Easy as One, Two, Three

Fresh mackerel, delivered to your transom.

As water temps near the 70-degree mark, Spanish mackerel invade the Florida coasts. Trolling hardware is a simple, effective way to locate these good-eating fish.

Practically every inch of Florida’s 1,200 miles of coastline boasts a Spanish mackerel run, and most of the coast sees two runs per year. Run timing is different in different regions of our huge state but the fishing frenzy created by swarms of fast-moving and hard-feeding mackerel is so universal that an angler who was dropped into the midst of a blitz almost anywhere on the coast would see the same action,
regardless of location.

There are so many methods used to catch mackerel that an entire book could be devoted to rigging and techniques, and everybody’s got their favorites. My rigging for Spanish mackerel fishing has evolved from nearly 30 years of chartering on the Southwest Florida coast and is based on a charter skipper’s perspective:

Let’s catch those mackerel as fast as we can and, since one underpaid mate is going to be rigging all the tackle for up to a half dozen anglers, let’s keep the tackle rigging as simple as possible, and let’s run a spread in which the lines seldom cross or tangle. If we can minimize the expenses by using basic equipment (some of which we’ve already got aboard for other types of fishing) without compromising our fish-catching, even better. With deference to the proponents of live baiting, chumming, fly casting, jigging or any other favored technique, I maintain that day-in and day-out there is no more efficient method of locating and catching schooling mackerel than by trolling with hardware.

Here’s your tackle shopping list:

- Narrow, shiny spoons, such as the Clark Spoon Squids in sizes 00, 0 and 1, or the Huntington
Drone Spoon in 0, 1/2, or 1. Narrow spoons tend to wobble faster than do fatter spoons, and the rapid flash seems to attract more mackerel strikes.

- Small bullethead jigs, 1⁄4 and 3⁄8 ounce. I prefer red/white or white, but have done well with yellow and red/yellow also.

- Stainless planers in No. 1 and No. 2 sizes.

- Coil of 80-pound-test single strand wire leader. I prefer coffee color.

- Bag of barrel swivels. Make sure they’re flat black in color to minimize bite-offs.

- Spool of 60-pound test leader material. You can use fluorocarbon, but during a hot bite monofilament works just fine.

- Egg sinkers 1, 2 and 3 ounce. Using this limited assortment of tackle you can quickly and easily assemble the following three rigs:

 

60 Second Tandem Spoon/Jig Rig

I like a tandem rig consisting of two different lures: a bullet-head jig running a short distance ahead of a spoon. The two lures running close together create a sense of urgency in the mackerel, attracting more bites than does a single lure and you get the occasional bonus when you do catch a double-header. You want the jig to run a foot or so ahead of the spoon and there are many ways to create such a rig, but here’s the fastest and easiest that I’ve found:

- Step one: Tie a spoon to one end of a 4-foot length of 60-pound mono (or fluorocarbon)
leader material.

- Step two: Stick the other end of the leader through the eye of the jig, and slide the jig all the way down the leader until it rests against the spoon.

- Step three: Tie a swivel onto the other end of your leader.

- Step four: Grasp the jig and slide it halfway up the leader, pull on the jig to double the leader, then tie a simple overhand
knot in the leader about an inch from the jig. Cinch it down tight.

- Step five: Tie a second overhand knot using the same method and approximately six inches above the first, then cinch down this knot also. This creates the drop from the running line. With practice you’ll be able to turn out this simple rig in a minute or less. The jig runs a little deeper than the spoon and tends to slightly sink the rig, which is usually just enough to keep the spoon from fluttering across the surface. Also, the jig keeps the spoon from generating line twist so you can effectively fish inexpensive barrel swivels with no need to spend big bucks on ball bearing swivels.

Rigging a Protected Planer

Planers are a pain to handle, but they do produce fish, sometimes almost all the fish. Drawbacks include the cost at ten bucks or more apiece, the need to fish with tackle heavy enough to take the strain of the surging planer while underway, and the difficulty in retrieving a set planer without slowing the boat and killing the effectiveness of your entire
spread. After buying a few dozen replacements for mysteriously lost planers I realized that fish were actually striking at the planer, often cutting the taut running line in the process. The solution is simple: rig a short piece of wire leader to the pull ring on the planer, just like you’d rig a short wire leader on an expensive plug. Every time a new planer is removed from its packaging we add a short trace of leader at each end, each terminating in a barrel swivel. The front wire reduces cutoffs (though you’ll still lose a few expensive planers, darn it!) and the rear wire and swivel offers an easier place to tie on a leader than does the hole and grommet in the planer itself. I use a single spoon as the lure behind a planer, with a leader of 60-pound mono that’s six to eight feet long.

