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How to Find and Catch Mackerel

Mackerel fishing is a ton of fun especially for kids.  Macks are one of the most plentiful and abundant fishes in the northeast.  Macks are a staple part of most predatory fish's diet. They make awesome bait for bluefish, striped bass, and bluefin tuna.

cape cod mackerel fishing

A big live mackerel caught on a sabiki rig during November in Cape Cod Bay.

Here on Cape Cod mackerel are typically caught during the spring and the fall.  May and November are particularly good months for mackerel fishing.  During the summer most of these colorful speedsters head north to cooler water.  During the depths of the winter areas south of the Cape see an influx of mackerel.

When mackerel invade an area, the striped bass fishing can go from nonexistent to through the roof.  Mackerel are not easy prey to catch, therefore stripers must expend a lot of energy to hunt them down.  Surface frenzies and blitzes the size of football fields are common when bass hone in on mackerel.

Certain areas off Cape Cod host these mackerel and striped bass feeding frenzies each May and June.  If you are looking to get in on this incredible bite, then head down to the Cape for May and June.

Finding the Mackerel

On occasion mackerel will venture into Buzzards Bay and the warmer waters of Vineyard and Nantucket Sound.  However the greatest concentration of mackerel will almost always be found from Cape Cod Bay northward-all the way up to Maine and Canada.

Mackerel can often times be found throughout the entire expanses of water.  Finding mackerel when fishing from a boat requires a knowledge of local hot spots, birds, and sonar.

To start, head to well known mackerel haunts.  Typically macks can be found in 40-70 feet of water.  Of course historically certain areas produce better than others, however don't get hung up on jigging in one area if the macks aren't showing.  Entire mile long stretches of water can contain mackerel so moving around is sometimes key.

mackerel fishing

Here the sonar is showing a large school of sea herring in 92 feet of water. Sea herring and mackerel often travel together in the same schools.

When cruising, mackerel will show up as green or turquoise/blueish marks on most color sonar units.  Make sure to adjust your unit's sensitivity level so it reads well at high speeds.  Keep in mind that mackerel are a lot smaller than the striped bass and tuna you may be accustomed to marking on your sonar.  Increasing the sensitivity level may be necessary to avoid missing the fish.

During the fall large gannets will often give clues to the presence of mackerel.  These birds dive bomb out of the sky and into the water, plucking hapless mackerel from the ocean.  These birds hit the water at tremendous speeds.  The splash can often be seen from great distances.  If you happen upon an area that is getting pelted by gannets, odds are there are mackerel in the vicinity.

I've found when mackerel fishing that most mackerel seem to hang 15-30 feet beneath the surface.  On occasion we'll jig them off the bottom, or encounter them on the surface, but typically they stick around the mid-water level.

Jigging Mackerel

After locating an area holding macks, simply drift in neutral with the wind and current and slowly jig a sabiki rig.  Sabiki rigs can be purchased at any tackle shop for $3-$5 a piece.  They feature 3-6 hooks with feathers, beads and or shiny pieces of foil.

mackerel fishing

Here is a nice string of both mackerel and sea herring.

I like sabiki rigs that do not tangle easily and are made of at least 20 pound monofilament.  Hyabusa sabiki rigs are in my opinion the strongest and least prone to tangle.

Be sure to use enough weight to keep the sabiki rig nearly vertical while jigging.  This will make it easier to target specific depths with the sabiki.

When the mackerel fishing is hot, full strings of 3-6 mackerel are not uncommon.  To make removing the hooks easier, and to lessen damage to these precious live baits, be sure to clip or press down the barbs on each sabiki hook.  Barbless hooks help make life a lot easier during the height of a mackerel blitz.

Sabiki Rods

Homemade sabiki rods make mackerel fishing much simpler. Sabiki rods prevent sabiki rig tangles and allow the sabiki rig to be stored and used multiple times.

To make your own sabiki rod, simply attach an old fishing reel to a five foot long, half inch wide PVC pipe. Drill a hole in the pipe a foot above the reel seat and run the main line through the length of PVC. Tie the end of the line to a sabiki rig, attach a weight and reel the entire rig into the pipe.

Upon locating schools of mackerel, release the sabiki rig from the sabiki rod and allow the rig to drop to the depth where macks have been marked on the sonar.  A slow jigging motion usually works well, however it can pay to experiment with depth and jigging action.

sabiki rods

Sabiki rods make jigging mackerel much more fun and easy.

As previously mentioned, mackerel make fantastic live baits for most predatory fish in the Cape Cod area.  On top of that, fishing for mackerel can be a lot of fun.  When the fishing is hot it's not unusual to catch hundreds of mackerel in just a couple hours-which is great if you have young kids on board.

Best of luck mackerel fishing, and be sure to leave your comments below!

