Edisto Isand’s “Spanish mackerel Armada” arrives in June

Feisty Spanish mackerel keep Edisto Island anglers busy

Our annual family vacation to South Carolina’s Edisto Island usually features my sons and I riding out to the Edisto 40 artificial reef to try our luck at catching any of a variety of species. And that includes Spanish mackerel.

As we were making the six-mile ride out to the reef — it’s named for the depth of water, not distance from land — we were barely past the large sand bars, in only 20 feet of water, when we noticed a large school of fish destroying baitfish on the surface. We slammed to a stop. And we all began casting into the school of fish. We were still unaware of exactly what they were. 

All three of us hooked up immediately. And for the next 90 minutes, we chased this school of Spanish mackerel all around an area covering approximately one-half of a square mile. The school was so large, and the feeding frenzy so intense, it was one of those “You have to be here to believe it” moments.  

We lost count of the number of fish we caught. The fast action and the size of fish made this a day to remember. We still reminisce about encountering those Spanish. And we share stories of the number of fish and the ones that got away. The only thing that ended the foray was losing all of the lures we had to cast at them.

Spanish mackerel

Spanish mackerel travel in big schools

This kind of day was, I learned, not an isolated incident. Webb Belangia from Mauldin, S.C., has been chasing Spanish mackerel off Edisto’s beaches for decades. He said they “tend to school between the ‘wreck’ and the shore around the second week of June every year.” 

These schools can be quite large. They can sometimes cover several acres. On the ride out toward the Edisto 40, you will often find fish schooling. And when you find the first school, plenty of action will follow for a few weeks.

Spanish mackerelSchooling Spanish are not difficult to catch. But anglers should keep a few things in mind when casting for them. Fill the reel with 20-pound braid. Then tip your braid with either a piece of light wire or heavy mono to protect the braid from the sharp teeth for which Spanish are known. Belangia prefers a wire leader to protect the braided line. 

“I just believe the (wire) allows the spoon, or lure, to act more naturally than a heavy mono leader does,” he said. 

The yellow dots and gently-sloped lateral line help anglers distinguish Spanish mackerel from other species. (Photo by Brian Carroll)

Typical gear for Spanish mackerel includes a 7-foot, medium-light spinning rod with a spinning reel such as a Penn Battle III, or Spinfisher VI with decent drag system. The best lures for schooling are spoons that can be trolled or cast, jerkbaits and floating minnows. 

Every angler has his favorite lure. And Belangia is no different. 

“You can use any lure you like, as long as it is a Clarkspoon,” he said, pointing to a classic trolling spoon used up and down the south Atlantic coast. “I know they hit these Clarkspoons. So I just don’t change from that unless I lose them all and have to get desperate.”

Wire leaders are a good option when fishing for these feisty mackerel, which have a mouthful of tiny, sharp teeth. (Photo by Pete Rogers)

Make long casts

The technique is straight-forward and simple. Approach the school, cast as far as you can and retrieve the lure through the school as fast as you can reel. Action is often fast, furious and frequent. Excellent casting lures include silver or gold GOT-CHA plugs, Kastmasters and Hopkins spoons, Rapala X-Rap jerkbaits and Krocodile casting spoons, plus the Clark Caster, which turns a trolling spoon into a casting spoon. 

Long casts are important. They allow anglers to cover more ground, start working on a school more quickly, and stay far enough away not to spook them. The downside is, a 50-yard cast also takes a long time to retrieve. But the payoff is usually a good one. 

Spanish mackerel are distinguished by the yellow-gold spots that adorn their sides. Spanish are similar in size to Cero mackerel. However, Ceros have yellow lines and spots, while the Spanish has only spots. 

Also, take care not to confuse a Spanish mackerel with a small king mackerel. King mackerel frequently appear nearshore during the summer. Anglers can distinguish between the two with these tips: Spanish feature a black spot on the first dorsal fin, while a king does not have one. Also, the king mackerel’s lateral line has a pronounced dip below the second dorsal. Not knowing the difference can be costly, as South Carolina anglers can keep 15 Spanish per day, with a 12-inch size minimum. They can keep three kings per day, with a 24-inch size minimum.

Put Spanish mackerel on ice quickly

Spanish mackerel receive a wide array of reviews in regard to table fare. Some do not care for it at all. But others see it as a delicacy. One thing is true, if you intend to eat Spanish mackerel you need a large cooler with ice so you can get the fish iced immediately. The decomposition rate is rapid. And the meat will begin to taint quickly if not iced. 

Belangia said the Spanish mackerel that arrive off Edisto in late spring usually weigh a couple of pounds and average 16 to 20 inches long. An occasional fish weighing 4 pounds or better is not unusual.

South Carolina’s state-record Spanish mackerel is an 11-pound fish caught out of Myrtle Beach in 1983. North Carolina’s state-record fish is a 13-pounder caught out of Ocracoke Inlet in 1987. That is also the IGFA all-tackle world record. 

Spanish Mackerel are a ton of fun to catch and can make memories that will last a lifetime. If you want fast, furious and frequent action, look out from Edisto Island in mid-June and you’ll find it.

Spanish mackerel
Bluefish are one of several bonus species caught by Spanish mackerel anglers. (Photo by Dan Kibler)

Accidental tourists

June is not just a time for Spanish mackerel to school off of Edisto island. It is also a time for many other species to school in and around these barrier islands.

Bluefish congregate in large schools and are a lot of fun. With their drag-screaming runs, bluefish from 2 to 8 pounds can make for a great afternoon of fishing. They can reach good size, and the large schools are impressive, often reaching several thousand in a group. Bluefish do not seem to stop anywhere for long. Catching them requires constant travel with your boat to keep up with them. 

Other species that congregates often with bluefish and Spanish mackerel inclue Atlantic bonito and false albacore. They are in the tuna family and fight like their bigger cousins. They are seldom targeted except to be used as a baitfish for larger species like marlin. Bonito are some of the most line-ripping species to find near shore. And they are a great bonus for those chasing Spanish near Edisto Island.

About Pete Rogers 163 Articles
Pete Rogers of Taylors, S.C., is employed with the USDA Wildlife Services and has been a sporting writer and photographer for over a decade. He has a real passion for trapping and enjoys sharing his outdoors experiences with his wife and five children.

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