The Difference Between Mackerel and King Mackerel: What to Get

There are many different types of mackerel species available to catch, with two of the most popular being the king mackerel and “regular” mackerel. But what is the difference between mackerel and king mackerel anyway?

They sound similar, but they have key differences that make them unique and fun to target! So read on as I compare the mackerel and king mackerel to know more about this popular species.

Why Learn About the Difference, Anyway?

The King and Spanish Mackerel are two of the most popular game fish species around. They are abundant and readily available to catch in the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf.

Furthermore, these fish are very similar, some anglers may not tell the difference between both! But does it matter?

YES, it does matter! This is because fishing regulations for both fish species are different, so you wouldn’t want to be caught breaking rules and left with a hefty fine. Besides this, it may be embarrassing for some anglers to mistake the fish species, especially when boasting about it to their angler friends.

Before highlighting its differences, let’s first tackle their tricky similarities.

For starters, their size is different, but juvenile King Mackerel have the same size as mature and grown Spanish Mackerel, making them confusing to distinguish at times.

Furthermore, the Spanish Mackerel has three rows of elliptical sides, which dot the sides of their bodies. The King Mackerel doesn’t, or at least until they are fully grown. The juvenile King Mackerel does have similar yellow spots, though it loses color or fades to a leopard-like pattern as they age.

The Difference Between Mackerel and King Mackerel

Now that you’re familiar with the similarities, what is the difference between mackerel and king mackerel? Here are what you need to know:

King Mackerel

The King Mackerel is the absolute fish among the mackerel species, known for their age size and aggressiveness. Also named the Kingfish, they don’t taste as amazing as their northern Atlantic relatives, but they do taste great when smoked.

They are found in Brazil to North Carolina, and you can distinguish them from their big size and deep olive green back and a white belly.

They have a long and slim body with a lateral line that has a steep dip on its side, before reaching the forked tail. This lateral line would drop sharply nearing its first dorsal fin. As for its dorsal spine, it has a light color and looks more relaxed compared to the Spanish Mackerel.

As mentioned, they do have yellowish side spots, but they fade as the king mackerel grows. The best way to identify the king mackerel is by looking at the line along its side, particularly if they are a smaller size or of juvenile age.

Spanish Mackerel

Also known as the Atlantic Spanish Mackerel, it is the poster child from the Spanish Mackerel tribe, a common catch from the US East Coast. You can shorten its name to the “Spanish,” living around northern Mexico until the Cape Cod and are more popular in Florida to Maryland, as well as the northern Gulf Coast.

They are most confused with the younger and juvenile King Mackerel. However, they fo have defining features, such as its light-green back and silver colors on its sides. On top of that, they have yellowish spots and lateral lines which slope from the gill to tail, sloping down more evenly.

The dorsal spine is either very dark or completely black, which is the most distinct difference between this fish and the King mackerel. So if you come across both mackerel species of the same size, simply check the line that runs down their sides, and the color of their dorsal fins.

Read More: Can You Catch Mackerel at Night? The Lowdown on Night Fishing

Other Types of Mackerel

There are also other types of mackerel to help distinguish the species, such as:

  • The Atlantic Mackerel is the “original” fish species, which averages about a foot long and is the tastiest fish meat! You can see that this is the “true Mackerel tribe,” compared to the “Spanish mackerel” tribe from North America. They have a slim build and wavy lines along their backs.
  • The Cero mackerel is known as the “tropical cousin” from the Spanish mackerel tribe, popular in the Florida Keys to the Caribbean, also sometimes found in the Gulf of Mexico. They aren’t a common catch, but when you do see them, they have a similar shape and yellow markings as the Spanish Mackerel. What makes them different is the bronze stripes that run down in their center.
  • The Sierra mackerel is known as the Mexican Sierra or Pacific mackerel, a popular species in Southern California and South America. They look similar to the Spanish Mackerel but have about four rows of brown or orange spots that run alongside their bodies.
  • The Wahoo is also a type of mackerel, though it doesn’t look it! They are a close relative of the mackerel species and are known for their speed and strength, as well as their flavorful meat. You can recognize the Wahoo with their long crest along the back and a gaping open mouth that gives them the bird-like appearance.

But take note that there are no “better” mackerel fish species to catch! All are equally delicious and fun to get, though if you’re up for a challenge, try catching the bigger kingfish!

Do you want to learn more about the mackerel species and how to catch them successfully? Check out this informative video:

Wrapping It Up

Mackerel is America’s favorite fish, especially for anglers, and they come in numerous species. While it may be confusing to distinguish each fish species at first, it gets easier over time. Either way, you get delicious fish meat to bring home and boast about to your friends and family!

I hope that this article on the difference between mackerel and king mackerel helped you out! So don’t wait any longer and make sure you learn more about the mackerels and other targeted game fish species you want to catch now.

1 thought on “The Difference Between Mackerel and King Mackerel: What to Get”

  1. Check the July 2023 issue of Consumer Reports. They measured mercury levels of 62 fish species. Of the 62, only seven species were in their “Highest levels” group. The seven species were King Mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, and bigeye Tuna. The highest levels of mercury tend to be found in large and/or long-lived fish. Mercury is a neurotoxin and is about 100 times more toxic to your brain than lead.


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