Every summer, I eagerly await the arrival of the tropical “gems” that find their way to Long Island via the sea highway known as the Gulf Stream. By the end of July, we start to see an influx of brightly colored juvenile reef fish such as butterflyfish, angelfish, filefish, cowfish, and damselfish. As a marine biologist, these small tropical fish get me super excited. The angler in me, however, is far less impressed until one of the larger “gems” takes my line and makes a run for it.
Arriving at Shinnecock Inlet early one morning, I was looking for a repeat performance of the day before with schools of hungry bluefish in the 3- to 5-pound range. They were feasting on sand eels and created a giant boil on the surface that not only alerted flocks of common terns, but also anglers to their location. As luck would have it, though, I arrived at the inlet to find nothing but silence.
I decided to head just outside the inlet and let the last of the incoming tide bring me back into the bay. Halfway through the drift, the calm waters erupted with a single two-foot-long, torpedo-shaped fish that easily cleared the water by three feet before slipping back below the surface with the smallest of splashes. Because of its hangtime, I was able to identify it as one of the larger “gems” I mentioned earlier. After a couple casts, I hooked up with the acrobat and boated a 20-inch Spanish mackerel. Over the next hour, I boated seven fish to 24 inches and broke off several others. It was quite an exciting morning, as it had been years since I had seen Spanish mackerel locally.
Spanish mackerel belong to the genus Scomberomorus, which are simply known as the Spanish mackerels. Within this genus, there are eighteen species found worldwide and only three of them (Spanish, cero, and king) have the potential to cruise through the waters of the Northeast. Of the three, the Spanish mackerel is the most common since they venture much further north than the other two species. They can be found throughout the Caribbean and along the east coast of North America, with Florida being an epicenter of their population. During the summer months, they may wander as far north as Nova Scotia as they follow the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. This extreme northern reach can vary year to year depending on where this powerful current flows. In addition to warm temperatures, Spanish mackerel also prefer high-salinity ocean waters, so it is rare to find them deep inside a back bay.
Spanish mackerel are much larger than the mackerel species we might be more familiar with; i.e., Atlantic or Boston mackerel. The largest one reported measured just over 35 inches and weighed 13 pounds. Their slender shape, smooth skin, and tuna-like tail enable a Spanish mackerel to zip through the water with ease. Throw in a mouth full of large, sharp teeth and they become a very efficient predator that feeds on a wide variety of smaller fish. A Spanish mackerel’s speed is not only advantageous for feeding, but also to escape predation from sharks, tuna, and dolphins.
In addition, these fish are prized by people as well. Prior to the 1980s, they were fished heavily, without regulation in both the commercial and recreational fisheries. Fortunately for the fish, they are fast growers that reach maturity by year two, and one female can lay between 500,000 to 1.5 million eggs over a single spawning season. Today, with regulations in place, U.S. wild-caught Spanish mackerel is considered a “Smart Choice” by NOAA because it is currently above target population levels, fishing techniques have minimal impacts on its habitat, and there is a low amount of bycatch because the fishing techniques used are very selective toward catching Spanish mackerel.
From late summer into the fall, we see a run of Spanish mackerel throughout the Northeast, both for anglers fishing by boat and from shore. Not only are they a blast on light tackle, these fish make excellent table fare, with Shime Saba (cured mackerel sashimi) at the top of my recipe list. If this year is a repeat of last, I highly recommend chasing after these tropical gems. You will not be disappointed.
With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. He is also an award-winning member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Paparo on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @fishguyphotos