Ever hear the expression “Holy Mackerel?” It’s something you might say when you pull a huge fish from the water or when the price of a reel is much higher than you expected. Apparently, it’s a 200-year-old expression, referring to Catholics who ate fish on Sunday. So, mackerel have been around for a while and people have been eating them for hundreds of years. Thankfully, gear technology has improved quite a bit since then, adding to the enjoyment of fighting these tasty fish. Let’s explore more about the mackerel, where to find them, how to fish them, and what to do with them once they’re caught.
What is a Mackerel?
The name Mackerel is used to describe several different fishes. Some of them are related to each other and some aren’t. This article will cover the Atlantic Mackerel, or Scomber scombrus, because it’s abundant and a favorite of anglers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. When it’s fully grown, a mackerel can reach up to 16.5 inches and 2.2 pounds. They’re shaped a little like surfboards, with a pointed nose and streamlined body. Below the midpoint of their bodies, the fish are silvery-white. Above, they have a series of dark wavy stripes on a blue-green background. They have a forked tail, with small little finlets on the dorsal and ventral sides from the tail to the first fin.
They can live up to 20 years if they’re not gobbled up by whales, dolphins, sharks, cod, or even a larger mackerel. It’s a popular meal for many species. During the spawning season, which differs by location, large females can lay two million eggs. Those eggs float to the surface and hatch in just under a week. When they first hatch, they’re not capable of swimming and just float near the top of the water. It takes them around a month to be able to swim. In another month, they’ll start to look like mini versions of the adults and start schooling. Because mackerel don’t have air bladders, they have to keep in constant motion to survive. Inside of their large mouths, they have one row of cone-shaped, pointed teeth on the top and bottom jaws.
According to NOAA, mackerel are considered “overfished,” which means the fish’s populations are smaller than they need to be to effectively reproduce and maintain their numbers. They are managed at the federal level and there are no state regulations for mackerel. Because of this, there are restrictions on the commercial fishing of these fish. However, private anglers fishing for pleasure don’t need to worry about these rules. To keep up with the federal catch regulations on these and other fish, you can download an app called FishRules. As of now, there are no catch limits for recreational mackerel fishing.
To read more about the federal management of mackerel, look at NOAA’s website here.
Where to Find a Mackerel
It might seem simple to spot a school of 100 or so shiny silver fish, but when you compare the size of a school to the size of their habitat, it can be like finding a needle in a haystack. For some anglers, the hunt is the best part. There’s an art to finding specific fish at the right times. But even those treasure hunters aren’t swimming blind. They know their quarry’s habits and hangouts. Depending on season, life stage, and water temperature, the Atlantic mackerel will be in different places. There are three migratory groups that shift locations with the seasons and when they spawn. This section will help you narrow down the locations of these fish starting at a global level and moving to a more local focus.
If you had a map of the world and drew a line across the Atlantic from North Carolina to Western Sahara, the area above that line would be where Atlantic Mackerel live. They spend most of their time near the coastlines of North America, Spain, Portugal, and Norway. Because they like the cold, you won’t find Atlantic mackerel in the Caribbean, The Keys, or the Bahamas. Populations of mackerel in the southern part of their range are becoming scarce. Some scientists believe the reason for this could be rising sea temperatures globally. They’re moving north as conditions get warmer.
In the springtime, mackerel move closer into shore and further north. In the winter and fall, it’s the opposite. There are two main populations that overlap. The southern fish spawn in April and May, around twenty miles offshore from Massachusetts to North Carolina. The northerners spawn in June and July, near where the St. Lawrence River empties out into the Atlantic.
In the water column, expect mackerel to be anywhere between the surface down to 600 feet. Mackerel tend to feed in the mid-depths, but are sometimes driven to the surface by predators. They will hang out around structures. So, check out the piers and jetties where deep water is easily accessible.
For an Atlantic mackerel range map, see Mass.gov’s page on this fish.
Best Bait for Mackerel
The lures described above don’t need any additional help in the form of living or cut additions. If you do prefer to go the natural route, mackerel will go after a cut and live bait of different sorts. Because they normally eat things like small shrimp, krill, and squid, these make good bait. A mackerel will even strike on strips of fresh mackerel. They’re not picky fish and when a school of them are in a feeding frenzy, you can pretty much drop anything down there and get one on the line. Eels will even make a nice treat.
