Fishing For Mackerel In Maine by Lloyd Metcalf
I had fished for many different types of fish all through my life. I tried almost every type of lure and technique I could. At the age of 32 the only recollections I had of fishing in saltwater was once at a very young age putt-putting through the ocean, somewhere, in Maine off the coast of Pine Point and filling coolers full of mackerel reeled in and plucked off of trees of 6 hooks. Each hook had a different color of plastic around the hook. More than the place or event I remember the smell of the air and the strange 70’s style of brown fiberglass boat my father owned.
The next memory was being 12 or 13 and visiting Florida. My mother rented a pole for me and we bought a half pint of frozen shrimp. I dangled my line off the pier and caught nothing. But vividly remember one of the fishermen reeling in a big stingray and watching with amazement as a pelican repeatedly tried to find a way to swallow the strange looking fish whole that was easily as big as he was. Just when it looked like he would succeed and choke to death he would hook the thing up and try all over again.
I had recently tried surf casting with light tackle for stripers. It didn’t end well. I ended up tangled with the guys I was fishing with and not a clue how it all worked. I bought myself a frozen Mackerel the next day and after 45 minutes fishing off the rocks in a Cove on my own, I was lugging home a 26-inch fish that nearly snapped my pole in two. I was hooked on fishing the ocean!
I had lived in Portland Maine for many years earlier in my life, and after quite some adventure and strife, found myself back in my home state where I belonged. Everyday I would walk into the office building on Pearl Street. It over looked the bay a few blocks from a ferry terminal. I knew there were plenty of people down there fishing off the pier. I didn’t know what they were fishing for and didn’t really dare to ask. I was shy and a little afraid of looking stupid if I were to walk up and ask, “Whatcha’ fishin’ for?”
Of course then I would need to look dumber and ask what they were using for bait and how they fished. I had a thousand questions but was afraid to ask. I didn’t really want to impose myself on the people fishing. Now, being one of those people, I enjoy talking to others and tourists about fishing, how it’s done, what we’re using, and how to eat the fare.
I worked with a man who needed supports to keep working and integrate into the community. He enjoyed walking and fishing. The bus driver would never let him get on the bus with his pole, but one day he suggested we go down and watch the people fish while we ate lunch. John was quite a bit older than me, into his 70’s. He was thin, short but absolutely full of life. He was diagnosed as having a mental disability, to this day I don’t see how. I would only diagnose him with lack of formal education. I have known many people working in many different jobs. I have met people with far more limited intellect running for office and donning white sheets of hate over their heads. John was wise in years, and smart enough to live this long, be healthy, happy and had a good circle of friends and connections.
We sat for 2 or three hours and watched the people fish on their pier. I wasn’t afraid to ask my new friend about what they were doing. He knew Mackerel. He told me they were fishing for Mackerel and sure enough they were pulling them up on the pier on occasion, one at a time. He told me what they were using for bait, other Mackerel, and how to fish them. To this day he still has techniques that elude me. I have watched him leave the end where the tinkers are running heavily and sit closer to shore patiently for 30 minutes to reel in a 17-18” fish.
Since that first day I have tried many different methods and found new excitement fishing from shore for Mackerel and stripers. I have learned to watch other people who are catching fish, peek closely over their shoulders to see what they are using and how they are fishing. I have found camaraderie among shore fishermen (and women) to gladly talk about fishing. It also takes a bit of skill to filter out the fish story from fact. Usually the tackle and technique are pretty accurate. How a fish bites, how much it fought, and of course its’ size are always up for votes.
So what’s the big deal about Mackerel?
Mackerel do make good bait for a number of other game fish it’s true. Mackerel can also be caught on trees by the half dozen when trolled behind a boat through thick schools. Mackerel are often ignored for their value as sport fish. They fight hard, can sometimes be finicky biters and often take off on strong runs. Mackerel have a heavy fish flavor and render some dark meat. This attribute makes them perfect candidates for thick stews. A Milk broth stew laden with potatoes, oregano and Mackerel will warm a soul through the winter.
Caught one at a time on light gear they are also a very fun fish to catch. This is especially true for young anglers who run short of patience. When Mackerel are schooling thick a young fisherman/girl can see plenty of excitement.
So I began fishing for Mackerel off the pier. I was convinced I pretty much knew how it all worked. One day I had sat on the pier for close to three hours with nothing to show. A young lady came to the pier and cast something heavy out and on the second return had two fish on two hooks. The Mackerel preferred standard red streamers weighted and retrieved ahead of a regular diamond Jig. Some research and investigation spawned my creation of the Mackerel Smackerels. I will share a little of the other things I have learned of these pretty green fish.
When schooled up and hungry they are aggressive feeders. Mackerel will charge and grab most anything and run with it just to keep the others from stealing it. When you drop your #1 or #2 hook with a strip of fish or smackerel down and see two or three come up, one grab it and get chased by the school…. You’re about to catch a bunch of fish.
The bigger fish aren’t always in the action. The bigger mackerel don’t always waste their energy chasing the others around to fight over a little morsel. Mackerel tend to school up according to size. This also equates to their cruising speed. The bigger Mackerel occasionally seem to un-school on occasion. They seem to usually hang deep or on the outskirts of the smaller fish schools. I haven’t figured out why. Perhaps once in the bay the bigger guys don’t feel so obligated to school for safety.
