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

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

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

Overview

Spanish Mackerel is a broad term. There are over 18 species in the genus Scomberomorus. Some types stick only to the Atlantic Ocean, and a few stick to the Pacific.

Note: This article will have some generalizations on the different types, but I hope to break them out individually into their guides in the future.

Let’s get fishing!

Spanish Mackerel Facts

Common NameSpanish Mackerel
Scientific Name (Genus and Species)Scomberomorus maculatus (Atlantic Spanish mackerel)

There are 18 subspecies of mackerel that we’ll be generalizing in this fishing and cooking guide.

FamilyScombridae
Identifying CharacteristicsThese 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 HabitatThe Spanish Mackerel is a coastal pelagic fish that lives in coastal open waters.
Depth RangeThey stick to water at around 68 degrees.
Fishing InformationSpanish mackerels are schooling fish popular to recreational anglers, especially around piers. They love to cluster around rock formations along with the sheephead.
SizeSpanish 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.

LifespanAtlantic Spanish Mackerel can live up to 12 years.

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

Spanish Mackerel 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 easier for you, but they might even catch you a few other fish like the California sheepshead that loves to stay around rocky formations and the Spanish Mackerel.

How to Catch Spanish Mackerel

Firstly, you need to find birds. Bird activity on the top of the water is an excellent indicator to get an idea of where they are. The birds eat the smaller baitfish shoals that the mackerel will target from below.

Spanish mackerel drawing

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

Spanish Mackerel Rig

Commercial mackerel anglers string up around 28 feathers 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 simultaneously.

Word of caution, always knows who’s around you on the boat. More accidents are happening with mackerel feathers than with any other hook type. 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. 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, 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 with some time.

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 baitfish and zooming up and down in six-foot darts. Therefore, treat these feathers with the exact movements of small baitfish because that’s what the mackerel will be feeding on.

I found that a good tip for catching mackerel. While everyone is busy sweeping down, you’ll want to work it slowly. You’ll end up catching 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’ll not get those finicky feeders. They’re not all stupid.

You’ve got a fish on when you see the rod tip jiggling. 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 of 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 turn the hook upside-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 hit bottom, come off at about five or six turns, and then you can work it back up as you did going down.

Spanish mackerel on display

If you’re on a charter boat with a good skipper, they’ll tell you what depth to drop them. If another guy is catching all the mackerel on the boat, ask him what water level he’s at and check what feather he’s using. You might want to change the color feathers, what weight he’s using, the 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 aware of the lead bits flying around and do your best not to let them go in the water.

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

Better yet, wrap the lead in a shiny adhesive plastic or aluminum tape so that you don’t pollute the water with the lead filings.

Drifting for Spanish Mackerel

Now, out on a boat, use a bigger lead if you’re drifting and in deep water. 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 attack your feathers.

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

If 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.

How to Clean a Spanish Mackerel

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 being 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 surrounding the belly.
  7. Run your finger down the center of the fillet and feel where the bones are. Run your knife along both sides 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 above. 

You can just take the fillet off starting with step 1 above when you do the second side 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between Spanis Mackerel and King Mackerel?

The Spanish mackerel has a black spot on its first dorsal fin which is not present in king mackerel. But the king mackerel features a pronounced dip in the lateral line below its second dorsal fin.

What does the mackerel taste like?

The meat has a firm texture that flakes off into small chunks when cooked, but it has a very mild flavor with a slight tone of acidity and oil.

Insider Advice

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 weren’t for their high concentration of mercury, these fish would be perfect table fare on the regular.

Jon Stenstrom
Founder & Angler
Jon Stenstrom is a fishing and spearfishing enthusiast. He's been fishing since he was 5 years old in the backcountry of Yosemite for trout and in the surf near his home in SoCal. Over the past 4 years, he's been spearfishing up and down the coast of California. He started Cast and Spear to help inspire others to get outside and chase their dream fish. Notable catches include spearing a 65-pound white sea bass, large grouper, and yellowtail down in Baja. When he's not in the water, he's usually fishing from his Gregor Baja aluminum boat or inflatable Takacat catamaran.
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