Mucho Mackerel

This time of year, you’ll catch so many Spanish at the shallow-water rigs, you’ll think you’ve crossed the border.

The wheels on the shiny black Explorer spun and squealed. The outboard on the Pro-Line roared. But nothing moved. Neither was budging on that backdown ramp. The pot-bellied guy at the boat’s wheel wouldn’t give up. Grimacing and baring his teeth, he jammed the throttle forward — WRROONN!!—BLUB!-BLUB!-BLUB! WWRROONN! —BLUB-BLUB-BLUB!! The prop sent up a huge geyser of bubbles and spray as the Yamaha 250 erupted with a hellacious valve-threatening roar. Pelayo looked at me and grimaced, hunching his shoulders, as if bracing himself for something catastrophic (or hilarious).

“GO! GUNNIT!!” you could barely hear the guy yelling over the racket, but his red, contorted face gave away the urgency of his words. Sweat beaded his forehead and dripped off his double chin as he bobbed his head in his maniacal fury.

But he wasn’t moving. He balled his free hand into a pudgy fist and punched forward into the air, like us at LSU games as Justin Vincent nears the goal line. But still, he wasn’t moving.

The wheels kept spinning, squealing, smoking. The stench of burnt rubber wafted through the humid, smoke-filled air. The blond woman at the wheel seemed to be looking in the rear-view mirror as she gunned the gas pedal. Now the Explorer started drifting sideways, toward the edge of the algae-covered concrete ramp.

Seeing this, the guy hit the key and killed the outboard. Blub!-blub-blub….BLUB. Then he raised both hands and opened his palms.

“HOLD IT!” he bellowed. His crazed pantomime had switched gears. “STOP!!”

Without the outboard’s racket, his yells now boomed and thundered, bashing my tympanic membranes and rattling the very fillings in my teeth. The sound combined the most tortured notes from Joe Cocker, the vehemence of Sam Kinnison and the decibel-level of Luciano Pavarotti. Compared to this uproar, the outboard’s racket had been a kitty’s purr.

“STOP! STOP!” he howled. “DAMMIT! STOP! You’re GONNA!…”

The guy’s face started the color of those reds you catch deep in the marsh. It progressed to the bright pink of a freshly caught sow snapper. Now it was nearing a beeliner hue of crimson.

But now the woman at the wheel wasn’t looking in her rear-view mirror. She kept her foot on the gas until the smoke cloud surpassed the one spewed by those mosquito-spray jeeps we’d follow on our bikes as kids, pedaling furiously on those banana bikes and inhaling deeply from the exertion, filling our young lungs with the killer chemicals. (Hey, according to the greenie-weenies, shouldn’t we all be dead?! All those HORRIBLE toxins! AHHHH!! Get the EPA! The DEQ — and, especially, the LAWYERS! )

Anyway, the wheels kept spinning, and the guy in the boat was completely losing it, banging the console, with both fists now, bobbing his head, his eyes wild and bugging, his bellows turning scratchy and hoarse as he continued to scorch the air with a litany of curses. I was waiting for flames to start shooting from his ears.

Finally he decided it was time for action. No choice but to get out and go grab the wheel himself. He turned, put one hand on the gunwale and started leaping over it like a gymnast on a row bar.

But he wasn’t built like a gymnast. He came over it alright, then his wet sneakers hit the trailer’s wet fender — “WHOOAA!” His flabby, sunburnt arms flailed the air helplessly, grabbing for the gunwale but to no avail. He hit the fender with his stomach and chin, then rolled off into the shallow water and algae, where he thrashed and wallowed like a beached manatee.

By now Pelayo was wading over to lend a hand, and I’d raced over to bang on the woman’s window. She looked through the window and seemed to gasp. Then she looked in the mirror and gaped. With one hand she covered her mouth, with the other she jerked the shift into park. Then she fumbled with the door handle and finally pushed violently on the door, whacking me smartly on the arm and stomach as she leaped from the driver’s seat and into the tire smoke.

“Oh my …!” What…?”

Her sunglasses sat askew on her pretty face, and I could see her heavily made-up eyes were wide and wild. Her hand still covered her mouth. Her big hoop earrings jangled as she raced to the water’s edge in her flip-flops.

