Spanish Mackerel with Sicilian Salsa

The Story of the Fish by Will Liffick

Shipwrecks, Sharks, and Spanish Mackerels

The cool morning air brushed past us as we cut through the glassy surface of the water. We were bound for the Marquesas, a small group of uninhabited islands just 30 miles west of Key West, Florida.  Grouper season was quickly coming to an end and we wanted to shoot a few more before the end of the season. Winter in Key West is the best time of year, the water temperature drops and most of the weather lays down. The day began as a cool morning, but quickly warmed up. Earlier in the morning, we had already dove a few shipwrecks, but battled visibility most of the morning, which forced us into deeper, clearer water of the Atlantic. We jumped in and were greeted by reef fish as well as turtles. We quickly spread out and started the hunt. There were no legal grouper in sight so I decided to swim with the current just to see what was around. I stumbled across a nice school of Spanish mackerel and was able to put a good shot on one. 

I swam him back to the boat and let the other guys know about our improved fortunes. Dave and I quickly swam back in the direction of the school. We hunted for the school for a good thirty minutes, but were unable to relocate the fish. As we drifted in the current looking for the mackerel, we stumbled upon some great grouper habitat. A small coral ledge about thirty feet down seemed to be a great spot for the fish to hide. Dave quickly located a nice legal black grouper while I watched from above. He rose for air and we shared our excitement. A day that had been challenging might finally pay off. 

Dave was just about to dive on the fish when I saw it. A large crescent shaped tail in the distance slowly faded away. I quickly got Dave’s attention and let him know that we were not the only hunters in the area. Just as I finished relaying my message a dark shape materialized out of the blue and swam right at us. Dave and I quickly got back-to-back and watched the shark. As the shark passed about five feet from us, he turned and there were the iconic, unmistakable vertical stripes of a 12-foot tiger shark. Sharks are typically not a big problem for us, but this one was different. He was also curious of us and aggressively circled Dave and I. We held our spearguns out towards him in a manner to dissuade him from viewing us as prey. I watched the shark slowly circling us as Dave called for the boat. Fortunately, the boat was not far off and Justin quickly pulled the anchor and made his way towards us. After a few more passes, the shark faded out into the distance as Dave and I swam together towards the boat. Once onboard and after the adrenaline subsided, I appreciated the encounter and sharing space with such an apex predator. We decided to call it a day and headed back to the dock with both fish and stories. 


Recipe by  Justin Townsend

Recipe Name:  Spanish Mackerel with Sicilian Salsa by Justin Townsend (Photos by Justin Townsend)

Serving Size: 3-4

Time to make: 30 minutes

Special Equipment: Stove top or grill

Beer/Wine Pairing:  German/Italian Pilsner or Sauvignon Blanc  

Also works with: Any Saltwater Fish


Any time I see Spanish mackerel in the wild or on the menu at a restaurant, I think back to my first time eating this fish when I was a teenager. When I was 17, I joined onto a boondoggle of an expedition to move a sailboat from Ft. Lauderdale around to Houston, TX. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, so this trip was more like a pirate adventure on the high seas than anything else. Most of the days were pretty uneventful with the exception of our transit through the Florida Keys, ironically where I now call home. We tossed lines off the back of the sailboat to troll for fish and ended up catching a Spanish mackerel which was later tossed on the grill. I sat there in the cockpit of the old sailboat eating the fish with my hands just staring out at sea thinking of how I wanted to keep up with the sea going lifestyle. The fish was fresh, flaky and delicious. I still have the same opinion of the fish today.

On a recent trip to the Marquesas out of Key West, my buddies and I ended up shooting a couple of Spanish mackerel which soon met the same fate as that fish from 15 years ago. This time, I decided to use some fresh cherry tomatoes from my patio and combine them with capers, pepper, and black olives to make a Sicilian style salsa which brings a refreshing, briny zest to the light flavor of the fish. The fish can be prepared on the grill or in a pan. I also recommend serving this dish over pasta, orzo, or even creamy polenta and enjoy with a cool glass of wine or chilled beer. 



2 Spanish mackerel fillets, pin bones removed

1 tsp lemon juice

1 tsp olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste



4 oz cherry tomatoes, diced

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tbsp. capers

½ roasted red pepper, diced

12 pitted black olives, diced

¼ tsp ground black pepper

2 tbsp. olive oil



Olive oil



How to make it:

  1. Combine all ingredients for the salsa in a large bowl and mix well.
  2. Allow the mixture to set for 5 minutes. This allows the flavors to merry.
  3. Add the fillets to a bowl and coat with the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  4. Preheat a pan on the stove or your grill on high
  5. Add the fillets and cook for 2-3 minutes on each side or until the fish flakes slightly when pressed.
  6. Remove and plate on your favorite starch. Top with the cool salsa. Add extra olive oil and grated parmesan if desired. 
Written by Justin Townsend
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