How to Catch Mackerel

The mackerel, one of the easiest of fish to catch, has increased in importance as a food fish following the scarcity of herring, but its oily flesh also makes an excellent bait

Of all the fish species inhabiting Britain’s coastal waters, there is none with a more mixed reputation than that enjoyed by the mackerel. Although some rate them highly for a variety of reasons, there are those who dismiss them as ‘dirty eaters’, or as being too easy to catch or not worth eating. But as a fish bait, a fresh mackerel has no equal.

What makes the fish so attractive as a bait? In short, it is the mackerel’s abundant body juices, rich in oils and vitamins, a characteristic shared with the herring and salmon. Fish are able to detect these juices by the sense of smell which all species, to a greater or lesser degree, possess. Because of its attraction, it is important that mackerel is used only when it is in prime condition.


Mackerel may be taken in various ways, although the majority are caught by boat anglers using sets of hooks dressed with feathers. ‘Feathering’ is a good method, as up to six hooks can be used and, on oc-casions, a greedy mackerel will be caught on each, thus providing a plentiful supply of bait. Some fishermen advocate other methods, such as highly efficient sets of Norwegian lures, in which metal alternates with rubber tubing cut to imitate the eel.

No matter how efficient the lure may be, however, it will not produce results if fished at the wrong depth. It is important to remember that the mackerel, not possessing a swim bladder, can move surprisingly fast and so a shoal can change depth very rapidly. If several anglers are on board it is advisable for them to fish at different depths until a shoal is located. When very calm condi-tions prevail, as is often the case at first light, watch for sudden turbulence on an empty patch of sea – this could well be caused by mackerel just below the surface.

Mackerel as bait can be fished in a variety of ways, and methods of presentation attractive to most species can be found. Two important considerations must be borne in mind, whatever style of fishing is to be employed. First, the bait size and presentation should be appropriate to the quarry and its manner of feeding; secondly, the bait and hook should be matched in size.

Apart from its other advantages, the mackerel’s shape and bone structure make it an ideal bait form. It can be cut in different ways according to requirements. The section adjoining the caudal or tail fin provides on each side a near-triangular patch known as a ‘lask’ or ‘last’. This is recommended for bream, whiting, and other small species. Remember, though, that while various species may be of roughly similar size, their mouths are quite dissimilar – a fact to be considered when selecting hooks and cutting bait to match. An over-large bait can mask the barb so that hooking the fish becomes virtually impossible.

Alternatively, a side or flank can be offered, either whole, halved or sliced into strips to resemble small fish. To hook a half-side or strip of mackerel, drive the hook right through the fish and then twist this to allow the hook to come through again in a different place. This ensures that maximum benefit is gained from the oily flesh.

A whole side of mackerel can be held in position and presented in an attractive manner by whipping a small hook on to the trace a couple of inches above the main hook. The top of the bait is then supported, the lower portion being free to move with the current to simulate the motion of a small live fish.

Mackerel heads

A mackerel sliced diagonally across its body from just below the gill cover on one side to a point near the vent on the other, makes an ideal tope bait, as indeed does the head complete with entrails. To obtain the latter, the fish should be cut around the ‘shoulders’ so that the head comes free with the innards attached. Here again, the important thing is to exploit the fish-attracting juices. This bait is excellent when float-fished. To secure it, pass the hook through the head of the mackerel adjacent to the eye.

Conger can often be lured by a whole mackerel. Use a baiting needle to draw the hook into position. Some anglers draw the hook up to the vent, others prefer it to protrude from the bait’s flank. Whichever method is used, slash the skin in several places to release the blood and oily juices which predatory fish find highly attractive. When using large baits of this kind, the tide’s motion will frequently cause them to spin and to impart an amount of twist to the trace. To overcome this, use at least one swivel between the reel line and the hook.

For most sea anglers the mackerel is a summer species. This leads to an obvious question: what does one use when fresh mackerel are not available as bait? In some areas, the South West for example, mackerel are caught professionally throughout the winter, weather permitting, and can be bought fresh from fishmongers. In other regions, though, when the fish have travelled to inland fishmongers via the wholesale market, by the time they have been bought as bait by the angler, they can be very wrinkled, unattractive specimens.

For anglers with a deep-freeze, a great saving can be made by catching early morning mackerel and then freezing them for later use. But fish which have been dead for hours, and lying in the sun in an open boat, do not freeze properly for when unfrozen they will rapidly deteriorate into a soft and useless mass. At one time the alternative solution was simple – use herring. This species was cheap and plentiful. They are still an excellent bait, but overfishing has led to a scarcity and consequently to high prices.

Having dealt with the mackerel as a bait, let us return briefly to its defence in other spheres. The mackerel is not a ‘dirty eater’ but is a predator which chases and kills other fish, although there is a period during spring and early summer when plankton become the main part of its diet.

Competition for food

That mackerel can be easy to catch cannot be denied. This is certainly true of most, if not all, shoaling species. The competition for food can be so great that individuals will throw themselves on anything attractive, as witness the savagery with which a pack of spurdog will dispute possession of a bait, or the way whiting will snap at potential food. The larger the shoal the greater the competition. However, large shoals are not as common as they were, commercial fishing fleets having depleted stocks.

A mackerel long-since caught and stale is a sad offering as a table fish. But one fresh from the sea is a real delight. Unfortunately, no fish becomes soft and unappetizing more rapidly, and so remember that mackerel caught on a summer’s morn, subjected to the heat of the day and then taken, perhaps, on a long journey home, will be stale and far from the tasty dish they can be.