Know your macks after attacks

A small king or a large Spanish mackerel? That’s the problem many anglers have in identifying these fish of this size, but the king limit is three per angler while the Spanish daily creel is 15 fish. (See end of Jerry Dilsaver’s column to find this fish’s identify.)

One of the mistakes too many anglers continue to make is confusing Spanish mackerel and small king mackerel.

It already has happened a couple of times this year. Several anglers and folks from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries asked me to make anglers aware of the problem and offer some ways to differentiate between these types of mackerels.

The problem has arisen more in the past few years than noticed previously. Several optimists said it’s because king mackerel numbers are rebounding, and there are more small kings than in the past. No one knows if this theory is correct.

I hope there’s some truth to the analysis because it means a rebounding stock of larger kings in the future that will add to the spawners. Hopefully it’s a good sign.

Regardless of the reason, a previously unseen number of smaller kings are in the water. They’re not legal to keep, so let’s figure out a simple, yet reliable, way to tell the difference.

The need to recognize the differences is the species are managed differently.

Spanish mackerel are fairly abundant, fast growing and reach reproductive age by their second season. Because of these characteristics, the minimum legal length for Spanish mackerel is 12 inches fork length (from the tip of the lower jaw to the trailing edge of the fork of the tail) and the daily possession limit is 15 per person.

This growth and maturity information comes from “Fishes of the Southeastern United States” by Dr. Charles Manooch. He also wrote that the reproductive capability ranges from approximately a half-million eggs in an average 2-pound Spanish mackerel to 1.5 million in a 6-pound fish. The minimum size for a Spanish mackerel citation in N.C. is 6 pounds and hundreds are registered each year.

Anglers began to fish heavily for king mackerel about 20 years ago. About 10 to 15 years ago king numbers dropped noticeably. They’re a much slower-growing fish, with males reaching reproductive size between their second and third years and females requiring another year.

While N.C. researchers said the bulk of female kings aren’t capable of spawning until they reach at least 26 inches, the minimum size was set by federal regulations at 24 inches fork length.

The information from N.C. researchers is the rationale behind the 28-inches-or-larger minimum-size that voluntarily was adopted by most N.C. king mackerel tournaments. They wanted to be sure any fish weighed at tournaments had spawned at least once. Because of their recovering status, which has been changed to stable and slow growth, the possession limit for kings is only three per person.

Manooch’s book notes king mackerel are slower growing and slower to reach sexual maturity. He states a 7-year-old female king mackerel would be approximately 39-inches long, while a male the same age would be about 32 inches. Individuals older than 7 years are rare.

While Manooch gave no egg-count numbers for those barely-mature females at 3 to 4 years, his findings for large females varied from 1 to 2.5 million eggs annually. Since he found females more than 7 years to be rare, one can conclude he considered them to be the spawners of 1 to 2.5 million eggs, with a reproductive span of 3 or 4 years.

While the three-fish-per-person limit for kings may appear restrictive, anglers should remember these are larger fish and provide bigger steaks and fillets. When one considers Florida and states bordering the Gulf of Mexico have a two-king-mackerel-per-person limit, our limit appears liberal.

The minimum size for a king mackerel citation is 30 pounds. Studies conducted by DMF researchers suggest the odds are better than 95 per cent a 30-pound king is a female. Those same studies indicate a 30-pounder would average 47.6-inches long and be a minimum of 10- to 15-years old.

Anglers unable to distinguish between Spanish and small king mackerel can find themselves breaking these regulations in a couple of ways. The offense often cited is possession of an undersize king mackerel. It likely was feeding with a school of Spanish mackerel about the same size, so it went into the fish box without a second thought.

The second offense is for keeping more than three kings per angler. This usually happens when small kings are incorrectly identified as large Spanish and anglers believe they’re filling a 15-fish limit of Spanish mackerel.

Unfortunately, usually when anglers have too many kings because they thought they were large Spanish, they’ll have at least one that easily exceeded the 12-inch minimum for Spanish but didn’t quite make the 24-inch minimum for kings.

While these regulations usually aren’t broken intentionally — but by anglers who genuinely don’t know or can’t distinguish the difference — they’re set for a purpose and must be followed. Unfortunately, whether the transgression was intentional or not, the damage has been done to the fishery.

Judges and magistrates have no way of knowing if the act was wanton or accidental and must levy substantial fines to compel fishermen to learn the difference.

While some folks insist on making it difficult to learn the differences, it’s not an unmanageable task. There are certain differences that are pronounced and easy to see. If you feel this is a trying identification process, ask any duck hunter what happens when he adds an illegal duck to his bag — and they have to be able to identify them while in flight. Anglers have the advantage of being able to examine fish up close and then determine.

With the understanding of why we need different size and numbers limits comes the question regarding how to easily recognize the differences. Both species can have yellow spots, so that’s not a reliable indicator. There are also fishermen, including some who should know better, who insist some of the smaller kings are cero mackerels or some kind of hybrid.

Don’t get caught up in this misinformation. Cero mackerels are a Florida fish and don’t venture into N.C. waters. According to mackerel project researchers at DMF, no cero mackerel have been landed in N.C. waters.

Coloration differences are evident, as well. Cero mackerels’ spots are quite different and include a line of yellow bars running the length of the body at about mid-side. Ceros are easily distinguishable once you’ve seen one, a good illustration, or a good picture. The best picture I know is readily available is in the book “Sport Fish of the Atlantic” by Vic Dunaway.

While there are some slight differences in fins, gill rakers, teeth and such, there are two primary means of distinguishing between Spanish and kings. The first involves the lateral line down each side of the body.

King mackerel have a pronounced dip in their lateral lines underneath the rear dorsal fin, while in Spanish mackerel the lateral lines slowly drops to the centerline of the tail. Often, especially with smaller kings, the difference in lateral lines isn’t enough for positive identification.

The most reliable method of identifying Spanish mackerel is to raise the forward dorsal fin and look for a black spot at the front edge. While it’s not necessarily round in shape, this spot may be as small as a dime on smaller fish and increases to about quarter-size on larger fish.

Spanish mackerel have this identifying black coloring on the front edge of their forward dorsal fins and kings don’t. King mackerel have a dorsal fin that is all gray (this identifying mark also works to show it’s not the alleged cero mackerel). Ceros have black coloring on the front edge of their forward dorsal fins.

This is the most reliable identifier for differentiating Spanish and king mackerels. If it has the spot on its forward dorsal fin, it’s a Spanish mackerel. Anglers may retain as many as 15 fish per trip, as long as they’re a minimum of 12 inches nose to tail (fork length). If a mackerel doesn’t have the spot on its dorsal fin, it’s a king mackerel. Anglers only may keep three kings, and they must be a minimum of 24 inches nose to tail (fork length).

Already this year some undersize kings have been caught at the N.C. coast.

Protecting the resource is the reason to know the difference and adhere to the regulations. The fine can be steep and not knowing isn’t an acceptable excuse.

Learn to tell the difference; it isn’t difficult. It’s always been the right thing to do and with the addition of our new saltwater fishing license, more fishermen are being checked.

Knowing the difference — a spot on the dorsal means Spanish and no spot on the dorsal means a king mackerel.

Your knowledge will help these fishes and prevent you from receiving an unwanted and expensive ticket — which can take the fun out of a successful fishing trip.

(The photo with this column is a small king mackerel).

About Jerry Dilsaver 1172 Articles
Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, N.C., a full-time freelance writer, is a columnist for Carolina Sportsman. He is a former SKA National Champion and USAA Angler of the Year.

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