Smoker Kings And Spanish Mackerel On Nearby Reefs In July
No need for fancy boats and long rides for big smokers right now.
To most Georgia anglers, the thought of chasing big king or Spanish mackerel offshore can be quite daunting. The image of speeding in big expensive boats over miles of sometimes rough waters to get to productive fishing grounds makes the prospect of experiencing that adventure questionable at best.
So, a lot of us don’t even try.
But this time of year, things change along the Georgia coast, and these magnificent fish are as approachable as they will be all year. This article explores the options through the eyes of an expert who is not only well informed on these coastal waters and the species that live and migrate through them but is also an accomplished saltwater angler, especially when it comes to mackerel.
Capt. Spud Woodward had a long, storied career with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He spent more than 33 years working on the team that studied Georgia wildlife and led conservation projects that maintained or improved wildlife populations across the state. Spud held many roles in those 30-plus years and culminated his career as the director of the Coastal Resources Division, serving in that position for eight years. His duties included managing saltwater fishing, as well as marshland and shore protection along the entire Georgia coast.
Currently, he serves as one of three Georgia commissioners on the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission. He is also a long-time member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. In addition, Spud serves on the Board of Directors of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, is active in his church, is on the Board of Directors of Keep Golden Isles Beautiful, as well as serving as a consultant for the marine industry. To say the least, even though he retired from DNR a couple of years ago, he stays quite busy and is still very involved in managing and sustaining the saltwater fishery along the coast.
Spud is a charter member of the Southern Kingfish Association (member No. 12) and fished the tournament trail all over the Southeast from 1988 to 2000.
He has lived in Brunswick since 1987 and has been fishing the coast since moving here. He had previously fished the area as a young boy while coming to Georgia on vacation. Those early years are when he discovered his love for the coast and the angling opportunities it offers.
I met Spud at the St. Simons Marina early on the morning of May 28 to try our luck with Spanish and king mackerel on some of the closer-in reefs. Spud and family friend, Maddox Stroud, of St. Simons, had been out a few days earlier and had done pretty well with both Spanish and kings. Maddox and his dad are frequent fishing companions of Spud, and Maddox also serves as a very effective mate. Maddox was aboard for our trip.
As we moved through the St. Simons Sound and into the ocean, Spud explained that we were in the early stages of the mackerel run that happens on the Georgia coast every year.
“The fish start moving up from the Gulf of Mexico and southern Florida waters as the ocean warms along the coast,” said Spud. “They typically arrive in coastal Georgia waters by Memorial Day, but that date can move either way depending on weather conditions and ocean temperatures.”
Spud said the Spanish mackerel usually arrive first, but the big kings are not far behind.
“From late spring all the way into the fall, you can find big mackerel as close as 4 or 5 miles off the beach and all the way out to the Gulf Stream,” said Spud. “Today we will be focusing on some of the nearshore man-made reefs that have been created over the last 40 years.”
Spud said these reefs have become very attractive for many species, including mackerel. Large schools of baitfish congregate over them and serve as a magnet for the many species passing through the area.
“We will be fishing mostly with live bait, so the first order of business is finding enough fresh bait for the day,” said Spud.
Once we got a mile or so offshore, we began to see a lot of surface activity, so Spud slowed the boat near a big school of baitfish. He suggests an 8- to 10-foot cast net with a 5/8-inch mesh and lots of weight on the bottom so it will sink quickly. He says a good target is typically a pound and a half of weight per foot of net for best results. For example, an 8-foot net will weigh around 12 pounds. It needs to be heavy so it will sink fast.
Another essential is a good livewell with plenty of capacity and either a round or oval shape so there are no defined corners. He said it is best to keep no more than 1 1/2 pounds of bait in the livewell per gallon of water, and a good aeration system is a must. As air temperatures increase later in the summer, back off on the bait-to-water ratio slightly to ensure the bait remains vibrant.
All it took was a single cast of the net, and we had far more pogies (Atlantic menhaden) than we could store in the livewell, so we were set to go fishing. Pogies, a go-to bait for mackerel and many other species, are plentiful along the Georgia coast. Spud said that other good bait candidates include Atlantic thread herring (greenies), cigar minnows or Spanish sardines. These are generally caught around the reefs on a multi-hook sabiki rig rather than a cast net.
“Pay attention to what the fish are feeding on and match the bait to it if you can,” says Spud. “But pogies are usually hard to beat.”
With more than enough bait in the livewell, Spud headed northeast toward the ALT reef. It’s named ALT because it is offshore about 6 miles from the Altamaha Sound.
“Depending on our luck, we may try two or more reefs today,” said Spud. “There were a good many fish here a few days ago, but things can change.”
Spud said the baitfish and the mackerel relate to these reefs and will stay in the area, but they are constantly on the move and may disappear suddenly and show up on another reef nearby.
As we got close, we could see a few other boats cruising slowly over the area, and schools of bait were visible on the surface as well as the graph. As Spud positioned the boat over structure and bait, Maddox baited a couple of rods and dropped the baits over the side. The graph showed we were in 40 feet of water and there was plenty of rubble and other structure scattered over the ocean floor.
Spud said we would be slow trolling live bait around the reef and over and through bait schools for both the Spanish and the kings.
“The method was adopted by kingfish anglers in the 80s and has been the most popular method of targeting Spanish and kings ever since,” he said.
