Mackerel on the Fly
  |  First Published: April 2003

AUTUMN is a fine time to bag some macks on the fly. I've spent a lot of time pursuing spotted mackerel over the last couple of months, and I’ve picked up some clues that might help you to score some of these great fighting and great tasting fish.

Spotties tend to do more surface feeding than their school mackerel cousins do. This means there’s no ‘chuck and chance’ involved, the idea being to see the fish surface feeding and cast right into the action – and hang on when one hits the fly!

Mackerel can be very shy one day and very easy to approach the next. It all depends upon the amount of bait holding the mackerel up on the surface in a feeding frenzy, and the extent to which the macks have been hammered by ring netters and recreational anglers. If the bait isn't there in quantity and the school of fish has had a hiding in the last few weeks, getting close enough for a shot with the fly can be very difficult. Even with my quiet electric motor I've seen schools of mackerel that wouldn’t let us to approach for a shot. No way.

On the other side of the coin, we’ve also encountered fish that not only allowed the boat to come in close under main motor – I have a 70hp two-stroke Yamaha – but the fish fed towards the boat with the engine running.


You may end up tangling with fish of over 6kg that will sprint 100 metres as soon as they feel the hook, so the tackle needs to be robust enough to handle this without unduly punishing the angler. A 10-weight rod is a good all-rounder for this kind of fishing.

Your fly reel needs a generous capacity of backing – at least 250m minimum – as well as a drag that works well. Most mackerel won't take long runs, but tuna feed right along with mackerel and the chance of hooking a really solid tuna that will scorch off 250m of backing and then look for a whole lot more – right there with the reel's arbour knot showing – is always on the cards.

The right fly line is important for chasing mackerel. These fish are very keen-eyed and will spot a fly line with ease and shy away from it. Coloured fly lines are out. My mackerel/tuna reels are up with Scientific Angler's Mastery Series Striped Bass lines. The 36m warm weather Tropicore weight forward line shoots like a rocket, and the new ‘Surf’ colour is practically clear. I like the intermediate line's sink rate of around 3-5cm per second, as it sinks just enough to get the fly down a tad before I commence the retrieve. And if I suspect that there are bigger fish feeding deeper under the balled up bait, it's easy to allow the line to really sink before stripping it back.

My backing of choice is 50lb braid. Make sure that you attach it firmly to the spool to avoid slippage when fighting a hard running fish. A 50-turn bimini will join it to the fly line's spliced loop without danger of things coming apart.


I've mucked about with plenty of flies for mackerel and have found that the fish aren't fussy if the feeding frenzy is strong enough. Any decent looking Lefty's Deceiver or Clouser Minnow type fly that’s roughly the size of the bait the macks are eating will do the job.

Most times I don't bother following either of these fly patterns though. I simply tie a bit of silver mylar tubing onto a hook and then tie on top a fair bit of sparkle flash material, making sure all the ends are nicely staggered to give it a slim, fishy profile. I make these flies with either a pinkish brown over silver colour scheme, or with a shiny green over silver, and I vary hook size from 1/0 through to 3/0 to cover a fair range of bait. I always stick on some eyes; I believe they definitely increase the hookup rate.

Wire is useful but not vital. Mackerel will always bite off flies but can also be very shy of wire at times. If you don’t use wire you can catch a surprising number of fish before you get bitten off, but I always try a fly with a short wire trace (say, around 12cm) first. I connect the trace to a tiny black barrel swivel, and I use light wire of under 10kg breaking strain.

The use of fluorocarbon as a leader is important. Once you make the swap to fluorocarbon your hookup rate will increase markedly.


Good casting ability is priceless when it comes to catching mackerel on fly. A long cast, extending straight out so that the fly lands without slack, is very important.

The next move is to strip the fly back as quickly as possible. Once a fish takes – and they can be frustrating at times by following the fly right to the boat before turning away at the last moment – things will to happen very quickly indeed. It's important to make sure the fly line can run freely as it whips out through the guides. Also, if your reel has revolving handles, turn your wrist to the side when the fish is pulling hard so that the handles are away from your clothing. If you don’t, you’ll blow your fish when the handle catches on a sleeve or dings your wrist.

Once a fish is hooked you just keep light strain on him and let him go! A mackerel usually makes only one really good run, but you can expect another smaller run as the fish sees the boat so it’s important to have the drag still quite free as the fish comes to the gaff.

For the fly angler, marauding schools of mackerel offer rare opportunities for combined sport fishing and good table fare. And now that ring netting has stopped, things should only get better!

1) A selection of the author's mackerel flies with the hooks they were tied on. Note the short wire traces and tiny swivels.

2) Scott prepares to bring a mackerel in close for gaffing. The drag should not be tightened at this stage of the fight.

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