You don’t read much about Atlantic mackerel in fishing magazines these days. The handsome little metallic blue-green critters haven’t changed much since Salt Water Sportsman ran the occasional article about catching them back in the 1950s and ’60s, but they’ve fallen out of favor as a target species, replaced by sexier, open-water speedsters such as bonito, false albacore and snapper blues.
About a half-century ago, well-meaning outdoor writers tried their darndest to whip up enthusiasm for Scomber scombrus. “Taken on a freshwater fly rod, mackerel will delight the most ardent light-tackle angler with their sizzling runs and stubborn resistance,” gushed a fishing scribe from the day, “and if tied tail-to-tail with a brook trout, will pull the brookie around backward all day long! Furthermore, if prepared properly, they make excellent table fare.”
Rubbish. Nobody went out and bought a fly outfit just to catch mackerel, and nobody took their Abercrombie & Fitch split-bamboo rod to salt water to flail away at these striped torpedoes. And as far as table fare? I say forget about it. Sure, some people split and broil them (even for breakfast, they claim), and others fillet and smoke the strong, oily meat, then mash it into a grayish pâté that, reportedly, can be eaten on a cracker. Any leftover pâté, I am told, serves admirably as a patching material for drywall.
However, the pint-sized Atlantic mackerel is an interesting and valuable fish with endearing qualities. It is found along the East Coast from Cape Hatteras to Canada. I won’t go into its life cycle or migration patterns, but in general, mackerel spend the winter months in dense schools offshore in the more southerly areas of their range, then move to coastal waters as spring approaches. By mid-May, they settle in near-shore waters and bays from Rhode Island to Maine and generally stick around until late October.
For many kids, a mackerel is their first saltwater catch. I caught my first when I was 6 years old during a family trip aboard a party boat from the old Knickerbocker fleet out of Plum Island on Massachusetts’ North Shore. We used ground-up sand eels for chum and baited up with a sand eel. We used boat-furnished, tapered bamboo poles with about 10 feet of tarred cotton line tied to the tip. Slinging the silvery little eel lance over the rail, we watched it sink out of sight, then waited. Suddenly the tip of the pole would jerk downward, we’d jerk upward, and within seconds a quivering, 12-inch mackerel would be beating a tattoo into the weathered wooden deck. It was about as much excitement as a first-grader could stand. I can’t remember what we ended up doing with the mackerel we caught, but we sure as hell didn’t eat them.
Lots of folks — kids and adults alike — still target mackerel from boats, piers and jetties. A light, 6-pound-test spinning or push-button spincasting outfit provides spirited sport that will evoke grins all around. The ultimate weapon on the business end of the line is a 1/3-ounce, single-hook, chrome-plated diamond jig, the Cadillac version of which is known as the Bridgeport diamond jig.
Jigging mackerel is easy, and most will master the technique in a few minutes. Cast out, let the jig drop for about five seconds, then retrieve it at moderate speed with 2-foot sweeps of the rod tip. Bang! The mackerel will hit, and the battle ensues. However, mackerel are known to wise up to jigs and refuse to bite after a few fish are snatched out of the school. That’s when a pea-size piece of clam on a small hook, weighted with split shot, can quickly turn things around.
Although mackerel are game battlers for their size and fun to catch on light tackle, they really shine as bait. A live mackerel is a top offering for big striped bass, free-lined or fished under a float, and thousands of stripers north of 40 pounds have been taken with them. You can hook the bait behind the dorsal fin or through the upper jaw (not both jaws, or the fish will suffocate), but my favorite tactic involves a clever device called the Ultimate Bait Bridle. The bridle acts as a safety pin that’s inserted through the mack’s eye sockets and closed shut. The bridle then slides over the barb and onto the bend of the hook, keeping the entire hook outside of and ahead of the mackerel’s snout for more positive hook-sets. And it really works.
Of course, a live mackerel is also deadly on billfish, tuna and sharks, and although a lot of purists still rig the bait onto the hook with waxed twine, the bridle works great, too. My son Mike released a 350-pound mako from my boat on a live mackerel rigged with one of these bridles.
Dead mackerel can be trolled, and some giant tuna sharpies will hydro-gut (remove the guts with a strong stream of water, no incision) and brine the fish to toughen them up, then rig up to a dozen on a daisy chain or spreader bar for surface trolling. I’ll sometimes remove the backbone from a larger mackerel with a deboner tool, slice the belly and remove the guts, sew the belly back up, and chin-lead the bait with an egg sinker. The now-limber mackerel will shimmy enticingly, yet track straight and true behind the boat, about 2 feet below the surface, just like a live one. I caught a 300-pound porbeagle shark this way, as well as tuna.
Chunks of mackerel are also effective. A big chunk — I prefer the section from just behind the gills to just ahead of the anal fin — fished on the bottom in striper territory will take bass of amazing size, and schoolies are suckers for smaller pieces. And a fluttering, fresh-cut mackerel fillet cast tight to a rocky shore from a drifting boat should almost be illegal, it works that well on stripers.
If you want to catch a lot of mackerel quickly for bait, use a sabiki rig. Sabikis are 6-foot mono leaders with six or so “flies” attached, and are designed to catch multiple baitfish when they’re schooled up around the boat or a pier. The best sabikis, in my opinion, are made by Hayabusa, which uses dried fish skin for the fly feathers. I wouldn’t tell just anybody this, but the S-501E rig with glow-beads is killer on mackerel and the only one I use.
Mackerel, like humans, oysters and tax-refund checks, come in all sizes, and there is specific nomenclature that has survived the test of time. Mackerel about 12 inches and larger are called clubs. Macks from about 7 to 9 inches are referred to as tinkers. Those running 5 to 7 inches are known as spikes, and those smaller than 5 inches are tacks. Oddly, macks that run 10 to 12 inches — the most common size — don’t have a moniker that I know of; they’re just called mak’rell.
Atlantic mackerel have one property that differentiates them from most other fish: They’re covered with translucent scales that are about the size of the head on a common pin. When a mackerel is removed from the water, the scales instantly fall away by the thousands and attach to your hands and fingers. From there, they migrate to rod butts, reel handles, watches, beer cans, clothing, your boat’s steering wheel — you name it — and epoxy themselves into place.
Allowed to dry for more than 30 seconds, the scales become a permanent fixture on whatever they’ve adhered to, resistant to the blast of a hose or being pried loose with a thumbnail. The only way to remove them is with an angle grinder and a 60-grit wheel. Eventually, with patience, you’ll be able to remove about 40 percent of the scales from any given item. And the other 60 percent? You’ll just have to live with them, but they’ll be a pleasant reminder of all the fun you had catching Atlantic mackerel.