Lightning fast strikes, mouths lined with razor sharp teeth and blistering speeds are all hallmarks of wahoo and Spanish mackerel, the undisputed ring leaders of the ‘Razor Gang’ here in Australia. While wahoo seldom venture close to shore, small numbers of Spanish mackerel will, on occasion, stray into our nearshore coastal waters in order to feed right along headlands and rocky outcrops. This brings them well within range of the dedicated land-based angler. Although not present off our east coast headlands in anywhere near the same numbers as longtail tuna, it is this scarcity that makes them a much more elusive and highly prized land-based capture here in Australia.
You can forget about your tiny spinners and little feather rigs, these narrow-barred missles are one of the largest members in their family, quite capable of growing to some epic proportions. While not able to exhibit the same level of unending stamina of tuna, at nearly two metres in length and weighing in excess of 50kg, a fully grown Spanish mackerel is still one serious opponent and capable of taking lots of line at an absolutely mind-boggling pace. These speedsters love eating fast moving targets, often attacking surface lures with so much momentum that they launch themselves high into the air, making for one of the most incredible spectacles a land-based fisherman can experience!
Spanish mackerel are wide ranging, serving as an incredibly important commercial species for nearly the entire Indo-Pacific region. Despite heavy commercial pressure reducing their numbers, they can still be targeted and caught with some consistency if you know when and where along our vast coastline they’re going to show up. Migrating along our entire northern coast from as far south as Perth on the west coast to central New South Wales on the east coast, these fish can be found and targeted from many different locations at the right time of the year. Whether fishing off the high cliffs of the west coast or the innumerable headlands and rocky outcrops dotted along the east coast of Australia, with some knowledge, a lot of effort and a little bit of luck, you stand a good chance of landing one of these magnificent fish.
The remote western coast of Australia is one of the most rugged, wild and incredibly beautiful coastlines we have on offer but with that beauty comes plenty of danger. Fishing off high cliffs with beautiful cobalt blue water many meters below can make for some alluring fishing, but the potential risks are many and ever-present. As such, safety should always be considered paramount. While good numbers of Spanish mackerel can be found nearly year-round in some locations, the west coast seasons rely mostly on weather conditions as big swells can make much of the coastline completely unfishable for long periods of time. The westernmost point of mainland Australia, Steep Point, has been made famous over the years for its land-based rock fishing potential and for good reason. November through to March is the time to be at Steep for a ‘bar-ee’ (so called for the vivid bars across their silver flanks). The offshore winds flatten out the swell, making a once wild coastline calm and fishable. Another popular west coast location is Quobba, a vast stretch of coast lined with steep cliffs and stunning deep blue water that still produces many mackerel every single year, providing you can get them past the waiting sharks. Whilst potentially producing fish nearly year-round, much like Steep Point, the season is mostly determined by the prevalence of offshore winds making the conditions safe and fishable.
Spanish mackerel are a much less common capture on the East Coast of Australia but for many anglers, particularly along the northern coast of New South Wales, they sit high as one of the true pinnacles of land-based spinning. Only being present in areas for sometimes just a few months each year (as they follow the bait and warm water south along the East Australian Current before returning north) means knowing the timing of the season is rather important. It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where, as the season varies each year depending on the flow of the EAC, but depending on where you are along the NSW coastline, February to July is a good time to be casting a lure off the rocks.
Headlands on the Queensland coast tend to hold slightly higher numbers of mackerel when in season, although still not the quantities on offer in Western Australia. Although still just as unpredictable a season, September through to January is roughly the time to be on the Queensland coastline casting off one of the various headlands in the hopes of intercepting a shoal of mackerel.
Many of the same tactics talked about for longtail tuna (https://hookpoint.co.uk/a-tale-of-longtails/), such as using Google Earth and other similar satellite imagery services, can be employed when it comes to finding a productive headland to try for a mackerel. The one main difference from longtails, however, is that mackerel consistently favour deeper water and don’t tend to venture into as shallow a depth as you’ll occasionally find tuna. This makes finding a ledge with clean, deep water in close proximity quite important, though along our incredibly vast coastline there is definitely no shortage of deep water ledges to be found.
With the seemingly endless list of potential variables to consider when it comes to choosing the right conditions, it can seem pretty daunting trying to figure out the right times to be concentrating your efforts. However, when it comes to Spanish mackerel there are a few simple rules to follow that will give you the best chance at success. While the odd fish can be caught in any conditions and at any time, it is during low light conditions that these fast-paced predators use their superior eyesight and bursts of speed to great advantage, tending to feed heavily for a short duration. Tides have the greatest fluctuation during the full and new moons, and as a result, baitfish tend to congregate in large numbers close to headlands and other near-shore structures, bringing the predators with them. Getting all the conditions to align can be difficult and every angler will always have their own theories, but a large high tide early morning or late afternoon is arguably one of the best times to have your lure in the water when targeting a mackerel.
