The mackerel are here, the mackerel are here! In what is the start of many angler’s seasons, the arrival of the atlantic mackerel is celebrated with loud rejoice! Not only does it mean “striper candy” is here and available, but it also means the big stripers and soon bluefish will arrive as well. Let’s take this time to go over what are mackerel, where do they come from, how do we catch them, and how do we fish with them.
Known as Atlantic Mackerel, or sometimes as Boston Mackerel, they spend their fall and winter months in deeper water further south in warmer waters. Once the spring comes along, they start a migration to shallower water along the coasts and can be found in gigantic schools. Mackerel grow to around 16″ and around 2 lbs on average. The MA state record is 3 lbs and 8 ozs. They have a metallic look with 20-30 black bars running down the top of them and green to blue coloring on top. Mackerel are a pelagic fish and feed mostly on krill, shrimp, smaller baitfish, and squid.
Where to find mackerel:
During the spring and fall, mackerel will make an appearance in the cape but not for very long. You can usually find them in the Cape Cod Bay and sometimes in Buzzards Bay. Look for large schools on the fish finder where you can see mackerel and sometimes herring running together.
Three and One Half Fathom ledge, Martins ledge, Boston Ledge, the B buoy, and all around the graves are good places to start looking for mackerel. Generally if you get out there and notice a bunch of boats clumped together, they’re fishing for mackerel.
Salem harbor and off the rocky bluffs in Nahant are good places to start looking for them. Troll around the buoys and look for signs of schools.
How to catch mackerel:
The best way to catch mackerel is with Sabiki Rigs (pictured above). They come in all sizes, colors, and numbers of hooks/length. It’s best to stock up on a couple different sizes and styles as sometimes one will be hitting non stop while the others aren’t getting so much as a sniff. One side of the sabiki rig goes on your line, the other end goes on a 2-4oz pyramid weight – depending on the current in the area you’re trying to fish.
Once you get out to where you think the mackerel are, the best way I’ve found is to troll around for them until you find a school. Put out multiple rods with different sabiki rig styles on each, let them out for 10 seconds, then start to troll around 2-3 knots. Once one of them hooks up, stop and keep trying that spot until you aren’t getting any action anymore – then move on again. You’ll notice pretty quick if one of the sabiki styles is getting hit more than others, and you can switch all of the rods to that style to catch more mackerel quicker.
Mackerel are usually in the top 10-20′ of the water column. If you see big schools near the bottom, they’re likely pollock but it may be worth a try to see if maybe something drove the mackerel down deep. Once you stop trolling, 10 seconds will be too deep. If they’re there, they’ll usually hit the jigs on the downward stroke and will often times hit them as you drop the rig for the first time. Keep a finger on the line to see if it goes slack before you expected it to.
Once you have one mackerel on, you can leave it there for a couple more seconds and see if you can get more to hit the jig. It’s not uncommon to pull up 6-8 mackerel at a time on the sabiki rigs! A good livewell that moves a lot of fresh water will help keep them alive for longer.
How to fish with mackerel:
Now that you’ve caught your mackerel and are ready to go fishing for striped bass, there are a couple good rigs to set up for them. All Fly Guy Guides use circle hooks when live-lining bait as it reduces the number of gut hooked stripers. Remember that striped bass don’t have teeth, so they have to commit fully and swallow their prey head first. That means the hook is going to be deep inside of their body when you set it!
My favorite hook to use is a Gamakatsu circle hook in 6/0 size for mackerel. Anything larger and they’ll continuously foul hook themselves in the face or eye, and when you do get hit the hook point won’t be exposed – thus a lost fish!
Rig up 4-6 ft of 30 lb fluorocarbon leader to the circle hook, then back to your main line (braid, mono, whatever). I usually use a swivel or swivel snap here to try to avoid too much line twist. Once you have your line, leader, and hook ready – hook the mackerel right through the nose, from one nostril to another, and let them swim! They’ll cover all kinds of water and are pretty strong swimmers, so drifting over where stripers are will usually bring them in range. If for some reason the mackerel won’t get down to where the stripers are staging, you can easily add an egg sinker above your swivel (called a fish finder rig, pictures below) to force the mackerel down to the appropriate depth.
With circle hooks, you don’t set the hook like you would with a treble or J-hook. If you have a live-liner or bait runner feature on your reel, set it and put just enough drag that the mackerel can’t take a bunch of line on you. If not, loosen your main drag until it’s tight enough the mackerel can’t take line, but still pretty loose. Once the drag starts to scream, here’s where the fun begins. Take a deep breathe (hard I know), point the rod tip down towards the fish, and count to 5 as you raise the tip of the rod into the air. Once the rod is vertical, set the main drag or tighten your main drag until you’re fighting the fish. Fish on!