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How to catch mackerel

MACKEREL are a key recreational target species for angler’s lucky enough to target them, with the vast majority of fish being landed by angler’s fishing inshore coastal waters from boats.

These tropical speedsters inhabit the warmer waters of Australia, ranging north ward of Cape Leeuwin in WA, across the tropics and down along the NSW coast as warm tropical currents flow south. Recreational anglers travel long distances and plan holidays in order to tangle with these fish. Not only do their savage strikes and blistering runs make for exciting fishing, these bulky fish taste great as well; and it only takes a couple to fill the freezer! If I was to hazard a guess, I’d think that mackerel contribute several million dollars to state economies from the rec. sector each season, with boats, fuel, accommodation and tackle, etc.

Here on the North Coast of NSW, the arrival of mackerel is much anticipated and nothing seems to bring seasonal anglers out of hibernation more than tales of mackerel being landed. Boat ramps fill up overnight and tackle store shelves instantly become devoid of the typical mackerel tackle, such as trolling lures, mono wire and bait jigs. Mackerel fever is back!

At first glance, fishing for mackerel can appear to be super simple, and whilst at times it is, far more often, it’s not. So, whilst reams have already been shared about, what has become known as “The Razor Gang”, like most species, there is always more to learn. My hope is that you’ll pickup at least one new point from what follows.

The Bare Bones

Spotted and Spanish mackerel, are members of a group of pelagic species commonly referred to as the “Razor Gang”. They possess an array of razor-sharp teeth that slice both lines and flesh with ease. The teeth are so sharp that even the lightest sustained contact is likely to require medical attention of some kind.

In NSW, when we chase mackerel, we are expecting to catch spotted mackerel, which are smaller and more numerous than Spaniards, whilst hoping for a Spanish mackerel. That said, if the big boys are your thing, and you are willing to put in the time, the use of XXXL baits will select out the spotted mackerel in favour of Spanish. Tailor, large mullet and pike, and small tuna, are the perfect baits for the big fish, either alive or rigged as a dead bait.

Whilst not essential, most (but not all), anglers deal with the teeth by fishing with a wire trace, even though it’s obvious that mackerel are sensitive to wire. Mackerel readily take lures, with larger lures such as trolling skirts, shallow-diving minnows and swimbaits being popular when targeting Spanish mackerel whilst spotted mackerel take shorter versions of the above.  The use of live bait is firmly entrenched where and when it is available, be it suspended below a float from a drifting boat or slow-trolled behind a moving boat. As long as mackerel around, there’s a chance of catching one, but at times they can be as frustrating as whiting on the shallows.

Getting your teeth into mackerel

There are times when finding mackerel is not a problem. Sure, mackerel can stay in the one area for days at a time, presumedly because water currents, wind and bait schools have remained set and stationary. However, that type of situation is not always the norm. Mackerel are true speedsters; they are extremely mobile and very responsive to environmental change. Consistent catches will only come when an angler recognises and responds to changing conditions as opposed to information gleaned from yesterday’s/last weekend’s angling grapevine.

Warm Water

Mackerel are a warm-water species, with a temperature of at least 23-24˚C  being the optimal threshold required, and on the NSW East Coast, that usually means late summer and autumn. Geographically, the southern limit of the warmest waters carried south on the East Coast Current (and hence prolific schools of mackerel), is the NSW Mid-North coast region. Local wind conditions also impact sea surface temperature (SST), through the Coriolis Effect, namely, southerly winds increase SST, whilst northerly winds lower SST. That said, this year’s current maritime heatwave may well bring mackerel much further south than is normal … fingers crossed for Sydney anglers!

Many mackerel fishers believe that moon phase has a direct impact on their mackerel fishing, however, they disagree on which phase is best. For me, the week leading up to the full moon is best, but what do I really know, my records are fairly deficient! I reckon that tide is more important than moon phase, with the fish biting during tide changes in periods of the largest tidal fluctuations i.e. new and full moons. The low tide change has always been best to me and I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that a low tide early or late in the afternoon would be worth fishing. What I can say from personal experience is that the afternoon is my favourite time of day to fish because most of my multiple big fish sessions have occurred then.

Mackerel, (spotties in particular), avoid dirty water. Whether it’s a species preference or a response of bait to dirty water is beyond my knowledge, but the fact remains that when the northern rivers are flooding the mackerel either disappear or don’t appear at all. Clean warm water is the ideal!

Structure is another essential for success. Mackerel will be found adjacent to suitable structure, and I use the term with license. Whilst they will travel through open expanses, I think this is as they move between structure. Obvious structure is coastal reef and headlands. They love reef edges, areas of scattered reef and vertical faces and pinnacles. Perhaps this is because bait hangs on reef but I suspect that these areas might establish changes in current flow that the mackerel like. My favourite possie is a 20m channel between two reef pinnacles coming out of 30m of water that results in a body of swirling, fast moving water 30 – 40m beyond the constriction.

