Observe schoolyard politics long enough and you'll see that no matter how tough a bully appears, there's always someone meaner to put him in his place.
That's the deal with Spanish mackerel — one of the North Suncoast's fiercest predators, but one with a target on its sides.
Fact 1: With a mouthful of sharp teeth and speed to spare, mackerel are known for ravaging baitfish schools with merciless aggression.
Fact 2: Any mackerel that doesn't watch its backside is subject to having it bitten off by a bigger set of teeth.
In some cases, those bigger teeth belong to king mackerel — the larger cousin of the Spanish. In shallow coastal waters, the more common threat comes from blacktip and bull sharks.
Anglers can enjoy a double dose of nearshore fun by catching mackerel for dinner and for bait.
Mackerel aren't complicated. They want lots of food, and they're good at finding it. Slow troll live scaled sardines (whitebait) or threadfin herring ("greenbacks") across artificial reefs, rock piles or channel edges and something with golden spots on the flanks will find the chow.
Effective artificials are the ones that best mimic baitfish. Silver spoons, Gotcha plugs and white or chartreuse bucktail jigs are good choices.
Guide macks to baits by hanging a frozen chum block in a mesh bag from the stern cleat, chopping fresh baits into dime-sized chunks and dripping a couple of ounces of menhaden oil into the water.
For general mackerel duties, use 7-foot medium-action spinning outfits with 10- to 20-pound line and 3 feet of 20- to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader. You'll draw more strikes with the vanishing fluoro, but expect bite-offs. If the macks are thick and you're losing too many rigs, tie in 12 inches of No. 3 copper wire or go to long shank 2/0-3/0 hooks.
Once you ice a few mackerel for dinner, put the next fresh one into shark duty. Steak the fish down the backbone, pitch the head and tail for shark chum and bait a 10/0 circle hook with the meaty middle sections. Toss the big bait into the chum slick, set the rod in a holder and wait for it to bend.
You can keep catching mackerel while fishing for sharks, but if the bite suddenly halts, something big has entered the playing field.
For sharks, 7½-foot heavy-action spinning outfits strung with 30-pound mono or 50-pound braided line do the job. A braid's thinner diameter allows more line on a spool — a benefit for long-runs. About 4 to 6 feet of 80-pound fluorocarbon or No. 7 wire keeps you connected to the shark.
With any toothy fish, remove hooks with needle-nose pliers or a long-handled hook plucker. For big mackerel, just drop them on ice, clip the leader and retrieve the hook after the fish stops kicking.
With sharks, just cut the leader and let the fish swim away. Hooks will dissolve in saltwater and fall out of the shark's mouth.
Blacktips are one of the few sharks that offer respectable table fare. Firm, white meat cooks up nicely.
If you keep one, take extreme care to prevent painful mishaps when bringing your fish aboard.
Start by wearing thick gloves with gripping surfaces to maintain a firm grip. Even a tired shark can dig deep for one last — often disastrous — burst of energy, so assume you're in for a fight and keep clear of danger.
Use the leader to hold the shark's head in one direction while an angling partner grips the shark by the tail. With larger sharks of 4 feet or more, slip a rope with a loop knot over the tail and secure it to a cleat.
Let the shark exhaust its strength before bringing it aboard. For optimal security, a solid strike to the top of the head yields a safe and humane conclusion.
Licensed anglers can keep 15 mackerel a day. Minimum length is 12 inches from the fork of the tail to the snout.
Any mackerel used for bait must meet the legal minimum, and each fish you keep counts toward your daily limit.
The daily shark limit is one per person or two per vessel, whichever is less.