“Alex!” she gasped. “Oh Alex! I thought….!?”

She wore a blue, one-piece bathing suit that hugged her womanly curves deliciously. A decent person probably wouldn’t be noticing this right now. But I was still regaining my wind from the vicious door- blow to my stomach.

Alex was finally upright and shuffling to shore.

“What the hell ya TRYING…?!”

Midway into his bellow he shut up and shook his head disgustedly, leaning on the boat’s bow for a breather. His hat was gone, floating behind him, and his wet hair stood up like Stan Laurel’s. His knees and elbows were bleeding. His arms, shirt and cheeks were smeared with green algae. He was a sight.

“But honey,” the woman whined, “I was just doing what you said? Didn’t you…?”

“I NEVER said to burn the damn wheels UP!!”

Alex started walking, getting fired up again.

“I told you to WATCH me in the rear VIEW!”

His steps were matching the tempo of his voice as he sloshed forward, stomping furiously, cursing loudly.

“NEVER MIND!” he yelled. As USUAL I’ll…!”

But as we all know, that algae makes these ramps slippery. He started losing his footing again, leaning forward, throwing his arms out in front of him, but he kept pumping his legs. No traction though. He was pumping away like on a treadmill at the health club. His body started swaying and weaving. He turned into a ringer for John Belushi as Jake in the Blues Brothers, same energetic dance steps.

Then his arms with the bleeding elbows were up over his head, flailing the air crazily on either side of his head, like if he’d bumped into a wasp nest or forgot the Skin-So-Soft on a warm, calm day in January. His stocky little legs were going a mile a minute as his arms danced overhead, Blues Brother Jake for sure.

Finally — SPLOOOSH! — down again. It was too much. Pelayo and I rushed over, each grabbed an algae-smeared arm, and helped the poor guy upright.

“Oh Alex! Oh…!” The woman’s voice cracked, and she buried her face in her hands. She was doubled over gasping, her tanned shoulders heaving. And just as we got to shore, she turned around and started slapping the air with one hand while covering her mouth with the other, still doubled over.

Finally she gave up and turned around to face us. Turned out the woman was IN HYSTERICS!! She was laughing her posterior off! Her face was red and contorted in mirth. While trying to catch her breath, she wiped her reddened cheeks free of laugh-tears.

I looked over at Alex, and prepared to duck or bolt. Heaven help us, I thought. And damned, if just then, the guy wasn’t a ringer for Ralph Kramden. Not just the physique, but especially the look on his face.

“TO THE MOON, ALICE!!” I braced myself for his outburst. Instead Alex started chuckling himself, softly at first, his torso softly heaving. In seconds he switched to outright laughter. Finally he erupted in hearty guffaws. That was our cue. The hilarity was contagious. So Pelayo and I exploded in cackles. Heck, we’d been holding it in long enough.

“Mind if I try?” Pelayo said pointing at the Explorer, after he caught his breath. He got in and promptly drove the boat out of the ramp. He neglected to tell Alex he’d simply jerked it into four-wheel-drive. Hey, why spoil the mood?

Turned out, Alex and Jolene were from Birmingham, and had just experienced, “the best fishing day IN YEARS down here!” They were jubilant.

While trolling for four hours along the beach, they’d caught a total of six Spanish mackerel.

“You can’t expect this kind of success on EVERY trip!” Alex gushed. “Heck, we might get spoiled! And boy we can’t wait to get these on the broiler tonight!”

“Oh YUMMY!” Jolene smacked her lips, rolled her eyes dreamily and arched her eyebrows.

Anyway, all this happened at a marina in Destin, Fla., and I kept recalling that Memorial Day Weekend trip to Destin as we hooked up to West Delta 31 a week later, with my brother Rick and our kids. We’d come out SPECIFICALLY for Spanish. We love them too, both as frenzied fighters and as delicacies. Heck, the 1921 edition of the Times-Picayune Creole Cookbook puts them up there next to pompano! And rightly so.

