Picture a saltwater bream that weighs up to 20 pounds, with the same “never quit” attitude as a jack crevalle, and you’ll understand the appeal of Atlantic spadefish.
Spadefish are widely distributed in ocean waters of the Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic. Where I fish, in northeastern Florida, we find spadefish on pilings of the brackish creeks up any river, and the wrecks 40 miles off Mayport. One thing these fish really zero in on is the cannonball jellyfish—the odd “jelly balls” that delight grand-kids on trips offshore.
Though spadefish will respond to chum comprised of crushed clams, shrimp and other mollusks, nothing fires them up faster than jelly balls. The jellies, with their firm, mushroom-like form and short tentacles—are sometimes easy to find around inlets and tide lines. They can be dipnetted and tossed into a cooler with the rest of your dead bait. Take a word of wisdom from someone who learned the hard way: Do not, under any circumstances, place a jelly ball in your livewell with the bait you’ve been accumulating all week for other species. One jelly ball will take out a whole livewell full of sardines, cigar minnows and pogies.
Finding spadefish is easier than you might imagine. Just find the biggest wreck or natural ledge around and run over it. If there’s a huge mark of fish above the wreck there’s good chance you’re in spades. This process can be made much easier by picking a slick calm day to fish on. In the daysbefore loran and GPS, oldtimers would often find wrecks by watching for spadefish finning on top.
Nothing on the surface? No sweat. Just take a rigging needle and pull your fishing line through 3 or 4 jelly balls and secure it to an 8- to 12-ounce bank sinker. Hand the rod to the closest kid, and have them slowly lower it toward the bottom. If there’s spadefish around (and there usually is) it won’t take long for your angler to start feeling constant nibbling on the string of jelly. Believe me, it’s an impressive sight when all the spades get a whiff of jelly and come to the surface en masse.
Your best plan of attack is a 12 to 20-pound spinner with a 6-foot piece of 20-pound fluorocarbon and a 1/8-ounce weight suspended 18 inches above a 3/0 livebait hook. I will even bypass the swivel, opting instead for a toothpick shoved in the hole through the sinker to keep the sinker off the bait. Spades may seem aggressive when chewing on the jelly string, but they are notorious for shying away from terminal tackle.
I’ve caught spades on tiny pieces of live shrimp and tiny pieces of fresh cuttlefish. In fact I will now endow you with a secret method whispered about over many ancient campfires. Captain Jimmy Gavin could always fire up a kid aboard his party boat by casting a spinner into a school of spades with a wad of toilet paper on a tiny hook. Yes, I said toilet paper.
Certainly the easiest, and most effective bait I’ve ever found are strips of jelly ball. Much like a tripletail, the take of a spadefish takes a while, and it’s key that they feel no resistance while they are nibbling the bait. Give them plenty of slack then tighten up and stick them.
You can keep the school around by leaving a hooked one in the water, but I’ve had better success by simply lowering the weighted string of jellies back to the bottom and then slowly raising it again.
Are they edible? Well, spadefish will never be confused with triggerfish on the table, but there are ways to serve them. The old standby is to cut away the dark meat, and then fry in hot grease. Here’s another, healthier way to enjoy them:
Heat minced garlic in a pan with stick of butter until it melts (use more or less garlic depending on your taste). Place fillets in foil and put onion slices around them. Pour melted butter over fillets, sprinkle with Old Bay to taste and coat lightly with Italian dressing. Grill until you can slip a fork through fillets—not too long, maybe 5 minutes or so. FS