Nothing beats a Spanish mackerel when pulling dead baits for billfish. Ballyhoo, mullet, bonito and squid all make great baits, but if you can match the size Spanish mackerel to the size of the billfish you are seeking, there is simply no better dead bait to pull. All the billfish and tuna species will swim out of their skin trying to eat one!
Other mackerel species like cero, sierra and the Aussie "Doggie" mackerel also make great baits since they share the same "compressed" body shape and differ from Spanish only in size and coloration. However, the good old Atlantic-based Spanish mackerel trumps them all on availability.
It's not hard to catch baby Spanish mackerel in sizes that would make them wonderful baits for the smaller billfish species like white marlin, striped marlin and sailfish, but doing so can cause conflict with both state and federal fisheries officers. Fines for keeping illegal mackerel are hefty, making small ballyhoo and finger mullet a better option for sailfish baits. When chasing marlin over 200 pounds, however, Spanish mackerel represent the dead bait of choice - and giant bluefin tuna love them as well!
The Florida gill-net ban in state waters helped Spanish mackerel populations make a big rebound in the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern seaboard. This spawned a huge recreational fishery since current mackerel populations allow even the least-skilled anglers to catch their daily limit - currently 10 per angler. Getting a nice meal for the family and a supply of top bait is easy and fun for all.
Catching and Preparing Spanish Mackerel
Once you locate one of the large, roving schools that Spanish like to congregate in, slow-troll or cast small spoons, plugs or nylon or feather jigs for nearly foolproof action. Soft rubber minnows or curly-tail grubs fished on lead jig heads also work well, but bring plenty of replacement tails. A mackerel's sharp teeth quickly annihilate rubber lures or skirts. In a pinch, threading a couple of beads on a short length of wire ahead of a bare hook works amazingly well.
Most tackle shops know where to find the schools of Spanish mackerel in the area, so check with them before heading out. Once you get close to the recommended spot, look for the fleet of boats that are sure to be working the school. Approach the mackerel fleet slowly and quietly, trying not to cross or get into another boat's "circle." Anglers get their limits on Spanish by staying in a constant turn, circling the spot where they got their last bite. A GPS plotter with the track line on helps keep you in the zone and out of other people's space.
Drifting and chumming with small glass minnows also works great. Small, shiny spoons, jigs or flies all work well, and when fished with trout-weight fly rods or panfish-size spinning outfits, Spanish put up strong fights with blistering high-speed runs. They make a great light-tackle game fish that will thrill younger family members. When eaten fresh, Spanish mackerel also make terrific table fare, although Dad needs to fill his bait requirements before any go on the grill!
While you can easily catch your own, several companies specialize in catching and preparing mackerel for use as trolling baits. However, the quality of frozen baits varies drastically from one shop to the next. You can troll a well-prepared bait for hours without it washing out, and it won't come apart under the savage strike of a blue marlin to sabotage a potential hookup. So when you find a shop that consistently supplies you with top-quality baits, stay with them; even if their bait is slightly more expensive, it will be worth the extra money in the long run.
When catching your own mackerel, you should always carry an extra cooler filled with crushed ice. As soon as you catch your first Spanish, add a pound or two of salt, a cup of baking soda, a capful of formalin solution (formaldehyde gas in aqueous solution) and a large bucket of seawater.
Remove the entrails and rinse out the body cavity of the mackerel as soon as it is dead. Do not leave the fish on the deck, in the sun or in a livewell filled with warm water any longer than absolutely necessary. Since bacterial activity doubles with every 18-degree increase in temperature, potential baits must go into the cold brine almost immediately.
This homemade brine rapidly chills the mackerel to the freezing point of salt water. Water conducts heat much better than air and brings the baits' core temperature down in a small fraction of the time it would take in an air-filled freezer. Prechilling any kind of baitfish to near freezing before they go into the freezer represents one of the best-kept secrets in the bait business.
The baking soda helps preserve the fish's live-color patterns. Anytime you see frozen baits with all their colors intact, you can bet that they were put into a brine/baking soda mixture as soon as they were caught.
A single capful of formalin per 20 gallons of seawater will not cause major changes in the mackerel's flexibility but will inhibit the bacterial activity that makes thawed bait soft. An excess of formalin may coagulate too many proteins, turning the mackerel into something with a mackerel shape but with the consistency of shoe leather. The one-time living thing becomes a fish-shaped lure under the influence of the formalin "juice." While it's almost impossible to get an overly juiced mackerel to swim, it makes a pretty good skip bait that will splash, flop (and often rotate) behind the boat for hours or even days without washing out. Such mackerel make popular high-speed baits for blue marlin.
After soaking in ice-cold brine with either formalin or another potent bactericide, frozen baits compare favorably with ones caught and rigged immediately. It's all in the handling!