Mackerel as Bait

Mackerel (Scomber scombrus) are a small, fast predatory fish which is common around almost all of the British Isles in the summer months. Easy to catch on lures and float fished baits, mackerel provide excellent sport for anglers and provide many children with their first experience of sea fishing. As mackerel is is an oily fish it also makes a great bait for shore angling all year round, with almost all species around the British Isles being caught on mackerel baits at one time or another. For more information on catching mackerel read our full article on this species by clicking here.

Buying and Catching Mackerel

Mackerel are widely available from fishmongers and supermarkets. They are sold both whole and filleted and anglers can expect to pay around £1 – £2 depending on the weight of mackerel they purchase. Mackerel can also be purchased frozen from many fishing tackle shops. Of course, many anglers will catch their own mackerel.

 Mackerel Caught on Daylights
A mackerel caught on a set of daylights.

The most sporting way to catch mackerel is to use a light spinning rod and a single spinner. Catching mackerel this way provides an entertaining day’s fishing in the summer months and the mackerel can be frozen to provide bait for the rest of the year. However, some anglers prefer to use strings of up to six feathers or daylights and a heavier bass rod or beachcaster and simply catch as many mackerel as they need in as short an amount of time as possible. Many anglers go fishing for mackerel throughout the summer and freeze a supply for winter bait.

Storing Mackerel

Mackerel for Sale
Mackerel on sale at a fishmongers.

As mackerel are an oily fish they do not keep particularly well, especially in warm summer weather. Anglers catching mackerel to use as bait should bring a cool box or fishing cool bag to store mackerel in as they will begin to go off in a very short amount of time, even if they are kept in the shade. If mackerel have been bought from a supermarket or from the wet fish counter of a fishmongers they should be taken home immediately and put into the fridge, where they will keep for several days. Mackerel can also be frozen. Some anglers simply freeze whole mackerel, whereas others prefer to gut the fish first and then freeze the fillets. Some anglers salt mackerel and wrap it in clingfilm before freezing it as this toughens the mackerel up and makes it withstand casting better than unsalted mackerel.

Bait Presentation

Mackerel is one of the most versatile sea fishing baits with all of the fish (apart from the tail) being useful as bait. Mackerel can be used to catch everything from mini species to the very largest species found in British waters.

Mackerel Bait Presentation
A small mackerel strip bait.

Small Mackerel Baits: Very small strips of mackerel around 1 – 2cm (¼ – ½ inch) long can be used to catch mini species, while larger strips of ranging from 3 – 6cm (1 – 2 inches) can be used for general sea fishing for species such as pouting, whiting, school bass, dogfish and flatfish species. This size of mackerel strip is also a good size to use for float fishing where it will catch pollock, coalfish, wrasse and also more mackerel. Generally, small mackerel strips of this size will stay on the hook without the addition of bait elastic. Many anglers have success by using the silver underside of the mackerels belly when fishing in shallow or clear water, as the reflective colour of this part of the mackerel acts as an additional attractant.

Medium Mackerel Baits: Larger strips of 9 – 12cm (3 – 4½ inches) can be used if larger species are being targeted. Strips of this size can catch species such as rays, bull huss and larger bass, and is an under-rated bait for winter cod. Larger mackerel strips are more likely to come off the hook if powerful casting styles are used. This can be avoided by securing the mackerel to the hook with bait elastic (such as Koike Bait Elastic which is available from Sea Angling Shop by clicking here). Mackerel which has been defrosted can also be softer than fresh mackerel, although, as stated above, salting mackerel before freezing it can toughen it up for casting.

Mackerel Flapper
A mackerel flapper ready to put on the hook.

Large Mackerel Baits: Mackerel is a top bait for some of the largest species UK anglers target such as conger eels, skate, tope and other shark species. Small mackerel can be fished whole with the hook passed through the mackerel’s mouth and out of the top of the head. This provides a solid hook hold, although some anglers prefer to hook mackerel through the eyes. If fishing a whole mackerel in this manner it is a good idea to slash the sides of the mackerel with a knife to release extra scent. Larger mackerel may be too big to use whole. In this case, three baits for large species can be gained from a single mackerel: the sides of the fish can be cut away and the full fillets used as baits, while the head and entrails can be hooked through the mouth or eyes and fished as additional bait. A mackerel flapper is another great bait for larger species and consists of cutting away the backbone section of the mackerel and leaving the flanks to use as a large bait, as the picture above shows.

Cocktail Baits: Mackerel are a popular choice to use in cocktail baits. One of the most common uses is to use a small section of mackerel to tip off a ragworm or lugworm bait. The combination of wriggling worm and the extra scent from the oily mackerel can often prove more effective than using a worm bait alone. As mentioned on our page on cocktail baits there are no restrictions on how mackerel can be used in a cocktail bait, and many anglers have success combining mackerel with peeler crab, mussel, razorfish and other baits. A silver strip of mackerel belly can be a good choice for cocktail baits a this provides a visual attraction for many fish.