SPOTTED mackerel are an inshore species that are a popular sportfish target along the Queensland coast extending as far south as the mid north coast of NSW. Commonly called “spotties”, these fish suffer somewhat in comparison to the larger and highly sought after Spanish mackerel. Spotties grow to around 9 kilos but any over 7 kilos are big fish, with an average size around three to five kilos. They fight well, are delicious to eat and can be caught by a wide range of methods.
With two quite prolonged closed seasons of the Spanish mackerel fishery in Queensland now in force, most anglers found a renewed interest in chasing the smaller spotted mackerel. This summer and autumn saw huge schools of spotted mackerel on the inshore reefs, and it wasn’t uncommon to see upwards of a hundred boats fishing for them on the more popular grounds. Metal lure sales went through the roof, pilchards were sold by the ton and small squid skirts were hard to find. The run-out tide lines east of the Jumpinpin bar and the Gold Coast Seaway attracted huge schools of white pilchards, and the spotted mackerel stayed in these areas for months, often chopping on the surface as they chased the baitfish.
Spotted mackerel are an inshore species rarely found in water depths over 40 metres. They can often be found in big schools just out the back of the surf line and they tend to go to the same spots every year as they migrate south along the Queensland coast. In my area, the Gold Coast, they generally arrive just before Christmas at Palm Beach reef where they are met be hundreds of enthusiastic anglers. Interestingly, very few spotted mackerel are ever caught off the Tweed coast. While Spanish mackerel are common in this area, the migrating schools of spotted mackerel seem to bypass the Tweed. Woody Head, near Ballina, seems to be the next holding point. A few years back spotted mackerel migrated as far south as Sydney Harbour, but in general the numbers drop off south of Grassy Head which seems to be another aggregation point. There is a return run of spotted mackerel in May where larger fish head north again, and late in the season we tend to catch our biggest spotted mackerel with fish over seven kilos being quite common. These schools move north to the central Queensland coast.
There are many methods that can be used to catch spotted mackerel. One of the simplest is to use pilchards on ganged hooks under a small float. Berleying with chopped pilchards helps bring the fish around the boat, and when berleying, half pilchards on a single hook are often more effective that whole pilchards. Spotted mackerel, like Spanish mackerel, have razor sharp teeth so a short length of wire trace is essential. When targeting spotties using pilchards, a 20cm length of 27-pound single strand wire with a small black swivel connection is all that is required. These fish have excellent eyesight and tend to avoid heavy leaders and heavy wire traces. The shorter the wire leader the better. Spotties are a great fish to catch on light tackle, and on light gear they make a reel scream! I use 6 to 8 kilo threadline outfits when targeting spotties. While fishing with floating pilchards is quite effective, small live baits such as yellowtail or slimy mackerel are also very effective on a short wire leader.
Spotted mackerel also respond to trolling using both baits and lures. One of the common methods is to rig a pilchard on a gang of hooks so they penetrate the pilchard from underneath facing upwards (3 x 4/0 Mustad 7766 Tarpon hooks are good). A small length of copper wire is connected to the front hook. This is passed through the eyes of the pilchard to further secure it to the front hook. A short wire trace is connected to the gang of hooks, and a small pink squid skirt is passed over the head of the pilchard. This rig has been very effective for me for over 30 years and is extremely popular. I’m not why spotties prefer pink squid skirts but this colour makes a big difference. This rig can be trolled at two to four knots and is also very effective when used in conjunction with a down rigger. It is also a good rig for Spanish mackerel and cobia. Slimy mackerel are a good substitute for pilchards on this rig.
Small minnow lures are effective for spotted mackerel at a troll speed of around six knots. Small Rapalas and Halcos are excellent and try to keep your wire leaders short and minimise leader. Lures are ideally less than 15cm long when chasing spotted mackerel. High speed trolling using small weighted skirted lures works well. I’ve caught spotties on the troll at speeds of up to 14 knots. Silstar sell a cheap lure marketed as a Christmas tree in 13 and 16cm sizes. These come rigged on monofilament leader so you need to rerig them on a short length of wire, but these little lures are deadly on both spotted and bigger Spanish mackerel and are simple, cheap and get a lot of bites. This year these small skirts haven been my most effective mackerel lure.
My favourite way to catch spotted mackerel is spinning using metal lures. This works well while you have a few pilchards floating out the back of your boat and are berleying with chopped fish. Cast the lure as far as you can, let it sink to the bottom and retrieve it as fast as you can wind. I often pause the retrieve for a second after I have ripped the lure up off the bottom, and a lot of the bites come when you restart the retrieve. Spinning also brings fish into your berley trail, and it is not unusual to see a spottie follow your lure in before veering off to eat your baits. I like to spin with long thin metal lures like Lazers and Halco Twisties. Speed is the key. If schools are busting up on the surface it is usually easy to get a hook-up. When fish as following and not biting it pays to remove any wire. You lose a few lures but will generally catch more fish.