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A plan for Spanish: be fast, be mobile when macks are on the move.


Dawn, late March. Water temp 67 I degrees; the incoming tide dark and rolling heavily. Cool wind strong out of the southeast pushing big waves. Knee deep at the edge of the ship channel into Panama City, I brace against the chop and cast a spoon, reaching for the deep, swift water beyond the bar.

Spanish mackerel were here daily the week before, despite water temp not quite to their liking; they should be here today. Lofting the lure far enough into the wind is a challenge. If you shoot it while they are there, you know it fast enough by multiple strikes that jerk through the braided polyethylene line directly to your arms. But for the moment, things are dead. Only the crashing of the waves and their pull on my legs keep me focused.

Then, a hard strike. I back-step for shore with a bent rod, liking the feel of the heavy weight.

"The Spanish are coming! The Spanish are coming!" some young angler yells down that wind-swept sand beach where it all happens each year about this time. The yell echoes across the entire Florida Panhandle, wherever sea meets the bay and the bait runs strong with hordes of mackerel hot on their trail.


My friend Ron Shafer and I had camped out at Panama City's St. Andrews State Park in anticipation of this attack. Ron was in the vanguard of the thing days earlier and alerted me 80 miles from the action with this inciting e-mail:

"I went out there today and caught about 30 of them. I only kept seven as that was all I wanted to carry out. It was great. I caught them left handed, right handed, upside down and backward."

Days later we had a plan of attack. One of the two of us is pushing 80 years of age and the mile-long soft sand hike with backpack gear, rods, sand spikes plus bad knees was less than inviting. Somehow we had to simplify that move and make it less painful and more fun. Knowing Ron is a hiker who thinks nothing of knocking off a handful of miles in an afternoon stroll, I suggested that instead of hoofing it, we ride in style, namely aboard our kayaks. We each own a 35-pound poly-ethylene kayak, the kind you sit inside and can make way in little more than three inches of water. But could we pack everything we needed in such confined spaces? In my case that included a bunch of fishing and camera gear.


Actually, it was easier than we thought. But I whittled down my gear: pre-made rigs, fillet knife, pliers and tools, backup line spools, box of jigs, leads and swivels made for fast replacement, plus a bottle of water. For the camera gear, I stowed a beach towel ground cloth to keep things sand-free. Basic safety gear for the kayak: life vest, safety whistle, flashlight.

It usually takes three days to figure out the new season strategy. One day to get there, one day to learn what lure the Spanish prefer and one day to try for a bulls-eye. This time we whittled it down to two days. One day to learn; one day to perform.

Our first goof-up was the time factor. We started paddling the mile to Sandy Point after first light. By then every big cruiser heading offshore was paralleling us at close range. We spent more time going bow on to keep the disaster factor to a minimum. By the time we finally arrived where the action was it was largely over. Anglers remained around a cove just west of the channel where Ron scored his fish days earlier, but the reason for our being there had already come and gone on deeper into the bay. Clearly we had to move our departure time forward.



Next morning I woke Ron at quarter to four. A half hour to make and down mugs of camp coffee, a Cuban blend guaranteed to wake the dead with the first big swallow. Then we trucked our gear to the bayside launching ramp and in our headlights we packed the yaks, parked the truck and launched.

It was a full moon night. Perfect. The wind was southeast, blocked by the barrier island. Only low chop on the bay as we moved silently through the moonlight, threading our way between the shallow flats I knew lay just inside the channel marker. Then we gained speed and headed for the shadow of distant pines and dunes to our east.

In time we were there and ashore, hauling the light yaks well above the tide line. Stumbling into the darkness with our gear, we made our way along a narrow trail through sawgrass and shrubs. Finally we passed the pines and dropped over the dune to a white beach and wide ribbon of black water marking the ship channel.



In the moonlight we set up shop, buried the spikes, mounted the rods, spread the ground cloth, noted the strength of the wind, the character of the sea and wished we had brought some of that hot coffee to keep us company.

When dawn came we were ready for it. As the first glow tinged the water we shook the chill out of our bones, grabbed our rods and headed for the waves breaking over the white sand plateau in front of us.