Whatever the reason, John and I have discovered that if you just want some action, head to the spot on the pier where they are biting and running. If you’re not so anxious and want to land the bigger fish it often pays to drop your line just about where it seems they aren’t biting. Use a good size of whatever they seem to prefer for food, and make your self-comfortable.
Getting the big Mackerel to bite:
When I say big Mackerel I mean anything over 15-inch range. Scientists say they can get over 7.5 lbs and live up to 20 years. We fish mostly for Tinkers here in Maine. Don’t let size fool you though; some of these guys fight like a large mouth bass.
Mackerel are related to Tuna and swim like little green devils. The average fish off the pier in Portland is most likely in the 10-14 inch range. So you leave the main action behind and have settled in for a bigger fish either deeper or shallower on the pier (Or Jetty). Mackerel seem to school at varying depths.
The bigger Mackerel seem to be more consistent for whatever reason. A depth of about 8-10 feet seems to be just about right. If the water is warm and the sun is really bright you might find better luck about 4 feet up from the bottom. It seems to usually be just out of sight in the water.
When you find the right depth, tie a knot in your line at the reel (open faced reel). Reel up and cast way out as far as possible. Ease your line in at the set depth (use your judgment) until you get to the knot at your reel. Get comfy and jig your line every 30 seconds or so. You will most likely find the big cousin of the little tinkers their reeling over there.
Mackerel School Runs:
When a school of Mackerel come to a pier or Jetty, even if you have separated yourself, you’re still likely to pull fish out of the middle of the school. It’s easy to see how the school is running by who’s pulling fish in. If you can’t actually see the fish, you can watch poles start to bend in sequence down the pier as the school swims the length. If you see poles bending getting closer it might pay to try to gauge how far away from the rocks or pier the lines are when hit and try to match or miss-match depending on your goals.
Slow days for Mackerel?
Yes, there are slow days for mackerel. The article above might not lend such an impression but it does happen. Mackerel tend to be not so interested in feeding at piers at tide peaks and valleys. They will also slow considerably late in the running season, late summer to fall. The old timers of Maine used to recommend tying a piece of red flannel on your hook to help entice bites at these times. This bit of old wisdom and the experience with the above-mentioned streamers has led me to experiment quite a bit.
I have sat down on the pier with my entire case of lures, fresh and salt water, to try it all. This tackle box is more akin to a suitcase than a tackle box. I will throw anything into the water to see what happens on a slow day. I have nothing to lose if nothings biting.
What I keep coming back to are things that most closely resemble the Smackerels. They are great to put behind spinners, run them on strings of three to resemble a school. On occasion I will string a bit of mackerel flesh on the hook as well to add the scent. Mackerel can smell fish quite well in the water.
If you are starting the season with no bait, grab a can of clams in their own juice or even slop a smackerel through tuna fish juice if nothing is coming out of the water at all. Just a smackerel running or jigging behind a sinker is usually enough to entice a bite of some sort. Once they start biting heavily you can just tie on a light swivel and a hook, I skip the leader. Sometimes there are just no schools around. This happens when Blue fish start moving in.
When I’m headed out to fish for Mackerel I bring 1 light 5 foot closed face rod/reel (a Walmart $10 cheap-o) and a light/med. 6-61/2’ Open faced reel / rod. I rig the light reel with 8-10lb monofilament. The open faced has 12 – 18lb mono. Sometimes I will fish one line on or near bottom while casting with the other.
If I’m headed to work, I’ll usually just keep the 5’ pole in the trunk with the following small case of terminal gear. There are slick looking lines out there but all that money for braided line and super fine line that comes for like $20+ per little spool should just stay on the shelf for pier/jetty/shore fishing like this.
I bring a plastic box with compartments containing the following:
5+ Mackerel Smackerels. A couple I might rig ahead with spinners and weights for casting.
10 or so #1 or #2 bait hooks and 4 or 5 swivels for rigging bits of Mackerel for bait. Most likely someone else will need to borrow one while you’re there.
A sharp little knife or fillet knife for cutting up bait Mackerel, mussels, clams, snails or whatever I find for bait
About 8-10 little sinkers in the 1/8 – ¼ oz size.
A couple yards of 20lb test in case I find I need a leader.
A couple 2/0 or 3/0 hooks and a 1 oz. weight. On occasion you might find the Mackerel have moved out but Stripers are lurking about the bottom, even better.
A plastic bag or small cooler in case I want to bring any home.
That’s pretty much it. A cheap fish kit that lives in my trunk from may through October. It’s a kit that regularly produces as many fish as I want to catch.
Good luck and good fishing. May it bring you as much enjoyment or more than I have found in such a sport that not only is fun, educational, and exciting but also puts delicious seafood on your plate?
Serving = 100 g of raw edible food, wild species.
Amount Per Serving
Total Fat 13.8 g
Total Protein 18.6 g
Omega-3 2.45 g
Cholesterol 70 mg
Sodium 90 mg