The return of the Spanish mackerel

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A welcome surprise awaits recreational anglers who can remember its abundance over 40 years ago

A welcome surprise awaits recreational anglers who can remember its abundance over 40 years ago

The scene is emblazoned in my brain and I remember as if it was yesterday.

Some 40 years ago my father and I were aboard one of hundreds of boats anchored in the southern portion of Biscayne Bay in Miami.

Each boat had a chum bag hanging off the transom. Each boat had cheerful anglers, catching Spanish mackerel from what we all perceived then was a never-ending fishery.

But as time evolved and the 1960s became the ’70s, the frenetic mackerel fishery in Biscayne Bay was not quite as productive. By the 1980s, anglers had a better chance to catch an elusive bonefish on the flats in Biscayne Bay than a Spanish mackerel.

There was much debate as to what happened. Some experts blamed the fishery decline on a supposed warmer Biscayne Bay, caused by the cooling channels for a nuclear reactor installed to generate electricity.

But the cause came into sharp focus for me one day while fishing off Miami Beach in the late 1980s.

We were in close view of sun-drenched beaches, filled with tourists, and amid a large school of mackerel catching fish almost like the “good ole days.”

A single-engine Cessna suddenly appeared overhead and circled the area. A half-hour later, two large commercial fishing boats arrived and set out lengthy gill nets.

The boats circled around to close their nets and workers feverishly hauled them aboard. Thousands of mackerel rolled on decks. That’s when I truly understood.

That was the last day, for a long time, I purposely fished for Spanish mackerel. I figured we’d never see schools of that fish again in South Florida.

In search of a savior

Other recreational anglers throughout Florida experienced the same scenario. Spanish mackerel was not the only species severely depleted because of the large nets. Redfish, sea trout, pompano and mullet stocks declined.

“History has shown that over commercial fishing by those big gill nets, was the reason for the absolute slaughter of mackerel,” says Florida Sportsman Magazine founder Karl Wickstrom.

The magazine, along with sportsmen and conservation groups, took the lead in the early 1990s mounting a campaign to eliminate use of gill nets and other nets exceeding 500 square feet in Florida waters. The ban pitted Florida’s recreational fishermen and commercial fishermen in a bitter culture clash, but on Nov. 8, 1994, the Florida electorate voted 2,876,091 to 1,135,110 in favor of the ban. It took effect July 1, 1995.

The macks are back

Richard Stanczyk, owner of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in the Florida Keys, pulled back the throttles of his B’nM and we idled as he inspected the depth finder. Meanwhile, chum bags laid a slick of fine ground fish and oil on the surface of Florida Bay, following an 85-minute run from the dock in Islamorada.

Stanczyk located suitable bottom structure and the anchor was set.

The chum continued to flow and we began fishing with 6- and 8-pound test spinners affixed to Hookup Lure jigs tipped with a live shrimp.

It didn’t take long for the first mack to come aboard.

As the day progressed and the sun warmed the air, the mackerel fishing was even hotter. Shrimp were no longer needed, and the fish were slung over the transom in quick succession.

On light tackle, the first run of a mack can be long and speedy. Often they will race toward the boat, endeavoring to fool the angler that it has thrown the hook. Many times, other fish follow a hooked mack, snapping at swivels and line knots.

I flipped out a Clark spoon and a big mack seemingly hit it before it even landed. Stanczyk broke out the fly rod and everyone took turns catching mackerel on fly.

I was reliving my childhood. The impossible had indeed happened. The fishery I had thought could never recover has indeed done so, and it’s back in various parts of Florida at levels never imaginable to me.

The once-hopeless scenario is possible because, according to most fishery experts, more Spanish mackerel are available to reproduce and large nets are no longer intercepting huge schools of fish migrating along the east and west coasts of Florida.

The go-to fish

“Spanish mackerel is probably the most underrated sportfish in the Keys,” says Steven Lamp, a Key West guide who owns Dream Catcher Charters. “There’s easy access [to the fishery] and they don’t require a huge amount of skill and talent to feel like a hero.”

Lamp says most of his mackerel fishing is accomplished in Key West Harbor.

“In windy weather, Spanish mackerel bail us out time after time,” he says. “There’s no stress, no seasickness and it’s a great family fishing activity. On those 25-knot days I wouldn’t be much of a fishing guide if I couldn’t catch fish and those mackerel save the day.”

In the Keys, Spanish mackerel begin showing up in November and are prevalent through April.

Stanczyk likes water temperatures above 70 degrees and clear green water color. Tidal flow, to disperse chum, is crucial and Stanczyk prefers the tide and wind to be running in the same direction.

A 3/8-ounce hookup jig with shrimp is the ideal bait, but when mackerel get into a feeding frenzy, almost any small lure will work. Mackerel have extremely sharp teeth, so light leader wire is imperative. I prefer the new high-tech knotable leader wire.

Light tackle, for maximum enjoyment, is imperative for Spanish mackerel. Fishing with anything above 12-pound-test destroys the fun of the sport.

Florida fishing laws have a bag limit of 15 Spanish mackerel per angler and the minimum fork-length for keepers is 12 inches.

Not just the Keys

While macks have returned to Biscayne Bay, the numbers and angling consistency are not yet at levels seen during my childhood. But as each year passes, the fishing in the bay improves.

Spanish mackerel are also caught off Florida’s east and west coasts. Wickstrom highlights an area about two miles south of Stuart’s Saint Lucie Inlet. The depression in the ocean floor there is known locally as Peck’s Lake and it attracts scores of fishermen.

“The return of the fishery has been astounding,” Wickstrom says.

For Stanczyk, 62, who grew up in Miami and shares my similar Spanish mackerel angling memories, the return of the fish is nothing short of a miracle.

“I’d never thought in my lifetime that I’d come out here and see mackerel fishing like this,” he says. “It’s as good as it was when I was a kid.”

If you go

Bud N’ Mary’s Fishing Marina: (800) 742-7945, www.budnmarys.com

Dream Catcher Charters: (888) 362-3474,

www.chartersofkeywest.com

Florida Keys Visitors Bureau: (800) FLA-KEYS,

www.fla-keys.com