- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
The minutes between first light and sunrise had produced a few keeper speckled trout at the "old quarantine station" on Ship Island, 12 miles south of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But the trout moved out as the sun started to arch higher, and the charter captain moved us into position to fish for cobia in Camille Cut, which was the purpose of the outing from the start. The trout were just an added bonus that would allow for some tasty filets later in the day.
Once the hard-heads were rigged and out and the chum bag started to release the stench of oily fish into the outgoing tide, the captain broke out the Rat-L-Traps, replaced the live shrimp rigs used for the specks and said, "Lets have some fun with the Spanish mackerel.” His instructions were simple: cast as far as you can and reel like crazy.
Outside of a few sharks, the hardheads had produced little. The silver Rat-L-Traps, however, had a steady workout as the toothy little macks hammered them one after another. This was my first introduction to the Spanish mackerel, and it started what has become a wonderful friendship. They hit like gangbusters, fight like crazy, and are easy to find in the summer waters.
Lightening fast strikes, healthy numbers and above-average table quality all add up to a great light-tackle gamefish.
After I cast and retrieved with no luck, the captain said, "You'll have to reel faster than that. Try to rip the handle off the reel, and that might be fast enough."
The next cast I followed his instructions. Ten yards into the burning retrieve, my cranking came to an abrupt halt. I thought I had hung an underwater obstruction, something that felt like a brick wall; then the taut line started to zigzag in the sea. The mackerel had attacked like a lightening bolt. He was hooked solidly and boated with little trouble. I never weighed the fierce little fighter but I'd guess he was in the neighborhood of 3 to 4 pounds. The remainder of the day, when the sharks and other non-cobia were not keeping us busy, we gladly tangled with countless other mackerel. The experience was one I will never forget, and has endeared me to the little silver fish for life.
Spanish mackerel are found in a wide variety of waters from the northeastern United States to the tip of Texas and beyond. Reasonable restrictions on commercial fishing have allowed the Spanish mackerel to become a plentiful sport-fishing resource. Their numbers are rebounding across their entire range.
Enticing A Mack To Bite
Any crankbait with glitter and pizzazz will attract a strike from a Spanish mackerel. In outings in the Gulf of Mexico, Mirr-O-Lures have been effective, as have the D.O.A Pogies. Slow-trolling any of these or similar shallow-running baits will bring results. It's a wise idea to have a swivel somewhere in the leader to keep the line from becoming twisted, just in case the bait doesn't run true all the time.
Spanish macks can really save the day when other species aren't cooperating.
Several years later on an early summer afternoon the tide was boiling into Caminada Pass on the west end of Grand Isle, La. The family was headed out to perhaps take a trout and, later in the evening, fish for bull reds.
While easing out of the bay the Humminbird squawked, indicating an 18-foot trough with a large school of fish at 10 to 12 feet, just over the edge of the trough. I idled down and allowed the tide to carry the boat back over the trough. Almost immediately the Carolina-rigged live shrimp were hammered as they fell off the shelf and into the trough. The fish were on at once, all Spanish mackerel and looking as if they had been stamped from the same mold. Two subsequent drifts delivered the same results and afterwards a half-dozen nice mackerel lay on ice.
One of the strangest baits I've used for Spanish mackerel is a 5-inch, 20-pound mono leader threaded through a 4-inch section of a McDonald's restaurant straw, then attached to a treble hook. When trolled, the straw causes a trail of air bubbles to streak behind the rig. We even experimented with rigging a pair of these homemade rigs on one rod. A double of the feisty fish is definitely fun. Strange as it seems, only McDonalds' straws seem to work. Maybe it is the striped coloration or the diameter of the opening, but truth is stranger than fiction-the straw makes the difference. 'Tis a frightful sight to see a fellow fisherman digging through a garbage can gleaning straws, especially when you need them too. The Spanish mackerel is every bit as toothy as their larger cousin the kingfish. After two or three fish, the straw needs to be replaced (but NOT thrown overboard).
More and more anglers are discovering the merits of fly-fishing for Spanish mackerel. The violent jolts experienced when burning a lipless crankbait are even more pronounced when a mack hammers a streamer fly that's stripped in rapidly. Clouser minnow patterns work extremely well for the job, as do simple all-white Deceivers, such as those used by many speckled trout anglers. Spanish mackerels travel in large schools and are constantly on patrol for a school of baitfish. Good places to probe with streamers are along beaches, reefs and shoals. A chum slick will also help in attracting mackerel, as well as a mixed bag of other fish. These are good spots to check, whether you're fly-rodding or casting with traditional gear.
Although a lighter outfit may be suitable, a good 8-weight rod/line combo is ideal for Spanish mackerel on the fly. The line is heavy enough to turn over medium- and large-sized streamers, and the added rod power can subdue a big mack and still be plenty sporty for smaller fish, plus it helps when a bull redfish or some other larger specimen takes your streamer. I employ a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader, despite the purists who might say more of an anchor line than a tippet. In any case, it stands up to mackerel teeth quite well.
The Case For Spanish Macks
When the macks are on the feed, it doesn't take long to fill the fish box.
All too often Spanish mackerel are a secondary catch, not the intended target. Anglers guided to a feeding spot by circling and diving birds will find mackerel feeding along with white trout, specks, reds, sharks and others. Such was the case to which I alluded earlier. Casting into the slick produced a bump on just about every cast, and plenty of hook-ups.
When you find a large school of hungry macks, it's possible to load the boat with them. My home state of Mississippi allows a liberal 15-fish creel limit with no imposed slot limit, and some anglers find it all too tempting to harvest a limit each time out. To ensure the long-term availability of this cooperative game fish, responsible anglers keep only enough for dinner and release the rest.
Some say the Spanish is not a tasty fish. Though it's a little more oily and "fishy" tasting than specks, reds and triple-tails, it is not nearly as strong as bluefish, in my opinion. They taste quite good when broiled or baked, but I've found that smoking them with genuine hickory wood makes a salad or hors d'oeuvres fish that is second to none.
Sidebar: Mackerel Salad
One pound, ready-to-eat smoked mackerel fillets, fresh or frozen, skinned and cubed. (If you smoke your own, remove all the red meat before smoking.) 12 oz. (8-10) small new potatoes, scrubbed, quartered, cooked and cooled. (We cook ours in crab boil) 2 celery sticks, trimmed and thinly sliced. 8 oz. reduced-calorie thousand island salad dressing Chopped fresh chives to garnish In a large bowl, combine smoked mackerel fillets, cooked potatoes, celery and dressing. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with chopped chives. A few chopped black olives can be added for taste and color.In a large bowl, combine smoked mackerel fillets, cooked potatoes, celery and dressing. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with chopped chives. A few chopped black olives can be added for taste and color.
Title image by David Hawkins; body photos by John Felsher and Jill Easton; illustration by Joe Tomelleri