How to

How to catch mackerel along Australia’s east coast

Want to catch a Spanish mackerel like this? Read this article!

IT was the June of 1979 that I came face to face with my first mackerel. Spiney Riley and myself had ventured to Hat Head for a week and, on our first morning, we crossed the little bar at Hat Head Creek and ventured out to Korogo Point. We were southern anglers with the tailor and kingies of Fish Rock on our minds, and no idea of anything mackerel when we pulled up wide of the wash to spin for tailor in the white water. After a few small fish, Spiney’s chrome lure was smashed and his reel was losing line faster than any tailor could remove it. We were gobsmacked when a big Spaniard came into view. Mackerel cutlets were on the menu for two very happy young men, and all without a centimetre of wire!


My next encounter was with Spiney a year or two later. We’d driven through the night to get to Wooli and it was 10 am by the time we’d set up camp and were on the river. It was a perfect morning with minimal swell and not a puff of wind, so we headed out to North Solitary Island and started spinning. Again, without wire!

That morning has gone down the annals of our fishing holidays. We hooked one mackerel after another, losing as many as we caught to mackerel teeth and whaler sharks, but the tally ended up at 7 ½ Spanish (8–12 kg), one 5+ kg tailor and a decent rainbow runner and tuna. I remember being hooked up on the port side and seeing a mackerel jump on the starboard side, only to see (and hear), my line shoot around the boat to where the jumper was a few seconds later! That was when we understood how fast these fish can move, it was mind-blowing. Unfortunately, we couldn’t catch another one for the rest of the week, but we berlied plenty up to the back of the boat. Things might have been different if we were tuned to using live bait, however!
All things mackerel took a turn for the better when we moved to the Coffs Harbour Region in 1996. By the time the water warms over late summer and during autumn, I’ll be suffering from a case of mackerel fever, and there’s only one cure known to man for that…
The average spottie is usually less than a meter long and anything over 6 kg is a good one.


On the north coast of NSW, we catch spotted and Spanish mackerel. The spotties are smaller than Spaniards, and they make up the bulk of the recreational catch unless larger fish are specifically targeted with large baits. The average spottie is usually less than a meter long and anything over 6 kg is a good one. As the name suggests, they have spots along their flanks, perhaps 30 or more, but I’m sure that varies. Spanish mackerel are also called barred mackerel or just barries because they have a pattern of vertical bars along their flanks. They grow really quickly, reaching 100 cm in length in the first few years and slowing after. A Spaniard over 30 kg is a big one but is a record of a 70 kg (2.4 m) fish taken in Queensland.
Resident fish spawn and then migrate up to 1600 km south with the East Australian Current. They are regularly found as far south as Port Macquarie, NSW but odd fish have been caught much further south in years of stronger than average EAC flows.
Mackerel, once you deal with their razor-sharp dentures, are straight forward to land. They don’t fight dirty, usually keeping up near the surface, and if they do dive it’s not into the bottom. So, you don’t require X-heavy gear, just sufficient line to cope with long runs. Whilst it’s possible to land big fish on very light gear, the speed of their attack can pop light line. 
A 7-kg outfit will do the job if you have sufficient line, but given that mackerel spots tend to be well defined and well-known, they can get crowded, do I reckon a slightly heavier outfit is wise, which is why I don’t go lighter than 10 kg, but rarely heavier than 15 kg either. That said, heavier gear (15–24 kg) has a place when the angler is targeting big Spaniards by slow trolling big dead baits such as mullet, tailor or bonito. You do need serious drag pressure to set 8/0–10/0 hooks that are buried inside a whole fish.
No matter what outfit you do use it is the quality of the drag that’s paramount. Mackerel hit at high speed and they can change direction equally quickly, so the drag has to be smooth and have the quality to ensure that it doesn’t stick and cause line breakages.
Casting surface lures
When once mackerel anglers used overheads reels almost exclusively, the technical gains made in spin reels has resulted in a massive increase in the use of these reels. If anything, more anglers are using spin reels these days than overheads. This is particularly true with the recent upsurge in the use of hardbody lures. Swim baits are very effective mackerel lures (as are poppers), and a 15 kg spin outfit is the way to use these lures effectively. 
If you’re after extreme visual action, the use of surface lures is for you. Apart from explosive surface eruptions, mackerel’s tendency to hit at speed results in lots and lots of fish breaking out of the surface of the water; and having a metre-plus fish shooting 2–3 m into the air or cartwheeling across the surface should drop your jaw.
The size of the lure is really only limited by your outfit, so if it can handle 25+ cm lures, then throw them if you choose. Smaller lures are effective as well, with lure lengths in the range of 12–16 cm being effective on all sizes of fish. Lure colour and hook configuration are matters of personal preference, although the use of single hooks is gaining in popularity. Personally, I use blue/silver and brown/silver to good effect and I always either remove split rings on the nose or add a solid ring as single strand wire can easily work its way into a split ring, resulting in a loss of both lure and fish.
An impressive east coast Spanish macherel.

