Spanish Mackerel vs King Mackerel


king mackerel “Holy Mackerel!” is probably not a saying you hear every day, but it’s one of our favorites! Especially when there’s a mackerel on the hook. It’s a “dad joke” just waiting to happen when fishing for mackerels, and we can never resist. Whether we’re fishing for King Mackerel or Spanish Mackerel, it’s a good day on the water. And although these species are from the same family, they have distinct differences that are important to note when targeting either.

Let’s break it down… King Mackerel

King Mackerel, also known as kingfish, are found throughout the subtropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. They are most commonly found in waters 30 to 150 feet deep, and typically grow to 30+ inches long, weighing 10-20 pounds. In 1999 the world record was set with the catch of a 93-pound king mackerel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Spanish Mackerel

Found a bit closer to shore, Spanish Mackerel prefer waters 10 to 40 feet deep with sandy bottoms. However, they can be found in waters as deep as 80 feet when they are foraging for food. They also migrate throughout the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern seaboard in the Atlantic Ocean. Spanish Mackerel will average 14 inches long and 2-3 pounds, with the world record of a 13-pounder caught in .


The main similarity between King Mackerel and Spanish Mackerel is where you can catch them: and the Atlantic Ocean. Florida anglers, in particular, are familiar with each species and learning to tell them apart. Both also are migratory species, moving throughout the Gulf from Mexico to Florida, as well as the Atlantic Coast from South Florida to Massachusetts. And while their appearances are how anglers ultimately tell them apart, they have two very important similarities in regards to appearance: teeth and tails. It’s true that some fish have teeth, and mackerel are part of that group. These small teeth may seem inconsequential until you’re trying to remove a hook. And then, of course, those identifiable forked tails, appearing on both King Mackerels and Spanish Mackerels. Both are long, slender fish with gray or silver coloring, while Spanish Mackerels are likely to feature more prominent yellow markings along the side.


While the adult species of each mackerel are somewhat easy to identify, it’s when you find a juvenile King Mackerel that things start to become confusing. Are you looking at a juvenile Kingfish or a mature Spanish Mack? Knowing a few unique traits of each species will help you determine what you’re looking at. There are two things to examine when trying to identify mackerel: the lateral line and dorsal fin. King Mackerel are typically identified by the pronounced lateral line that dips about midsection on the body. Spanish Mackerel’s lateral line is more of a gradual slant. The Spanish Mackerel also has a black spot on the front part of the dorsal fin, while King Mackerel do not have any such spot. While King Mackerel can grow much larger than Spanish Mackerel, that doesn’t always determine which one you’re reeling in. You may have a juvenile King Mackerel that may need to be released. In North Carolina and Florida, the size limit for King Mackerel is 24 inches and anglers can keep three fish per person each day, while Spanish Mackerel limit is 12 inches and bag limit is 15 per person each day. It could be a costly mistake if you’re unable to distinguish the two mackerels.

Fishing for Mackerel

Trolling for King Mackerel is a favorite for anglers. They are fast moving fish that like to feed on shiny bait such as sardines and menhaden. Trolling is a technique where a boat is moving through the water with lines in the water. The speed of the boat is important; too slow and the fish won’t be interested, too fast and they may miss the bait. Wire leader or very heavy monofilament leader is an important addition to your King Mackerel setups, as their teeth are known to shred through leader line. For anglers without access to a boat, fishing for Spanish Mackerel from local piers or jetties is a great option. They are a great introductory species for new anglers looking to get hooked on the sport. They are aggressive eaters that go after just about anything, especially if you’re using live bait. Fishing with anchovies or sardines near a pier’s pilings or out in the surf are an almost guarantee to getting a Spanish Mackerel on the line. Alternatively, a quick retrieve with a flashy lure such as a spoon will get the Spanish Macks’ attention in short order. Whether you’re fishing from a boat, pier, or the shore, your chances of hooking a mackerel is greatly increased when fishing along the side of a pro. You can hire a fishing guide to bring all the gear and teach you all the tips. and get your mackerel trip in the books - and then you can say “holy mackerel” too!

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