limit. Spanish is best table fare when it is prepared fresh out of the Gulf. Several restaurants in the area provide services called “hook and cook,” where you catch the fish and they cook them in a variety of delicious ways.