Simple Secret Meat Rig

Sometimes something is so simple that you can’t believe that it works. Have you ever caught a mackerel just as you were lifting a lure out of the water? I’ve fished a lot of hours from the bridge of a sportfish boat and from that elevation you see that there are many, many times that mackerel chase baits right to the transom, often turning aside only when the lure is taken away from them, but sometimes succeeding in catching it at the last second. Not only are these fish not frightened of the boat and engine noise, I believe that at least sometimes that they’re attracted to the prop wash. When I began targeting these close-in fish I found that there were some days that we caught more fish within 15 feet of the boat than we did further back. We fish a super-simple rig for this: Tie a single spoon on a leader approximately eight or ten feet long, tie a swivel to the other end of the leader, then put a 2- or 3-ounce egg sinker above the swivel. On our boats the rig is fished from a rod holder on the transom near the center of the boat and is adjusted there is barely enough line out for the sinker to reach the water right behind the boat. If the sinker occasionally bobs in and out of the water, you’ve got it set about right. This keeps the spoon fluttering just beneath the surface 10 or 12 feet behind the transom, and on some days this rig is killer. On an outboard or other small boat without a center rod holder you can have an angler stand near the stern and hold a rod with the tip near the water. Yes, there are days when the fish are spooky and we have to fish extra far astern to catch them, and on these days the short line won’t work.

When there’s a major mackerel blitz underway it can seem like anything that hits the water will get bit, and sometimes this is true, but more often than not there will be some combination of lure size, depth and trolling speed that produces best. Using the three basic rigs described above, here’s how I set up a spread that allows me to present a wide range of offerings:

From my sportfish I’ll fish a 5-rod spread to start, and might have to remove a rod or two if the action gets really hot. How hot is really hot? I’ve had clients with a fish fry in mind who landed a 90 fish limit of Spanish mackerel (six anglers x 15 fish per person) in less than 60 minutes. That’s hot fishing. After such a frenzy it’ll take almost as long to scrub the slime, blood spatters and scales from the boat as it does to catch the fish, and maybe a little more time if we have to give CPR to an exhausted mate.

I start with two planers, a No. 1 and a No. 2, each fished from a rod holder near the stern on opposite sides of the boat. You can troll a No. 1 planer with as little as 20-pound line, but I’d go to 30-pound to handle the strain imposed by a No. 2 planer. I start with the planers set fairly close to the boat with maybe 30 or 40 feet of line out. I then deploy two flatlines, one on each side, using the tandem jig/spoon rig and fished right over top of the two planers by setting the flatline rods in rod holders on each side of the boat. One of the flatlines is fished exactly as rigged above, but on the other I’ll slide a 2-ounce egg sinker above the swivel as a trolling sinker which will get it down a foot or two deeper than the unweighted rig on the other side. The flatlines are run much farther back than the planers, usually 75 to 100 feet behind the boat. Finally, a fifth rod using the secret meat rig described above is set into a rodholder midships with the lure actually spinning right between the lines running down to the planers. With this spread you’ll find that you can turn the boat fairly tightly to stay on your fish because the flat lines on the outside simply swing over top of the planers, which tend to track more inline with the boat.

Fisherman aboard one of the author's boats holds up a Boca Grande mackerel caught on a small spoon.

After deploying our five-rig spread it’s time to fish, and to fine tune the setup for the day’s action. As mentioned above, lure size, boat speed and lure depth are the variables which seem most critical. Boat speed is easy; simply try different trolling speeds. Lure size is also easy to control, though changing it will involve re-rigging. And yes, there are days when the slight difference in size between a No. 1 and a 0 sized spoon will make a big difference. Lure depth is easy, too: On the planers you can get them deeper by feeding out more line, and if you’re getting more strikes on the No. 2, then ditch the No. 1 on the other side and replace it with a second No. 2, or vice versa. The flat lines work the same way: If the unweighted rig is catching more fish than the weighted rig, get rid of the sinker. – FS

Mackerel Madness and More
The Spanish mackerel bag limit is 15 per person; minimum size 12 inches fork length. The fish are great to eat when well-iced and consumed within a day or two of capture, but the quality declines rapidly after that. No sense filling your freezer with mackerel when more are easy to catch using the methods described here.

Trolling 101: Many of the tips shared in this article by Capt. Ralph Allen are appropriate for a great variety of ocean species. The 5-line spread as described, and the three rigs, may be modified to target larger bluewater fish, such as dolphin, wahoo and sailfish. To learn more about the big pelagics on the offshore side of the rip, or check on local fishing reports from fellow anglers, visit the Florida Sportsman Offshore website.

First Published Florida Sportsman Mar.2012