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Silver bullets of the South

Mackerel are an awesome fish.

They bring a total package to the table: speed, size, sharp fangs and wonderfully white and tasty flesh.

It’s little wonder that for us southern anglers, mackerel are a real trophy fish.

I caught my first mackerel in 1979, and the day still stands as one of my most memorable ever.

After a night drive from the Central Coast, we pulled up in the Wooli Camping Ground the next morning and set up the canvas tent before heading out to sea “for a quick look”.

The local oyster farmer chipped us about our late start on the way out, saying that we should be coming in, not going out.

With North Solitary Island in view, we headed straight for it and started throwing lures around. It was quiet until we noticed waves standing up to the north of the island. Arriving, we could see warm blue water swirling around shallow reef. It looked fishy.

My mate Spiney and I were casting on opposite sides of the boat when my lure was slammed by a big fish.

The drag was screaming and I expected to see smoke leaking out of the trusty old Seascape.

No sooner had my rod loaded than Spiney started yelling about a fish doing cartwheels in front of him.

What we didn’t realize was that in the millisecond since feeling my hook, the mackerel had swum the hundred metres with mind-blowing speed, and it wasn’t until my line shot sideways, complete with a rooster tail of water and an audible “zing”, that we comprehended that the jumping bullet was in fact connected to my line.

We’d never experienced speed from a fish like it before. I can still vividly remember that moment more than 30 years on.

That morning, Spiney and I had a blinder. We tangled with more Spaniards in the 10-15kg range, a rainbow runner, a kingie and I landed a mighty big tailor.

We lost as many mackerel as we hooked when the sharks arrived, but we did manage to bring home 5 ½ macks. With sharks on their tales it was as if those fish were nitro-charged.

The oyster farmer chipped us again when we showed him what we’d caught. This time we were in trouble for catching fish when we’d said we were only going to check things out … we apologized for catching fish and he did say that it’d be OK, as long as we didn’t do it again … it’s hard to keep some blokes happy!

The next few days were frustrating. We became experts at berleying mackerel to the back of the boat, but we couldn’t get another bite.

We had some crackers sitting there, often in pairs, and one day there was a huge Spaniard swimming laps, but we couldn’t catch them.

We didn’t know where to catch live bait so we tried feeding them pillies, but they only ate the ones without hooks.

These days, the mackerel season comes around every year. Late summer and autumn is the time to chase them, and as long as we don’t get a flood, they are pretty reliable.

I’ve tried the differing styles of mackerel fishing and while I enjoy them all, I have come to the conclusion that bait is the way to go. Large dead baits for Spaniards and smaller livies for spotted mackerel.

What follows is my take on what works for southern mackerel …
Yes, lures do work. In my neck of the woods, most anglers troll large diving minnows and target Spaniards.

This is a clean and straightforward way to fish as you can get straight out to mackerel water and get a few runs in while the bait fishermen chase livies.

In addition, a larger area can be explored trolling lures than any other form of mackerel fishing because lures can be dragged at much quicker speeds than a bait.

In fact, some lures, such as skirts, feathers and bibless minnows, operate at speeds in excess of eight knots and some as quick as 12 knots.

If spotted mackerel are your thing, tiny plastic skirts rigged on a bean sinker and a single treble are worth trying.

Blue and grey is my favourite colour scheme, particularly in the first hour of light. My game plan is to score a few fish early and then go back for livies once the sun gets up.

Don’t be surprised if these 75mm skirts produce bigger fish. I’ve caught quite a few Spaniards on them, and even managed a double before having to bolt for home to become the Saturday morning sports taxi … so maybe it could have a been a hat trick.

A couple of years ago my girls caught a couple of spotties on smaller minnows. We tried to catch bait, but all that my young bait-girl could manage was a school jew … it’s so hard to get good bait catchers these days …

My favourite Spaniard lures are Halco Laser Pros and Shimano Mackerel Maulers; natural blues and greens are consistent fish takers, but my all-time success story is an old Mauler in the Qantas scheme of red head and white body. It’s becoming a tad mangled, so a new one might be the order of the day.

