Mackerel, everybody's fish

By Tom Seymour | Jul 16, 2017
Photo by: Tom Seymour Town floats become crowded when the mackerel are in.

What’s not to like about mackerel? Healthful to the nth degree, mackerel ranks right up there with salmon and sardines as a heart-healthy fish. Available in large numbers, Atlantic mackerel is one of the few underutilized seafood species, and that’s saying a lot.

Furthermore, mackerel are available from bridges, piers and floats up and down the Maine coast. And tackle consists of a medium-weight spinning rod and two or three mackerel jigs. Add to that their fighting qualities, which are considerable, and mackerel becomes the ideal fish for fun and food.

Each year dedicated mackerel anglers anxiously wait to hear the magical words, “The mackerel are in.” That’s when the season begins in earnest. Mackerel stay inshore as late as November, so it’s a long season.

So here, following, are five tips and suggestions for eager mackerel slayers.

1. Rods and Reels

While any old fishing outfit will serve for mackerel fishing, spinning gear gives the best performance. With a spinning rod and reel it’s easy to get the lure right back out there after reeling it in, something important when casting to schooling fish.

Some people make the mistake of buying an outfit that is better suited for much larger fish. A light (spinning gear comes in ultralight, light, medium-light, medium and heavy) spinning outfit, with a rod that has plenty of flex, guarantees the maximum amount of action. In other words, match the tackle to the fish. When taken on light tackle, mackerel put up a battle that would make a landlocked salmon proud.

But no matter what kind of rod and reel you use, make sure to rinse the outfit off in fresh water after each use, since salt residue, if left on, will quickly destroy a reel and also eat up any metal parts of a rod. So rinse well and mackerel gear will last for many years.

2. Lines

A 15-inch mackerel is a really big one. Even so, a flimsy line better suited for ultralight fishing for trout won’t stand up to lifting a mackerel from the water up to the float. So use a 6-pound test and that will take the worry out of mackerel fishing. Remember, though, that the heavier the line the thicker the line diameter, and that translates to shorter casts. I would rank 8-pound test as the maximum for mackerel, with 6 as my favorite.

Also, make sure to check the last several feet of line for nicks and abrasions. If a big fish hits the lure, a compromised line may part, and that would be a real shame. So if the line has a bad spot, cut it at that point and re-tie the lure.

3. Lures

To tree or not to tree, that is the question. With due apologies to the Bard, the “trees” referred to here are variously named “Christmas trees” and “mackerel trees.” These are long, thick lines with a jig on the end and lots of dropper lines with mackerel flies dangling from them. The idea here is to hook one mackerel and then wait for the action of the hooked mackerel to attract more of its yet-to-be-hooked brethren.

That sure sounds like fun, but in fact the end result is similar to reeling in an old, waterlogged boot. What happens is that all the mackerel swim in different directions, pulling against each other. And if the fish pull against each other, they are not pulling against the rod, and that explains the lack of spirit in the battle.

Far better to use a single lure and fight the fish one at a time. But people in a hurry to land a whole lot of mackerel can surely meet their goal with a mackerel tree. It just won’t be as much fun.

Lures that take mackerel abound, and one of the better ones is called “Kastmaster.” These are made of a beveled slab of thick, shiny metal with a treble hook on the end. Kastmasters cast like rockets and they take lots of fish. One of my favorite techniques when using this venerable lure is to cast out, close the bail on the reel and wait for the lure to flutter its way down to the bottom before reeling it back in. Keep a tight line while the lure sinks and be ready to strike when a mackerel interrupts the lure on its descent.

The number 1 mackerel lure, called a Diamond jig, has stood the test of time and accounts for more mackerel each year than all the other lures combined. These are four-sided, with a shiny, chrome-type plating and have one large hook at one end and a loop for attaching the line on the other. And while Diamond jigs were the first to offer this design, other manufacturers now make similar-style jigs that are just as effective. These come in a package of three and are fairly inexpensive.

To use, cast the jig out as far as possible, allow it to sink 10 feet or more and quickly reel it in, jerking the rod on occasion in order to impart extra action. And when the lure nears the dock or float, allow it to sink to bottom and try vertical jigging, which consists of pulling the lure up the length of the rod and allowing it to settle back toward bottom. Mackerel like to hide under docks and floats and this method takes those otherwise-unavailable fish.

4. Care of fish

Some people don’t care for mackerel because they consider them strong-flavored and oily. Mackerel are somewhat oily, but not at all strong-flavored. That only occurs when mackerel are not properly taken care of after landing.

So along with rod, reel and jigs, bring a cooler full of ice. After unhooking a mackerel, drop the fish in and it will remain in ultra-fresh condition until arriving home.

Some people bring a 5-gallon pail and fill it with sea water for holding their mackerel. But the water quickly warms and the mackerel flesh begins to spoil. Besides that, who wants to drive home with a big pail of fish and water slopping around in their car or truck? No, much better to use a cooler and plenty of ice.

The same people who eschew mackerel for the above-cited reasons would probably love them if only they had access to mackerel that were properly cared for in the very beginning.

5. Mackerel cookery

Clean your ice-cold mackerel as soon as possible in order to maintain freshness. For smaller fish, so-called “tinker mackerel,” just remove the head and eviscerate. Larger mackerel, those of 12 inches or more, can be filleted. Filleting a mackerel is easier than with other fish. Just lay the mackerel down on a cutting board and with a sharp fillet knife, beginning just behind the head, cut down until the blade touches the backbone. Then turn the blade so it faces the tail and, following the backbone, run the knife the full length of the fish. This results in one perfect fillet.

After that, you have two choices. First, just remove the head and tail and leave the backbone in. This is easily removed after cooking. Or, just follow the same procedure as before and make another boneless (there will still be some thin rib bones) fillet.

The grill makes the perfect venue for cooking mackerel. First drizzle some lemon juice on the flesh side of the fillet or inside the body cavity of whole mackerel. I like fresh-ground black pepper on my mackerel, but as with lemon juice, it is optional.

Cooking on a grill allows the oil in the fish to drip down on the coals or into the grease catcher on a gas grill. This does away with any “oily” taste. When the flesh turns white and flakes at the touch of a fork, the fish is done. Using a spatula or turner, lift the fish from the grill and serve.

Summer in Maine wouldn’t be the same without Atlantic mackerel. Here’s hoping you catch your share. Have fun and bon appétit.

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