Mackerel: Low Stress, Lots of Fun

Along the coast of New England, mackerel are everywhere. There are several species of this fish, but the one I’m referring to is the Atlantic mackerel. They tend to swim in schools and usually  congregate in large numbers along the coast in the spring. They hang around the shallow water into the fall and head for deeper water in the winter. During their time near the coast they are easy to catch, and are a popular food fish.
It had been several years since I fished for this ubiquitous species. A few weeks ago I was in Maine and had the opportunity to try it again. It was as much fun as I remembered with constant action once getting into a school of them. Mackerel fishing is very low-stress. Strong fighters for sure, but their small size keeps them from overwhelming. The biggest fish rarely exceed 20 inches, and most run between 8 and 15 inches. They don’t require any specialized tackle to catch and can be caught from shore when the tide is right (typically, one hour before high tide and one hour after are ideal). This makes them the perfect fish for a casual trip to the ocean or for an introduction to saltwater angling.
I’ve learned from previous trips to the ocean that saltwater equipment is not always necessary. I have used freshwater spinning rods, reels, line and fly reels without incident. It helps, of course, to rinse your equipment with fresh water after each use. Of greater concern is sand. Sand grains will work their way into any and all spaces on a reel, resulting in an awful grinding sound when the gears begin to turn. Naturally, this is a bad thing. A thorough fresh water rinse and partial disassembly will usually keep sand infiltration at bay.

The reliable, simple diamond jig. 1/3oz is standard but they come in several sizes

The single most useful lure for mackerel is the humble diamond jig. Any tackle shop on the coast will carry them and most hardware stores sell them as well. Online retailers like cabela’s are a sure bet. It doesn’t look like much, but mackerel are not finicky. Anything with shine, color or movement will get the job done. There’s really no wrong way to fish a diamond jig. Simply reeling it in will often generate strikes, though this needs to be done quickly. Mackerel are a fast fish and they seem to prefer a fast retrieve. Jigging is another great method, especially when a school of fish is near by. Once a fish is hooked, other mackerel will swarm around it. This is the best time to drop a diamond jig straight down and bounce it. It won’t be long before a fish hits it. There are other lures that will work just fine, but diamond jigs are cheap and versatile with no moving parts to get fouled. Small flies also work well and in the past I have used size 6 clouser minnows and deceivers with excellent results.

Silver sides give way to iridescent blue and green on top, with black stripes. As tasty as they are pretty.
Easy to catch, easy to cook. Grilling is fast, simple a flavorful.

Mackerel are simple to cook and can be done many different ways. Grilling is one of the best and easiest methods. A simple marinade will suffice and then a short stint over the coals gets the job done quickly. The taste is similar to tuna. The flesh flakes off the bone easily and the skin is edible. Mackerel make a fine addition to Maine’s most famous ocean fare, lobster. It adds a nice counterpoint to the sweet richness of lobster and butter. I expect it could even be used as a canned tuna substitute for the standard tuna fish sandwich.
Any time you find yourself planning a trip to the New England coast, even a family vacation, pack a spinning rod and get some diamond jigs. It is not difficult to find a public access dock or pier and many commercial operations are willing to let people fish with permission. Mackerel will keep well in a refrigerator for several days or in a cooler with plenty of ice. If keeping fish doesn’t mesh with your travel arrangements, there is always catch and release. Mackerel are an opportunity too easy and fun to pass up.

One Comment on “Mackerel: Low Stress, Lots of Fun

  1. Pingback: Downeast in August | Gunpowder and Graphite

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