It starts with the faint smell of smoke. You walk outside in the darkness to get your morning paper and you catch a whiff of a wood fire somewhere in the neighborhood. It's cool, not cold, but still chilly enough to break in the fireplace. Here in Florida, we call it a two T-shirt day. You start off with a long sleeve over your short sleeve knowing that you'll peel one off as soon as that sun peeks over the horizon. By then, hopefully, you'll have found the school of scaled sardines on the grass flats, and with one toss of the cast net, you'll have a livewell full of whitebait.
If your luck holds, you'll motor out to that spot a mile off the beach that everybody knows about and find seabirds diving for scraps in a chum slick that stretches farther than the eye can see. That's a sure sign the mackerel are feeding.
You anchor off that little patch of hard bottom and toss out a couple of "chummers" just to see if anybody is home. The bait isn't in the water five seconds before there's a flash, then a splash, as the predator takes its prize.
So you toss two more baitfish in the water, this time on hooks attached to wire leaders. One is swimming free; the other is dangling beneath an orange float. Within seconds both lines pull taut: double hookup.
If the action keeps up, you'll be back at the dock by 9 a.m. with a half dozen Spanish mackerel on ice ready for filleting. Fry them up with onions and peppers, serve them with scrambled eggs and a little hot sauce, and you've got the breakfast of champions.
Kick back with a cup of steaming hot black coffee and repeat after me, "Man, I love the fall."
The kings are coming
The Tampa Bay area holds Spanish mackerel year round, but like Florida, the population increases in the fall. The fishing season picks up in September and reaches a fever pitch around baseball playoff time in mid October.
King mackerel, on the other hand, spend the summer growing fat in the fertile fishing grounds in the northern parts of the Gulf of Mexico. In early October, large schools of these open-ocean hunters begin their trek south to the winter breeding grounds off the Florida Keys.
Anglers will occasionally run into these predators 100 miles offshore in the Middle Grounds during the summer, but the mass migration usually begins with the first day of fall.
The west coast of Florida typically experiences a dozen or more strong cold fronts each fall and winter. The first strong low pressure system usually arrives in late October or early November (this week's spell of cool weather is just a taste of things to come) and with it comes the kingfish.
Most of the Tampa Bay area's major kingfish tournaments, including the Old Salt Fishing Club's King of the Beach, take place in November, when wind and water of the Gulf of Mexico are highly unpredictable. (This year's KOB is scheduled for Nov. 11-13; visit Oldsaltfishingclub.com for information.)
There's an old saying among veteran kingfishermen: "If it ain't cold, windy and rainy, it ain't kingfish season."
But anglers who target king mackerel are a hardy bunch. They put on rain gear and rubber boots to weather the storm at tournament time.
Cousins will do for now
Until then, you still have a chance to catch your share of Spanish mackerel while the skies are sunny and blue. This species, closely related to the much-heralded king mackerel, is also a voracious feeder. It is not uncommon to clean a mackerel destined for the table and find a dozen or more baitfish in its gullet.
As a schooling species, where you find one Spanish mackerel, you will find others. That is one reason why these fish are a good choice for heart-pounding, nonstop angling action.
On light tackle and monofilament line, the average angler will lose as many Spanish mackerel as he lands. But add a light wire leader, and even a 6-year-old can bring in one of these fighters.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8808.