How to

Slow trolling livebaits for mackerel

AUTUMN and early winter is prime time for Spanish mackerel along the north coast of NSW. TONY ZANN details how to target these speedy predators by slow trolling live baits.

THE line slides out between left thumb and forefinger; my right thumb feathers the spinning spool and the yakka’s tail beats a pulse along the braid. Forty metres, colour change, 50 metres. The skipper puts down his phone and kicks the engine out of gear. “Bugger!” he says. “Emergency at the clinic, gotta go now – reel ’em in.” Oh well, I think, that’s what happens when you fish with a vet surgeon. I clamp the spool, push the drag lever up and begin winding. Nothing there. Zip. But there is; an empty tail treble and the severed head of the yakka, gasping its last, on the tow hook!

Some days a mackerel just ghosts in, slashes, grabs and vanishes in a second. You can’t say they’re gone without a trace because that’s usually all you’re left with – a wire trace and bare hooks. Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 ditty about an elusive street assassin, Mack the Knife, has been a hit for artists as diverse as Nick Cave, Frank Sinatra, The Doors, Jimmy Buffet and Louis Armstrong. Each mackerel season I find myself humming along, “Yeah, Mackie’s back in town…”

Any time of year, somewhere in the northern half of Australia it’s Spanish mackerel season. Fishos in the tropics have it good for most of the calendar but we easterners as far down as Port Macquarie, and even occasionally south of Wollongong, hunt mackerel from Australia Day to the Queen’s Birthday.

Tropical fishos are spoilt for great eating fish but even those connoisseurs rarely knock back a nice bit of mackerel. One decent fish can provide abundant tasty, white meat that can be fried, grilled, barbecued, baked, steamed, smoked, poached or served raw. Sensible state bag limits mean the rec fishery is sustainable, and bargain-priced vacuum-sealers enable a fisho to freeze many prime meals for the off-season ahead.

Mackerel are as welcome for their table qualities as for their ability to make a reel – and an angler – howl. I’ve had great fun catching them on lures from the Kimberley to Fiji over the past 40 years but only recently have I explored the most effective technique – trolling live bait. It puts fish in the icebox and on the table when other methods fail. Evans Head veterinarian, fishing tragic and former Geelong ruckman Rod Blake has refined the technique as deeply as anyone I know, dining year-round on his results. And he keeps very few secrets from anyone wanting to emulate his success. This article distills what I’ve learned from fishing with him for the past few seasons.

Find the bait

A supply of sabiki rigs and a tank that can keep a dozen slimy mackerel alive all day are compulsory. Mackerel roam the inshore edges of the East Australian Current searching for travelling schools of small tuna, bonito, flying fish, sardines (blue pillies), anchovies (frogmouth pillies), slimy mackerel, sea gar and even sea mullet. Most schools tend to stage around pinnacles, deeper reefs, inshore bommies and headlands.

Resident baitfish like pike, yellowtail, bullseyes and goatfish can be found closer to bottom structure. Late in the season the bait and the mackerel can be out in 40m or more. Local knowledge and a reliable GPS help but visiting anglers should start around the “local” bait reefs and work out from there. Keep an eye on the sounder and one finger over the GPS “save” button and you’ll soon build up a milk run of bait spots. Many are hot places to troll baits, so you’ll tend to catch a few livies, set them out and then slowly troll in search of more or different bait. Typical of trolling, there are long periods of tedium punctuated by minutes of pure pandemonium.

When one baitfish station, reef or bommie doesn’t fire for an hour, try another but don’t give up on the first. Some places work better at first light while others won’t fire until late morning or noon. Next day they might all be different. Tides, current, depth, water clarity and sun intensity play parts, as do bite triggers that only the macks know about.

The rig

You need to know the haywire twist/barrel wrap for the wire connections and the snood for binding the sliding tow hook to the wire. Mackerel are slash-and-grab merchants; attack is usually from behind. A mack snips off the tail of a baitfish and it’s all over. Smaller fish are mostly taken whole, tail-first.

The main hook, a treble, goes in near the tail. One point is placed just under the skin, causing minimal trauma to the baitfish, which you want to be in top shape as long as possible. The upturned eye of the forward single hook is threaded through the wire and bound on with a snood of 30lb mono, so it can adjust for each bait. It’s there mainly as a tow point.

The tow hook goes carefully through the bait’s nostrils. Some of the people who might protest at this “animal cruelty” have piercings in pretty similar spots! To maintain the bait’s health, it’s important to use appropriate hardware. A 14cm yakka needs a small, light hook like a 1/0 so it isn’t weighed down or its nose damaged. A large Watson’s leaping bonito (Spaniard candy!) or small mack tuna calls for up to a 6/0. A strong No.4 treble can sit in most baits without tiring them. With sensible drag settings and rod work, it can hold a 30kg Spanish. A keen-eyed mackerel won’t notice such a small hook.

Drop-back is 40m to 80m, depending on the shyness of the fish, water depth and the nature of the troll run. To reduce tangled line nightmares, troll shorter when turning more. Troll speed is a dead slow idle in gear, 2-4 knots. In strong current it’s better to drive to the uphill end of the run before releasing the baits. Trolling into a strong current tires them and doesn’t cover much ground. When a bait wearies, replace it with a lively one. The idea is to keep it fresh and healthy, so don’t troll fast enough to drag it so it drowns or is damaged. On the days when the fish are deep, a downrigger can dominate catches and it’s worth considering in depths of more than 20m.

