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Grab your gear: Weather's just fine for mackerel

MADEIRA BEACH — The general thinking is that at this time of year in west-central Florida, it's just too darned hot to fish. The water temperature is too high and most big fish have headed to deeper, cooler waters. Unless you're willing to run several miles offshore, it's probably best to keep the fishing gear in the garage.

That's the general thinking, at least.

It's not necessarily true.

On a typical boiling hot August morning last Tuesday, the goal was to try to find mackerel off of John's Pass. Captain Dave Zalewski, who has been fishing these waters for 37 years, said the mackerel started showing up about two weeks ago.

"It's been a strange year," Zalewski said. "Usually (mackerel) would've shown up long before this. I think it has something to do with the winter, when the water temp got down to around 65. That's unusually cool, and maybe that threw them off a little bit."

Mackerel feed year round on the pods of bait fish that school in warm water. Zalewski warned that even though the mackerel are around, it doesn't mean they are plentiful. Patience might be required as we search different man-made reefs that are near shore and up to 11 miles offshore.

It took all of 10 minutes to land the first mackerel.

While idling out from Madeira Beach Marina, deckhand Paul Tedrick threw two lines into the water. Both had medium spoons on the end, a 25-foot, 40-pound test leader tied to 40-pound test line and a No. 1 planer, which sends the spoon down about 10 feet. Spoons vibrate and shine in the water as if they are an injured baitfish.

"We can't go fast anyway, so why not put out a few lines and see what happens?" Tedrick said.

What happened was a strike minutes later. Just a few yards from some of the waterfront homes that line the north side of John's Pass, we landed a 14-inch mackerel. Proving that was no fluke, a 24-incher attacked our spoon just as we passed under the John's Pass Bridge. Not a bad start.

Eventually we ended up on the St. Pete Beach Reef, about 5 miles offshore. The reef was established in 1976 when the Old Corey Causeway was dumped there. It also has a 200-foot barge and 10 U.S. Army tanks sunk in the 34-foot deep waters.

A few more keeper-sized mackerel came on board. Zalewski then suggested we bait a third rod with the 14-inch mackerel we caught earlier. The mackerel was hooked through the mouth with two treble hooks dangling down the side. Tedrick cast the mackerel to the side of the boat and let it drift on top of the water about 20 yards off the stern.

"If something hits it, there will be a huge explosion on top of the water," Tedrick said.

Sure enough, there was a huge splash followed by a leap high into the air by a barracuda. After a 15-minute fight, the 18-pound, nearly 4-foot long barracuda was on board.

It was that kind of day. About 10 more mackerel made it into the cooler. We also landed a smaller barracuda on a spoon.

Some were caught off an area known as "Times Square," a few miles farther from the St. Pete Beach Reef. The barracuda was caught around 11 miles from shore.

"We live in a fisherman's paradise," Zalewski said. "You can catch fish here 12 months out of the year."

Clearly, it is not too hot to fish.

Cleaning a mackerel

Captain Dave Zalewski cringes when he hears people say mackerel are too fishy or too tough to eat. He believes the mackerel aren't being prepped properly.

"A lot of times they'll get a filet with the skin still on it and then they are told to eat it in the next 24 hours," he said. "That's not true at all."

Armed with a sharp knife, Zalewski makes a normal cut down the spine to the tail. He then cuts off the rib meat on the inside of the filet. Then he cuts off what he calls the "lateral line," a cartilage-filled strip down the center of the filet.

From there he cuts the meat off the skin to produce a white, blood-free morsel that can be eaten as is or saved later for a fish taco or fried fish dinner.

"One of the keys is to make sure right after you catch it to put it on ice," Zalewski said. "Then after you filet them, put them in another ice bath to keep them fresh. You don't want to have a fish that has just been thrown on the deck or just put on the cutting board."

Grab your gear: Weather's just fine for mackerel 08/29/16 [Last modified: Monday, August 29, 2016 8:30pm]
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