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  1. Great article PK, thanks for sharing a great method for getting fresh clams!

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  2. Hi,I would like to say that surfclams are also a great bait, and will catch anything that swims.I get a lot of satisfaction and pleasure from procuring my own bait,such as surfclams,grass shrimp,eels,netting baitfish,etc..and it also saves CASH!!! Hopefully someone will find my technique useful.The traditional way to dig clams is, you walk along the beach,tamping your clam rake,as you walk.The clams feel the vibration, and send up thier little squirt of sea water.Then you dig the clam with the rake.Surfclams are always found at ocean beaches,with surf,in fine sandy bottom.Quoahogs prefer a gravelly bottom,and softshell clams,(steamers),prefer mud.Where there is one clam,there is usually a colony,so don’t stop with one.Being also a hunter and trapper,there’s sort of a neanderthalish pleasure I get, while harvesting buckets of critters that don’t require strategy,like deer coyote,etc…So if you’ve stuck with me so far,check this out:I’ve found that most.if not all clammers dig between the hi and low tide marks called the inter tidal zone. I dig with my bare feet, at dead low tide,(Its killer during moon tides, which are lower than normal tides).I have my surfboard tethered to my ankle with a leash, and my clam basket sits atop the surfboard.You can just use the clam basket(available at any Bennys,or marine store),but the surfboard setup is good , the basket and board just follow you around,as you dig.You need no other tools except the soles of your feet.At dead low, wade into the water ,and start concentrating on the soles of your feet.Walk slowly,and when you step on a clam it senses your weight and still sends its little squirt.I ts not hard to feel it on the soles of your feet,nothing mystical or hard to feel it, just pay attention.It feels like something gives away slightly,under your foot.As soon as you feel it, dig with your foot, usually about 8-10 inches,and you’ll feel the shell. reach down and pluck the surfclam, and baskettize it.It will put its “foot” out when you try to pull it up,but steady pressure will win the “battle”.Also be sure a wave doesn’t knock you over, when you bend to grab the clam,or you’ll go ass over teakettle.Never turn your back on the surf ever.The beauty of this technique, is that this is all unfished territory!95% IF NOT ALL CLAMMERS ONLY CLAM IN THE INTERTIDAL ZONE.I find I can fill a bucket in a good surfclam area in about 45 minutes, and so can you! If its early spring ,when the shallow water warming, you’ll enentually step on a juvenile, or adult flounder,which will make you jump 10 feet in the air, and you’ll laugh your ass off after you get over it!!! Now after I get about 2 or 3 buckets,(clamming, like baitfishing, is kinda addictive, and absorbing,you get carried away with the bait gettin’,and almost forget you’re supposed to be goin’ a’fishin’),generally,I head for a select pier, jetty, or beach,and start shuckin’.I grew up in Dorchester(A full fledged Dot Rat,St.Leos Parish),So that means anywhere from Castle Island,to Truro,from the shore.As I shuck the clams int 5 gallon buckets ,I’m throwing the shells in front of my fishing hole for the killer chum slick,Then bait up a squiddah, and hold on!!!They’ll catch anything that swims.If you’re lucks no good,They make awesome clam fritters,chowdah,and for fun, once I breaded them and made fried clams ,about 1 half pound each! Chewy,powerful CLLLAAAMMM flavor!!! By the way, opening any any clam requires no force whatsoever.They have two abductor muscles, which they tighten, and”clamup”,when disturbed.IF this happens, just sit them back in a bucket of seawater for a minute or two,and they’ll open up again.Gently lift them out, and quickly slip a knife blade,between the shells,and slice towards the hinge,cutting one abductor muscle.Now the can’t “clamup”,so slice the other abductor,open the clam, and scrape out the clam.At the end of your trip, if you ain’t makin’ supper with the clams, salt them down good with kosher salt, and bag them in 1 gallon freezer bags.They last almost indefinitely.Well,its worth putting the effort,and doggone fun too, to get the freshest bait possible.See you out there!

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    1. Just an addendum to the above article, and that is ,that the barefoot technique is done at dead low “in the water while wading”,thats’ what makes it such a good technique as its virtually UNFISHED, so you can load up quick!Also BE SURE to check each towns’ clamming laws,All are different,but most are free on surf clams.and also check red tide tide, and ‘bacterial” warnings, if you’re gonna make fritters after fishin! And always remember:Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day,TEACH a man to fish,and he learns to drink,and lie!!!

      Reply
      1. What an awesome in-depth comment! Possibly the most educational comment yet on the entire blog. Thank you Paul!

        Also nice speaking with you on the phone the other day. Thank you for all the Boston area related fishing tips.

        Take care,

        Ryan

        Reply
        1. No problem Ryan, hope it helps someone get, more pleasure out of GODS’ GREAT OUTDOORS ! PK

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