Sure, mackerel water is associated with bottom structure because reef holds bait. Slimy mackerel, pike, pilchards and yakkas (to name a few), congregate around reef, preferring edges, peaks and drop-offs in particular. However, there is more “structure” than bottom structure. For example, oceanic bait schools that are seen skittering across the surface are mackerel attractors, as are areas where opposing currents meet: indicated by changes in surface texture, colour and temperature. Look for bait that is being hunted, which if the bait is on the surface, is easy to determine: they’ll be skittish or fleeing like their lives’ depended on it. At depth, a sonar bait display might have straight edges, large arches (mackerel), nearby or “cutouts” throughout. These are all indications of subsurface predation.

Other signs to keep aware of are diving birds and surface-feeding pelagic species. I don’t spot surface feeding mackerel all that often, but there are times when mackerel launch themselves high up into the air or leaves tiny “zipping wakes” as they speed near the surface. More often, it is tuna species, that often co-feed with mackerel that are visible from a distance. So, watch your electronics, but not at the expense of keeping your eyes on the ocean!

When you encounter one fish, expect more. Be sure to fish that area thoroughly before moving off, a couple of figure-8s if your trolling or another 50 casts if you are swim baiting.

I learnt this lesson years ago by slow-trolling with my first 4-stroke outboard amongst a maze of anchored anglers. By accident I found a tiny area, perhaps 20m², that yielded a fish on every pass. My boat caught six fish and the other 10+ boats got less than that combined! Obviously, they were packed tight and stationary.

Catching live bait

Catching live bait is a huge part of the mackerel equation and at times it can consume much of your fishing time. Usually, the hard part is to find the bait schools when mackerel are around. Bait isn’t stupid: check the surface and the sonar. Rig up a ready-made bait jig on a snapper outfit and as the name suggests, jig it with the rod tip. Always use a heavy sinker (light snapper lead), on the bottom of the jig to keep it straight and tangle-free when fish are on it. Add tiny strips of fish to improve the catch rate and always run your line over your finger when dropping a bait jig to the bottom. Don’t let it free fall. Bait will take it on the drop and cause massive tangles unless the jig is pulled up. Adding a couple more jigs after the first hookup will enable more baits to climb on, as will a slow retrieve back to the boat. Use an aquarium net to collect a bait from the tank as it minimises stress on the baits and consider returning to the bait ground to fish for mackerel once it’s clear of bait gatherers.

Tackle and Rigs

Most anglers make their own mackerel rigs. The trick is to use as alight a wire as you can get away without with being bitten off regularly as the lighter the wire used, the more bites you’ll get. As a general rule, 27lb wire is good for spotties and 44-69lb for Spaniards. Straight-shanked hooks are essential to minimise rig twist and there’s no need to use huge hooks: 3/0 – 5/0 is fine. Use two hooks for spotties and three for Spaniards, with a treble as the tail hook. Rigs are made to suit the size of baits being used. For small slimies and yellowtail, 10cm between hooks is ideal, with greater distance as bait size increases e.g., big pike etc. Further, there is no need to use overly heavy gear on mackerel, 10 – 15 kg mainline is fine when used with a long (10m), 24kg monofilament trace to act as a shock absorber, should the fish hit at top speed. 

Trolling Speed

Slow-trolling live baits is a very effective tactic as you cover a large area looking for fish. Go as slow as possible when slow-trolling because you aim for your bait to swim behind the boat. Simply, knock the outboard into gear with no additional acceleration, 700 rpm is as slow as my boat goes, but I will often flick the outboard in an out of gear to reduce speed when moving in the same direction as a fast current. Use landmarks to steer too because at such slow speed, the GPS will take time to respond and you’ll end up travelling in zigg-zaggs trying to steer by it. Just pick a point, go for 5 min and then reassess according to structure. Be sure to keep an eye on the sonar, the surrounding surface and the lines behind. Fish with a medium drag only, enough to set hooks but not so much that line will break from a heavy strike. Long (5-10m), monofilament traces add sufficient stretch to rigs to minimize break offs.

Troll dead baits faster than live baits, 3 knots is about right. At this speed a well-rigged dead bait will “swim” without skittering off to the side. I’ll troll one bait 10-15m behind the outboard, for those fish coming to investigate the commotion, and a second bait a long way (75m) back in quiet water. With a deckie on board, I’ll troll a third bait on a downrigger, 10m or more down.

Lures are trolled faster than baits, with speeds determined by the lure. Five knots is a good starting point for the popular hardbody minnows, but other lures are effective at faster speeds.

Mackerel are inquisitive fish that respond well to fish-based berley and at times they’ll come right to the boat where baits can be dropped in front of their noses. Light tackle rules in this situation: light and short wire traces with small hooks concealed in baits. This is a fun way to fish but not without frustration at times.

Further points to consider are as follows: Mackerel, whilst being inquisitive, do not like sustained boat traffic and noise, so get onto the water early or find structure off the beaten track. Trolling with an electric is deadly.

In Closing

Regardless of all you might learn, there’s no substitute for being on the water. I go whenever conditions and life allow as any time spent chasing mackerel is a good time! 

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