Mackerel are a bit of a joke with many sea anglers and there are those who will target them specifically only when looking to employ them as bait for bigger and better things. This is probably due in most part to the fact that mackerel can be ridiculously easy to catch in comparison to other species and as they do not present any great challenge, they consequently don't provide the same level of satisfaction. This attitude, while understandable in many instances, is also a great shame as mackerel are not only an incredibly tasty eating fish, they are also packed full of vitamins and minerals, including the heart healthy omega-3 fatty acid.

There are a number of different types of mackerel found in seas and oceans around the world. This page specifically refers to Atlantic mackerel, which are most commonly found in the North Atlantic Ocean and North Sea, but much of the information will equally apply to other sub-species such as Spanish, Blue and King mackerel. 

Atlantic Mackerel
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Fresh Atlantic mackerel

Is it True that Mackerel Can be Caught on Bare Hooks Alone?

Beginner sea anglers will often hear more experienced fishermen say that mackerel can be caught on bare hooks alone and will often be understandably quite skeptical of this claim. In actual fact, as one who has done this several times, I can categorically confirm that this is not a myth and is absolutely true, if not exactly a recommended technique. The reason why this is the case is that it is the movement of something shiny in the water to which mackerel are attracted. Particularly therefore in sunny conditions, the glint of the sun off the hooks can be all that is required to entice the mackerel to bite.

Where you don't have any bait or suitable lures, you could give this option a go. One similar way I have also caught mackerel is by wrapping strips of the shiny foil my sandwiches were wrapped in around the bottom of the hook (being careful not to mask the point) to enhance the visual appeal. 

Best Artificial Baits and Lures for Mackerel Fishing

One of the most popular lures used by fishermen trying to catch mackerel are mackerel feathers. These lures see three to five 2/0 or 3/0 hooks on a paternoster rig which have different colored feathers fixed to their long shanks. The feathers on each rig will frequently be of different colors such as blue, yellow, orange, green and red. as different colors are likely to work better in different lighting conditions and covering your options maximizes your chances of catching.

Mackerel feathers can be used for boat or shore fishing but there is an important point to remember if you are fishing on a busy boat regarding the fight mackerel will provide when hooked. Pound for pound, mackerel are a great fighting fish and can often be caught several at a time when you hit a shoal. If you are bringing multiple mackerel up a time, however, their fight can cause your end trace to move around frantically in the water, potentially becoming entangled in the lines of your fellow anglers and causing a horrific tangle that can take a substantial period of time to disengage. For this reason, I would never use a trace of more than three hooks when fishing for mackerel from a boat in these conditions. It is also worth warning those around you as soon as you start winding in to keep their own lines as clear as is practical at the time.

There are a great many other artificial lures and traces which are likely to attract mackerel. The key is always to use brightly colored ones on appropriately sized hooks to boost your chances to the max. 

Is Fresh Bait Any Good for Catching Mackerel?

Fresh Sea Fishing Bait
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Selection of fresh sea fishing bait

Yes, mackerel will certainly go for fresh bait but it is better to use it in conjunction with the brightly colored artificial lures. A small piece of calamari squid (around the size of your thumbnail) in particular will be particularly likely to entice mackerel to bite, as like with any species going for fresh bait, it is the scent of the juices released in to the water which attracts the fish. This is why it's important to change your bait regularly as the scent will quickly become fully washed out, rendering the bait effectively useless. In most instances, a bait change is advised at least once every fifteen to twenty minutes.

Mackerel are also Cannibalistic

Why not make use of this fact?

Preparing to Fillet Mackerel
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Preparing to side fillet a mackerel

It is a fact that mackerel will go for and take bait that consists of little strips of other mackerel, as well as other fresh bait. This can be an inconvenience when you are trying to get to deeper water for bigger fish in that the mackerel will take the bait mid-water before it can get to the sea bed and the domain of your targeted species. There are also, however, circumstances when you can use this to your advantage.

It may be that you have taken some frozen mackerel on your fishing trip but it is starting to thaw out, is becoming mushy and is not really suitable for using as bait for bigger fish. What you can do is attach little strips of it to your mackerel feather trace (or similar) and use this is a means of hopefully catching fresh mackerel to be used as bait for the rest of the day. 


First Side Fillet Removed from Mackerel
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

First side fillet removed from mackerel

When you are cutting up a whole mackerel for bait, the easiest way to do it is by firstly removing the two side fillets. I always have a bait board to hand whether I am shore or boat fishing and a filleting knife in my tackle bag. Simply lay the mackerel on one side on the bait board and make a cut behind the pectoral (head/side) fin, angled in towards the head and through to the spine. Twist the knife to face the tail and slice up and down while gently pulling the head in the opposite direction from which the knife blade is facing. The knife should slide all the way along the bone to the tail and the fillet can be removed. Turn the fish over on to its other side and repeat.

If you are using the mackerel as bait for mackerel or similar smallish fish, the "flapper" as the fillet is often called should be cut in to small strips. Otherwise, larger pieces or even the whole flapper itself can be used on your hook(s).

Second Side Fillet Removed from Whole Mackerel
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Second side fillet removed from whole mackerel