Spanish Tricks, By Dr. Bogus (published in Raleigh N&O)
Sure, North Carolina offers the possibility of year round coastal fishing opportunities, but disappointingly, every fall many anglers pack the fishing gear away until the daffodils return. So, sometime around the Ides of March, depending on the personal severity of winter “cabin fever”, the tackle starts mysteriously reappearing from its winter hibernation with hopes of renewal, a new season and yes, fish. March, the cruelest month of all, now provides us the early season opportunity of sitting huddled in the cold and wind and maybe rain on a beach or pier occasionally dragging in the likes of sharks, rays, skates and maybe a few blowfish and sea mullet. By April, schools of spots start to show, and bluefish show, but by May, when water temperatures are finally approaching 70-degrees, it’s time for Spanish mackerel.
Yes, the cry, “the Spanish are coming, the Spanish are coming” now rises from the piers. Why are the Spanish so anticipated each May? As pier regular Steve Ellsworth (Swansboro) exclaimed, “Spanish mackerel, my favorite fish is Spanish mackerel, I love fishing for Spanish, I live for that. It’s an action fish; I my mind they fight better than any other fish. You get screamers. Especially on light tackle.” Ellsworth is joined by many anglers, who are willing to stand side by side from the piers to catch these spunky mackerel.
Typically, the Spanish macks return in a blitz condition in early May and along Carolina’s Crystal Coast, and May Day has been synonymous with the return of the Spanish. This long awaited return of the Spanish, for many is the real start of the new year’s new fishing season.
This is however fairly remarkable, since barely a decade ago, the fishery was on the verge of collapse from over fishing in the 1970s and 1980s, but now is a shining light of successful fisheries management. At this time here in North Carolina the creel limit is now up to 15 Spanish mackerel per day, and the average fish is getting noticeably bigger and bigger every year.
To find out the fool proof methods of catching this prized mackerel, we went to the local piers, which are some of the great places to fill your cooler these smaller of the mackerel. What are the best and most used baits for Spanish? When asked, Ed Parker (Manager, Iron Steamer Pier Pine Knoll Shores) looked at the peg board behind him and said, “ To me the best baits are the ¾-oz. Hopkins spoons and of course the most popular are the Got-cha plugs. Red and white and green and white are by far the best sellers. We also sell red and silver (metal) and the red and chartreuse or red and glow in the dark ones. Some people try the ones with spots or sparkles of the one with the Carolina blue head, but always come back to the red and white or the green and white.”
Got-cha plugs are most popular on the piers due to their front lead weighted design, a must while fishing on the pier, their great action and of course, they simple catch fish. Another feature that shouldn’t be overlooked about the Got-Chas are the hooks, the two sets of extremely sharp gold hooks, a trademark of these baits. As Danny Glover (Emerald Isle) pointed out, “ I think that they (the gold hooks) are a key to the Got-Cha plugs, they provide a lot of flash and another main thing is the sharp points on the hooks…you just won’t hook-up unless they are needle sharp.”
Some creative fisherman like Ellsworth, “field modify” their Got-cha plugs to their own, and hopefully to the fish’s liking. “Ya, I sometime make my own”, said Ellsworth, “40-years of fishing you know. I modify them, sometimes put a lighter head on, cut the slant on it, actually round it off so it stays on top and gives better action too. Other times I may use gold flake or silver flake. I’ll paint the side with a stripe mainly for visibility. And sometimes I use a marking pen and put dots or a wavy line to simulate the scales.” Holding a green and white Got-cha plug with hand marked dots and spots Ellsworth said, “They couldn’t stay off this one last year.”
Two treble hooks, six hooks, needle sharp, now that really comes into play during what is affectionately referred top as a Spanish blitz! If you’ve ever been in one, you know what I mean, if not, here is how Glover describes a recent blitz. “We got in the middle of one this morning”, said Glover, “I’d say there were probably 50-fish pulled over the railings. It’s shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes sideways-to-sideways with Got-Cha plugs flying, so it gets pretty hectic. It’s dangerous; everybody’s got to watch everybody. You get some got-Cha plugs bouncing off the deck lot of them are cut off in the water… it’s pretty dangerous especially behind the fisherman.”
So do people get hooked? “Usually if it’s a blitz, said Glover, “you’re real lucky if you don’t get at least one guy with a hook in his hand or shoulder.”
And that’s only the half of it too, what about all the fish debris? It also gets real slick,” laughed Glover, “the fish are spitting up baits, silversides and stuff, they will be laying there, and soon it’s mush and the slime off the fish, people sliding around… And once in a while you’ll get somebody that decides to change his plug behind another guy on his knees, and there he is with his head with his head right in the road.” Ouch! Get the idea?
As we can see, during a Spanish blitz, the final destinations of the sharp golden hooks are often unintentioned, fingers, shirts, pants, foreheads and other bodily parts and appendages. Ouch #*@%&*!! Don’t get me wrong, Got-Chas are great, Got-Chas are good and we thank Sea Striker for all those fish, but there are alternatives?? Sure!
1) Remove one of the trebles, this way the only hooks are the ones in the fish.
2) Mash the barbs, just keep the pressure on your fish and you capture rate will be nearly the same as with barbs, just your personal bodily release rate will go up dramatically. I firmly believe in the rule of easy in, easy out! Go barbless.
3) Switch to the single hook Got-Cha with a treble up front and a single hook bucktail in the back, again fewer hooks to worry about in the heat of battle.
Although sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, there are other baits that can make quick work of Spanish mackerel. One I call the bare and the baitless, yes the naked gold hook rigs. Gold hook rigs are analogous to the very effective “Sabiki” bait catcher rigs, popular with the live bait king mackerel crowd. Nani Palmer (Cary) describes how she makes hers. “I usually make them myself with 40-pound test line so I don’t get cut off (at least not too often), said Palmer, and tie five number-2 gold hooks all in a line, about 10-inches apart using a figure-eight knot. For weight, I use a 1.5-oz. gold diamond jig on the bottom end, it gets down and stays down with that weight and casts well too.”
The use is pretty straightforward. “You can cast and retrieve or even easier, just drop it off the pier and jig up and down” said Plamer. “I prefer to use them (over Got-chas), they’re easy to use and I catch lots of Spanish, but not only Spanish, pompano, bluefish and bait like shad too, I’ve even caught spots on them.”
There are lots of other effective artificial baits to use, and the goal is to match the hatch. When shad are around, the pumpkinseed shaped Rat-L-Traps are dyno-mite, mimicking the small grass shad, threadfin or menhaden (a.k.a., peanut bunker), and it is pier friendly, tending to dive and stay in the water, even though you are pulling up on the bait from above.
Spanish just love glass minnows and anchovies…French fries as it were to the Spanish mackerel. Artificials that are great imitators are any of the straight soft plastic grub baits such as Trout-Killer or Fin-S grubs. Stick with the clear or white with or without sparkles and slide them onto a hefty 5/8-oz. white lead jig head. The baits can be “plugged” just like a Got-cha plug and with the heavy 5/8-jig, give the nice enticing darting the Spanish love. One advantage to these soft plastic baits is that they too can be field modified, i.e. shortened if necessary to mimic the actual size of bait in the water. Spanish are notoriously very size picky, and won’t eat baits that are too big or too small.
Finally, some of the biggest Spanish every year are bagged on live-lined baits, but what are the best baits? “Oh I’d say a thread herring, said Ellsworth. On a king rig I use one about a 10-inch, but a regular rig, I just use a single hook and about a 3 or 4-inch shad bait. Silversides or a mullet or little spot are good too.”
“Rigging is pretty simple,” said Ellsworth, “I take a single hook and put it right behind the head of the fish and just let them swim free.” Like Ellsworth, most use a number-2 gold hook with 30 to 40-pound test line, remember these fish have sharp teeth.
There are other live bait rigs used on the pier by some, as Ellsworth explained, “I don’t use it but some use what’s called a slider rig. That’s where they throw a weigh out on the end of a line and slide a little live bait right down the line using a snap swivel and a leader.” “Personally I like the free swimming better,” said Ellsworth, “I like to watch them eat the fish; I can see them hit it. Seeing the hit, the strike is one of the most fun parts of fishing.”
Glover agreed, describing a hungry Spanish stalking a bait, “They’ll just come right up, a lot of times they will just come up and look,” said Glover “and all at once it’s just a big rip and he’s gone.”
So there it is, Spanish mackerel fishing in a nutshell, metal and plastic, or live bait, it’s your choice, and this year looks like a good one, full of citation Spanish and all.
Know your mackerel or pay the price. Check http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/recreational-fishing-size-and-bag-limits .
First of all, before you catch some Spanish, you better know your Spanish or you may pay the price. Spanish look-alikes include cero mackerel and most importantly king mackerel, which if you misidentify can co$t you big buck$. To positively ID the Spanish, check the lateral line, which has a gradual drop compared to the sharp drop in the king mackerel. If this sounds too technical, just look for the distinctive black spot on the front of front dorsal fin. It’s easy to see and clearly marks the Spanish mackerel (and cero) and is totally absent in the king mackerel.