Wading in, we went to work. After a few nothing casts and retrieves, the familiar strikes of Spanish mackerel snapped us into full spring-loaded attention.

The first fish that clobbered me provided the old familiar throbbing tugs and frantic runs I had been waiting to feel all winter. I rapped the fish on the noggin with my de-hooking pliers then slid it into a fast-dug trench, covering it with wet sand to thwart the watchful herons.

As time went on, the row of buried Spanish increased. So did the anglers. They came by droves, lining the sandy point from one end to the other. By midday we had caught and released a satisfactory number while keeping just enough for supper.


We retreated to the nearby cove where Ron promptly caught a nice pompano that thought his silver spoon was just what he liked. Ron spiked a stringer behind him and continued fishing. When no more pomps appeared, he expressed his admiration for these fish and turned his catch loose to fight another day.

We climbed back aboard our lightweight craft and relaxed as the breeze nudged us back toward camp.

Spanish from Shore A Panhandle Specialty

Ocean piers across the Florida Gulf and Atlantic coasts host spring runs of Spanish mackerel. The handful of Gulf piers in the far western quarter of the state are legendary. Best fishing times are early morning and late afternoons. Hot lures in the region include Gotcha plugs and silver Clark spoons.


Fresh Macks

Spanish mackerel become widespread along both Florida coasts in March. Schools offish move north as water temps approach the 70-degree mark. They are a staple among pier, surf and small-boat anglers. These aggressive fish strike nearly any small, shiny lure or fly. On light tackle, the fight is enjoyable, though the outcome is seldom in doubt. Unusual specimens may weigh upward of 8 pounds, but typical run fish are 1 to 2 pounds. They are good to eat. For best flavor, slice the gills to bleed out the fish, then slice the bottom of the belly longitudinally, remove the organs, and rinse in salt water. Always best to get mackerel on ice as quickly as possible. Shore anglers may be forced to put fish on a stringer or bury in a shallow sand trench for a period; during Florida's cool spring months, this practice is commonplace.

Spanish Mackerel Florida Regs

Size limit: 12 inches minimum fork length

Bag limit: 15 per person

License: If a boat or other vessel is used, whether as fishing platform or mode of conveyance to a shore-fishing spot (as in the main story), a saltwater fishing license is required of most anglers, with some exceptions (under 16 years of age, over 65). Florida residents may fish from shore in salt water without a license. Licensed charterboats and most saltwater piers (call to confirm) cover daily license obligation for fishing there, resident or non-resident.

Some Sites

PENSACOLA REACH GULF PIER: 41 Pickens Road. Open 24 hours a day. Modest fee charged. Best times: Early and late. Check with local anglers there.

OKALOOSA ISLAND FISHING PIER: 1030 Miracle Strip Parkway East at Ft. Walton Beach. Open 24 hrs. Modest fee. Best times: Early and late.

DAN RUSSELL CITY FISHING PIER: 16101 Front Beach Road at Panama City Beach. Open 24 hours. Modest fee.

MB MILLER COUNTRY PIER: Coastal Highway 98, two miles west of Panama City. Free admission. Open 24 hours.

ST. ANDREWS RECREATIONAL AREA GULF FISHING PIER AND JETTIES: On Thomas Drive and U.S. 98. Park entry fee. Both Gulf and bay fishing piers. Anglers walk or boat to Sandy Point (north end of the jetties) from this site. Use parking lots for Gulf Pier and north jetty fishing. Check with park rangers or anglers for current information.

ST. GEORGE ISLAND PIER off U.S. 98 at bridge to St. George Island. Beside both entry and exits to the island's new bridge are the old bridge fishing piers open 24 hours. No admission fee. Park in parking areas and carry fishing gear out onto the bridge to fish. No vehicles allowed.

MEXICO BEACH PUBLIC PIER on U.S. 98 at Mexico Beach east of Panama City. Open 24 hours. No admission fee.
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Title Annotation:Spanish mackerel
Author:Burgess, Bob
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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