STUART -- From now through the beginning of April, Spanish mackerel are making splashy appearances along the South Florida coast from Stuart south to Biscayne Bay and Florida Bay. A fun sport fish and tasty food fish, the long, silver toothy speedsters decorated with yellow dots will bite a variety of lures and baits on spin, plug, and fly tackle. When the fishing is really on, it’s possible to catch a limit of 15 per person in practically no time.
One of the most popular Spanish mackerel grounds is Peck’s Lake — a rocky ocean ledge from 8 feet to about 25 feet deep that extends from St. Lucie Inlet south almost to Hobe Sound. Recent water quality problems in the St. Lucie estuary and ongoing dredging at the inlet don’t seem to interfere with the seasonal “mack attack.” But heavy boat pressure and onslaughts by bottlenose dolphin can cause the fish to spread out and sometimes leave the area.
Veteran Jupiter light-tackle guide captain Cliff Budd has been putting customers on macks — as well as pompano, big jack crevalles, cobia, kingfish, snapper and grouper — in the area for more than 20 years, and he has observed some changes as fishing pressure increases.
“Mackerel always used to bite Clark spoons, #2 or #3 with a red bead,” Budd said. “Then it evolved to the squid spoon. Then we put chartreuse reflective tape on the squid spoon. The mackerel were getting very picky.”
Budd still carries an arsenal of spoon lures on his 24-foot Cabo, but he also comes prepared with what some call the “flavor of the month” — weighted lures made of surgical tubing modified to his specifications. He also brings substantial quantities of fresh bait and chum.
Finding the fish isn’t difficult. Some anglers just join the fleet of commercial, recreational and charter boats hovering over the school of fish. Budd prefers to stay away from the crowd and use his fish finder to mark the school. He also watches for diving birds and jumping macks chasing baitfish on the surface.
The captain says anglers have two choices of fishing styles: anchor and chum the area to draw the fish to them, or troll the surface with lures.
For those who prefer to anchor and chum, Budd recommends live shrimp for bait fished on light spinning gear. Like many light-tackle guides, he believes fishermen get more bites if they don’t use wire leaders, so his favorite set-up is three feet of 40- to 60-pound Trik Fish fluorocarbon leader tied to a Daiichi 2/0 long-shank hook with a split shot above the leader. Budd emphasizes tying the fishing line directly to the leader with a double uni-knot and eschewing a swivel because it generates bubbles that encourage bite-offs. Be sure to anchor either west or east of the ledge, not directly over it because of anchor damage to the reef.
Budd says those who really want to use wire leader should keep it down to three to four inches of coffee-colored #3 tied with a modified Albright knot to the fluorocarbon leader.
For fly-fishing, he favors white patterns with flash made with nylon rather than deer hair because it is more durable.
For trolling and casting, Budd makes his own tube lures out of 2½ inches of surgical tubing with a ¼-ounce bullet weight at the top and 5/0 hook. The tube is cut diagonally at the bottom to be more streamlined in the water. He adds a flashy nylon quill tail to the tube to give it more pizzazz. Clear tubing works fine when waters are clear; in murky water, he prefers green, pink, or red tubing.
The best mackerel bite, Budd said, is usually just before or immediately after cold fronts. Tide and moon phase don’t seem to be major factors.
One of the bonuses of chasing mackerel at Peck’s Lake is the ability to shift to bottom fishing for grouper and snapper or pompano fishing along the beach when the macks quit biting.
Said Budd: “The ledge is the secret.”
To book a fishing trip with captain Cliff Budd on Seacret Spot, call 561-262-1617.