Live Mackerel for Daytime Cows
Most of us that fish for Striped Bass have one thing in common when we head out on the water: the goal of catching a large striper, and if you are like me, the goal of catching multiple large stripers. While there are many methods that produce quality bass day and night, my go to daytime method has always been and will always be a live mackerel at the end of the line. Mackerel are a migratory bait fish species that usually inhabit the waters around Boston beginning in Mid-May and usually don’t completely leave until mid November. The Atlantic Mackerel is a fast swimming, oily fish with an average size of 6-12 inches. They swim in large schools, so when you find one you will usually find many more. The mackerel is a staple in the diet of a bass as you will quickly notice that a wiggling “mack” on the end of your line seldom gets ignored by any resident striper. Bass of all sizes will eat a well presented mackerel, but the most common catches will be in the “keeper” sized category, making them even more attractive as bait.
The first aspect of live lining macks is to catch them. Some days are easier than others. When they show up in mid-late May, they tend to do so in enormous schools and catching them can be very easy. During the mid-summer months depending on water temps and the presence of Bluefish, they can be much more challenging to procure. The last couple seasons I have seen the macks pretty much take up residency in the area and have stayed in good numbers throughout the summer. Look for water temps from about 50-66 as a general rule for them. They are not the tropical type and will quickly move northward as needed to stay in their comfort zone and away from the blues that will quickly turn them into chum. I like to look for them where shallow rocky waters abut deeper cooler waters. They can be found in water as shallow as 15 feet and water as deep as 100 with 25-60 feet being the general sweet spot. Always try to find some moving water as well. To be successful you have to stay on the move as they do. Keep an eye on your fish finder if you have one and look for bait marks. Typically they hang pretty close to the surface. If you are marking bait clumps right on the bottom, there is a good chance it is harbor Pollock or herring. Mackerel love to be in the mid column. For example, if I am in 50 feet of water, I’ll usually see macks only 10-15 feet down. Once located, I like to employ the use of a simple Christmas tree rig or a Sabiki rig as it is generally sold by this name. Any simple and small single hook flashy jig will work as well but for my time and money nothing beats the multi hook rig. A typical Sabiki will hold anywhere from 4-8 hooks on it and can be purchased at any saltwater tackle shop. Each hook is dressed with some sort of flashy material such as fish skin or simple fly-like material. At the bottom end of the rig is a snap swivel for the weight. I like to employ the use of a simple diamond jig in the ½ ounce to 2 ounce size depending on the water movement and rod you are using. My rule of thumb is to use the lightest jig I can while still keeping in contact with the rig. The jig at the bottom is meant to mimic a larger fish gorging on the small shrimp-like smaller hooks above it. Once you feel a bite, try to suppress the tendency to just reel it in. Reel very slowly as this will often lead to a multiple hook up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a mackerel take one of the hooks and by slowly moving the rig up at a snail’s pace have come up with a full Sabiki of macks. Slow trolling your rig is also a great way to locate a school. Once you’ve got them in the yak you need to act fast and cautiously taking them off the hook. Try to pay special attention to this part as a leg full of tiny hooks is an extremely unpleasant experience. Once unhooked, I get them into my make-shift live well. A simple 2’ by 4’ mesh bag that hangs off the side of my yak. I tie a knot in the bottom of the bag to keep them facing forward as I travel. Usually I can keep 6-10 macks alive for close to an hour. There are now special made live wells specifically suited for your kayak and these are invaluable but not a necessity.
Photo courtesy of Mark Nelson
Now that you’ve acquired your bait, it’s time for the fun part! As we all know bass love rocky boulder fields. You will often find this as your go to structure because of its close proximity to where you’ll be catching your bait. Live mackerel will work anywhere there are bass holding, but taking your bait a long distance to river mouths or flats is often not the best use of time. I fish in an area with multiple small islands with rocky shorelines, so usually I don’t have to go very far to be in prime striper habitat. There are two schools of thought pertaining to how to fish mackerel. Some employ the pitch and float method which involves a simple float a few feet up from the bait that is then pitched right into the rocks, literally. Bass love to feed in the wash as it disorients bait making it easier to capture. Others just pitch the bait in with no float and let it roam to its demise. Another method is to slow troll your bait as close as you safely can to the rocks or other structure your working. This is my go to method as it allows me to cover more ground and sometimes weeds out the smaller more suicidal bass. For rigging, I keep it very simple and it’s also very similar to that used for fishing live eels. I use 50lb braided line as my main line. Lighter test will work but when you have a “cow” bass on and she’s digging for the bottom and the rocks, the heavier line will give you the confidence to horse the fish out. My main line is tied to a high quality swivel. Terminal tackle is no place to bargain shop. Go with the best on the market. To the ball bearing swivel I then tie on a 3 foot section of 40-60lb Fluorocarbon leader which is tied to a 6/0 live bait hook or a 7/0 circle hook, no weight is needed in the shallows I fish. Anything over 25 feet requires a light egg sinker to get into the strike zone. For the rod, you want something with some serious backbone. I use a medium heavy 7 foot rod capable of handling the torque of a big bass. For the reel, a bait-runner style reel is essential if you are using a spinning reel. A conventional reel with a clicker system is what I like as I can thumb the spool to feel every movement of my bait, letting out more line to “tease” if needed.
How to hook a mackerel is a question I’ve been asked many times and always give the same answer. This is the only method you should really use, anything else is a waste of time and bait in my opinion. The hook should go right through both nostrils. Hooking anywhere else will quickly render your bait life less or give the bass a free meal. Once the bait is hooked I let out 25-30 yards of line, roughly a hundred feet or so. Keep the bait tight but not too tight. I like to let it be able to swim naturally yet look wounded at the same time. Try to keep your trolling speed around 1mph at the most, pretty much the same as with live eels. The best part of trolling a live mackerel is that it reacts to its surroundings. Unlike a tube and worm that just gets whacked all of a sudden, with a live mack, it will let you know what’s going on. Your rod tip will start bouncing much harder than the normal swim of the bait. The bait will go side to side and up and down very, very quickly and then BAM, your line will start pulling out hard. This is when I will give a three count and engage my reel’s main drag system. If you do not have your reel in baitrunner or clicker free spool mode the bass will take your bait right off the hook every time. If the bass runs and then drops real quick, just be patient. The bass has already crushed the head of your mackerel and will come right back for the easy meal. Even with a live bait hook, you do not have to set the hook. Engaging the reel is all that’s needed to drive the hook home. If I am using the live bait hook, I tend to engage a little quicker than with a circle hook to avoid a gut hook, which doesn’t happen very often as it tends to be common with eels using a j hook. I normally get a nice hook set right in the corner of the bass’s mouth. Now that the bass is securely hooked up, sit back and enjoy the tow! Really focus on keeping that bass out of the rocks and other obstructions like lobster traps. A big bass knows where all these things are and will head straight for them to break you off. Sometimes even with heavy gear the bass will win, but that’s why we fish, for the challenge.
Photo courtesy of Mark Nelson
Fishing with live mackerel is an exciting and eye opening concept for those yet to try it. It will provide consistent action at all times if the bass are in your area. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a boat or yak work a boulder field with a tube, big plastic, or some other type of method and see not a sniff. Then I come through with a mack and bam…bam…bam. Plain and simple, if you are fishing areas frequented by mackerel and not taking advantage of them as bait, your attack is incomplete. Give it a try and I’m sure you will be hooked, especially when you slide the first pig onto your lap, then the second and the third …..well you get it!
Photo courtesy of Erick Attridge