And hey, let that jig sink a little too deep around the legs of these shallow-water rigs in mid summer, and get set for Mr. Pompano himself (I can certainly live with that!) and triggerfish (if you ain’t eating them, you’re a fool) and mangrove and spadefish and catch-and-release reds. It’s a fisherman’s buffet out here in the summer, my friends.

For the life of me, I’ll NEVER understand why people pass up these rigs (the 35- to 60-feet-deep ones, from Ship Shoal, through Fourchon, through the Grand Isle blocks to West Delta) on the way to the deeper ones in mid summer! The action’s HERE! This action comes with medium-spinning tackle, short wire leaders and jigs. This ain’t rocket science.

Spanish mackerel hang at our shallower rigs all year long, but we always do best in mid summer. We always catch the BIGGEST ones in July and August. They’re spawning this time of year. The big ones we catch (the 3- to 5-pounders) are all laden with eggs. And you talk about a BATTLE! You Talk about a powerful MISSILE of a fish! I’ll put a 2-pound Spanish against an 8-pound trout ANYDAY (not that I’ve ever caught one). Heck, I’d even put it up against a 5-pound red — for its ferocious runs especially. Nothing like it.

You hook up to these rigs in winter and spring, and drop down with shrimp-tipped jigs — you’ll have some dynamite fishing. But the sheepshead typically won’t let the jig past them to the pompano, triggerfish and mangroves. Cast away from the rig, and the Spanish are schooled out there alright — but in big, tight schools. These are smaller Spanish than in the summer.

Also, in winter/spring, you get your line snapped twice for every Spanish you boat. What happens is, while you’re fighting one, another in the school grabs the swivel on your leader that’s twirling around or just grabs the line out in front of it.

On the other hand, in the summer Spanish aren’t schooled up as tight. The individual fish are much bigger and more spaced out, not in tight schools. It’s the ideal time to battle them one on one.

Imagine hooking up to a rig and nobody dropping ponderous sinkers and gargantuan hooks with squid or pogies on rope-like line with winch-like reels. That’s us. Two white beetles were being cranked halfway back on spinning tackle when the poles bowed.

“I got ONE!” Andre screeched as his pole bowed.

“Me TOO!” howled Robbie from beside him. The fight was on. The battle had been joined.

Spanish love anything shiny or white. In a frenzy, sure, they’ll hit anything, but after years of targeting them, we’ve found that white beetles or shad rigs, Sidewinders, Mr. Champs (the old favorites) and the silvery blue Rat-L-Traps take the cake. Jerk them back on the retrieve violently. They usually smack it in between jerks. Short wire leaders and black swivels in front of these offerings will save you some bucks, too.

After a ferocious flurry of runs mixed with some surface thrashing, Robbie heaved his aboard. A beauty.

“Watch those teeth!” I howled, then noticed Mickey, grimacing and holding on for dear life as something on the end of his line plowed for the bottom. “Looks like a redfish.” I offered. “Gotta be a red. Look at him go.”

No problem at these shallow rigs, though. Reds don’t come up dead and bloated here. Or even crippled. You just heave them aboard and release them like you would in the marsh. It’s a nice feeling not to have to watch them float away, believe me.

And indeed, it was a red, about a 12-pounder. He fought like a brute, and now he’s alive to spawn and fight another day.

“Another Spanish here!” Rick roared from behind me. “Whooo-whooo!”

He held his rod high overhead, savoring every sizzling second of the maniac’s berserk run. How people pass up these fish I’ll never understand.

Now Robbie’s reel started singing. His face was sweat-beaded and contorted as he duked it out with the Spanish. He was a sight. Complete bedlam in our boat. In 10 minutes, I netted six Spanish, as many as Jolene and Alex caught in four hours of trolling off Florida!

Then came some pompano. They hit the little white jigs too, but tipped with shrimp and close to the rig. Then came a mangrove. It hit the same thing. Then some triggerfish; they like small jigs and shrimp close to the pilings too.

Two and a half hours later we had to stop. The box was full, and our arm muscles were twitching and cramping. Nobody felt like stopping for trout over the oyster reefs on the way in. Woulda been pretty anti-climactic.

Humberto Fontova’s latest book, The Hellpig Hunt, is available at