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Spanish Mackerel Fishing Guide: How to Catch, Clean, and Cook

People love eating Spanish mackerel and it’s amazing when cooked fresh.

Spanish mackerel caught on fishing line
Kari Nousiainen with an amazing catch Source

Spanish Mackerel Facts

Common Name Jackmackerel, Horse Mackerel, Spanish Mackerel, Jackfish, Pacific Jack Mackerel, California Jack Mackerel
Scientific Name (Genus and Species) Scomberomorus maculatus (Atlantic Spanish mackerel)

There are many subspecies of mackerel that we’ll be generalizing in this fishing and cooking guide.

Family Scombridae
Identifying Characteristics These are a streamlined fish with a dark green or blue back. Their bellies have a silver color. You’ll notice a dark spot on their upper gill over and will have projecting scales on their lateral line.
Spanish Mackerel Habitat These fish are found from Baja all the way up to Alaska. They can range from near shore to around 1200 miles away.

The younger fish live near shore in the southern warmer waters until they reach around five years old. They are a schooling fish and will stay close to reefs, kelp, and piers.

Larger and older mackerel live offshore but tend to come back from time to time depening on conditions. You can find bigger ones down in Baja or near the Aleutian Islands.

Depth Range Spanish mackerel stay close tot he surface but can go down deep to around 1330 feet.
Spanish Mackerel Fishing Information Spanish mackerel are schooling fish that are popular to recreational anglers especially around piers. Most caught will be less than a foot long. They can be taken on a wide variety of baits such as squid, artificial, and sabiki rigs.

Spanish Mackerel Diet

They eat planktonic organisms like krill, copepods, squid, and other fish.

Spanish Mackerel Size Spanish mackerel have been known to reach 32 inches. They grow fast while young, but after their first year their growing process slows down.

At one year old they are around 8 inches and at four years old they are about 14 inches.

Spanish Mackerel Lifespan Some Spanish mackerel can live up to 35 years.
Can You Eat Spanish Mackerel? Spanish mackerel is OK to eat sparingly. 

Most people will be safe eating 1-2 servings per month.

Endangered Status Least Concerned

For more information about Spanish mackerel (Jackmackerel), check out the Environmental Defense Fund.

Another common mackerel that’s worth catching is the Chub Mackerel (Pacific Mackerel).

Spanish Mackerel (Jackmackerel) Fishing

Well, it’s easy. You go up and down with the line of feathers.

But there are a few little tricks that make life not only easier for you, but they might even catch you a few more fish.

How to Catch Spanish Mackerel

First, you need to find things like birds. Bird activity on the top could be to get an idea of where they are. The birds are eating the smaller fish and the mackerel will be eating them from below.

Spanish mackerel drawing

Generally, the birds will be feeding in the morning. You might come out with your boat see them sitting on the surface. There’s still a chance that there are mackerel under them. That’s one way of doing is by drifting.

Spanish Mackerel Rig

Commercial mackerel anglers string up around 28 feathers at a time on their line. You won’t need to go that extreme, but having a few feathers on your line will help you land a few at the same time.

Word of caution, always watch everybody else on the boat. There are more accidents happening with mackerel feathers than any other type of hook. For gear, pretty much any light to a heavy outfit will work depending on how much you want to fight with the fish.

Spanish Mackerel Lures and Bait

Mackerel aren’t picky and will go for whatever bait you’re using for other fish as well. Make sure you keep everything nice and tight. You could cast out your feathers, but please know that it’s dangerous on a charter boat full of anger. Unless you’re by yourself, I wouldn’t recommend it.

You’ll have a weight on the bottom with your feathers above. Throw on three to five feathers and lower them into the water and let the current take them. You don’t want to drop them down fast, drop them down slowly and in segments. Let it go down a bit and stop it…you’ll land a bite.

Man holding a spanish mackerel
Spanish Mackerel have spots that help you distinguish it from the other mackerel types Source

You don’t ever see bait fish and zooming up and down in six-foot darts. Therefore, treat these feathers with the same movements of small baitfish because that’s what the mackerel will be feeding on.

I found that good tip for catching mackerel. While everyone is busy sweeping down, you’ll want to work it slowly. You’ll end up catch more than the active anglers.

Look Across the Water Column

Spanish mackerel are in different areas of the water column. Lower your line and let it go down. Stop it. Do this over and over again in six-foot intervals. Drop it down. Stop it. Jiggle the feathers on the line a bit. Don’t bother with big sweeps up and down because you know you’re not gonna get those finicky feeders. They’re not all stupid.

