Types of Mackerel in North America
Jul 4, 2019 | 4 minute read
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Mackerel are some of America’s favorite fish. Whether they’re tasty treats or huge game fish, these sleek, toothy beasts are always a welcome catch. However, there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the various types of Mackerel you can find in North America.

A Spanish Mackerel being held towards the camera by a man on a charter fishing boat

For a start, Mackerel all look pretty similar. On top of that, many of them have similar names. To clear things up, here’s a guide to the top Mackerel species you can find around North America. You may be surprised by a couple of the fish on our list.

Atlantic Mackerel

An Atlantic Mackerel held by an outstretched arm, with sea and sky behind it

Where better to start than the “original” – the one which gave the whole family their name. These guys may not be the biggest (averaging just a foot long) but they’re certainly one of the tastiest. Atlantic Mackerel live all along the North Atlantic Coast, from Labrador to North Carolina.

Atlantic Mackerel are from the “true Mackerel” tribe, while most other species in North America are from the “Spanish Mackerel” tribe. Because of this, they look quite different from other types of Mackerel. You can recognize them by their slim build and distinctive wavy lines along their back.

Atlantic Spanish Mackerel

An angler at the back of a fishing boat holding up an Atlantic Spanish Mackerel. The waves from the boat's wake are visible behind him

The poster child of the Spanish Mackerel tribe, this guy is one of the most common inshore catches on the US East Coast. Atlantic Spanish Mackerel (often shortened to simple “Spanish”) live from northern Mexico up to Cape Cod. They’re most common from Florida to Maryland, and along the northern Gulf Coast – where most of America’s charter trips take place.

Spanish Mackerel sometimes get confused with young King Mackerel. The best way to distinguish the two is by the line running down their sides, which drops sharply half-way down on Kings but much more gradually on Spanish. They also get mixed up with Cero Mackerel from time to time – more on that next.

Cero Mackerel

A Cero Mackerel being held by a fisherman, with sea behind

Cero Mackerel are the tropical cousin of the Spanish Mackerel tribe. They live from the Florida Keys down into the Caribbean, and occasionally into the Gulf of Mexico. As such, they’re not a common catch in North America, and can confuse anglers who do come across them.

Cero look a lot like Spanish Mackerel at first glance: they’re both the same shape, and both have yellow markings on their sides. The key difference is that Cero have bronze stripes running down their center, as well as the yellow spots they share with Spanish Mackerel.

King Mackerel

An angler holding a King Mackerel and a fly fishing rod on a charter fishing boat

You don’t need three guesses why King Mackerel get the crown. These guys are huge, tough, aggressive – all the makings of a great game fish. “Kingfish” don’t taste as good as their northern Atlantic cousins, but they can be great smoked. Hence their nickname, “Smoker Kings.”

King Mackerel live from Brazil to North Carolina, and can even show up farther north than that. The best way to spot them is by their sheer size. If you catch a small one, take a look at the line along their side, as we mentioned above.

Sierra Mackerel

An angler in a black sweater holding up a Sierra Mackerel on a boat

Commonly known as Pacific or Mexican Sierra, these guys are a favorite of shore fishermen and women all the way from Southern California down into South America. If you’ve ever tried surf fishing on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, chances are you’ve caught your fair share.

Sierra look pretty similar to other fish in the Spanish Mackerel tribe. Luckily, they’re about the only member of the group in their range, so there’s not much to confuse them with. If you really want to be sure, look for 3–4 rows of brown or orange spots running along the side of their body.

Wahoo

Three anglers on a boat holding a large Wahoo fish over their laps, with blue sea behind them

Wait, Wahoo is a type of Mackerel? These guys may not look it, but they’re actually a close relative of King and Spanish Mackerel. Wahoo need no introduction among sporting anglers. Their incredible speed and strength mean they’re always a welcome catch on deep sea fishing trips. On top of that, they taste better than pretty much any other fish in the family.

There are two ways to instantly recognize a ‘Hoo: Firstly, they have a long crest along their back, which helps them stay straight at speed. Secondly, their mouths usually gape open when they’re out of the water, giving them an unmistakable, bird-like look.

And Many More Mackerels!

There are a lot more Mackerels out there, but these are the ones you’re more likely to come across. In general, “Spanish Mackerels” are more fun to catch, while “true Mackerels” taste better. That being said, all these fish are predators, and even the smallest ones can be a barrel of laughs with the right setup.

What’s your favorite type of Mackerel? Which one do you think tastes best? Let us know in the comments section below!

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