The Morning Bite is Crucial!
The best time to catch these speed demons is definitely in the morning as the sun breaks over the horizon. This is when the Spanish goes from using its senses and lateral line to actually being able to see.
There is a decent afternoon bite, but it simply doesn’t compare to the morning bite. To catch yourself a smoker Spanish from the surf, you have to commit to being up at the crack of dawn… which isn’t that bad considering the views!
“To catch yourself a smoker Spanish from the surf, you have to commit to being up at the crack of dawn… which isn’t that bad considering the views!”
Spanish Mackerel Bait Selection
One thing that your average surf fisherman may not know about the Spanish Mackerel is how small the bait they target is. For example, in the summer Spanish Mackerel feed primarily on Glass minnows which derive from the hearing family of baitfish. To replicate, you need to use small baits, around the size of a #2 pencil.
To have the most success, try to mimic the colors of whatever baitfish are available based upon the season you are fishing in and based upon the water clarity. Spanish Mackerel have fantastic eyesight even when hunting in the surf.
If you’re a fly fishermen and you really like a challenge, you can tie a glass minnow fly and try your luck in the surf. There are quite a few fly fishermen that I have met who slay the Spanish Mackerel when wading the surf!
How to Catch Spanish Mackerel: Surf Conditions Play a Key Role
Surf conditions affect how and where these Spanish Mackerel chose to feed. Based on the surf, we can more easily locate the most productive areas to throw your bait and in turn, catch more fish than the guy next to you!
On days when the surf is rough, heavy lures are a must. Usually, when the surf is rough, it will kick up a fairly definitive mudline. Fishing inside that mudline may produce a few bites here and there, but for the most part, most of your Spanish Mackerel are going to be positioned beyond the second bar line. After that second bar line, there is nothing but crystal clear water for the Spanish Mackerel to sit in and wait for the glass minnows and other baitfish.
On days where the surf is calmer, almost like glass, the Spanish Mackerel will position about 15 to 20 yards off of the surf. Usually, this is in about four foot of water. They position there because there is no mudline being kicked up, so the glass minnows go in shallow to feed on macroinvertebrates which brings the Spanish Mackerel in for a feeding frenzy.
As I mentioned before, Spanish Mackerel rely on sight to stalk and feed. They are pure bred surface hunters and can go up to 8 feet out of the water when chasing bait. Their speed and agility paired with fantastic eyesight makes them ultimate predators in these shallow surf conditions.
“Their speed and agility paired with fantastic eyesight makes them ultimate predators in these shallow surf conditions.”
The Best Time of Year for Spanish Mackerel
In my lifetime of chasing these beautiful fish, I have found that I can catch plenty of Spanish from May through November. However, November is really when I start to find the bigger Spanish Mackerel moving up shallow into the surf.
In the Spring, their main forage is a Menhaden minnow. At this time of year, the Menhaden are moving up the shoreline searching for warm water conditions to feed and the Spanish are always right behind them.
In the Summer, the Glass minnow reigns supreme. The Menhaden are usually pushed out by the summer months and the Glass minnows can be found roaming in big schools right along the shoreline.
In the Fall, the bait found in the surf reaches an all time high. With Glass minnows, Menhaden and Shiners pushing up to feed before the cold months approach, the surf is full of predators trying to get their share of the feeding frenzy.
The biggest key for catching the big Mackerel is knowing when the Ballyhoo will arrive in the surf. Since Ballyhoo are a much bigger profile bait, I have noticed that I catch most of my citation Mackerel in the late fall around November. Another great part about targeting Spanish in November is that they are often overlooked due to the Redfish being targeted hard during those fall months.
In the Winter, Spanish Mackerel are sparse due to cooler temperatures. They will either migrate south, or push out into deeper water until the cold winter months pass.
Surf Fishing for Spanish Mackerel
By far, the most efficient way to locate and catch a Spanish is to find a school of baitfish. Find the bait and the Spanish Mackerel won’t be too far behind. To be most effective, having the right gear for the job is a must.
Rods and reels
I always use 7’ to 7’6” Medium Rod with a fast tip which won’t have too much give but also allows you to have enough backbone to keep up with the Spanish when they run. You always want to fight them soft, don’t horse them in, just let them tire themselves out.
To match my rod selection, I only use high gear ratio reels. My favorite by far is a Penn Fierce which has a moderate price yet is still very dependable. I use the 5.1:1 for the most part which goes along with what I tell my clients, there is no such thing as being able to reel to fast when fighting a Spanish Mackerel. Due to their incredible speed, having the right equipment to endure those long runs is a must.
Line and leaders
Having the right line can be the difference between landing your Spanish or having him snap your line 5 minutes into the fight. I typically use 30 pound monofilament as I have found that braided line can be cut easily by the Spanish’s razor sharp teeth and monofilament is harder to see in the water.
Your leader makes a huge difference as their eyesight is incredible. They can see heavier lines and will avoid your bait the second they catch a glimpse of something out of place. However, I do use snap swivels from time to time which allows for a quick change of bait which is key. Finding which bait works best requires lots of switching between sizes and profiles. I typically make 20-30 casts before switching to a different bait.
When using live bait, finding the right bait fish is highly important and changes with the seasons. I usually try to catch the most abundant baitfish for that specific season to match the Spanish’s feeding patterns. Using a cast net can be incredibly beneficial in grabbing the right bait to get the job done.
My favorite way to catch these beautiful fish is definitely using artificial baits. I enjoy the challenge of tricking them into thinking that it is a real bait. Typically, I use plenty of baits with silver, gold, or green in the pattern.
As I said before, with Spanish Mackerel having impeccable eyesight, color is very important. One of my favorite lures is an ACME Kastmaster which are affordable and come in a variety of shapes and colors. Another one of my favorites is the Diamond Jig which is about as simple yet effective as they come.
The biggest tip I can give is to vary your retrieve speeds. Sometimes, cranking the bait 1/2 a mile faster can make a world of a difference. I use anywhere from ½ ounce to ¾ ounce lures, depending on the surf conditions. The rougher the surf, the heavier the lure.
Spanish Mackerel Regulations in North Carolina
This year, citations are given for any Spanish Mackerel that weighs 6 pounds or more. For those who travel here, they may be confused by this as last year in 2017 the citation was given for any Spanish weighing in at 5 pounds or higher.
The limit is 15 per day at 12” or more. I don’t usually keep more than two or three of my biggest fish when targeting Spanish Mackerel as to help the population continue to flourish.