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NIRVANA Vintage Click Pawl Reels on a Sweet Deal
NIRVANA Vintage Click Pawl Reels on a Sweet Deal

What is a Mackerel

Spanish for Sure
Mackerel are your best winter bet on fly.
By Mike Conner, Managing Editor

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.

Even a 2-pound mackerel makes spirited runs and puts an impressive bend in a light fly rod.
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.

~Ref: By Mike Conner,, Aug 2010