Spanish Mackerel On Live Bait
by Bill Morris

From late summer through the fall, the Spanish mackerel is one of the most reliable game fish along most of our coast. From the beach, Stingsilvers and small Hopkins spoons are the lures of choice. Pier fishermen swear by Gotcha plugs with gold hooks. Small private boats and large charter vessels alike spend countless hours trolling gold and silver spoons.

Live bait is another way to target Spanish mackerel, especially the big ones. Charlie Billings, who splits his time between Chapel Hill and Marshallberg in East Carteret County, likes the challenge of trying to attract larger fish using a technique that is a scaled-down version of live-baiting for king mackerel.

“Any serious king mackerel fisherman knows that live baits work best, especially for the big ones,” he says. “Why would Spanish be any different?”

Billings knows about serious king mackerel fishing, having fished many SKA tournaments in his 23-foot Parker, the Ms. Sea. In 1994 he won the Raleigh Saltwater Sport Fishing Club’s annual tournament with a 54-pounder, the largest fish caught in an SKA-sanctioned event that year. After hip replacement surgery, he’s given up the deep-V Parker and deeper waters in favor of a 22-foot Jones Brothers Bateau, which in fair weather makes a great platform for fishing his favorite spots off the Cape Lookout rock jetty and along the Lookout Shoals.

A trip to the shoals starts with a detour into a creek behind Harkers Island. Billings stands in the bow with his hands full of cast-net, carefully gripping one of the lead weights between his teeth. A few well-timed throws and the live well is brimming with finger mullet and small menhaden—what the Down Easters call “peanut shad.” These brightly colored, oily little “peanuts” make great bait for mackerel, bluefish, and flounder. Their only drawback is that they are not as hardy as mullet, and they don’t live as long in the well or on a hook.

With bait on board, Billings’ shallow-draft Bateau lets him take a shortcut route through a maze of marsh islands, past Cape Lookout Light, and out through Barden’s Inlet. The day is hot with only a whisper of a breeze, but there’s enough current running over the shoals to push the water up in uneven, competing lumps. To the east waves are breaking against a small hogback of uncharted sand known as Shark Island. The water is so clear that the sculpted sand bottom is visible in twelve feet of water.

Billings uses #4 treble hook rigs tied on 40-pound fluorocarbon monofilament. He ties both one- and two-hook versions, snelling the hooks in either case. After years of using wire leaders, he’s become convinced that mono results in more strikes. But Spanish are slashers with razor-sharp teeth, and an occasional cut-off is the inevitable downside of choosing against wire.

Conventional trolling gear is appropriate for live-baiting, although spinning rods can also be used. Drags are set light. The goal is to fish as many baits as you can without tangling; weights aren’t necessary, nor are planers. Keep the motor idling and use an occasional bump into gear to keep the lines spread. Watch for nervous baits—a mullet or menhaden that is twitching near the surface probably means there’s a predator on his tail. In that case, try to inspire a strike by pulling line off the reel to feed the bait back with a more natural look.

On this trip, the first two strikes turn out to be identical 10-pound sharks. They are fun to fight, but not the target species. The next bite comes on a light spinning rod, the kind you might use for speckled trout. This time it’s not a dogfish. Billings doesn’t have a scale on board, but the Spanish he catches needs to be folded a bit to fit in the cooler.

“I’d call a big Spanish anything above four pounds,” says Captain Ken Kramer, whose 54-foot charter boat, the Bluewater, is tied up at the Big Rock Dock in Morehead City. In both summer and fall, he sometimes uses the live baiting-technique to target big Spanish over wrecks and artificial reefs (AR’s). The Liberty Ship AR and the 13 Buoy Wreck are two places he mentions.

“The migration of big Spanish is on right now,” says Captain Kramer. “The very best time is from the middle of September through the middle of October.”

His choice of bait is necessarily different from Billings’, whose much smaller boat gives him access to backwater creeks.

“In the big boat,” Kramer says, “I usually use a Sabiki rig to jig up threadfin herring and cigar minnows near a buoy or over the artificial reef.” A Sabiki rig has between six and twelve tiny gold hooks, and, in an expert’s hands, can catch a few dozen live baits quickly.

On the Bluewater, the terminal rigs are tied with #3 wire. “I start out with two treble hooks, with one dangling free as a stinger. But if the fish are picky I’ll clip the stinger off.” One of the reasons Captain Kramer prefers wire is the good possibility that a king rather than Spanish mackerel will come calling. “Kings,” he says, “will definitely eat a small bait. And I’ve known a big one to take a good-sized Spanish off the line right at the back of the boat.”


Flying Burrito Grilled Spanish Mackerel with Mango-Avocado Yucatan Salsa
“A Spanish mackerel is one of the best fish in the world for grilling,” says Phil Campbell, owner of the Flying Burrito Restaurant in Chapel Hill. “And if it’s fresh, you just can’t beat the flavor.” Campbell recommends removing the rib bones from the fillet, but leaving the skin on. There’s no need to scale a Spanish mackerel, either. The fish’s natural oil keeps it from sticking to the grill, even without oil.

Chop one of each of the following: ripe tomato, avocado, mango, onion. Stir in the juice of two limes, add chopped cilantro and salt and pepper to taste. You can prepare the salsa an hour ahead of time to get the flavors to blend.

Place the fillet meat-side down on a hot grill just long enough to get the marks of the grill seared into the flesh. Turn the fish over, and leave it until it’s as done as you like it. Let the fish get white all the way through, but don’t over-cook.

At the Flying Burrito the dish is served with the salsa heaped in the seam between two fillets. Black beans and sweet potatoes round out this traditional Yucatan meal.
Bill Morris lives and works in Straits in Down East Carteret County. That same sound country is the setting for his first novel, Saltwater Cowboys. Morris is a regular contributor to Our State, NCBoatinglifestyle, and Wildlife in North Carolina magazines, as well as the Raleigh News and Observer outdoors pages. More at: