August 11, 2008

Catching blues and macks from the surf and from the pier


Bluefish and Spanish mackerel may be caught by Hatteras and Ocracoke surfcasters and pier anglers from May through October. They travel in schools, constantly on the move, looking for something to eat.  These aggressive, vicious predators frequently show themselves when feeding by chasing harried baitfish in a frenzy of slashing and crashing surface activity. 
Pier anglers have two distinctly different strategies for catching these fish.  Spanish are rarely caught on “dead baits,” natural baits fished on the bottom. But blues will readily take a piece of fresh mullet presented on a bottom rig.  Two-hook fireball rigs are favored by bait-fishing bluefish fans and any type of fresh fish, cut into strips or chunks, will tempt a bluefish but oily menhaden and mullet are the local favorites.
Spanish mackerel rarely go for a piece of natural bait, so the most effective and exciting way to catch these “run and gun” feeders is on artificial lures.  In the blink of an eye, a clear calm ocean may suddenly erupt into a frenzy of feeding mackerel, and it’s wise to have a rod rigged up and ready to throw a lure at these fish.

Got-Cha jigs are the runaway favorite lure among the pier fishing crowd. This lure resembles a thin plastic tube, with a heavy head that’s cut at a sharp angle. Got-Chas are most effective when they are allowed to sink in the water column at the end of a long cast then retrieved with an erratic, up and down or sweeping motion of the rod tip. The angled head allows the lure to sink quickly whenever there is some slack in the line.

The “hot” color may vary from day to day, but it’s tough to beat the red head and neon green body or the red head and white body combination.

To deter the toothy mouths of the blues and macks, some anglers opt for a short piece of black, braided wire in front of the lures, while others prefer a length of 50-pound test monofilament, tied directly to the line with a Uni-Knot.  I like the mono because it will frequently draw more strikes from these keen-eyed and leader-shy mackerel, and the loop of a Uni-Knot allows the lure to swing and “swim” easily. Bluefish are not as particular, and the wire leader is not usually a problem.   

Many pier anglers who target mackerel and blues will have two rods rigged and ready. One might be a stiff-tipped, 7- to 8-foot-spinning rod, mated to a reel filled with 14-pound monofilament.  This is the outfit that’s used for fishing with bait for the bluefish.

The other, a 7-foot spinning outfit, with 12-pound test line, is used only for casting artificials. The rod can be lighter than the bait fishing rig, but extremely soft “buggy whip” sticks should be avoided.  A rod that’s too soft will make it difficult to pull a thrashing, two-pound fish out of the water, up and over the pier rails.

Clear water is the best condition for throwing artificials. Depending on the stage of tide, availability of bait and wind direction, blues and macks may appear at any time, but early and late in the day are usually peak times for the best action, and the odds are better if those times coincide with a rising tide. Early is my favorite time of the day, especially during the summer, as the fish tend to be less active under a blazing hot sun.

Blues and macks may be caught anywhere from just outside the breakers to the deeper water at the ends of the piers.  These fish are always on the move, but Spanish frequently show themselves by feeding on the surface, chasing baitfish, or jumping several feet out of the water.

Surfcasters who happen to be in the right place at the right time can have a lot of fun, and these fast swimming, hard hitting torpedoes can add spice to the typically lackluster summer surf fishing.

Spanish will readily come to the beach, but the water in the surf zone must be clear and calm.  Spanish mackerel usually feed on silversides in the surf, small menhaden or very small finger mullet, and it only makes sense that the most effective lures are those that are shaped like silversides, menhaden, or mullet.  Correct lure selection, combined with an effective presentation, is essential to consistently catch macks from the beach.

Lures that work best for Spanish mackerel are those that can be worked with a high speed retrieve, probably because the fast moving lure resembles a panicked baitfish swimming for its life.  The most popular artificials are usually metal jigs, called Stingsilvers, 2 to 3 inches long, weighing up to 2 ounces. 

Sometimes the macks will show a distinct preference for a certain color.  Silver is a consistent producer, but a few other finishes and colors are also popular among the surf casting crowd.  A pink-and-white combo, chartreuse, and gold are several other combinations that produce. 

On the beach, long casts are often necessary, so specialized tackle is often necessary to propel a lure that weighs less than 3 ounces almost 100 yards.  Graphite or graphite composite rods in the 9- to 11-foot range are ideal.  The tip should be light, but not too whippy, or the rod will absorb most of the power of the cast.  Graphite’s advantage is light weight, which is very important when repeated casting and extra distance are involved.

Spinning reels with skirted, deep spools, filled with 8- or 10-pound monofilament allow for maximum casting distance.  A shock line of 12-pound test mono tied to the main line with a blood knot or Uni Knot will prevent break offs on the cast, and act as a leader in front of the lures.

Spanish mackerel and bluefish may appear anywhere along Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, but some of the most consistent hotspots are Cape Point, Hatteras Inlet, and the South Point of Ocracoke.
Be careful when handling bluefish and mackerel. Both have teeth, but those of a Spanish mackerel are pointed and as sharp as any surgeon’s scalpel.  I always use pliers to remove the hooks, even on the smaller macks, and watch out for those treble hooks!  They will hook a finger as well as a fish.

Bluefish and Spanish mackerel can add some spice to the sometimes lackluster doldrums of summertime pier fishing, and they are always welcome guests at my dinner table. I like them broiled or grilled, with a dash of salt, lemon pepper, and butter.  If you are lucky enough to catch a few for dinner, be sure to throw them in an icy cold cooler immediately and clean them as soon as possible to fully enjoy their wonderful flavor.

(Joe Malat lives in Nags Head and is a professional outdoor writer, book author, and director of the Outer Banks Surf Fishing Schools. He writes about saltwater fishing along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and is published regularly in national and regional magazines.  To order his books, or request information about the Outer Banks Surf Fishing Schools, visit Joe’s Web site at:


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