Soft plastics are another option. They work well either blind or in response to fish lured to the boat with berley.

Un-weighted fish profiles and stick baits work for me, but I am far from educated in this form of SP fishing, so I’m sure there’s much more to know.

Livebaits comes into their own when the fish are finicky and when you know where the mackerel are. 

Some locations are blessed with a genuine bait ground in the form of a specific reef, bommie or FAD, while other spots lack that luxury and so anglers have to search for the fish.

This can be a time-consuming and frustrating exercise when you know the macks are there to be caught but the livies are scarce.

Look for plenty of bottom structure and clouds of bait in the bottom half of the water column.

Slimy mackerel are the gun mackerel bait with yellowtail coming a distant second.

Another great bait, particularly for big mackerel, are yellowtail pike. They stink, but they are worth chasing, and are found right on the bottom amongst the kelp. Small tuna and gars are also good.

Use a largish sabiki bait jig sweetened with small strips of fish flesh on each hook, and jig it just above the bottom.

A small snapper lead (60gm) is ideal as it provides sufficient weight to help keep the jig straight when retrieving hooked fish.

I have a plumbed live well on my tinnie and I aim to flick each fish into the water without touching it.

Speed kills livies, so quick trolling is out. Livies can be fished from a boat at anchor, and used in conjunction with a berley trail. This a good tactic to employ when fishing a specific piece of structure that is a proven mackerel spot.

The other option is to drive your boat with minimal throttle, going as slow as possible. It’s called slow trolling, and it’s a deadly technique.

I troll two lines at a time. One set just behind the prop wash (5m or so) and the other about 20m back. By avoiding a third line I limit tangles and drama when a mackerel hits.

Dead Baits
If a big Spaniard is your goal, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more productive technique than fishing with a well-rigged dead bait – ie, a bait that “swims” whilst loaded with multiple hooks.

If trolling is not your thing, dead baits can be fished either weightless or under a float. As mentioned earlier, berley is a wise move if you are stationary.

Personally, I think that most southern anglers miss out on a great deal of sport by fishing with overly heavy gear.

I get that anglers in the north have to contend with hordes of reef sharks and that the key to boating a fish can be a quick extraction, but down south we don’t have so many sharks and thus don’t have to rush proceedings.

On 10kg mainline, a solid Spanish becomes a whole lot of fun. The same fish is a real challenge on 6kg line.

I don’t think the mainline influences the amount of bites you do or don’t get, but the diameter of wire certainly does.

Only use quality stainless mono wire and keep it short: 15cm for spotties and 40cm for Spanish. 

Spotties can be very shy of wire, so 18lb-27lb is ideal. Spaniards can bite through the light stuff, so 44lb–60lb is safer for them. It’s a compromise either way.

Small hooks are the go when using slimies or pilchards. Either 3/0 Tarpons or small trebles are best.

Always use two or three hooks on each rig … a treble as the last hook is popular as it has a knack of securing itself in the corner of a mackerel’s jaw – and again, don’t be surprised if these little hooks provide you with a big fish.

Use a quality threadline of a 4000 size (or larger), or a medium overhead. Anything with a capacity of 300m of line will be sufficient: if they keep going, simply go after them!

Mackerel come down as far south as South West Rocks each year, and on occasion they get all the way to Sydney. However, to have a real chance, SWR and further north is the best bet.

Once the water has settled in at 24 degrees C, the mackerel should have arrived. From February to May is the best time. Keep an eye on surface sea temperature maps and look at recent reports.

The further north you travel the earlier the mackerel appear as the warm tropical water moves down with the East Coast Current.

Hotspots include Evans Head, Illuka, Wooli and SWR. The mackerel seem to appear in a burst at Illuka and then go quiet. They hit SWR before my homebase of Urunga as we get the warm water as it eddies back north .

Check out the Fisho website for hints on rigging with wire and talk to the staff in the tackle shop when you arrive at your chosen destination … then spend a quiet afternoon tying haywire twists and barrel rolls!

This story was first published in the Fishing World February 2014 issue.

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