A circle hook is a great choice for baiting mackerel because of its round design. They help avoid deep hooking and give the released fish a better chance at survival. Also, because of their long shank, you can sometimes save your leader from being bitten off. Peeled shrimp and squid strips will hang on nicely and give a little more time to respond to the bite. Simply put your hook through the bait so it’s resting in the curve. There’s no need to hide the hook or perform any complicated wire wrapping.
If you’re catching mackerel to use as a baitfish for a bigger catch, remember that they have to keep moving to stay alive. So, a round baitwell is important because the mackerel can keep swimming in circles, getting the water flow over its gills. Rectangular baitwells are a bad idea since the fish often swim into a corner and don’t know how to get out. So, they’re stuck in one spot and die quickly. It might seem kind of dumb on the part of the fish, but you have to remember that they don’t often encounter a right angle in their natural habitat.
Best Lures for Mackerel
When angling for Mackerel, there’s no one failsafe lure that sits above the others. Most people, however, prefer to set up a feather rig. Spinners and bobbers work too. The trick is to pick a shiny lure that the fish can see and choose a sunny day without a lot of cloud cover. Remember that, the deeper the water gets, the harder it is for sunlight to penetrate. So, if the sun isn’t strong to begin with, it’s not going to reach down to your lure and make it sparkle.
Feathering lures come pre-rigged with four hooks. The hooks can be dressed with feathers, soft plastics, tinsel, or molded metal. On one end, you’ll find a swivel or loop and on the other is typically a weight. The loop/swivel end goes onto your main line, with no leader. If you’re fishing from a boat, try to get right over a school and drop your lures down past them. From a pier, you can just drop your lures over the side until you feel the weight hit the bottom. Dip your tip down, reel in the slack, and then lift your rod smoothly upward up head height. Do this a few times, but don’t reel in the slack until you’ve dipped your rod back down. Don’t reel on the upswing. Some great options for feathering lures are Sea Tech’s silver 4-hook trace, the Sea Striker mackerel tree rig, and the Sanhu Sabiki rig.
Shiny metal lures that mimic smaller fish are also a great choice for mackerel. The Dexter Wedge lure is very popular. The Ahi Diamond has glowing eyes and holographic colors make it a flashy lure that attracts attention. This Clarkspoon stick jig makes a great mimic and it comes in four colors so you can “match the hatch.”
For some different reeling techniques, check out this article from Torbay Fishing.
How to Cook Mackerel
Lots of other fish eat mackerel; it’s one of the most popular baitfish out there. It’s easy to understand why; mackerel are tasty fish! I usually prefer to cook mine first, with some butter and fresh herbs. Mackerel has a rich flavor because it’s high in Omega-3 fatty acids. All of those oils also make it a great fish on the grill or in the smoker. It doesn’t dry out as easily as some other fish do. If you want a milder flavor, you can cut off the darker meat near the midline. The only downside to eating mackerel is that the meat doesn’t keep for very long, even when frozen. If not handled properly, there is a risk of scombroid poisoning.
Fine Cooking has a delicious recipe for Miso-Roasted Atlantic Mackerel. First, the fish is filleted and soaked in a marinade of miso, honey, sesame oil, and soy sauce. Sear the filets in a pan with the skin side down and then transfer to a baking tray to finish off in the oven. Add a little lemon garnish and it’s mealtime. It seems like a hassle, but the filets only spend around five minutes in the oven. The only annoying part is picking out all the small bones. If you have a pair of tweezers or needle-nosed pliers, you can handle them in no time.
The second recipe I want to share is from the New York Times and it’s got a little Mediterranean flair. It’s called Mackerel with Lemon Olive Oil and Tomatoes. Simple and tasty! First, infuse the olive oil with lemon zest on the stovetop. Then, prepare a nice bed of fresh basil in a baking pan and lay the fillets on top. Drizzle the infused oil over the fish and sprinkle with olives, salt, pepper, and some sliced cherry tomatoes. In about five to ten minus in the oven, you’ll be ready to eat. (if you don’t subscribe to the Times, you can access the same recipe here.)
That completes our guide to mackerel. You should now know how to recognize Atlantic mackerel, where they live, how to fish them, and how to cook them up. Take care to check your local area for fishing licensing and catch limits and don’t forget the #1 rule of fishing – have fun!
Learn more about catching different fish: How to Catch a Garfish