Spanish mackerel are the Florida fly fisherman’s best bet in winter.
The strike was hammer-hard. Fly line burned through my fingers and jumped off the deck in serpentine waves. I bobbed. I weaved. I danced around the deck to keep it from underfoot, and from around my neck. I don’t dance particularly well, as my wife will attest, but when the music comes from a whirling fly reel drag, I think I can cut the rug, uh, gel coat, pretty well. So I did manage to get the fish on my reel without a hitch.
The streaking fish slowed up after taking a good bit of my backing, and then banked hard right and doubled back, creating instant slack. Rather than hand-stripping fly line to keep my rod bent, I reeled like mad.
“Large arbor, do your stuff!” I mumbled, and quickly piled backing onto my spool to get tight to the fish again.
Then I relaxed and enjoyed a second, and then a shorter third run typical of a small bonefish. But this was no bonefish, small or otherwise. It was a big Spanish mackerel, or so I assumed, because small kings and big jacks do venture into a chumline in Florida Bay now and then. I had the tired fish coming my way, and once the sun lit up its silvery flanks under the bow of my skiff, it looked darn near as long as my arm—a bona fide “mack daddy.” I pumped it to the surface and held my breath. With less than 10 feet of line and leader outside the rodtip, stretch is minimal, and that’s typically when a big Spanish slices through heavy mono leader in a last dash for freedom. I spotted my streamer in the corner of that toothy maw, so it appeared my leader was unscathed. My buddy swung the net and 28 inches of hard, gleaming missile came aboard, destined for the broiler.
That hectic line-clearing drill was repeated many times on that crisp, bluebird February day. Small mackerel were as thick as thieves from within spitting distance of Flamingo to the Middleground flats to the Cape Sable beaches and beyond, but the real slabsters were stacked in 7 to 10 feet of water from three to five miles off the mainland to the southwest of Sandy Key.
And that size distribution is pretty typical of mackerel along most of the Florida coastline from the Panhandle to the Georgia line. You’ll find mostly small fish in the surf, and those 3- to 5-pound and even bigger specimens farther off the beach, or outside the inlets, or entrenched in nearshore dredge holes, or just shoreward of the inside reef. And no matter where you find ’em in Florida, they eat the living devil out of flies. Dare say you will catch more on flies than jigs or spoons some days.
I’m happy to report that Florida Bay is once again a Spanish stronghold from roughly late October through May, and there are more “summer holdovers” now than ever. This certainly wasn’t the case prior to Everglades National Park’s gill net prohibition in Park waters in the mid ’80s.
You want verification that Spanish are worthy fly fish? When the wind is down, bonefish guides out of the Keys routinely take their fly fishing clients out for macks when water temps plummet below the bonefish threshold. Even the most discriminating fly fishers can’t resist fast fly action with macks now and then.
Fly fishers of all skill levels have embraced the Spanish mackerel recovery. It’s a great diversion from more exacting forms of fly fishing. Winter flats fishing can fizzle at times, and there’s no better way to bend a fly rod than to strip a flashy minnow pattern through a pack of hungry macks. First-time fly rodders can get right into this act, too. Next to redfish, perhaps no other inshore fish has goaded so many light-tackle anglers into finally picking up a fly rod and giving it a whirl. Technically, it’s low-key fly fishing, until you get into a hot bite. Then it’s high key and fast-paced, akin to a hot school of dolphin offshore.
You need not be a great, or even a particularly good fly caster to catch macks. If you can flop your streamer 20 feet from the boat—without impaling yourself or others—you will hook mackerel. But you can’t be a total doofus about it. I’ve got some pointers that will get you on your way.
First, leave your Sunday duds in the drawer. You should never wear a $60 vented, moisture-wicking, technical fishing shirt, or fancy, white boat shoes to the mackerel grounds. Save that garb for dock parties and fly club meetings. Blood and chum and all things excremental in nature are all part of a hot mackerel bite, none of which comes out too well in the wash. And don’t run out and deplete your bank account to buy top-of-the-line fly tackle. Any budget brand fly rod in the 6- to 9-weight class fits the bill. Light rods are fun, but keep in mind there are times when heavily weighted flies and sinking lines are the ticket, the wind may be up, and casting with “toy” rods can turn into work. I know a few guys who get a hoot out of using 5-weights and even lighter wands for mackerel, but fight the urge if you are just getting into this. I fish with a 7-weight primarily, but will pick up an 8-weight when the macks are big and only light up for chunky streamers. I reserve my 6-weight for smallish macks rioting for smallish flies.
You can catch mackerel with floating fly lines. In fact, when the fish are boiling on bait at the surface, I highly recommend that you get a popper into the school as quickly as you can. Big Spanish in particular will skyrocket on a hard-chugging popper, and it’s a blast to see a pack of fish fighting over the thing. A floating line is also fine for streamers, but my bread-and-butter lines include a clear intermediate or a medium-rate sinking line. I normally have an outfit rigged and ready with each. With a sinking line, you can fish a fly below any floating grass, and under a healthy chop, and you’ll get the goods to macks that sulk a little deeper some days. Sometimes it seems the biggest Spanish stay well off the transom and a bit deeper than smaller fish in the pack. And if need be, you can still strip your fly along the top before the line has a chance to sink. It’s simply more versatile than a floater. Plus it casts better in a headwind or crosswind.
