The old man was weathered with brown skin. The back of his neck looked like a old leather. His hands were slow and graceful but, hard and calloused and littered with scars and a broken finger or two. He wore khakis and a white linen cotton long sleeve shirt. His old straw hat had Spanish mackerel scales all over it and there was a giant tear in the straw were his hair poked through. Sperry top siders and a can of snuff plus a jack knife in his khaki pocket. He knelt down to load the smoker with a rack of “Spanish Mackerel “ fillets. Ten racks in total the button wood was scarcely placed on the floor. He was as concentrated as the smoke stains that lined the walls of the smoker. He spoke very softly a southern drawl and communicated so times with just a sound and the stare of his blue eyes. He’s from frog creek which is south of the big city of Tampa. He marveled about the fat in the belly of these Spanish mackerel and explained that he use to get two cents a pound if they were salted. With the coals hot and smoke bellowing from the smoker he handed me a box of Mustads and a coil of wire and together we began to wrap wire.
Spanish mackerel fishing of the southwest coast of Tampa is a treasure just as that old smoker. The abundance of bait and the Mackerel migration from south to north is a winning combination to enjoy some great sport fishing on light tackle. Spinning rods and a livewell full of bait. An all-day adventure catching a great tasting fish. Spanish Mackerel are fast swimming fish the can be caught on artificial spoons, shrimp, and sardines. The average fish is two to three pounds and can reach up to seven pounds. They can be caught on the fly as well.
The Spanish Mackerel are usually traveling with Bonito’s as well which is a false tuna. Although there’s no food source for this fish it’s a great fight on a spinning rod. There’s liberal size and bag limits on these fish. They can be cooked many different ways and are easily cleaned.
Catching a live well full of bait and heading off the beach to anchor up. The Mackerel are chummed up by the live bait and bonitos as well. Creating a feeding frenzy seagulls and terns join in as well. The clean blue waters of the gulf reflecting abundant sunshine. Mackerel breaking the surface chasing bait fish. Light wire is used to prevent break offs since these fish have many sharp teeth. As the “bite “ peaks it’s common to have four poles with fish on at the same time . A fast swimmer the Mackerel rips line off the reel the soft tip spinning rods prevent this soft mouthed fish from pulling the hook.
A dehooker is used to release under sized fish without harming the Mackerel or the angler.The Spanish mackerel has an Aqua green back and silver sides speckled with golden spots. A beautiful fish in appearance and shaped for speed very slender with a fairly large tail.
Being in the sunshine for most of the day fresh cut cold fruit and plenty of cold liquids are a essential since there no shade just shadows of the birds also feeding on the scaled sardines. It’s amazing that all this wildlife and action can be found just off the coast of “Hot Tampa “.
The old Mackerel fishing guide spoke of days when millions of pounds of Mackerel were caught and salted and then barreled and shipped faraway. The smell of these schools would hit you first before you even saw them. The sweetest watermelon you’ve ever smelled. That’s when you knew you were heading the right way. Then the sky would be black with seabirds of every kind and the blue waters would froth white as his lien long sleeve shirt.” That was a long time ago “he said to me as he stoked the smoker with wood staring into the fire as if it was yesterday. He pulled two fillets from the rack and wrapped them in some paper and gave me a hug and handed me the perfectly smoked Spanish Mackerel. His blue eyes shimmering under is worn out straw hat.
Story by Captain Leighton Ingram