Violent surface strikes, powerful runs, great speed and a top eating quality make Spanish mackerel one of our most popular pelagics to catch. Is it any wonder so many anglers work so hard to catch their first ocean brute? In this article I will cover the main points to get you started and help improve your Spaniard catch rates.
Mackerel can be found around structure like wrecks, reef, pinnacles, rocky outcrops, ocean currents, deep drop-offs, the list goes on. As you can already tell, there are a lot of places to target Spaniards – but the number one place to start is in and around bait schools. Find the bait and you will find the fish!
There are always days where you can’t find any bait, and other days where the ocean seems to be full of bait, so let’s cover methods for both occasions so that you are equipped to have a go no matter what.
On tough days, your chances of success will be affected by the little things like slowing down or speeding up your trolling speed, covering more depths with your bait or lures or changing the grounds you are fishing. All up, there are a lot of little tweaks that can be made, but for now let’s stick to the simple solutions, which should be the first things you should do when things are quiet.
Water of about 24°C or warmer in summer is prime time to target mackerel. Sometimes the water can vary from 1-2°C in the space of 50m, so the key is to find the warmer water if things are tough and the bait is hard to find. In this scenario, you should work the warmer water with the rigs and bait strategies that I’ll discuss later in this article.
The other tip is to work around high rising pinnacles or known structure when times are hard. You are basically looking for any place that holds fish or bait regularly, and you need to spend the time to look before setting out your gear. This can mean fishing over a couple of tide changes to see what happens.
Finally, the best tip I can give you is to use a downrigger to place the bait or lures at the exact depth you see fish on the sounder. Downriggers are really underused in Australia, mainly because anglers like to try new lures or other methods. Downriggers have changed very little over the years, but there’s no denying their effectiveness. To catch the fish you have to present your lure or bait where the fish are, and a downrigger will get you there every time. If the fish are feeding at 40m, your bait or lure must be close to that depth. Mackerel may feed above, in or below schools of bait, so once you can identify mackerel on the sounder drop your rig right amongst them.
Downrigging is not the only way to get down deep but it is without doubt the most accurate and easiest way.
On good days you can see surface activity from panicked bait schools being attacked. Birds are the best indicator that bait schools are working towards the surface. It is what is happening beneath the bait that should be your point of focus. With experience you will be able to use your sounder to identify fish species. Your sounder can reveal species such as snapper feeding on the bait, with mackerel or other pelagics further down. This information can be used to identify the depth of the mackerel and get you right on the money. Remember, there may be no mackerel there but if there is bait there are predators, and it’s a great start.
Both bait and lures work on mackerel. During the peak of the mackerel season it sometimes feels like you can catch them on anything, but you know you’re a good angler when you can catch them when they are hard to find. Qantas coloured lures (red and white) or gold are definitely the most popular to use. I don’t get bogged down in too much technical stuff with lures; just remember you’ll need to cover different depths with them to give yourself a better chance of catching a mackerel. Once you determine the required depths, you can adjust your lures or skirts accordingly. If the fish are on the surface, there’s obviously no point in running a deep diver. Get some surface lures on your rigs and vice versa.
If you can hold over a bait school it’s great fun to use a small 20-30g chrome slug or a micro jig up through the bait school. These can be used on a light spin outfit. A knife jig will do a great job as well. Never discard any idea when things are tough!
Also, remember that when trolling lures your speed must be within its specifications. Generally 3-5 knots is a good starting pace.
By far the best way to catch mackerel where I reside on the Sunshine Coast is to troll livebait in the form of slimy mackerel or yakkas. Other areas use different live baits. Further north I catch plenty of mackerel on lures though, so use what works best in your area.
If you can’t get live bait, fresh dead bait is next best. Have you ever been on the water and everyone around you is catching mackerel and you are not? Normally this is because the angler is doing something that you’re not, and nine out of 10 times it’s the difference in bait and how it is presented.
You need to be ready to change it up until you get results with both bait and lures. Use the common sense approach! There are a lot of rigs that can be used to present your bait. Live bait on a snell rig or a ganged series of hooks works well. While there are many other rigs that can be used, remember these are simple yet very effective. The trolling speed for a livebait is between 1-3 knots. Troll around the bait, not straight through it. This will make your bait standout as an easy target for fish, rather than be caught up in the big group and not be seen. The tips here are to be prepared to change ideas, and live bait is best.
I get asked a lot whether wire is better than mono for mackerel fishing, and the answer is YES! I’ve found that 44lb wire tied with a haywire twist will take care of most mackerel and their razor sharp teeth.
There are alternatives such as knottable wire, but it is expensive. A 40-80lb mono trace is amble and fluorocarbon is not necessary.
The main line on your reel can be anything – either mono or braid from 20lb upwards. I prefer braid because you have a feel for everything that is going on. Just don’t go too heavy. Lighter line will catch more fish. A light overhead or spin reel will land the majority of mackerel, and rods up to 15kg in strength are plenty. I use a 5-10kg rod with a 5000 reel and 30lb main line braid for micro jigging or slug casting. My other rig consists of a Daiwa Saltist and a 10-15kg spin rod. I have 50lb braid on that for trolling. If you prefer overhead reels, that’s great – use them.
So with all these ideas you should be able to get a good head start on the mackerel this season. Overall, Spanish mackerel are a fantastic pelagic species. To put it bluntly, they are brutes and just want to break you off every time you put pressure on them. Just allow the boat to continue trolling for around 30m to ensure you have a solid hook-up, and then maintain the pressure. Don’t panic when they get close to the boat, just be patient and get them in the net or on the gaff.
Mackerel are a superb eating fish and once caught they should be bled immediately and put on ice. One safety issue is to ensure they are hit with a donger and put to sleep otherwise you might lose a toe!
Let’s hope you get amongst them this summer and enjoy everything Spanish mackerel have to offer. Have fun!1
Right top: Halco shallow diver
Left mid: Halco medium diver in gold
Right mid: Bubbler or skirt for surface
Bottom left: Knife jig to work up through the bait schools
Bottom right: Ganged hook rig for pilchard to troll
Bottom: 40g chrome slug to cast or jigReads: 1326