Spoon-feeding Spanish mackerel off Wrightsville Beach

Capt. Jamie Rushing of Seagate Charters caught this Spanish mackerel off Wrightsville Beach.
Capt. Jamie Rushing of Seagate Charters caught this Spanish mackerel off Wrightsville Beach. Mike Marsh

Capt. Jamie Rushing launched his boat at the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Wrightsville Beach boating access area and, nosing his 21-foot Sea Pro center console boat south along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, aimed its bow toward Masonboro Inlet.

“I want to catch a cobia,” said the 46-year-old captain of Seagate Charters from Wilmington. “But catching a cobia is always a gamble. You might try five times before you catch one, so you had better have a backup plan in case you can’t find one and get it to bite.”

Along with Rushing was his friend, Kyle Bennett, a 28-year-old pipefitter from Wilmington. He also wanted a cobia, but said he would settle for anything that would bite.

“I like catching redfish and trout, too,” Bennett said. “But I love catching Spanish mackerel.”

After several hours of scouting for the big schools of menhaden that might attract the attention of a cobia, they had not spotted one. While they were blind-casting around the schools as they looked, casting a two-ounce jig is as tiring as it is boring. Some say blind-fishing for cobia is like watching paint dry.

“That’s enough for the cobia today,” Rushing said. “The Spanish mackerel are working baitfish all around us, so let’s give them a try.”

Spanish mackerel arrive along the state’s coast in May and June, and anglers eager to catch the aggressive fish swarm to the coast. The flashy, golden fish often chase the small baitfish they are feeding upon to the surface. When they do, three things tip off seasoned anglers like Rushing to the presence of the ravenous schools: birds diving into the baitfish schools, which are easy prey thanks to the Spanish mackerel; the sight of Spanish mackerel leaping and slashing; and congregations of other boats. Rushing quickly spotted all three.

“We are going to head for those boats and birds,” he said. “More than likely, that means the Spanish mackerel are in that area.”

About a dozen boats were working a tide line, which is a color change where water discharging from the inlet clashes with water of the Atlantic Ocean. The color change is as stark as a solid wall, with the landside dusky brown and the oceanside emerald green. The waters have different turbidity, salinity and temperature, which forces baitfish to move along the edge. Spanish mackerel as well as other predatory fish take advantage of the situation, driving the baitfish into dense schools.

“Most people like to troll with spoons to catch Spanish mackerel,” Rushing said. “But I would rather cast for them. It is much more exciting than just riding along, dragging your lures around through the schools. When you cast and reel in a lure, you get to feel the strike and you don’t have a heavy planer or trolling sinker and all of that leader between the fish and lure to take the fun out of the fight. Most people don’t think Spanish mackerel fight well because they use all of that heavy trolling tackle.”

Rushing re-rigged a medium-action spinning outfit, cutting off its jig and tying on a 3/8-ounce Sea Striker casting spoon. It was an elongated, flattened hunk of metal painted to look like a fish, with a split ring through a hole in its nose end and a small treble hook in its tail end.

The first cast elicited a strike. However, the fish pulled free of the lure when the angler tried to haul it from the water without using a landing net. Another cast and hookup netted the same result – a big fat Spanish zero.

“Those were two-pound Spanish,” Rushing said. “I don’t want to lose another one, so I am going to re-rig the lure.”

Rushing removed the factory treble hook, which was so light a big Spanish mackerel could bend it and swim free. He replaced it with a single No. 1 J-hook.

A couple of casts later, Bennett was hooked up with another big Spanish mackerel. He fought the fish for a couple of minutes and the fight culminated with a leap right behind the boat in the engine’s prop wash. Rushing dipped the fish from the water with a rubber-mesh landing net.

“That’s how we should have done it the first time,” he said. “But when there are that many fish, it is so easy to get complacent. The reason so many people want to catch them is that they are available, plentiful and easy to catch. You can catch a cooler-full to feed a lot of people with a minimal amount of effort. When they hear the Spanish mackerel have arrived, anglers from all over the state head to the beach.”