Stan Ulanski: Catch of the Day: Spanish Mackerel

We welcome a guest post today from Stan Ulanski, author of the forthcoming Fishing North Carolina’s Outer Banks: The Complete Guide to Catching More Fish from Surf, Pier, Sound, and Ocean (September 2011).  Here he provides some background and tips on reeling in the Spanish mackerel, a favorite summer catch off of North Carolina’s coasts. -Alex

Spanish Mackerel (illustration by Duane Raver)

Throughout the summer and into early fall, Outer Banks’ anglers delight in catching these tropical species that have migrated to the coastal waters of North Carolina from their wintering grounds in southern Florida. The Spanish mackerel is a favorite of surf, pier, and inshore anglers who all use a variety of metal lures to entice strikes from these speedy predators.

Endowed with a streamlined body and sickle-shaped tail, Spanish mackerel can travel over thirty miles an hour in short bursts as they relentlessly pursue and attack small herringlike fish, such as glass minnows and silversides. Feeding Spanish mackerel will often leap clear of the water in pursuit of fleeing prey. This piscivorous predator, armed with an awesome array of teeth–large, conical, and extremely sharp, is ideally suited for capturing live prey and chopping up its victim.

While Spanish mackerel may show up anytime during the day, many savvy anglers concentrate their efforts during the early morning and late evening hours—-prime time for this species. Spanish mackerel feed very little during the night, content to conserve their energy resources for hunting during the day. But by first light they are famished, and the primal need to feed propels them into high gear. Traveling in large, fast-moving schools, they are roving the water column in a frantic search for their first meal of the day.

Outfitted with nine-foot spinning rods and reels, surf anglers cast small (one to three ounces) flashy, aerodynamically shaped lures, such as Stingsilvers, to these cruising fish. The angler’s retrieve of the lure needs to be fast to imitate a fleeing prey (you can’t reel fast enough for a determined mackerel).  Pier anglers also catch their fair share of Spanish mackerel by casting Got-cha plugs on light spinning tackle. Got-cha plugs are elongated lures, approximately the size of a cigarette, and when retrieved, mimic a panicked bait fish. Even boaters get into the action, trolling an array of silver and gold lures below the surface (ten to twenty feet) with planers or in-line sinkers.

If all those around you are catching fish, and you have not had any hook ups, then consider eliminating any terminal tackle (snaps or swivels) between your line and lure. Spanish mackerel have excellent vision and will assiduously avoid a lure that does not appear natural. If the mackerel are particularly wary, a two-foot length of fluorocarbon leader (essentially invisible in the water) attached to the lure may tip the scales in your favor.

Keeping a few mackerel for dinner is probably one of the more satisfying aspects of angling along the Outer Banks. In addition, to their nutritional value (high in protein, low in saturated fats, and good source of omega-3), mackerel have a mild flavor. So fire up the grill, place a few fillets on it, and get ready for a tasty treat; it will be all the more sweet because you caught it.

Stan Ulanski is professor of geology and environmental science at James Madison University and author of Fishing North Carolina’s Outer Banks: The Complete Guide to Catching More Fish from Surf, Pier, Sound, and Ocean (forthcoming September 2011) and The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic. He is a passionate angler who has fished all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.