Chumming is the standard drill though not always necessary. Along many beaches, you simply look for bait pods. Feeding macks are obvious, and diving birds will tip you off to fish for quite a distance. I’ve talked to fly fishers in the Panhandle and those who fish Gulf passes and Atlantic inlets w
ho report that they never bother hanging a chum bag. They strictly fish the birds or bait schools. Though macks are movers and shakers, there are hotspots where Spanish park for months.
For the consummate example of Mackerel Central, Peck Lake (named after a portion of the Intracoastal Waterway at Hobe Sound) is a series of trenches and reefs mere yards from the beach between St. Lucie and Jupiter inlets. From roughly November through April, it is chockablock with fish. It’s a wild scene on weekends, with a flotilla of recreational anglers in boats of every description, and there is also an armada of commercial cast netters that work 24 hours a day. You can go there, shut down the outboard, unrack a fly rod, cast and catch fish. Rather than play bumper boats, however, some fly fishers opt to anchor out on the perimeter of the fleet and hang a block of blood chum, or toss out occasional handfuls of glass minnows.
When I fish Florida Bay, I chum because it is not common to see birds working the schools. In a pinch you can run on plane and look for baitfish concentrations. Baby ballyhoo skipping ahead of my boat have clued me into lots of fish, and I’ve relied on my nose as well. I’ve run along and caught “a fishy whiff,” shut down and caught macks immediately without chumming. But to be on the safe side, I bring a homemade concoction of rolled oats, cheap cat food and menhaden oil. I call this cereal from hell “Gross Toasties” and you’ll get my drift if a dollop ever gets into your tackle bag, dry storage hatch or pocket of that fancy flats fishing shirt. Just bring the ingredients and mix ’em up with sea water in a 5-gallon bucket. Then I just flip a ladleful of the slop overboard from time to time.
When chumming in brisk current, give the fish 20 to 30 minutes at most to show before relocating. Or you might troll with spinning tackle and spoons or jigs in order to find the fish before re-anchoring and chumming. A left-handed and a right-handed fly fisher can fish side by side from the stern of a flats skiff, and even more fly fishers can do so from a bigger boat if everyone is careful. Without a doubt, you’ll want to cover up all possible fly line snaggers, such as cleats, center console and steering wheel, outboard motor and steering cables. A big wet towel will do it, as will a cast net.
Ideally, you’ll anchor where wind and tide run in the same direction. Wind at your back for casting, tide to carry the fly back in the chum, everything you could ask for. Otherwise, you just have to cast into the wind (easiest with a sinking line), which is far better then dealing with an “on-shoulder” breeze. But thankfully, you don’t have to cast far, or very often, to hook up. Actually, there’s little casting to do when the bite is hot. After making a 30- to 50-foot toss, I just feed my line and fly back into the current as far as I care to (be attentive to your line because a fish may eat your fly on the dead drift) and then start stripping. With chummed-up macks, you can strip the fly erratically or steadily, fast or slow. It usually matters little. However, I’ve caught lots of big mackerel on flies held still in the current, or on the dead drift. Once your fly is back there, strip it part way to the boat, then shake line out of the rodtip, let it drift back and repeat. You can fish a fly for 5 or 10 minutes this way, without picking up and recasting. Minimal casting also means less chance for that pile of stripped-in fly line tangling at your feet.
If limited to one rod, I’ll take an 8-weight rod with medium rate, full-sinking line, 4- to 5-foot, 12-pound-test level mono leader and an 18-inch piece of 50-pound-test mono or fluorocarbon. Or when I’m lazy, just a 4- or 5-foot piece of 50-pound. As far as flies go, there really isn’t much a mackerel won’t strike. If forced to fish one fly, it is the universal catch-all, a chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnow. I fish mostly No. 1 and 2 versions, with copious flash, and carry a variety with everything from medium to large dumbbell lead eyes for various depths and current. Hot pink can be murderous, too. For macks, I don’t tie with bucktail. There are many, many brands of great synthetic winging materials to choose from. To lessen the chance of cutoffs, try this trick with your Clousers: Buy some 1X or 2X longshank hooks, then tie the lead eye atop the bend of the hook. Then finish the wing of the fly in the normal fashion.
Other than Clousers, I carry 3- to 4-inch Deceivers (tied with synthetics) because they seem to appeal to the really big macks. I usually fire the Deceivers way back in the chum, and simply hold them in the current, or strip them slowly. That has scored my biggest macks of all, plus a few cobia that came along. Poppers and standard glass minnow patterns round out my flies, and most importantly, I bring a bunch for obvious reasons.
There you have it. What could be easier? A great flyrod fish awaits you from now through spring and even beyond. Get out there—you’ll catch Spanish for sure. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman February 2005
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