We had been trolling the edge of the reef for about 10 minutes with a couple of live slimy mackerel when the bait on the left-hand rod started to get really agitated.
All eyes focused on the rod tip and when the other bait, on the downrigger, went off it caught us all by surprise. The rod folded over in the holder and the reel protested loudly as the mackerel screamed line off the reel.
One of our customers picked up the rod as my deck hand cleared the downrigger ball and wire. Then the other rod went off as well and we were hooked up to two hard-running mackerel.
Both fish went exceptionally strongly for their size. After a few minutes the first fish was next to the boat, a Spanish around 12kg, joined a few minutes later by another of similar size.
It was a great start to the day and as we rigged another two live baits, we couldn’t help thinking that it was going to be a great day.
Mackerel have a huge following all around Australia and it’s easy to see why. They’re great fun to catch and excellent on the table. Really, who could ask for a better fish?
They also fight fair, meaning that they don’t try to put you in the reef or jump and throw the hooks.
The only thing that you really need to take care of when fishing for mackerel is their razor-sharp dentures. You may also have the odd issue with sharks, which seem to like mackerel as much as we do.
We’ll be talking mainly about Spanish mackerel, which in March-April can be caught as far south as Port Macquarie or thereabouts.
They tend to arrive in significant numbers when inshore water temperature hits around 23° but Spanish will linger in 19° water as long as it is clear and full of food.
These keen-eyed predators use a lightning burst of speed to catch, slash and disable their prey. They like eating oily fish like slimy mackerel, pike, tailor and garfish but will also take mullet and even yellowtail at times.
Mackerel can be caught in a variety of ways and some of these techniques will help you to specifically target mackerel and limit your by-catch.
Other techniques will be used to fish for a broader spectrum of species. You can decide which suits your style of fishing.
High-speed trolling, at 9-14 knots, can cover a lot of ground but unfortunately also uses a fair bit of fuel. The key to successful high-speed trolling is to choose lures that can handle the faster speeds and still perform well.
They may need to be run a bit further back to compensate for the extra speed and the added whitewater pushed out by the boat itself.
The distance that you run your lures back varies from boat to boat but 40m-100m may well be a good starting point until you get a feel for which lures perform better at what distance.
For high speed trolling, lures like hex heads, small bullet-head skirts or even Halco Laser Pros fit the bill. Unfortunately, the bibbed minnows will take a bit more finesse to keep them running true without blowing out.
If tearing around the ocean at high speed is not your thing, then ‘standard’ lure trolling will catch its fair share of mackerel.
The key here is to mix up your lure distances because the fish often seem to prefer a certain drop-back on a given day and then change their mood on another.
We run a couple of deep-diving minnows in really close to the wash, maybe 20m and 30m back, then stagger our other lures behind these, dropping back 5m-10m per lure.
We always run one way back, though, as this will often tempt a fish on the days when they are a bit shy of the boat. This lure can be up to 80m back and be smaller.
The lure choices for standard trolling are similar to those for high-speed trolling, with a few more minnows in your spread. Rapala X-Raps, Halco Laser Pros and small skirted lures are the ones of choice. We also prefer smaller lures over larger ones because we find that the smaller trebles run on these lures find a better hook-up in the skinny jaws of mackerel.
Standard trolling often offers a reasonable by-catch of tuna, wahoo, marlin and even cobia.
This would have to be the most specific method for targeting mackerel because there isn’t a lot of by-catch. It’s as effective as floatlining for snapper, and mackerel just love a rigged bait.
Bonito, gar and tailor are the most popular rigged baits that seem to consistently produce the goods.
The unfortunate part about rigging baits is that you need to have an idea of what you are doing and a bit of trial an error may be required before you start getting the desired results.
Most of the varied rigs rely on a tow hook off the nose or eye of the bait, a weight (usually a sinker) under the chin to stabilise and either a gang of hooks down the body of the bait or one or more treble ‘stingers’ rigged on wire off the tow point.
Fortunately, a few companies have made it easier for us by selling pre-made rigs. A lot of the good local tackle shops will also have a variety of bait and can offer advice to get you started.
This is the most cost-effective technique when fishing for mackerel as it revolves around slow trolling. You only just want the motor in gear and your bait slowly trucking along through the water.
Set the reel’s drag with enough tension to sink the hooks into the fish on the strike but not too tight that the line will snap. Most bites are a screaming hits with this type of fishing and the fish can be slightly larger, too.
But on some days the bites can be finicky and you can go through a lot of baits to catch fish. It defies belief how a mackerel can snip off part of one of these baits without hitting a hook and without even making the rod tip twitch!
Trolling live bait is another very cost-effective way to target mackerel; you just need to catch your baits first. With Spanish mackerel the biggest livies you can get will attract the most bites.
Slimy mackerel, yakkas, bonito, small tuna and tailor are the pick. The larger baits will live the longest when trolled in strong current or adverse conditions.
The key is to troll them as slowly as possible while still covering ground. It is a bit of a fine line; too fast will kill the bait while too slow will mean you may not be moving over the reef or the fish may not commit to the bait if they are not in a switched-on mood.
Drop-back is also a key factor and it pays to mix it up a bit, as with the lures. Always have one bait a fair way back for those spooky fish. A general rule is ‘when in doubt, let it out’.
If you are running two surface baits then let one out about 40m and the other 60m-80m. When running a downrigger you can then add a third bait at whatever depth you want and as far back as you want and it won’t interfere with the others.
Downriggers are invaluable when live-baiting as they get the livie down to the fish once the sun comes up. Live baits also live a lot longer when trolled behind a downrigger and can be trolled a bit quicker to help stimulate the fish to bite.
Remember when rigging your live bait to ensure that it is straight when you put the hooks into it. You want the bait to move freely and live longer.
With live and dead bait one of the hooks in your rig must be close to the tail, which is where most mackerel focus their attack – take out the baitfish’s tail and it can’t get away.
This stinger hook will quite often be jammed in the corner of the mackerel’s mouth, resulting in a good solid hook up.
There is a lot of debate about water clarity when chasing mackerel but we seem to find that as long as the water is warm and has bait in it, it really doesn’t matter what colour it is.
Some of the best mackerel fishing we have had has been in really dirty water after heavy rains. This dirty water flushes a lot of bait onto the inshore reefs and the mackerel key in on it.
The dirty water lines are generally the focus points but don’t be shy to head into the dirty brown stuff. That dirty water may just be on top with good water. The mackerel can use the dirty water as a hiding place from which to ambush the bait and you can really get among them when this is the case.
CARING FOR YOUR CATCH
Mackerel are great chewing and can be prepared in a vast number of ways but you need a good quality fillet to start with. Macks are a lot more susceptible to heat damage than the average reef fish and need to be killed and bled straight after capture. Stun the fish with a sharp blow on the top of the head, then cut the throat latch and bleed the fish into a bucket or over the side.
The quicker you get them in an ice slurry the longer they will keep and the better they will taste.
If you don’t have an icebox long enough for your catch, cut the fish in half after you take your brag photos, then chill it down any way you can. Whatever you do, don’t let the flesh dry out and get warm.
For great mackerel meat, fillet the fish, then halve each fillet lengthways. Remove the red ‘bloodline’ and slice 20mm-30mm steaks down to the skin, then rotate the knife to free the fillet from the skin. Once you’ve tasted this meat you’ll never go back to those awful cutlets full of pungent skin and bitter red bits.