How to

Summer mackerel

I LIVE on Queensland’s Gold Coast and in summer and autumn Spanish and spotted mackerel are a major target species. These usually arrive in numbers in early December and on the inshore grounds, such as Palm Beach Reef, often attract over a hundred boats in a relatively small area. As the season progresses they spread out onto most of the close reefs and can be caught using a wide variety of methods. In our local waters it is almost unheard of to encounter mackerel in water depths over 50 metres. They are an ideal small boat target.

Spanish Mackerel are one of the fastest fish in the sea, and when you get a hook up it is always followed by a long reel screaming run. Mackerel are superb eating, with tasty firm white flesh that keeps well. The bag limit on Spanish mackerel in Queensland is 3 fish per person with a maximum of 6 fish per boat. Each season is different, some years see thousands of fish caught, yet in other seasons few fish turn up. At the moment we are in the middle of an excellent run of both Spaniards and spotties. The following is a guide to some of the most popular methods used in my local waters that work well wherever mackerel show up. They are found in nearly all tropical waters and as the mackerel run moves south they are also encountered in numbers on the mid north coast of NSW.

Mackerel have razor sharp teeth that will easily snip through the heaviest nylon or fluorocarbon leader. In most situations a length of wire trace is essential. Rigging and terminals must be spot on to succeed. While a length of wire trace is essential in most situations, wire that is too thick or a trace that is too long greatly reduces the number of bites. In general I stick to the principle of “as light as you can get away with and as short a length as you can”. Occasionally a big mackerel will bite through fine single strand wire and it pays to use heavier cable wire when targeting bigger mackerel using big baits. A big mackerel may strip a lot of line on the first run and you need at least 300 metres of line on your reel. While the initial run is a screamer, an average mackerel burns itself out fairly quickly. A good heavy threadline outfit or a 10 kilo game rod is generally suitable for most mackerel.

Method 1

Slow trolling using live baits from a downrigger. In recent years quite a few gun locals have perfected this method. Anglers like Ben Job and Steve Ward have turned it into an art form, to the point where Steve now runs two downriggers. The rig consists of a short wire trace, usually single strand around 50 pound breaking strain connected to a 4 to 6/0 straight set hook. From the front hook a separate wire leader runs down to a treble hook that is pinned near the tail of the bait. The superb BKK trebles are excellent for this purpose. With bigger baits a second treble can be used by sliding on the rear trace. It pays to make up a range of these rigs to cover the sizes of bait that may be used. Yellowtail, slimy mackerel, pike and tailor all make excellent live baits for mackerel. Once the mackerel are located on the sounder the downrigger ball is set a few metres above the fish, usually at around 15 to 30 metres depending on the depth of the fish. The line is fed through the down rigger clip so it releases on the bite. This method generally out fishes most other methods, particularly when the fish are holding deep and are a bit gun shy. The bait is slowly trolled at around 1 to 2 knots. A rod with a nice soft tip lets you see bites easily, and despite the amount of drop back, it hooks up well. Even small yellowtail are effective, and in my local waters mackerel spend a lot of time feeding close to the bottom. Over the past few years this method has been used by most of the top mackerel fishermen with great success.

Method 2

Trolling Rigged Baits. When I moved to the Gold Coast in the 1980s Brad Job taught me how to fish for mackerel with trolled dead baits. Using large ganged hook rigs I learnt how to make tailor and bonito swim so they kicked and pulsed and looked like a slow swimming fish. By hooking up the fish from underneath and with the use of waxed thread to sew up the gills and mouth and then running a waxed thread loop through the eye socket from which the tow clip would be attached, I soon had a bait that was extremely effective and to this day remains one of the best methods to catch big mackerel. Trolled dead baits tend to catch bigger fish. This method is very popular in all Queensland ports, and it’s important to have a range of rigs to cover the size of the baits used. Sometimes, with long baits such as wolf herring, you may need up to 8 hooks in a gang to cover the length of the bait. Mackerel generally feed by chopping of the tail section of the bait, and it amazes me how often they miss the hooks. The rod tip may just give a slight bump and your bait can be reduced to a head with the hooks dangling behind it!

