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Catching Spanish mackerel during the holidays in South Florida is the gift that keeps on giving

Anglers who fish offshore or inshore can celebrate the holiday season by catching Spanish mackerel, which are plentiful in South Florida from December through March.

Fishing for the smaller cousin of the king mackerel, or kingfish, has been terrific ever since a voter-approved constitutional amendment to ban gill nets in state waters took effect in Florida on July 1, 1995.

I noticed the immediate improvement that November while fishing off Hallandale Beach with captain Mark Silverstein. A year earlier, we had been thrilled to catch a number of 2-pound Spanish mackerel. On the post-ban trip, we kept mackerel weighing 4-7 pounds.

Those big fish made it that far south because the commercial fleet in Fort Pierce was no longer netting. Those boats were brutally efficient, circling entire schools of mackerel with their large nets.

Thanks to the net ban, Spanish mackerel can be caught in abundance from Stuart to Key West. Top spots include the Peck’s Lake area south of St. Lucie Inlet in Stuart, the offshore waters from Haulover Inlet to Government Cut, Florida Bay and the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

According to captain Bouncer Smith, anglers can locate and catch Spanish mackerel off Miami by trolling with No. 1 planers or 2-ounce cigar leads and some red-bead No. 2 Clark spoons.

The planers, which are rectangular pieces of steel with a clip attached, and the cylindrical weights get the spoons, tied to a 6- to 8-foot leader, down to where the Spanish mackerel hang out.

Mackerel can also be caught drifting with live bait or casting jigs and spoons.

“Bring ample boxes of chum, and if at all possible, glass minnow chum, which is not to be confused with silversides,” Smith said, adding that mackerel can be caught inside inlets out to 90 feet of water, with the best fishing in 20-40 feet off the beach.

“You find where the mackerel are, you anchor up and you chum. Fishing with small live shrimp and small live pilchards, the kids’ll have lock and load action and it’ll be a lot of fun.”

Smith emphasized that the smaller the shrimp, the better.

“The biggest tip on fishing for mackerel with shrimp is don’t pick the big shrimp,” he said. “Real small shrimp will consistently catch a Spanish mackerel. The real big shrimp, if it gets bit, will get bit in half, and always the end without your hook in it. So go with the really small shrimp. The ridiculously smallest one in the bucket. It’s highly effective for Spanish mackerel. Hook it through the head, because you want them to swim very naturally.

“If you want to have a little bit more exciting action, it’s very critical if you’re using a nylon jig or a bucktail, to use the smallest little piece of shrimp on the hook. The bucktail or the nylon jig will dance very pretty, but if you put a big chunk of shrimp on, it won’t. If you use a little teeny piece of shrimp, then the jig will still have great action and it will smell like a shrimp.”

Smith recommended using 1/0 to 3/0 long-shank hooks with the baits, preferably black or bronze, with 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon leaders, which are invisible in the water. He did note that some sharp-toothed mackerel will cut through the leaders, but you’ll get many more bites than if you use wire leaders.

Losing a hook is not a big deal, but losing a lure can be. Smith said anglers who cast spoons, plugs or jigs for mackerel might find fluorocarbon too expensive if they get too many cut-offs, so he suggested using 20-pound titanium wire.

Capt. Richard Stanczyk of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada likes to cast for mackerel in 10-12 feet of water in the Gulf using 6- or 8-pound spinning outfits spooled with 12-pound braided line. He ties a Bimini twist in the braid and attaches the double line to a piece of 20-pound monofilament. The mono is tied with an Albright knot to a short piece of No. 3 wire to prevent cut-offs.

After putting out a chum bag and circling the area with his boat to spread the chum, he anchors the boat and starts fishing with live shrimp. As the bite improves, he’ll use jigs tipped with shrimp, spoons and Rat-L-Traps before picking up a fly rod and casting flashy weighted flies.

To keep a Spanish mackerel, it must measure at least 12 inches from the tip of the mouth to the fork of the tail. The daily bag limit is 15 per angler, which will provide numerous meals for your family and friends. The mild white flesh can be prepared a number of delicious ways, including smoked, broiled, fried or grilled, and it makes excellent ceviché.