They aren't the biggest fish swimming in the ocean, rarely getting to the 5-pound mark; they're fairly tasty as fish go, but not outstanding. When hooked, they doesn't put up a particularly good fight. Although Spaniards are fairly attractive, but they're not going to measure up to a mahi-mahi.
But Spanish mackerels have several things going for them. They are among the first migratory gamefish to arrive off the South Carolina coast, and when they arrive, it's usually in good numbers.
Oh, and they're fairly easy to catch.
"When they're biting, a blind man can catch 'em," laughed Jeff Fisher, a charter captain who also operates Capt. Jeff's Yacht Service in Calabash.
His buddy, Capt. Danny Juel of Little River, agreed wholeheartedly.
"It's pretty basic fishing; anybody can pull it off," he said. "They're not real choosy."
But from the middle of April on, they're around – within reach of most fishermen who own small, seaworthy center console boats, and often in reach of pier and surf fishermen.
Schools of Spanish mackerel show up at inshore and nearshore reefs and rocks, shadowing the movement of schools of glass minnows - tiny, shiny baitfish. They may feed down in the water column, at or near the surface, depending on water conditions and where the bait shows up. If they're on the surface, the presence of diving sea birds will often give away the position of pods and schools of the "prince mackerel."
Fisher, Juel and Mark Dickson of Shallow Minded Charters all work out of Little River Inlet at the North Carolina-South Carolina border. They regularly chase Spanish in the early spring, taking advantage of the aggressive, hungry mackerel to fill the coolers of their guide parties.
Dickson spends most of his time in the flatwaters and backwaters of the Grand Strand, but he'll often head out the inlet during weekends when the creeks and marshes are too crowded for his tastes.
Like Fisher and Juel, he trolls spoons down on planer boards, but he said: "When I come out of the inlet, I have 8- or 10-pound spinning outfits with Stingsilvers tied on in case I stumble on a group of fish on top, so we can cast to 'em."
Fisher and Juel target Spanish more often, and they can easily plot their movements from their first appearance in mid-April until they really hit the beach hard toward the end of the month.
"We start with the toothy bonito first, then the Spanish come in behind 'em," said Fisher (910-540-1116). "You start finding them first around the 65-foot (deep) holes. They show up around the General Sherman (wreck), the 390/390 and the Jungle.
"You can head out about 10 miles to any of those 65-foot places and just look for bait - glass minnows - and birds.
"You're looking for that temperature break out there (around 65 to 66 degrees), but the birds are going to tell you where the fish are.
"As the water warms up, you'll find them along the tideline (often a very distinct color change), and then you catch 'em trolling up and down the beach - looking for birds and bait again."
When Spanish start to show up closer to the beach, Fisher likes to fish the Little River Inshore (Jim Caudle) and Little River Offshore reefs, only a few miles out of the inlet.
One advantage the two close-in reefs have, besides holding a lot of fish as the water warms up, Fisher said, is anglers have less of a chance of losing a hooked Spanish to a big barracuda - a common occurrence at the Sherman.
"They'll be ganged up pretty good; when the fishing is good, you just keep trolling through 'em and you keep catching 'em," he said.
Fisher, who also does a great deal of offshore trolling, usually sets up a spread of four rods when he's trying to put Spanish mackerel in the boat.
He fishes No. 0 and 00 Clark spoons or small drone spoons. Two of them are fished below the surface behind No. 1 or 2 planers and two close to the surface on bead-chain or torpedo weights.
"You're trolling anywhere from 5 to 8 miles per hour, averaging around 6," Fisher said. "I run a leader of 15 to 20 feet of 30-pound mono on a snap swivel off the planer, and I tie it directly to the spoon. They see too well to use a wire leader. The lines I fish on top, I'll tie on a 15-foot leader to the bead-chain."
Fisher feels like he's caught more Spanish mackerel during the past couple of years using a gold Clark spoon rather than the tradition silver. He's also stumbled onto a fair number of small king mackerel while trolling for Spanish, so he's careful to identify the mackerel that come over his transom and make their way into his coolers.
Spanish mackerels are managed with a 15-fish daily creel limit and a 12-inch size minimum. King mackerels are managed with a three-fish daily creel limit and a 24-inch size minimum.
"You've got to be careful, because you'll get a mixture of small kings in with Spanish, especially with a small drone spoon," said Fisher, who said that taking for granted that a mackerel with spots along its back is a Spanish is a mistake. "It's the lateral line. On a king, it almost makes a 'w.' "
Juel, who has run charter boats in the Little River Fishing Fleet (800-249-9388) for more than 25 years, expects to see Spanish mackerels arrive off the inlet in good numbers near the end of April.
"They'll get on the General Sherman or the Jim Caudle Reef, then by the last part of April, we just come out of the inlet and start looking up and down the beach," he said. "You'll see birds diving and fish working schools of bait.
"We had a great year for Spanish last year, anywhere from the sea buoy out to about 4 miles. They school up early, and normally they're not far off the beach.
"I just leave the inlet, and as soon as I pass the sea buoy, I'll go either east or west until I find the birds. They'll be in anywhere from 15 to 40 feet of water. You just look for birds, and if you don't find any birds, you look for bait on your (depth-finder)."
Juel fishes a spread of six rods, all with No. 0 or 00 Clark spoons on the business end of the outfits.
"They work real good most of the time," Juel said. "The color I've had the best luck with has been pink; that's worked really great, plus green, but pink seems to outfish 'em all for me. We've put 'em out with just silver and pink, and you catch 'em all on pink."
Juel fishes two spoons with No. 2 planers, two with No. 1 planers, and two with bead-chain weights closer to the surface.
"I'll use 20-foot leaders of 20-pound mono, tying it directly to the spoon," he said. "When fish get picky, longer leaders may work a little better."
Once the Spanish arrive in good numbers, they rarely leave the area just a mile or two off the beach. However, Juel said last year he caught more fish at those same 65-foot holes that Fisher likes to fish - many of them as much as 7 or 8 miles off the beach.
"When they get here, they're here," he said. "They aren't scattered out. They all come at one time. We've seen a lot of bigger fish schooled up early the last couple of years, and it's pretty basic fishing."
Like Fisher, Juel takes care to make sure everything he's got in his cooler is a Spanish - not a small king.
"It's not hard to get a ticket - they look so much alike when the kings are very young," he said.
Dickson likes to fish a 00 Clark spoon with about a 35- to 40-foot leader behind a No. 1 planer. There's not a lot of secrets out there.
Dickson said he looks at inshore and nearshore reefs and wrecks like the Sherman, the 390/390, the 510 and the Caudle reef.
The Caudle reef is a special one for Dickson. He's a big supporter of the annual Dixie Chicken Fundament Fishing Tournament, which is held out of Little River during Memorial Day weekend. Proceeds from the tournament - usually around $10,000 per year - go to purchasing things from concrete rubble to reef balls to armored personnel carries to be added to the Caudle reef.
Dickson said the reef is now big enough and spread out over a large enough area that a handful of boats can fish different areas of the reef without really getting in each other's way.