Tags Fish Guide

Narrow-barred mackerel

Tags Fish Guide
Category: High Risk

IF there is a fish which truly captures the imagination, and is the essence of a fishing trip to the North-West of this state, it would have to be the narrow-barred spanish mackerel. The strike of a spaniard, as they are more commonly known, is memorable. It's invariably hard and fast and followed by a scorching first run. This speedster is truly one of the great game fish of our waters.
Beside the narrow-barred spaniard, other members of the family Scombridae in the Indian Ocean include shark, broad-barred, spotted and school mackerel. Their smaller cousins, the blue or slimy mackerel, are also plentiful.
The narrowed-barred is a superb table fish, whether it be in fillets or cutlets. Because spaniards are often caught in warmer climes they should always be looked after carefully and kept on ice wherever possible. Most anglers still tend to bleed their mackerel, though an increasing number spike them via the iki jimi method.

It is difficult to confuse the narrow-barred spaniard with anything else once they reach ten kilos or more. However, when they are just over the legal size of 75cm they may be mistaken for any of the other family members with the exception of the slimy mackerel, which reaches only 65cm. Spaniards are generally a striking silver with grey to black vertical bars. Freshly caught fish display a range of colours, which stick in the memory but tend to fade quickly, and are worth recording on film. Iridescent greens and blues give the fish a tempered steel appearance.
The most frequent identification mistake is picking a broad-bar for a narrow-bar. Watch for the obvious broad bars on the former, and also a smaller and more pointed head. In addition, the second dorsal and anal fin of the broad-bar are bigger in relation to the size of the fish. Spotted mackerel, as their name suggests, have small spots on the body and school mackerel tend to have larger spots. School mackerel also have a dark area at the front of the first dorsal fin. There is no doubt that these last two mackerel species are also mistaken for spaniards, but both grow to a maximum of only 12 kilos.

Reference books show the narrow-barred mackerel attaining 42.2 kilos, which is the current Australian record. However, anecdotal evidence has some commercially-caught spaniards weighing in at more than 50 kilos! Any spaniard above ten kilos is a good fish and 20kg-plus is considered a very good fish. Catch one over 25 kilos and you have joined a very select group of successful spaniard anglers.

Spaniards extend from the Northern Territory border right down to Rottnest Island, though occasionally the Leeuwin Current takes a few as far south as Busselton. A superb fish of 38.76kg caught in Rottnest waters in 1972 held the Australian record for the species for some time, but these days it's increasingly harder to catch spaniards regularly around the island.
In fact numbers have declined all along the WA coast and a research program was started in 1998 by Fisheries WA to establish the stock status and movement of spaniards. At the time of writing the research is still in its early stages, but there is already some indication that the stock on the West Coast is made up of several different groups of fish. This means, for example, that spaniards off the Kimberley do not provide fish to top up numbers around the Abrolhos or Rottnest. In fact it was put to me that tailor, in relation to migratory distances, make spaniards look like "stay at homes". Now that concept will need some thinking through.

Breeding and migration
Not a great deal is known about breeding habits. However, each female spawns several times from two to six days apart, depending on locality. Nor is there much knowledge of migration, although a great deal more should be learnt in the next year or so.

The main threats to narrow-barred mackerel stem from commercial and recreational fishing over-exploitation.
Some commercial fisheries have seen significant catch increases in recent years, whereas recreational catches per angler are generally lower than they were 20 years ago. However, to put this in context there are a lot more recreational anglers chasing spaniards these days. The lower recreational catch is of particular concern given the obvious advances in tackle and electronic fish-finding equipment during this time.

Spaniards - especially big ones - love structure. Dropoffs, ledges and coral formations are all attractive real estate for the species. They also favour current or tide lines, so if you can find a combination of structure and water movement you should encounter big mackerel.
Generally spaniards will hold position up-current from structure as they feed on what the current or tide line brings them.The depth of structures and dropoffs which hold fish varies along the West Coast - a ledge that is only two metres down at Kalbarri could be a top location, whereas a 10m dropoff may be what it takes to attract spaniards at the Mackerel Islands.

Tackle and bait
After that first searing high speed run, during which you should let the fish have its head, a couple more shorter bursts in lower gear normally signal the beginning of the end for the fish. Then the trick is to pump the mackerel to the boat, rock ledge, reef or beach before sharks discover that their favourite meal is on the go.
I fish 8 to 10-kilo for big spaniards and I have never once been under-gunned. Some trolling anglers fish six-kilo and less by choice, but it's very hard to get a good hookup on lines this light and even harder to beat the sharks. Lure fishing is tops for spaniards and there are a number of very good lures for the job. If I had to select a cross-section it would include Rapalas, Halco Lasers and Tremblers, and big bibless minnows. I rig these on a short wire trace which is then connected to a three-metre, wind-on 40-kilo trace via a snap swivel. But when I want really big spaniards I always use bait - fresh garfish and mullet rigged to swim in the current, and live baits. Hooks for bait range from 7/0 up to 10/0 with hook points worked over thoroughly with a hook file. Spaniards have very hard mouths!

Fishing methods
Always troll with one eye glued on the sounder. Zig-zag or troll along the edge of the feature you're fishing to get the best results. On some days you simply won't get a hit if you're just a few metres off-course.
Bait showing on the sounder is a good sign, and I fish an area hard in such a situation. And often I return to it later, even if it didn't produce a fish first time around. Try to mix up your lures to cover various depths, and also offer the fish a range of colours, sizes and actions.
When fishing baits, try to get them down to where the big fish live by using lead or downriggers, and don't be in too much of a hurry to strike if you're fishing big baits.

References: Kailola, Williams, Stewart, Reichelt, McNee and Grieve Australian Fisheries Resources 1993. Hutchins and Swainston Sea Fishes of Southern Australia 1986.
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