As we come into summer a lot of anglers switch their attention to the pelagic species myself included and in many cases the target is the humble mackerel. With their super long and hard runs, razor sharp teeth and incredible speed, they not only make for an excellent sports fish but are regarded as a top table fish also. I’m sure most anglers that target mackerel are dreaming of huge Spanish hitting the deck but in reality this is not possible, with this in mind both school and spotted mackerel often become the target. Mackerel can be found punishing the bait into super tight balls and massacring everything in sight, a bit like tuna school and although I have fond memories of sight casting into large schools of mackerel, these situation are often found by chance or with a lot hours spent covering ground to find the bait and ultimately the mackerel themselves. For a lot of angler the easiest way to chase down a feed of mackerel in a limited amount of time is to fish the navigation beacons, ever heard the saying the only tree in the paddock? In this article I’ll step through what I look for when fishing the beacons in search of a feed of mackerel.
Navigation beacons are a great way to locate bait and further more predatory fish because they mark the edges of a channel or in the case of a Yellow identify structure or an obstacle. All types of beacons - post, scaffold and even the chain type will hold bait and further more mackerel at some stage of the tide as they provide great pressure wave facing into the current. A lee or calm area behind the beacon also makes for a good area for the bait to hold against the raging current.
Depending on the time of year and your location, mackerel will push into the bays and estuary systems over summer months. The first thing I usually do when setting my sights on a feed of mackerel is work out a game plan for the area I intend to fish. My plan is usually very simple, I’ll move from beacon to beacon searching for bait on my sounder and once located I’ll throw a range of presentations until I get a hook up or move onto another beacon that has fish firing with the intent to come back to that beacon at a different stage of the tide or day. Seemingly simple plan I know but has proven very effective over the years.
On the sounder:
Once at the beacon, unless the water clarity is awesome, you’re not really going to know if there is bait holding until you’ve done some searching around with your sounder. In my case, I’m running Elite FS9 units and tend to use a combination of tradition sonar, down and side scan to determine if there is bait and where it’s holding around the beacon. I find traditional sonar is a really good option to start finding bait as the cone angle of the transducer beam is a lot bigger than the down scan. In simple terms I’m viewing more of the water column as I’m sounding out the area. The bait itself will show in the form a ball of red, purple and yellow and occasionally I will get a glimpse of some bigger fish sitting above or below the bait. For the most part I’m really just relying on finding the bait to locate the mackerel. The side scan features of my Elite FS 9 sounder is unreal for locating bait that’s sitting on the right and left hand side of the boat, which could be easily missed if I was only focused on what’s directly underneath.
As you can imagine the bait fish are not going to sit still with mackerel tearing though the school. The bait is going to move around as well as transitioning up and down the water column to avoid being eaten and when sitting on beacons for some time you will often see the bait popping up in all different areas around the beacon. Often a well-placed cast at the bait school siting off the beacon will result in hook up. Now, onto the down scan page, this feature may seem a little redundant if you are all over the traditional sonar image but down scan can often identify other good areas around the beacon that are worth sending your presentation down to. For example, patches of rock or structure that could be easily missed on the traditional sonar. This structure can often hold a fish or two and even turn up something totally unexpected. The down scan function has a tighter cone angle so you’ll be covering less ground when scanning around but the image presented to you is in greater detail and with fish reveal on, both the bait and mackerel will show up easily. So for me, the most effective way to look for bait and ultimately mackerel is to use a combination of all 3 pages. By doing this, I can quickly determine how much time I should spend on a beacon before moving on.
The chart page may seem like an obvious or not so obvious requirement but on the day, and in particular around the beacon, the chart page can be a really effective tool. Once on a beacon that’s holding bait you can accurately mark the areas around the beacon that the bait is holding and after a while patterns will start to immerge. For example the bait tending to show up on one side of the beacon. By picking up on this type or information you can have quick reference to the area you need to be targeting and where to keep your boat position.
Tips and techniques for pulling mackerel
There are heaps of ways to pull fish off the beacons; artificial presentation, dead bait, and live baits and so on but for me I have two technics that bring the bacon (mackerel). Dropping metals or hard body style presentation and floating pilchards into the beacon. It’s worth mentioning that I don’t anchor around the beacons and I much prefer to float past the beacons with the wind and current. The water depth I’m usually fishing is anywhere from 7m to 30m deep depending on where I am and for the most part my technic doesn’t change.
Once I’ve found the bait I opt for a 40 gram TT Hardcore metal and drop it to the bottom. The reason being is at 40 gram the slug is not going to sink to the bottom straight away. It’ll have a little more flutter about it and can often represent an easy meal. If you have the pleasure of a Mackerel picking up your metal on the drop you’ll know it soon turns to chaos, as trying to get you bail arm over while the spool is spewing line out can be rather sporting LOL. If on the other hand you couldn’t convince the mackerel to hit on the way down once the metal hits the bottom a fast retrieve back to the surface will often result in a hook up. From here a few things will happen… The mackerel are either on and you’re hauling them in over the side or they can be seen chasing without actually hitting the lure. Both at the surface and on your sounder, often in the form of a long streaky line on the traditional sonar page.
After a couple of attempts if I can convince them to hit, I’ll start cycling through a few presentations. Potentially a soft plastics like a 5 or 7 inch ZMAN scented jerk shad, but more often than not I’ll swap over to the Fish Inc. Flanker in either and 85 or 115 version. The reason for this is that in my local area there is a lot of bait that this represents, gar fish, small white bait. Technique wise nothing changes, I’ll drop it all the way to the bottom and rip it back to the boat. You can defiantly jazz these lures up a bit by adding some scent like Procure. Scents are often regarded as a soft plastics only thing but from experience scenting up your hard body and metals is an affective technique to increase your bite rate.
With baits there is no right or wrong bait and it will really come down to what working in your local. Often when the fish are a little shut down I’ll opt to float a pilchard into the beacon on a set of gang hooks. This type of fishing for me is literally about feeding line out with the bale open waiting for the mackerel to pick the bait up. It always amazes me on how stealthy these fish are, often the take reassembles that of a small bream or whiting. Once the mackerel has it I’ll flick the bale and set the hooks. At this point the mackerel is not going to be happy so hang on and depending on the fish, you can be in for a good fight. One thing to point out is if the mackerel in the area are a little shut down, this usually indicates the tax man (sharks) have shown up. Try and get your fish to the boat as quickly as possible, even pole the fish in if you have to. We’ve had some sessions where the sharks are that focused on getting the fish they nearly hit the boat. Line and leader wise, for both the metals and bait I’m usually running Platypus 20lb X4 braid and 40 lb leader hard armour leader. I don’t like to use a steel trace and without it I’m definitely going to get bitten off more but I find my hook up rate increases, so guess it all works out in the end. Rod a 7ft 3-6kg or 4-8kg matched up with a 4000 size reel will do the trick.
From a fish’s perspective, a beacon is just another piece of structure to hold around in a seemingly empty paddock, so don’t forget to use your sounder and look for other structure that is not so obvious. Sometime small patches of rubble and rock will be just as productive or even fish better that the beacons themselves. If you’ve got the time to search around identifying other likely areas, you will increase your options and ultimately your chances of landing mackerel. Like the beacons at some stage of the tide, these areas will fire up and my technique for catching mackerel doesn’t change here either.
Good luck over the summer months and I hope you find yourself a feed.
Sean (Outcast Angler)