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Trolling for Spanish Mackerel

Trolling for Spanish mackerel is an extremely popular style of fishing in Northern Australian and there wouldn’t be too many keen anglers that haven’t given it a go over the years. Spanish mackerel are an excellent table fish, they have a blistering first few runs and fishing for them is a lot of fun. When trolling, it’s sometimes as easy as throwing a couple of lures out the back and driving around but other times it requires a more strategic approach. I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time trolling for mackerel over the years both commercially and recreationally with great success. I’d happily say trolling is by far the most effective technique to catch mackerel – it allows you to cover large amounts of water and search for fish while your lures and baits are in the strike zone 100 per cent of the time.

Mackerel start their distribution in good numbers from northern NSW all the way around the top of northern Australia to Western Australia. The southern reaches of their range is seasonal with the warmer currents, but the general distribution areas are great year-round fisheries. There are now closed seasons for mackerel in different states so check your local rules and regulations before heading out.

This fish was caught using a Samaki Pacemaker 180DD in Golden Carrot colour.

Finding Spanish Mackerel

Spanish mackerel are found inshore on the coast all the way out to the edge of the continental shelf. Due to the mackerel’s pelagic nature, they will follow the baitfish and food as it moves about our coastal systems. Therefore, fishing where the bait is congregating is the best spot to start – any place where you notice large amounts of bait fish on the sounder, flying fish jumping out of the water, fusilier schools rippling on the surface or sea birds bombing into baitfish is a great start. Combine these bait-rich areas with a large drop-off, a sand bar or some heavy structure such as a reef edge, edge of the continental shelf, headlands or channel edges and you’re off to a great start.

Areas of high current and tidal flow are also great spots where mackerel will reside. Once you hook one, work over the same area again or look for areas of similar features nearby. Mackerel mark up well on the sounder and will often be seen as midwater squiggles in schools around the bait-rich areas or pressure points. 

Spanish mackerel generally feed on bait close to the surface, making them a great target for trolling. Skirted lures, diving minnows, spoons, stickbaits and dead and live baits are all great options for trolling for mackerel. By trolling at speeds between 3 and 9 knots (depending on your spread) you can cover lots of water effectively as you search for fish. Trolling a good spread of lures or baits around reef edges and drop-offs is the best tactic available to bag out on some quality Spanish.

Setting A Spread For Spanish Mackerel

Diving minnows are my favourite as they are easy to manage (as opposed to skirted lures and baits) and they catch fish. Diving minnows such as the Samaki Pacemaker troll best at 6 to 8 knots and come at a variety of diving depths. I like to run one deep diver that can dive around 8 metres then a shallower diver along with it that runs about 4 metres. Once I find what depth of water the fish are biting at, I add more lures at this diving depth into the spread.

A three-rod spread is simple and easy to manage.  I have one going out the back to clean water then two in closer out of either corner of the boat. I generally run these corner rods only 15 to 20m behind the boat and the longer lure 40m or so behind the boat. This gives you a three-lure spread that’s tangle-free but presents enough lures to attract mackerel into your spread.

Trolling deep divers designed for high speed trolling such as the Samaki Pacemaker is a highly effective way of catching Spanish mackerel

You can add more lures into your spread, but this does get harder to manage once you hook a fish. You can run trebles or singles on the diving minnows, and most swim well with both. You will hook and land more fish with treble hooks, but single hooks are stronger when targeting big fish and make for an easier release. The best points about the diving minnows are that they are extremely easy to use, swim a variety of depths, swim a variety of speeds and are cheap.

Check out Hooked Up’s video on trolling for Spanish mackerel.

Lure Choice For Spanish Mackerel

Skirted lures will be readily eaten by mackerel but are not widely trolled as they are quickly chewed up and destroyed by a mackerel’s sharp teeth. Better and more commonly trolled options are metal or plastic spoons and stickbaits. These options are all surface running lures that are great for active fish in shallow or dirty water, and widely used in the far north of Australia where the fish see fewer lures and are easier to fool. These lures are cheap and take an absolute beating, can be used to catch fish after fish, and rarely get destroyed by a mackerel’s teeth. The downsides of these surface lures is they work only the surface layer of water and don’t seem to work well on fussy or highly pressured fish.

Trolling Baits

When trolling baits for Spanish mackerel there are three different styles I have used with success. The first is trolling garfish behind a skirted weight. These work much the same as a skirt but are more lifelike as they have the smell and feel of real garfish. These rigs can be trolled very fast and are used widely by commercial mackerel fishermen as they’re so effective.

Where there are mackerel, sharks won’t be far behind.

The second option is troll live baits such as slimy mackerel or yakkas slowly around the area the mackerel are holding. Live baits can usually only be trolled slowly at 2 to 4 knots but work extremely well on fussy fish. You can attach a sinker in front of your live bait and this will allow it to sink to depth depending on your troll speed. You can bridle-rig your live bait onto a live bait hook or circle hook on a wire leader. A short piece of wire 10 or 15cm long attached to a stinger hook is also very handy for hooking the fast-snipping mackerel. This hook can just be left free swinging around the live bait or attached into its back. These slow-trolled live baits are the number one best option if you find mackerel but can’t get them to take a trolled lure. The third bait-trolling option is to troll swimming dead baits. You can rig wolf herring, yakkas or slimy mackerel to swim when trolled at speed. This takes a little more technique and prior trip prep but is another great option for fussy fish. By using hooks, sinkers, bait needles and thread, you can sew the baits onto the weighted hooks so they swim well and stay on the hook. This requires some trial-and-error rigging techniques and is a tactic for more experienced anglers. Baits are a great option when you know the mackerel are in the area but are finding it hard to get a bite. Baits work well in clear water and with highly pressured fish such as those on the southern edges of their range. The downside of bait trolling is that it takes planning and bait collection, which isn’t really needed for many of the northern fisheries.

Wire or No Wire?

If you are trolling for mackerel, single-strand wire leaders are essential. A short 30cm wire attached to a swivel is more than enough to save your lures and baits being snipped off by a mackerel’s razor-sharp teeth. In saying that, if I think I’m a good chance of trolling up some other species of fish while fishing for mackerel I may troll my lures just on 150lb leader. You do lose a few lures due to bite-offs, but I still land at least 60 per cent of mackerel. So, it’s really up to you and the situation you’re fishing.

Mackerel Have razor sharp teeth so using single strand wire will prevent them biting you off.

Outfits

The perfect trolling outfits for mackerel are 6ft overhead trolling rods (not bait rods or jigging rods) in the 10 to 15kg range matched with 12-20-sized overhead lever drag reels. If you don’t want to buy trolling-specific outfits, jig or spin rods rated in the 15kg line class will work but they’re never as good. I have my reels spooled with 50lb braid and 150lb long leaders attached with an FG knot. I use a 3-wrap uni knot to attach the lure or bait. You can set your drag fairly light for mackerel as they hit with such speed, they usually hook themselves well and are not dirty fighters. Mackerel are extremely susceptible to being sharked so it pays to get the fish in as fast as possible and if you’re fishing in a sharky area you may need to tighten the drag right up.

Spanish mackerel are a prime eating fish and once bled and iced properly you will end up with some prime white eating flesh. This article has focused specifically on the most sought-after mackerel species, the Spanish mackerel. These fish grow biggest of the mackerel species and are often regarded as the best eating. However, these trolling tactics will work on all species of mackerel found in northern Australia, so pick yourself a good spread of lures or baits to suit your local waterways and head out.

Words & Images: Colby Lesko

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