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When the Macks Come Marching In

When cold fronts put shallow-water fly fishing on the back burner, give Florida Bay mackerel a shot.

Evidence aplenty that toothy mackerel are tough on flies.

We had barely baptized the chumbag when an unruly horde of pinfish, blue runners and mini mangrove snappers materialized off the transom. They would have made piranhas proud. Hopefully, the stars of the show would respond in kind. As our oily chumslick flattened the waves astern, I pitched a few glass minnows to spice the menu. Ballyhoo dimpled the surface downtide to scrounge their fair share of the goodies.

Satisfied that our food line was at peak production, I reached to unrack a fly rod.

My companions, Richard Kernish and Paul Soul‚, beat me to the punch and began winging white sidewinder jigs. Whenever we fly fish for mackerel, Kernish chucks a jig to break the ice. It’s understood. But after the first mackerel, he stashes the spinner. If not, I nag him until he does.

I cast from the corner of the stern, let my fly line sink and took a deep breath–the air had that arctic bite. Under a bluebird sky, it was 55 degrees. It felt like 40. The northwest wind kicked up a chop that had our flats skiff rocking so I summoned my sea legs and zipped up my jacket. February was in town.
Twenty minutes passed without a customer. Not one to sit still for long, Kernish suggested running west of Tripod Bank. I agreed, then glanced at the water. Not a baitfish remained.

They had vanished.

We both recognized the signal–the wolves were at the door.

“Mackerel?” Richard wondered aloud.

Out of nowhere they streaked past the transom in ragged formation, flashing silvery sides. “Yeah, mackerel!” I shouted, and doubled-hauled to send my streamer flying.

Richard’s jig was nailed on the freefall and his drag screamed until his fish knifed through the mono shock leader. Soul‚ tossed his jig from the bow and it was blasted immediately. Two big macks skyrocketed 100 feet astern so I fed fly line through my tiptop to let my fly free-drift farther back. While I watched Richard unrack a fly rod, my fly line was ripped from my grasp. I managed to clear it to the reel and the fun began.

After a screaming first run, my fish doubled back. I countered by stripping like a madman to take up the slack and keep a bend in my rod as the mackerel ran under the transom and beyond the bow. I finally brought it boatside and asked Richard, just getting a fly into the water, to net my fish. He shot me a look. “You know the rule–every man for himself,” he said. True, during a hot mackerel bite, you’re pretty much on your own. I netted my fish on the first pass but it gnawed through the leader and bit through the net as I swung it aboard. It got its second wind, ricocheted around the cockpit floor, and wove my fly line around every obstruction in sight.

Now I really needed assistance but Paul was hooked up again and Richard, laughing at my predicament, raised his fly rod sharply. “I’m on!” he yelled. The reel handle rapped his knuckles, sounding like a castanet, as his fish reached warp speed.

Once the flurry ended there was a short lull until a school of bigger fish, 5- to 6-pounders, made a few strafing runs, taking our flies right at the surface where we could watch them strike. I was using a chartreuse Clouser Minnow and could watch the fish track my fly. Only when I stopped stripping and let the fly dive would the fish commit. That’s all the big fish wanted–the smaller ones didn’t care. If it moved, it got ate.

I used to curse mid-winter. No longer. When strong cold fronts ruin flats fishing for a spell, Spanish mackerel fill the void. Many Florida fly rodders raise the white flag on blustery winter days–just when Spanish mackerel become ripe for the picking.

Whenever I mention my fondness of fly casting for mackerel, reactions run the gamut. Last winter, on a bone-chilling morning at a quick-mart frequented by anglers heading for Florida Bay, I picked up some oily canned cat food to supplement my chum supply. An acquaintance spotted me in line. “You taking your cat fishing?” he cracked. I told him I was going fly fishing for mackerel.

“MAAAckerel?” he cackled. “Yes. Mackerel,” I deadpanned. “Don’t knock it till you try it.”

Hellbent on fishing the flats regardless of the arctic chill, he was in for a long day. I in turn, had a ball.

When word gets out that mackerel are in, anglers armed with live baits, jigs and spoons mobilize quickly. Since this underrated speedster lacks the esteem of the glamour set–bonefish, tarpon or snook–saltwater fly fishermen give them the cold shoulder. It’s their loss.

