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Ending Winter's Blahs with
Stuart's Spanish Mackerel

By Mike Christy

The six cold months between November and April are a tough time for us New England saltwater fishermen. Well, we do have smelting I suppose, and some inshore cod fishing, but no offshore activity to speak of. And who really wants to exhaust themselves cutting holes through several feet of cold hard ice? It's because of those things that I readily accept invitations from friends and family to visit the Stuart Florida area. And of course, what activities do we engage in when we visit the Florida east coast? We go fishing of course!

The list of Florida game fish available throughout the winter months includes sailfish, swordfish, cobia, tarpon, blackfin tuna, bonito, amberjack - the list is extensive. But it may be to some anglers surprise that Spanish mackerel have become our target species. Recent commercial restrictions have brought Spanish mackerel populations back to where they once were. Even though they are relatively numerous there's still a conservative recreational limit of 15 fish per angler a day.

For me, there's not much else that cures the mid-winter blahs any better than a fish pulling on the other end of my line. So no fooling around or lollygagging when headed to warmer climates; the deal is to find something fun and sporting to catch, and Spanish mackerel fill the bill nicely.

During the winter months large schools of these fish congregate near shore in the Stuart area. In years past, a shallow reef just off the beach about a mile south of the inlet is where most of the action has been focused. It has been a very popular spot with both commercial and recreational anglers. I even spied IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame member Mark Sosin fly casting for mackerel one morning.

The reef area where the fish school up is generally very congested with boats. Some are commercial netters, some are fly casters, some are spin fishermen and some are trollers. In an area that appears to be a 1/2 mile square there's at least fifty boats fishing, and surprisingly, everyone cooperates with each other. It seems very chaotic with boats crisscrossing each other's wakes and bows from every direction, yet I have never seen a single fishing etiquette incident. One would  expect in such tight quarters some yelling, some hand jesters, or a "you're number one" flashed around, but no one gets upset about anything. It's amazing. The northeast tuna fleet would be absolutely appalled at the situation!

Spanish mackerel can be taken by casting fly's, casting lures with spinning gear, or by my favorite technique, trolling. Little preparation is required to fish for these feisty guys. A tackle box of gold or silver spoons and jigs is all that's really required. But, I do recommend either a small piece of wire or relatively heavy (50#) fluorocarbon leader as a part of your terminal tackle - these fish have very sharp teeth. Depending on the conditions, the fish can be voracious and hit almost anything you throw at them, or can be picky about the color and may shy away from leaders. They are even known to slice through monofilament with their sharp teeth, but not at the mono near the lure, but several feet above it. I can only speculate they see light reflecting off the line and then attack it.

When the fish are not taking surface lures and are staying down for whatever reason (time of day, boat traffic, tide), I've found two rigs that help catch them. I've had success with a standard wire line outfit consisting of a Penn 49 wire reel and a fairly stout 5' boat rod. The terminal tackle is made up of a swivel attached to the wire line, and a length of 50# monofilament which is attached to the lure. An alternative is to use a regular boat rod with dacron or mono and a inline bead chain trolling sinker. This is not as effective as my favorite rig; A 3/0 reel spooled with 40# no-stretch Spectra. Then a topshot of 20 yards of 40# monofilament is connected with a uni-knot. At the end of the mono I've added a swivel and a 4 foot length of 50# fluorocarbon leader then a snap swivel for the lure. To get this down to where the fish are holding I attach a small  in-line metal planer board which is very effective. When the fish hit the lure the planer is directed upwards and does not interfere with playing the fish. This rig easily out-fishes all the other rods on the boat on some days.

Spanish mackerel are delicious to eat. They can be grilled, fried, baked or smoked. Cleaning is simple: with the head pointed away from you, hold the tail and slice from the base of the tail towards the head. Do this on both sides of the fish and you will have two fillets ready for cooking. A great way to prepare them is to marinate the fillets for a few hours and then smoke them. The flesh is firm and delicious, and goes wonderfully with a malt beverage.

When I've had enough of the frozen winter winds chilling my bones I try to head south, even if only for a few days. Upon arrival in Stuart I know I'll soon be departing Manatee Marina on the waters of the ICW. With the boat motoring towards the mackerel grounds, a few miles past the manatees, the pelicans and the dolphins, Ill soon be at the spot. The hot sun, warm salty water, and sudden hard yank at the other end of my line will be just the cure for those New England winter blahs.

If you get a chance to visit the south east coast of Florida I invite you to try the mackerel fishing near Stuart. Here's a helpful link to some guides in the Port St Lucie/Stuart Area: 

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