Trolling lures

A good mackerel lure produces a tight wobble and can cope with speeds of >7 kts and there are plenty of shallow diving hardbodies made just for mackerel. Most tend to carry treble hooks that result in an effective hook-up rate when trolled on a sturdy strike drag setting. Lures in the 20 cm range are popular with the red/white Qantas colour scheme and blues and greens being present in most avid mackerel angler’s tackle boxes. Check the quality of rings and hooks before using them and consider using a second split ring with hooks. As with swimbaits, remove slit rings on the nose of the lure and tie the wire directly onto the metal loop on the lure, or add a solid ring and tie the wire onto that. When considering which lure to purchase, it pays in the long run to keep in mind that you get what you pay for.
Live bait rigs
Live slimy mackerel, pike and to a lesser degree, yellowtail, are the baits most often fished live for mackerel. If definitive bait grounds don’t exist in the area you are fishing, you’ll have to go looking. A good sounder is essential in order to spot the mid and lower water bait schools, but once located you should be able to gather some baits fairly quickly. Use either a single baited hook on a light line or employ a live bait jig (a string of hooks with a plastic flasher on each), with a suitable sinker added at the very bottom…small snapper leads provide sufficient weight to minimise tangles, and gently jig the rig up and down. I add a slither of bait to each hook because I reckon I catch more with bait. The aim is to get each bait into a live bait tank with a minimum of harm, so always try to shake them off the hook and straight into the water without holding them. If you can’t then use wet hands and hold firmly just behind the head. Take extra care with pike – they are delicate and deadly on Spaniards!
Live bait rigs involve two or more hooks, rigged far enough apart to ensure that the bottom hook reaches just above the tail of the fish when the first hook is put through their nose. A popular rig consists of two straight-shanked J-hooks with a small treble at the bottom. I use small short-shanked hooks (Mustad Tarpons in 3/0) as my J-hooks because smaller hooks draw more hits.
Once the livey is hooked up, slow-troll it (as slow as you can go), through the area you want to fish. If using two outfits, I’d set one back at about 30 m and the second a few metres behind the prop wash. Set a decent strike drag, sit the rods in holders and troll away…you’ll either get a very clear message or no message at all, when you get a bite. Mackerel are experts at shredding baits with producing so much as a single click on the reel, so it pays to stop every so often and try to feel the bait kicking. 
Big baits 
If big is your thing, and you’re willing to bypass spotties, then big baits are the way to go. One approach is to catch a few decent sized mullet the afternoon before or chase bonito, small tuna, tailor or large pike before commencing mackerel fishing. Alternatively, you can use whole dead baits, which when rigged correctly, work almost as well as livies. The added advantage with pre-rigged dead baits is the ability to straight to the mackerel reefs and have a crack whilst the live baiters are still catching bait. In my experience, Spanish mackerel shy away from outboard noise, so being first is good, and trolling with an electric motor is even better.
Chin rigs make the job of rigging dead baits easy, but even so, rigging a bait that swims well, requires care, so do it at home the night before and pop the rigged baits in the fridge. Chin rigs consist of a weighted nose cup that has a gang of big hooks behind it. To rig a chin rig, insert a long-bladed knife in through the gill cover and carefully cut a channel (as wide as the gape of the hooks), along one side of the backbone. Then remove the knife and slide a piece of sturdy wire along the cut and out at the tail. By bending the end of the wire (the end nearest to the fish’s head) in a small U, hook it around the bottom hook and pull the gang into the fish and along the backbone until the nose of the weight sits under the nose of the fish. Then push the two prongs of the chin weight up through the head and bend them forwards, to secure the bait to the chin weight. You tube has chin rig videos if you require more details. What you end up with is a bait that swims from side to side and carries a whole lot of hardware to hook a mackerel; but even so a hook-up rate of 50 per cent is good going at times. Still, you’ll get bites from big fish!
Wire and swivels
Success can be affected by the diameter (strength) of the wire and the length used. Lighter wire gets more bites, but is more prone to being bitten through by big mackerel. If you are live baiting, wire diameter is more important than when trolling or casting lures. In livebait rigs, 27 lb wire will maximise bites and is fine for spotties, but not so good for bigger Spaniards, whilst 44lb wire will put off some fish but minimise bite-offs from Spaniards. 44 lb and 69 lb wire works well when casting or trolling lures. There’s no need for long wire traces, keep them short at 30 cm and be sure to use black or dulled swivels rather than bright silver or bronze because they can also attract a bite, particularly from a second fish that’s trailing a hooked fish. 
To secure wire to lures, hooks and swivels use a combination of 5-barrel rolls and 5-tight turns. Barrel rolls are made by holding the main wire and the tag end at 45° to the direction of the wire and twisting them 10 times (half a turn each time), whilst a tight turn is made by twisting the tag end (keeping the loops tight together), 5 times around the main wire. Use cutters (not your braid sissors) to cut the tag snug against the main wire. 
Mackerel are often described as being members of the razor-gang. This is not a joke, they do have razor-sharp teeth, so keep well away from thrashing fish. It’s wise to subdue a mackerel before unhooking them. 
Mackerel are great sportfish and fun to target with the added bonus of being delicious on the plate! 


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