To catch mackerel on fly, you have to call them to dinner. Troll spoons or jigs to locate the fish before chumming, or anchor in traditionally productive areas and chum them from the start. I prefer the latter method and once I bring the fish to the table, I go to great lengths to keep them there. There’s more to it than just hanging a chumbag.

You’ll need three things: the right food, the right weapons and the right conditions.

Have a mesh chumbag plus spares, commercial blood chum blocks (one block lasts 30 to 45 minutes) or a supply of the dry chum preparations available in bait shops. For a high-octane chumline, have a frozen block of glass minnows and a pint of menhaden oil aboard.

This mackerel will raise eyebrows anywhere.

As for fly rods, an 8-weight is my workhorse although a 7-weight will handle most mackerel flies. Mackerel will blast poppers and divers fished on floating lines but weeds and floating grass often foul such flies and spoil your retrieve. Full-sinking lines sink below the weeds and get your streamer to the fish at any depth. The speed of the current will dictate your choice of a slow, medium or fast-sink line. I prefer a medium-sinker–it takes flies to any depth reasonably fast and if I choose, I can fish a fly near the surface by starting a fast retrieve immediately. When the current is weak or the fish are on top, I go with a monocore.

Many sinking lines have a belly sag drawback. In effect, the thinner front taper rides higher in the water than the high-density belly, as does your leader and fly. This sag hampers your ability to give the fly action, to detect strikes and to hook up. Uniform-sink lines, now available, have a graduated density to eliminate these shortcomings.

Fly reels need not be extravagant–any reel with a smooth drag and corrosion protection will suffice. Although mackerel don’t make reel-emptying runs, a full spool of backing will increase your line pickup once hooked up.

Once turned on, mackerel eat whatever they can catch…which is anything that swims. They’re not picky about flies, and you really can’t retrieve them too fast. Mackerel flies should be durable, flashy and predominantly white. I tie mine with tough synthetics to withstand toothy attacks–with natural hairs or feathers, it’s a game of one fly, one fish.

When macks first invade your chumline, they’re gullible, so feed them your simplest flies. A white, two-inch streamer of Crafthair, FisHair, or UltraHair with silver or pearl Flashabou will score. When the fish wise up and the bite slows, a fly change may jumpstart the action. Realistic baitfish patterns–Lefty’s Deceivers, Clouser Minnows, glass minnows and 3-D UltraHair patterns–are deadly in either green-and-white, blue-and-white or gray-and-white with liberal flash and prominent eyes. I tie them on No. 2, 1 and 1/0 hooks and coat the thread wraps and head area with epoxy for durability.

I use abrasion-resistant 50- or 60-pound-test monofilament bite tippets. The increased number of strikes on mono will easily make up for a few lost flies. Sharp-eyed mackerel are turned off by wire–they’ll spot coffee-colored wire in clear water, cloudy water…and in your tackle box.

Now that you’re armed to the teeth, it comes down to conditions–and the whims of the fish. Normally, October fronts stall north of South Florida but by mid-November, they sweep cleanly through. In mid-September, along Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, everything from mullet to glass minnows begin trickling south. Once the glass minnows run, mackerel patrol the Atlantic beaches from Daytona southward and on the Gulf coast as far south as Naples and the Ten Thousand Islands, just north of Florida Bay.

Last December, a series of nor’easters pushed schools of mackerel to the beaches as far south as the Broward-Dade County line. Due to a healthy supply of baitfish, they made camp to the delight of anglers on the southeast coast. With the net ban in place, this may be the year that schools return to Biscayne Bay.

In Florida Bay, the question is not if, but when the mackerel will arrive. Last October, catches were made along the beaches of Naples, Marco Island, and at the Shark River mouth. By November, mackerel were off Cape Sable and in Everglades National Park waters along the Northwest, Middle and East Cape beaches and Sandy Key. By January, mackerel patrolled the Everglades National Park boundary line from Marker 2 near East Cape Sable to Oxfoot, Schooner and Sprigger Banks. By February, they were thick and stayed around until April.

I keep my ears open for dependable catch reports. Word of mouth will give you a starting point and shorten your search.

