Spanish mackerel—fly-rod fun with chum
- By: Chico Fernandez
WE WERE ANCHORED IN 12 FEET of water, a few miles from the Florida Everglades mainland, looking for mackerel. Or, I should say, we were waiting for Spanish mackerel to come to our chum line. It felt like mackerel weather: windy and cold. We had taken a few small jacks and bluefish, and a mangrove snapper on a fast-sinking line, but no macks.
To increase our chances, every few minutes one of us would stand up, get a handful of glass minnows and toss them in back of the skiff to drift with the rest of the chum, just to sweeten the pot. And while standing, I would take time to scan the area for fish breaking the water’s surface while feeding in the chum line, often 50 yards back from the boat. Using a 7-weight rod and my slow-sinking mono fly line, I made a 70-foot cast behind the boat, let the line sink a few seconds and started a fast retrieve with a Glass Minnow fly. The strike was so hard and unexpected that it ripped the fly line out of my hand.
The loose line rushed through the rod guides and before it engaged the reel, the fish was gone. Not surprising since I didn’t get a chance to set the hook. I cast again, saw the fly plop on the surface and a fish break to take it right away. I set the hook and the line flew through my fingers at lighting speed. I knew I had a nice-size mackerel, for sure. My angling friend, on the opposite side of the flats skiff, made a back-hand cast into the chum line and instantly hooked up; by now there were mackerel all over the chum line, some only a few yards from the boat’s transom. For an hour or so, we hooked fish at will and kept a couple for dinner. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone.
And no amount of chum and glass minnows would bring them back. That’s part of chumming. One moment things are slow and you’re eating a sandwich partly to kill time, and the next moment there are fish all around the boat as you desperately false-case to the crashing fish, the sandwich left on a hot seat cushion and the soda can rolling back and forth on the skiff’s floor. What a great change of pace from the relative quiet of sight-casting on the saltwater flats!
Fishing for Spanish mackerel is fun. And a large one can be an exciting fish, especially on a light fly rod. He can take the fly at full speed or barely sip it in, and then when he feels the hook he takes off so fast you’d think he was in overdrive.
Few fish of that size in the salt are as fast as macks are. Colder weather drives mackerel south from the Gulf of Mexico on the west coast of Florida and from the mid-Atlantic on the east, and by winter many are even south of Key West. Every section of coastline has a particular water temperature and time of year when the mackerel are “in.” But in many areas, wind direction and the arrival of large schools of baitfish or shrimp can also mark the beginning of mackerel season.
Even if you haven’t been able to keep up with the right conditions, the word quickly gets around among anglers (check at a boat dock or launch ramp, for instance) or call a local fly shop (consider this if you’re visiting Florida this winter) and they’ll be glad to give you the latest news. Once you know mackerel are in the area, you have to get ready ahead of time.
You’ll need several blocks of frozen chum. Depending on water temperature and current, a block will last up to an hour, often less. So figure out how long you want to fish and buy your chum accordingly. There’s nothing worse than having mackerel all around you when you’re running out of chum.
And, while you’re at it, get some frozen glass minnows; toss a handful like confetti every few minutes and further motivate the mackerel and other game fish to stop by the feeding party. Okay, the day arrives and you leave the marina at the crack of dawn headed for the general coastal area that mackerel visit every year when they’re migrating. Now what to do? If I were you, I wouldn’t rush to anchor and chum, yet. Instead, I’d run the boat and look for birds wheeling and diving.
Use a pair of binoculars to help you see a good distance. I always carry a pair, in my case Zeiss 8 X 20s because they’re compact and easy to store in a fishing bag. If you find diving birds and fish are crashing the water’s surface, you’re in the zone. Now make sure you don’t run directly through the school with your boat or you’ll put them down. (I know you know that, but in the excitement we’ve all made this mistake.) Try to run ahead of the school and, with some visual calculations, shoot up-wind or up-tide of the fish so you drift within casting range.
If you have an electric motor on your flats boat, this is a great way to approach the school, especially on a calm day when you aren’t drifting very fast, if at all. When within casting range, target the breaking fish; but if they go down or move, keep blind-casting all around, as there may be schools cruising under the surface. If you only hook jacks and ladyfish, remember that often there may be mackerel beneath them. So either let the fly sink longer or, better yet, try a fast-sinking fly line.
If you see fish surface in the distance (again, use those binoculars!), you may want to run and get in position again. However, after a few attempts of chasing the school and putting them down, it’s best to leave them and find another school, or just go anchor up and chum.
Marine biologist and Florida fly fisher Aaron Adams gave me another idea. When he doesn’t see diving birds, he looks for areas where many gulls are just sitting on the surface, “rafting,” as if nothing is happening. He waits a few minutes, and often the feeding starts again—the birds take off and start diving—and he’s right in the middle of the action. Good idea. Once the birds are gone, or if you don’t find any bird action at all, it’s time to chum and let the mackerel find you. For starters, you need an area with a running tide to move the chum.
On a slack tide I’m either running to find moving water, or I’m having lunch. Once anchored, put the chum bag over the side so it can immediately start to work for you. Tie off the bag so a small portion is kept out of the water. This way, movement of the boat will constantly be shaking the bag up and down, producing a constant flow of chum and fishy scent. Every few minutes, as an added incentive, and one that works very well, toss those glass minnows, spreading them all around the back of the skiff. As a rule of thumb, I give each place 20 minutes to produce before I try another place, 30 minutes if there is lots of bait fish feeding on the chum and it just looks like a good spot. When your chum line is set, and there are a few glass minnows drifting back with the chum, start casting. At the beginning, you’re better off making a long cast because some of the bigger fish may not come too close to the boat, and often the real big fish will never get too close. A 60-foot cast or longer is good range.
If I don’t get any action after a few minutes, often I give it a break, and then go back and cast again. If I take a few fish and they stop hitting the fly, but there seem to be a few fish around, I may also give them a break and try again with a different fly. I often start with a fast retrieve, but if that doesn’t work I’ll slow it down, or even dead drift the fly with the chum. I’d change retrieves first before changing flies. It seems every day is different.
Chico Fernandez lives in Florida, and is one of fly-fishing’s leading teachers. He is the author of Fly-Fishing for Bonefish.