• Scientific name: Scomber scombrus
      • Also known as: Atlantic Mackerel
      • Size: up to 18ins and 6lb. UK shore caught typically around 1lb
      • UK minimum size: 12ins/30cm in length
      • UK shore caught record: 5lb 11oz
      • ICUN Status: NE (Not Evaluated)
      • Distribution: Common throughout the UK and Ireland in summer months.
      • Feeds on: Small but fast-moving hunter that feeds on small fish and sandeels.
      • Description: Slim and streamlined small fish. Attractive, almost tropical looking marbled blue/green back with around twenty black bars running down the flanks. Shiny silver belly and lower flanks, short fins and highly forked tail. A ridge of finlets are present running from the last dorsal fin to the tail.

Mackerel is a very important fish to anglers as both a sport fish and as a bait. Mackerel are migratory and come to the UK in spring and early summer, when they will feed actively and then migrate to warmer seas in the autumn months to spawn, during which time they will feed little. However, mackerel appear to be arriving in UK waters earlier and leaving later every year, possibly as a result of rising sea temperatures. In some places around the south of the UK mackerel are now only absent during the winter months. When mackerel are present they move in vast shoals, hunting small fish or sandeels. A large shoal of mackerel can force smaller fish such as sandeel, herring and sprats to the surface of the sea making it look as if sections of the sea are boiling.

Mackerel are a fast predatory fish, closely related to tuna. They have no swim bladder which means they can change depth rapidly and must keep moving all of the time. Mackerel are the fastest swimming fish in UK waters, able to swim around fifty metres in ten seconds. Even a small mackerel puts up a great fight once hooked, although mackerel only reach a maximum size of 4 – 5lb, with the overwhelming majority being 1lb or smaller. Fishing for mackerel is extremely popular around the UK, especially around piers, harbours and jetties that provide easy access to deep water and the tidal runs that mackerel favour. Indeed many summer evening can see shore anglers fishing practically shoulder to shoulder, such is the popularity of mackerel fishing. Many people gain their first experience of angling through mackerel fishing on a summer’s day, instilling a lifelong love of angling that soon extends to fishing for more challenging species, and many experienced anglers enjoy catching mackerel over the summer months and freeze the fish they catch to provide a supply of winter bait.

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Mackerel as a Bait

Mackerel is a great shore angling bait due to its oily, firm flesh, and almost all fish found around the UK can be caught on a mackerel bait. It can be used as a bait on its own, or small slices of mackerel can be used to create cocktail baits or tip-off worm baits. Large sections of mackerel, or mackerel heads and entrails are top baits for large species such as bass, skates and rays, conger and tope. Mackerel which is caught over the summer can be frozen to use as bait later in the year. An additional plus point is that when fishing for mackerel with dayights or feathers anglers may also catch herring or sandeel as well, both of which are also excellent baits. More information is provided on the mackerel as bait page.

Myths and Commercial Value

Multiple mackerel catch
Multiple mackerel caught on a set of daylights.

There is an urban myth that once mackerel have been handled by humans they lose the protective coating on their scales and will be destined to die through disease, even if they initially swim off. This is used by people to justify taking excessive numbers of mackerel from the sea. Experiments by marine fisheries scientists have involved handling mackerel to tag them and these fish have been successfully recaptured many miles from where they were originally caught, proving that mackerel which have been handled can continue to live and hunt. Mackerel are great to eat but remember that the minimum size to retain mackerel is 30cm, and while it can be easy to catch many mackerel in a session only take what will be eaten or used as bait. Every summer there are stories of people taking extremely high numbers of mackerel from the sea and then desperately trying to give them away at the end of a fishing session, or even stuffing dead mackerel into bins in pier car parks just to get rid of them. This is completely wasteful and makes a terrible impression of anglers to the general public. Local councils are beginning to take action against anglers who commit anti-social behaviour. In 2017 it was announced that Torbay Council would issue £80 fines to anglers who were seen leaving rubbish and litter behind at the popular fishing mark Hope’s Nose. Catch limits on mackerel were also brought in, with the fine also being issued to anyone catching and retaining more than twenty mackerel.

Commercial Fishing for Mackerel

Mackerel are a hugely important commercial species with the EU and Norway catching hundreds of thousands of tons of this species each year. Commercial mackerel fishing has become a serious issue between European countries in recent years. Britain, the Faroe Islands and Iceland have been engaged in a dispute about mackerel fishing rights in European waters which has been dubbed the Mackerel War, while a number of Scottish pelagic trawler skippers illegally made millions of pounds through illegal commercial mackerel fishing before they were caught and given fines totalling millions of pounds.

Techniques and Methods to Catch Mackerel

There are no two ways about it – mackerel is a very easy species to catch. They are adapted to aggressively snap at anything resembling a small fish and will therefore go for any type of lure which is within their vicinity. The crudest and cheapest lures will catch mackerel (although the many inexpensive lures fall apart during a fishing session meaning that many anglers avoid the very cheapest the market has to offer).

Mackerel on Spinner
A mackerel caught on a spinner.

As stated mackerel fishing is popular from piers and breakwaters which provide deep water to cast into. Deep-water rock marks are also popular, and it is perfectly possible to catch mackerel from steeply sloping sand and shingle beaches. Mackerel are caught on artificial lures, with feathers, daylights and spinners being the most commonly used, although float fishing methods can also catch mackerel.

  • Feathers or daylights: a string of five or six daylights is cast out as far as the angler can and then drawn through the sea, usually with the angler sweeping the rod backwards and then reeling in the slack line. If mackerel are not being caught it is a good idea to vary the depth that the feathers are being fished at – reeling in slower will see the feathers pulled deeper through the water, as will allowing the weight to sink further before retrieving. Using a beachcaster or bass rod and daylights or feathers is a very effective way to catch mackerel, and if a shoal is cast into it is possible to catch a mackerel on every lure. However, there is little sport in this method. Most anglers use lighter bass or spinning rods if they are fishing for mackerel for sport. View the competitively priced feathers and daylights on sale at Sea Angling Shop by clicking here.
  • Spinners are a popular method to catch mackerel with most angler using a bass rod (typically 11ft long and rated to cast 2 – 4oz) or a dedicated spinning rod (7 – 10ft and rated to cast 1 – 2oz) to use spinners. This method involves simply casting out and retrieving the spinner, either with a steady retrieve or varying reeling in between fast and slow turns on the reel. If mackerel are not being caught then anglers should try varying the depth of the spinner by letting it sink deeper into the water or reeling in very slowly. View Sea Angling Shop’s spinners by clicking here.
  • Float fishing is another method that can be used to catch mackerel. An adjustable float fishing rig is the best type of rig to use as it allows the bait to be set at different depths. It is simply a case of presenting a bait (which can be a small sandeel, sprat, silver strip of mackerel belly or even a ragworm or strip of squid) on a size 1 or 1/0 hook and presenting it in mid-water. Like lure fishing methods it can pay to experiment the depth at which the bait is presented at if bites are not happening. Sea Angling Shop’s float fishing kits can be viewed here.

Whatever method is used then once a large mackerel shoal comes within reach of shore anglers the sport can be fast with large numbers of fish caught in a short amount of time, with the mackerel snapping at anything remotely resembling a preyfish. Anglers should also give some thought as to how they will land any mackerel they catch, especially if they are using multi-hook feather and daylight rigs. Reeling three or four mackerel up a pier wall or rock face can prove too much for light spinning and bass rods, and some anglers have even snapped rods when trying to reel in too many mackerel.