Without the benefit of catch reports, I chum traditionally productive locations. Mackerel will stay put in an area as long as the groceries hold out. Consequently, finding baitfish is the key. Unless I’ve heard about a hot area, or observe other boats chumming and catching fish, I follow a specific route when I’m fishing blind.

Running out of Flamingo in Everglades National Park, I head west to marker 2 off East Cape Sable (see NOAA chart 11451). I run a 210-degree heading until I’m roughly three miles west of Sandy Key where the average depth is 10 feet. If the water is off-clear, I anchor and chum. If it’s muddy or crystal-clear, I run southeast at a 150- to 180- degree heading until the water changes from either extreme, or until I spot baitfish at the surface.

As I run, I watch for small ballyhoo or other baitfish spooking in my path. At times, the smell of baitfish will tip me off. In either case, I stop and chum for 30 minutes before resuming the hunt. Unless I hit the mother lode off Sandy Key early on, I chum three to four miles west of Oxfoot Bank and then an equal distance west of Sprigger Bank, five miles to the southeast. If I haven’t hit paydirt by then, on my return trip north, I chum a few more spots on a line two to three miles farther west of my first leg, in 12 or 13 feet of water. By working this loop, I fish at least six spots at various depths, in turn working a large area during the course of the day.

Once you decide to anchor, check the current. If it’s weak, relocate. The stronger the current, the faster and farther your chumline extends. In general, spring tide periods (new or full moon) are best. If satisfied with the current, hang a chumbag of commercial blood chum or prepared chum. On average, figure on a block per half-hour or 45 minutes. Every five minutes or so, toss out a handful of thawed glass minnows–enough to attract mackerel, not feed them. Dribble some menhaden oil into the water for added scent. Many anglers swear by medical I.V. drip bottles for a continuous release of oil.
Watch for baitfish in your chumline. Pinfish, blue runners, pilchards and ballyhoo will beat a path to the chum in a fertile area and more often than not, mackerel won’t be far behind. Even if you can’t see them, they’ll jump on your flies. If baitfish don’t show within 10 minutes, move on.

While waiting for fish to show, I blind cast either a medium-sinking line or a monocore on an 8-weight fly rod. My standard mackerel leader consists of a 3-foot length of 10- or 12-pound tippet tied to a 50- or 60-pound monofilament bite tippet. With a sinking line, a long butt section is counterproductive–it impedes the sink rate and level of your fly in comparison to the fly line. I like loop-to-loop connections because I can loop my leader to my fly line and make quick changes when my bite tippet becomes badly frayed, or too short due to cutoffs. During a hot flurry, I’d rather catch fish than tie knots.

Out of habit, I start with a white or white-and-chartreuse No. 2 Clouser Minnow or long-shank Deceiver although all of the pre-mentioned patterns work well.

Fly fishing for mackerel is just that–fly fishing, not fly casting. Keep your fly in the water, not in the air. Sound simplistic? Maybe, but the fact is, this isn’t sight casting by any stretch although you will see an occasional fish make a strafing run through your chumline. Presenting your fly to a sighted fish and watching the strike is a bonus; however, unseen fish will make up the bulk of your catch.

Typically, I make a 40- or 50-foot cast, pay out some line to sink my fly, retrieve about halfway to the stern with quick, erratic strips, then let it drift back with the current before repeating the process. With this method you’ll cover all bases–sometimes mackerel will eat your fly while it drifts or sinks. Sometimes they want to chase it down.

Florida Bay mackerel are good-sized fish. Three- to 4-pounders are common and an occasional 5- to 7-pound horse will show.

After a strike, be ready to clear loose fly line to your reel. When the first run ends, a mackerel can reverse gears and head straight at you, at which time you’re better off stripping line rapidly rather than reeling to keep your rod bent and your line tight. Be ready to clear loose line back onto the reel again should the fish make its next run straight away. A big mackerel will keep you busy and put your reaction time and flyrod skills to the test.

As fall gives in to winter, and cold fronts with muscle sweep through, don’t retire your fly rods until spring. Set your sights on western Florida Bay for a different brand of Florida fly fishing. You’ll get chum under your nails and a little blood on your shirt, but you’ll have some fast-paced fun. Give them a shot–on a fly rod, these speedsters will earn your respect.

FS