When you see the rod tip jiggling, you’ve got a fish on. Some people will wind up right away. I prefer to wind it up slowly. Don’t leave it down there. You will get the most horrendous tangle or three or four mackerel all swimming around and your days of feathering will be over for that day. Wind them in with nice, smooth motion.

If they fall off, do not worry, there are plenty more where they came from.

Spanish Mackerel From a Boat

When the Spanish mackerel are on the boat or fishing kayak, don’t immediately grab the fish by hand. They’re kicking and struggling and below are one or two other feathers that will likely snag your hand.

The proper way to get the fish is by grabbing the lead so they’re hanging horizontally, like a clothesline. Then as you lower them over your fish box, keeping everything nice and tight, you can either take them off by hand or you can turn the hook up-side-down depending on the size of the barb. You should be able to flick them off. This way you don’t get all the slime and scales all over your nice rod handle.

Using a Chum Bag

If you have a chum bag, use it to keep the mackerel close to the boat. Let the feathers down in six-foot increments. Drop, stop, wait, drop, stop, wait, and repeat until you cover the whole water column and catch a fish.

When you get the leg hit the bottom wind up because it doesn’t take much to snag either the lead and or the five or six books you’ve got six chances of losing all your gear. If you hit the bottom, come off at about five or six turns and then you can work it back up all the way up as you did going down.

Spanish mackerel on display

When you’re on a charter boat with a good skipper, they’ll tell you what depth to drop them at. If another guy is catching all the mackerel on the boat, ask him what water level he’s at and also check what feather’s he’s using. You might want to change to his color feathers, what weight he’s using, a number of feathers, etc.

Fishing for Spanish Mackerel at Tide

When fishing at the tide, use a long lead because you want to put it out and leave the rod in the holder, a long lead will keep whipping around in the current. You want a lead that will move your line up and down. Don’t bother with a ball or bomb shaped lead. Those weights go straight down and do nothing to attract your fish.

Shinning Up Your Lead

A tip to help attract fish is to use the inside edge of the knife, to scrape the lead shiny. Make sure you’re cognizant of the lead bits that are flying around, do your best to not let them go in the water.

It might take another day for you to sharpen your knife after scraping, but use a dull edge if you have one instead of a good bait knife. That should last you the day.

Better yet would be to wrap the lead in a shiny adhesive plastic or aluminum tape, then you don’t pollute the water with the lead filings.

Drifting for Spanish Mackerel

Now out on a boat, if you’re drifting and you’re in deep water, use a bigger lead. If the skipper or the other people start catching deep, you can fire that lead down fast you’ll hook one of the Spanish mackerel on the way down. It will stop the lead going through and all mackerels will see the hooked one and think it’s time to eat and will attack your feathers.

They do say if you’re going to use a Spanish mackerel for live, just touch it with a wet towel or wet hands. It’s best not to handle it at all.

In the case of eating them or as regular cut bates then take them off by hand. Remember that your hand will have slime and tiny scales that will get everywhere.

How to Clean Spanish Mackerel

Some people don’t realize that this is an easy fish to clean.

Here’s how to do it: 

  1. Cut behind the head down to the spine.
  2. Flip the knife and slide it along the backbone to the tail.
  3. Remember, the skin is delicate and will come right off after it’s been cooked. You can take the skin off, but it’s not always worth the trouble.
  4. Flip the fish over and do the same on the other side.
  5. Now you have two Spanish mackerel fillets.
  6. Slide the knife under the rips to remove the bones that surrounded the belly.
  7. Run your finger down the center of the fillet and feel where the bones are. Run your knife along both sides all the way through the skin.
  8. Remove those bones.
  9. You have a fillet ready to cook.

Note: for bigger mackerels, run your knife down the backbone a few times like you would a kelp bass or other fish. While holding the meat away from the backbone, do the rest of the steps like above. 

When you do the second side, you can just take the fillet off starting with step 1 above since the fish is flat on the cutting surface.

Spanish Mackerel Recipe

The simplest way to cook Spanish mackerel is to do it on the grill sauteed in butter and garlic.

  1. Saute the fillets in butter and garlic. Add some salt to taste.
  2. Get the grill nice and hot.
  3. Put the fillet on the grill skin side down.
  4. Place a piece of aluminum foil over the top to keep them nice and warm throughout the meat.
  5. After 4-5 minutes remove the cooked piece of mackerel. The skin should stick to the grill and the meat is ready to eat.

Spanish Mackerel Final Thoughts

Spanish mackerel have higher levels of mercury than their cousins the Atka mackerel and Atlantic mackerel. If you choose to eat them, do so sparingly.

It’s great to see that their populations have been rebounding and if it wasn’t for their elevated mercury, these fish would be perfect table fare on the regular.

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