Mackerel aren’t afraid to hit big baits. Kilo tailor and bonito work well, even on small 6 kilo Spaniards. At the other end of the scale, a trolled pilchard with a pink squid skirt over the head is another very popular method and is very effective for the smaller spotted mackerel. Dead baits are generally trolled at around 2 knots, using just enough speed to get the bait swimming in a life like fashion. Like live baits, trolling dead baits from a downrigger can increase the effectiveness of this method. A set of bait needles and some waxed thread is all that is required. On the set of ganged hooks it is important to add lead to the front hook (net leads as are used on cast nets are ideal for this.) and add about 5cm of wire to the front hook so it can be connected to your wire trace. The tow point is the loop through the eye socket of the bait and this short length of wire hangs loosely in the clip from your wire trace.

Method 3

Anchoring and Berleying. Mackerel love to eat pilchards, and if you anchor in a suitable spot where fish are present and there is a bit of current, it is possible to attract the fish to your boat. In crowded spots, such as Palm Beach and Mermaid Reef on the southern Gold Coast, this is the standard method. Once you start berleying fish a couple of pilchards on fine wire traces under a small float about 20 metres behind the boat. Free swimming live baits are also great to use in a berley trail, and spinning with metal lures can also be effective. Feed a constant stream of chopped pilchards out into the water. Mackerel will often feed all the way back to the boat, eating every pilchard cube as they move in. You will usually see them almost under your outboard if you do it correctly. These fish are often shy and only use as much wire as you can get away with.

One interesting thing that I’ve seen quite a few times in crowded areas is that on braided line a fast running mackerel swimming past a taught anchor rope can cut through the rope as the braid hits the anchor line. You may suddenly find yourself drifting!

Method 4

Trolling hard bodied lures. Trolling a spread of hard bodied lures can be an effective way to catch mackerel at times. Halco Laser Pros, Rapalas and Nomad lures all work well when trolled at a speed of around 6 knots. I usually position a pink squid skirt in the shotgun position when I am trolling minnows. Hooks need to be sharp and for mackerel I prefer trebles to singles. Position the lures a fair way back behind the boat, around 40 to 80 metres is fine. I usually have a couple of deep runners positioned on the closest lines.

Trolling hard bodies is simple and requires minimal preparation. A short length of wire on your leader saves from chop offs. However, as an effective method it commonly catches far less mackerel than trolled baits or live baits and it can be very disheartening to watch the boats using baits catch fish after fish when your lures remain untouched. When the fish are thick and feeding in the surface layers it works very well, but it certainly isn’t a reliable method in hard fished waters.

Method 5

Spinning for mackerel. This is my favourite method to catch both Spanish and spotted mackerel. The bite is a solid jolt followed by a screaming run. I use a high speed threadline full of 30 pound braid to which a mono leader around 50 pound is attached. A short length of fine wire offers good insurance, but it is important to minimise the wire and connections as the fish have amazing eyes and are put off the bite by heavy wire leader. A short length of nylon coated wire can be used. The advantage of nylon coated wire is that it can be joined to the leader via an Albright knot, which means you don’t have to use a swivel which can put the fish off. Clean connections are the key.

I like to use metal lures when the fish are deep. Spanyid Snipers are my lure of choice and work well. The retrieve is important. I let the lure sink to the bottom, take about half a dozen quick winds, then pause for a few seconds before recommencing the fast wind. Most of the hits come just after the pause. Spinning results can be improved by berleying with chopped pilchards. You can often see mackerel schools on the sounder where they appear in stacked vertical schools. These are the areas where spinning is productive.

When the mackerel are feeding in the surface layers stick baits such as the Zerek Zappelin work well. High speed retrieves so the lure leaves plenty of splash and foam attract Spaniards in from a considerable distance. The surface bites can be spectacular, and at times fish will leap high in the air as they take a lure. There are often big Spanish mackerel close to schools of small tuna, so don’t assume all the fish on the surface are little.

I carry a wide range of lures to spin with, and if I’m not getting bites I change the size and action. Sometimes smaller lures are more effective, especially when chasing spotted mackerel. Chrome, or chrome and white are very effective on most occasions. The impact of a bite on a lure retrieved at speed is something you won’t forget.

Catching mackerel is a very popular way to fish in Queensland. It is important to get on the water before the sun comes up, as on most days the action is generally over by around 9am. There is also a late afternoon bite but it usually isn’t as ferocious as the morning bite period. A change of tide also commonly sees the fish come on the bite, and the week leading up to the full moon is usually the best time to chase these beautiful fish. It is important to be very careful handling mackerel, as their teeth are razor sharp and can cause serious injuries. I always dispatch my mackerel with a club as soon as they are on board, then bleed them and put them on ice. I hope the above overview helps you catch a few of these great fish. On our local fishing calendar mackerel season is a highlight for many thousands of keen anglers.

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