Down to the wire

A North Queensland mackerel pro once dissected the eye of a 20kg Spanish for me, showing the relative size of the lens and the blood vessels feeding the retina. That retina, he said, had massive numbers of low-light rod receptors and clusters of cone receptors that detect colour beyond a human’s visible spectrum. When it comes to traces, single-strand wire is the only way to go; it is the strongest, least visible trace that can withstand a mackerel’s teeth.

Blakey has a variety of hooks rigged on various weights of wire traces 1.5m long, which he stores coiled in medical sample jars stacked in carry boxes. The trace is normally replaced after every fish, mainly due to the wire kinking or coiling near the treble during the fight. I’ve differed by using a standing trace of a metre of AFW 30lb titanium wire with a crimped swivel at either end, replacing it every few trips. I make up stacks of various short traces in 27lb, 44lb and 58lb AFW Tooth Proof stainless wire.

A brace of Spaniards ready to be put in an ice slurry. To ensure maximum eatability, always bleed out your macks and put them straight on ice.

I barrel roll/haywire twist the No.4 treble, usually a VMC 8527 or a Gamakatsu Treble 14, to about 35cm of wire, then snood on the tow hook with about 10 turns of 30lb nylon. The other end stays bare. These rigs store along a Plano 3700 box compartment until I haywire twist one to the bottom swivel of the standing trace. I can have a fresh rig ready in about 80 seconds. We are both believers in those tiny AFW No.14 Mighty Mini swivels, rated at an astonishing 78lb.

Caring for the catch

Take heaps of ice, every time. Mackerel must be stunned and then bled. Cut the gills, throat latch and the bases of the pectoral fins and hold the fish’s head down until blood stops pumping. Then drop the carcass into a seawater/ice slurry which firms the flesh and makes filleting a breeze. Don’t be tempted to keep more fish than you can ice down. On a hot deck that tasty meat will turn to slurry itself soon enough. Unless you like your fish “fishy”, and especially if you plan to freeze it, fillet, skin and trim off all the darker flesh.

The brown muscle contains more fat than the white meat and because it is richer in certain oily compounds, tastes stronger. We take the sides off all the fish and return each fillet to the slurry to keep firm. We take out one fillet at a time to split, skin and dress. Meal-size chunks are then put back into another slurry until it’s time to vacuum-bag and freeze or prepare for the table.

Mack tackle
Take plenty of ice to ensure your macks are kept in tip top condition.

Macks don’t fight dirty but run long, fast and hard and then double back at speed. You’ll see plenty of line sizzling off the spool and you’ll need to wind it all back on in a hurry. A big, fast threadline or a high-speed overhead carrying 400m of 30lb braid or mono does the job without having to chase fish with the boat – important if you get a double hook-up on macks heading in opposite directions. Our live-bait rods are longer than conventional boat rods, to separate the baits behind the boat and to aid battling a circling fish boatside. Rod holders point parallel to the water and slightly back for the best bait spread without cumbersome outriggers. A soft rod tip cushions the violent strike and keeps the small trebles from bending then, and when the fish typically shakes its head.

Blakey favours 8′-9′ Ugly Stik-style threadline rods while I’m in love with my 7′ Live Fibre Texalium 8-15kg overhead. I have 400m-plus of 30lb Rovex Depth Finder or Platypus Jigging-Braid on my Fin-Nor Marquesa 16 and still have room for a 30m leader of clear 30lb Jinkai Red mono. I believe I’ve had fewer hooks pull out with this system, where the rod tip, the Jinkai and the titanium wire provide shock absorption and the braid gives sensitivity and line capacity. Metered braid allows me to set exactly how far back I want my bait, calculate how far the fish has run and how far I have to crank it back. Rod Blake swears by 30lb Ande mono, which has controlled stretch and great strength. He reckons the pink colour doesn’t put off the fish.

Mackerel have very sharp teeth. Dead or alive, they can do awful damage to human flesh. Snip off your old trace and remove it when cleaning. There’s a couple of other Issues to consider with macks as well. Scombroid poisoning is a result of leaving a large fish in the hot sun. Flesh core temperatures above 20° can produce excessive histamine, creating allergic reactions on eating. Fatalities can occur, such as the Queensland mother and daughter who ate bad mahi mahi in Bali a few years ago. Although linked with the mackerel genus (Scombroides), scombroid syndrome can occur in other species.

Mackerel is top class tucker but larger specimens can carry ciguatera in their flesh.

I once caught a 10kg barracuda at 6am and watched it slop around in the outboard well all day because the Fijian skipper wanted to keep it “for the village”. In the hotel kitchen that night, I asked the cook for her tasty fish chowder recipe and she pointed out the very familiar dead eyes I’d been staring into all day! Later I had nausea, itchy mouth and throat, stomach cramps and the trots. Ciguatera has been linked to large mackerel all over the world. Microscopic dinoflagellates live in algae on dead coral and accumulate in apex predators like mackerel. Victims can be ill or inconvenienced for years. The protocol to prevent a relapse is to avoid seafood and alcohol, so the treatment is as bad as the illness! Queensland cases are not rare but in 2014 there were genuine ciguatera victims among staff at an Evans Head NSW eatery who dined on a 12kg fish that was to be served to customers that night.

In the same week a number of people were hospitalised after eating a 25kg-plus fish caught in Trial Bay. NSW then followed Queensland in banning commercial sale of mackerel over 10kg. So it’s maybe not a bad policy to release the bigger trophy fish – unless you’re willing to take your chances.

What's your reaction?

Related Posts

Load More Posts Loading...No More Posts.