Spanish off the Surface
  |  First Published: May 2013

Several years ago when I took up the highly specialised sport of heavy tackle popping, fish species such as GT, red bass, and queenfish were the obvious targets. During these early days, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be targeting Spanish mackerel on surface stick baits and poppers.

Like most anglers, I considered Spaniards to be a bottom to mid water level feeder and therefore out of the range of surface fishing options. However, over the last couple of years churning the waters off Bowen madly with all manner of poppers and stick baits, I have found my original ideology to be horribly wrong. The truth of the matter is that if you can get the right conditions, targeting Spanish mackerel of the surface is a viable option.

My first Spaniard surface experience was one that really opened my eyes to the possibility of popping for pelagics. I found myself in a mass of turbulent water fuelled by a 15knot northeasterly wind and a strong running tide that was pushing hard against the front edge of a jetty pylon in about 60ft of water. For a GT the conditions don’t get much better, and that’s the species we were after.

We knew the spot also held large populations of Spanish mackerel as it was one of our favourite jigging and trolling spots. However, this day we were focusing our attention on the car door sized grey giants that usually patrolled the pylons on the running tide. We had already sunk the Owner SJ44 into a few good GT and as the arms began to tire I swapped techniques from large long bucketfuls of water pops to smaller shorter quicker bubble pops.

I had picked up this short pop retrieve from a deckie in Fiji who had a knack for doing everything fishing with as little effort as possible for maximum results. This included popping, and his simple and energy-conserving retrieve saw the rod butt placed in the gimbal at about 60º; instead of huge rod length rips, the action is imparted by the tip of the rod. This creates a short sharp pop and, most importantly, multiple pops over a shorter distance. In a sense you are substituting large single bloops, which often suck up large amounts of effort, for four or five smaller ones that require little effort as the rod tip and gimbal leverage do most of the work.

It is such a great change up when things are quiet or when the body is hurting. It certainly produced results in the clear Pacific Fijian waters.

On this day however the change in retrieve saw a sight that I will never forget. Instead of large bucket mouth grey giants materialising behind our poppers we now had streaks of silver Spanish mackerel spearing full length out of the water all over my lure. The sight of full length leaping Spaniards tearing onto my popper was simply amazing and while the hook up rates were completely abysmal it was some of the most insane fishing I had ever seen. My popping partner beside me was trying to get in on the action as I continued to momentarily hook and lose Spanish one after the other, however his big bloops were getting nowhere near the action my popper was receiving. It wasn’t until he swapped to the shorter pops that his full scale lure was mauled by a cracking Spanish mackerel of 15kg.

Since this initial session, the short pop technique has continued to snare Spanish mackerel in good numbers in all manner of locations from reef edges, jetties, and island headlands. I attribute this to the short pop retrieve keeping the popper or stick bait in the water for much longer. In addition, the surface disturbance is much more consistent and continuous over a shorter length, which seems to excite the Spanish into striking on the surface.

While the retrieve seems to be an integral part of targeting these fish, so are drag settings. When targeting GT on surface the majority of anglers will fish with pressures pushing well beyond 15kg, sometimes even over a back breaking 20kg depending on how hostile the environment you are fishing. Therefore expensive reels like Shimano Stellas and Daiwa Saltigas are usually the standard.

When chasing Spanish mackerel on surface, the necessity for heavy drag pressure is void as heavy drag pressure is in fact detrimental to your fishing success. This was a lesson I learnt the hard way as I popped the hooks on many a fish as I tore into them using heavy drag meant for GT. Getting a good hook up on Spanish Mackerel on surface is a rare event. They are notorious for hammering poppers and failing to hook up or staying momentarily pinned. I attribute this to the constant popping action that often sees the lure move out of the kill zone at the last minute.

With stick baiting, the hook up rate is much better as the lure tends to be below the surface, which eliminates water refraction as well. Whether you are stick baiting or popping it is vital to fish with only a little amount of drag to compensate for this.

Spanish mackerel are not dirty fighters so as long as there is pressure on the fish you will have the upper hand. Hook choice is debatable as I tend to have a better overall success on singles (jigging hooks) over trebles, especially back to back singles, in terms of putting fish in the boat however I tend get a lot more hook ups on trebles. The fact that singles pull out easier than trebles could be attributed to my lack of fishing ability or my over excitement when I get hammered by a big Spanish. Either way, if you’re not a hook sharpener then start now as sharp hooks are essential whether using singles or trebles.

The use of wire is a personal preference. I don’t bother as it’s pretty rare that the toothy end gets near the leader, especially when using big poppers. I love using medium-sized poppers and my favourite Spanish poppers include the Cubera 100g and the Halco Rooster. These poppers still create impressive pops, especially when adopting the short pop technique and still provide plenty of weight for those long casts.

On some occasions smaller offerings, like the Halco Rooster, are more beneficial when chasing Spanish mackerel on surface as they can be easier to inhale, which makes for a better hook up. These are a top lure to chase Spanish on as they don’t require huge GT style rods and reels that are not that vital when chasing Spanish mackerel.

Before you get out there with your popping rod and start churning the water of your local mackerel grounds there are a few things you need to consider.

Firstly, Spanish mackerel can be caught all year round but tend to be more concentrated during certain times of the year. In Central Queensland, the winter months sees huge migrations of these fish, which makes them easier to target on surface.

Next try putting a bit of thought into the area you are going to pop. In my experience it is hard to beat the outer reef for chasing Spanish on poppers as they are on average a lot more prevalent and can be found in relatively shallow water cruising along reef ledges.

However, if you don’t have a reef boat it doesn’t mean popping for pelagics is out of the question. Start with the usual areas where you have caught Spanish mackerel before. As a general rule, water to about 60-70 feet is about as deep as you want to pop with ideal water being around the 40ft mark. I think this has mostly to do with condensing fish into depths where they will consider a surface offering. Water clarity is also important and while popper fishing is more associated with noise, in my experience having clear blue water certainly increases your chances of enticing a toothy mack.

Shoal mack patches and pinnacles will produce fish, but boat traffic needs to be fairly minimal. Boat noise can often drive the fish deep and scattered, making your job just that much harder. Jetties and reef structures or big isolated rocks are my favourites, but no matter where you fish it is important to use your sounder to find condensed bait and, even better, Spanish mackerel.

Popping for Spanish is best suited for when they are thick and biting well. That’s not to say they can’t be targeted all the time, it just makes things a little easier. So if find them responding well to other methods, get the popping gear out asap.

While location is a key factor, probably the most important is the presence of bait. This is where your sounder can be your best friend and just as important as your rod and reel. If you can find condensed bait in your desired spot there will be a good chance that Spanish will not be too far away.

Not all bait schools are the same however, and some don’t suit popping at all if the bait is holding deep. Finding schools close to the top or hanging around the top half of the water column is ideal, especially if there are plenty of big arches hanging above them.

Tide plays a huge part in your success and in my experience focusing efforts around the change right on the bottom of the tide. Not sure why, but this time has always proven to be the time when the fish are most likely to strike. It is most likely that the run-in tide sparks a feeding mode in the fish. This time of the tide creates good pressure and tend to drive bait to certain areas closer to the surface, which can be a big help in knowing where to cast your poppers and stick baits.

So if you find yourself in the midst of a red hot Spanish bite, put down the jigging gear, wind up your trolling rods and get your popping gear out and I guarantee you won’t be sorry.

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