It may be a little early in the year, but anglers are welcoming a toothy guest back to Suncoast waters. Following schools of bait attracted by unseasonably warm Gulf water, the Spanish mackerel are starting their annual spring fling a month early. A rising gulf temperature and the quest for food has these gold-flecked speedsters showing up fashionably early in the season, said Ron Taylor of the Marine Research Institute.
"The Gulf temperature has been between 68-72 degrees (over the past week)," said Taylor, "And that has attracted the schools of sardines, herring (locally called greenbacks or whitebait) and anchovies (glass minnows) and that in turn has attracted the mackerel."
Aided by a east wind that helped clear up the water, anglers from Redington Beach south to Anna Maria Island began picking up the first scattered catches of "macks" the first week in February.
But last Friday, a whipping northwesterly blew through the bay area and turned the lights out on this premature "Mack Attack."
Taylor explained the problems cloudy water causes.
"Try turning the lights out when you're eating dinner," he says. "Most people won't eat what they can't see. The same goes for the mackerel. If the water is dirty, the fish just can't see."
Much to the fishermen's delight, calming winds this week have cleared the Gulf and the bite is on again.
When the macks are running, all that is needed to catch the limit of four is a basic understanding of what they eat, when they eat, and how they eat.
The Spanish Mackerel (Scomberomorus maculatus) are voracious feeders. Feeding in large schools, they often "ball up" schools of bait, herding them together, then attacking en masse. This is the time when the angling can get hot and hectic. Choosing the correct baits and lures are the key to success.
Many local anglers prefer using artificial bait. When fishing from a dock or pier, there are a couple of basic rigs that will get even the beginning angler into the fun.
The first one, and the most popular, is the spoon rig. Consisting of a silver Clarkspoon or Squidspoon, a six- to eight-foot leader of 20- to 40-pound monofilament and a three- to four-ounce sinker, the spoon rig is great when the fish are feeding heavily.
"Spooning," as it's called by local anglers, requires a lightning-fast retrieve. Cast out your rig, let it sink, and then crank back as fast as you can. Seasoned anglers will often stop the retrieve halfway back to the pier to allow the spoon to sink back to the bottom, where they will then resume cranking. This is done because the macks are often feeding close to the pier; by allowing your spoon to sink back to the bottom, your bait will spend more time in the "fish zone" or the area where the fish are feeding.
Other artificials can also be deadly. A white or yellow nylon jig worked with a rapid, erratic retrieve is effective. Plastic-tail jigs and swimming plugs in a silver-green finish can also be good. But more important than the color or make of a lure is the way in which the angler presents it. Mackerel go crazy over a flashy, speeding bait. So if you're fishing artificials, just remember to keep the lure moving.
Naturally speaking, live minnows are your best bet for landing large fish.
A free-lined (with no weight) sardine or greenback is hard for a big mack to pass up. When fishing natural baits, it is essential to use long shank hooks. The mouth of a Spanish mackerel is full of tiny, razor sharp teeth, just waiting to slice through your line. The long shank will help to keep your line out of the fish's mouth. A leader of 20- to 40-pound monofilament is heavy enough to withstand an occasional scrape, yet light enough to catch fish in the clear gulf waters.
Fishing dead bait is another method that has proven effective. Take a freshly dead or thawed-out sardine, greenback or glass minnow and slice into a two- to-three-inch strip. Suspend it under a bobber with enough weight and line too keep it in the "fish zone." A moving current will will cause the strip to flash and flutter, resembling a live minnow. This method often gets the macks to hit when others won't.
A mistake many anglers make when fishing for mackerel is using steel leaders. Although you can bet you won't get your leader cut off when using steel, you can also bet that the guy standing next to you fishing with a monofilament leader is catching more fish. Steel leaders just don't allow lures or live baits to act naturally and they are highly visible to fish in clear water.
One final note for those in search of the mack: Fish the tides.
These fish turn off when the tide is dead and prefer a strong, fast moving tide, whether it's coming in or going out. Early morning hours and late afternoon to evening are the best times.