Several flatlines were set out at various distances behind the boat. The closest bait was literally in the wash from the prop about 10 feet behind the stern. Longer lines can be set to run as far as 100 yards behind the boat. For the mid to longlines, Spud uses high visibility line to make them easier for him to spot and more importantly to be seen by other anglers.
“It can get pretty crowded when the action is hot, and it is easy for other anglers to run over your longlines and cut them off,” said Spud. “The high visibility line at least reduces the possibility of that happening.”
For the outfits that will be used close to the boat, he shifts to low visibility line.
For live-bait fishing, Spud chooses Penn Squall 30 Star Drag reels mounted on Penn Rampage 7-foot fast-action rods. The reels are spooled with 20-lb. test monofilament. He uses monofilament because of its stretch, which helps reduce the shock on the strike and during the fight. There are two factors in Spud’s choice of reels. First, he likes a wide-spool reel with high line capacity, and second he likes a smooth drag system. The reels are set up with the bait clicker on and the drag set pretty loose. That way, when the strike occurs the big fish can pull line off without feeling the pressure of the reel.
“A big king can easily make an initial run of 200 yards or more, so a lot of line is a must,” said Spud.
The long and medium-running lines are tipped with 5 yards of low visibility fluorocarbon leader.
Spud keeps a spinning rod on board for Spanish mackerel and the occasional cobia that shows up.
“When the Spanish mackerel are in tight schools smashing bait, a spoon cast into the school is an almost guaranteed strike,” said Spud. “We use Clarke spoons in size 0 or 00 almost exclusively in either silver or gold.”
For fishing the sabiki rig, there is a special sabiki rod on board. While the rig can be fished using a light spinning outfit, this specialized rod makes the process much easier. Go to www.gon.com for a direct link to purchasing this rod.
Spud makes up the terminal tackle rigs himself using single strand No. 4 wire leader and specialized hooks. The rig is a two-hook setup with the hooks separated by about 6 inches of wire. The nose hook is a No. 2 or 1/0 Owner Flyliner live-bait hook, and the stinger hook at the back is a No. 6 or No. 4 treble hook (4x strong).
“A strong hook is very important because the hook-up will often be on the treble stinger and a mackerel can easily crush a normal treble hook if he gets it in his mouth,” said Spud.
The wire between the nose hook and the stinger is 44-lb. test coffee colored (low visibility). Between the nose hook and the running line from the reel is 2 to 3 feet of 38-lb. test wire (coffee colored). This is tipped with a 75-lb. test Spro swivel.
“Spro makes a swivel that is remarkably strong for its size,” said Spud. “This is important because larger swivels make a significant bubble trail when dragged through the water. Spanish mackerel will often strike at the bubbles and cut the rig off at the main line. The small profile of the Spro reduces that possibility.”
Spud prefers to fish one bait hooked through the nostril, and he’ll leave the stinger treble hook dangling behind. While this is the basic setup, modifications are often used. These can include the addition of colored skirts and putting baits on both hooks.
“I always keep a rod rigged for a live Spanish,” said Spud. “It has a longer spreader wire between the two hooks to cover the length of the bait. Big kingfish will eat a Spanish mackerel with no problem.”
If the fish and bait are holding deeper in the water column, Spud will add a twist-on weight to the rig to get it down 10 to 12 feet or so. And when they are running near the bottom, he’ll even use a downrigger, particularly on the baits close to the boat.
We caught one nice Spanish mackerel at ALT, but even though there was plenty of surface action, we couldn’t temp any more fish to strike, so we headed south to F reef, which is about 9 miles east of Jekyll Island. Again, there was plenty of bait in the area and surface action, but we only managed to boat a few good-sized jack crevalle.
“It isn’t unusual to have days like this early in the season,” said Spud. “These fish move around a lot and there are quite a few great reefs in this area.”
By the time you read this article, conditions should be ideal. One word of warning, these reefs are not a well-kept secret, and they are likely to be crowded at the peak of the action. Watch other angler’s lines, and be respectful of keeping your distance. There are plenty of reefs to fish. They cover a lot of area, and there is plenty of room for everyone.
There is a great deal of information about Georgia’s coastal reefs on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources website at https://coastal gadnr.org/HERU/offshore.
Spud advises that when you pull up to the reef, check the water clarity. Good clean water will be a deep green this close to shore. Also look for bait to see if it’s up or down in the water column.
Like most saltwater fishermen, Spud is a member of a community of anglers who share information readily. That is an important element in this type of fishing. So, if you plan to go after these big fish, work your way into a group. It really helps to know who is having success and where the fish have been feeding.
Spud said this action will continue all the way to the fall. Big kings will be on the nearshore reefs through July and then begin to move out to 60 or 70 feet of water in August and September. The big Spanish mackerel will typically stay on the close-in reefs much longer.
“August and September can be barn burner months for 6- to 8-lb. Spanish mackerel over the same reefs we were fishing,” said Spud.
The creel limit on kings is three per person per day and Spanish mackerel is 15 per person per day. You can see all of the Georgia saltwater fishing creel limit information at http://www.eregulations.com/georgia/fishing/finfish-seasons-limits-sizes.
So, if you have been reluctant to try this great fishery, maybe the information in this article will tempt you to give it a go. The fishing is really getting good. Three days after our trip, Maddox, his dad and some friends fished ALT reef and caught their limit of 10- to 15-lb. kings in a hurry. Expect a number of days like this in July.
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