Depending on the location and technique being used, the tackle needed to target Spanish mackerel can vary massively. However, a decently capable spin outfit is a good place to start and will see you handle most situations. A quality spinning reel loaded with at least 300-400m of 40-50lb braided mainline, attached to a 9-10ft long graphite rod rated 8-15kg and able to cast lures ranging from 50-120g is ideal. When choosing a reel, make sure it has a smooth carbon fiber drag system, as any jerkiness will result in pulled hooks and the extreme heat and pressure generated during long runs will quickly destroy a felt drag stack. Attach some 60-80lb leader material to your mainline with an FG or similar quality knot and you’re almost ready – just don’t forget to use a short length of wire leader!
Spanish mackerel have incredibly sharp teeth that will effortlessly slice through even the heaviest of leaders. Occasionally you might get lucky without wire but choosing to run a short length of single strand wire directly above your lure is a very wise decision. Don’t be put off by the increased visibility of the wire, at the speeds these mackerel often hit they aren’t even going to have time to notice it. When you get that big hookup though, you’ll be more than glad it’s there. There’s plenty of ready-made wire rigs available to purchase but making your own wire rigs is actually extremely easy and will typically result in a much stronger, less visible trace. All you need is some solid rings, a few swivels and a length of dark single strand wire, all rated to around 80lb. Simply use a connection called a haywire twist to tie the swivel and solid ring to the wire, leaving you with an approximately 20cm length of wire with a solid ring on one end and a swivel on the other. Tie your monofilament or fluorocarbon leader to the solid ring, attach your lure to the swivel at the other end of the wire using a split ring and you’ll stand a much better chance against those teeth.
When talking about big land-based mackerel lures there are seemingly endless options on offer, although they are mostly the same lures used when targeting tuna and can be put in the same categories: metals, stickbaits, plugs and shallow diving hardbodies (with the exception of bibless minnows). Most lures have already been discussed in detail but just to recap, metals are simply solid bits of metal with a connection point at one end and a hook at the other, they cast reasonably well and sink quickly, allowing you to effectively fish the entire water column. Spanyid Raiders and Surecatch Knights in 60-120g weights are most popular, though nearly any metal lure can work. Stickbaits are a good option for mackerel but tend to be expensive, don’t usually cast very well and can be impossible to impart a good action to when high above the water.
Plugs are an ideal lure for Spanish mackerel. Being built for durability and extreme casting distance, they hold up against their teeth well and make it much easier to cover large amounts of water. Samson Lures makes some great quality handmade plugs, their 85g Slim Minnow not only imitates a fleeing baitfish skipping across the surface of the water perfectly but is also probably one of the only topwater lures you could get away with running no wire trace. Due to the hook connection and tow point being at opposite ends of a relatively long 15cm lure, the lure itself can act as a wire trace and reduce the risk of a bite off, though if specifically targeting mackerel, you’ll almost always regret not using some wire. The 50g and 85g Tweak Bait are another great option, they are belly weighted to flutter horizontally while sinking and can be twitched, swept, fast burned and anything in between. They can be worked just under the surface or sunk to the bottom and allowed to work the entire water column at times when the mackerel won’t come to the surface to feed.
Shallow diving hardbodies are always a productive lure for Spanish mackerel and a good choice as they account for plenty of fish each season. The Rapala X-Rap SXR-14 and Jackson G-Control are two top picks, although being much lighter and less aerodynamic lures, they won’t cast anywhere near as far as plugs and metals can. Bibbed lures have an incredible action in the water that has long been proven effective, however, that bib tends to be quite brittle so some care is needed around the rocks.
Bibless minnows are an interesting style of lure and one I haven’t discussed before. The tow point is pushed back from the front of the lure, causing the nose of the lure itself to act as the ‘bib’ and creating a very unique and attractive swimming action. If there’s one thing that will get the attention of a hungry mackerel more than anything else it’s something small and shiny that throws off a lot of flash while moving very quickly. That’s where the Goshie Custom ‘King of Chrome’ Mack Bait from Lively Lures really comes into its own. While able to be worked slow or hopped off the bottom, they are most effective when allowed to sink before being retrieved at high speeds. The full chrome finish and tight high frequency wobble causes this lure to throw out a lot of flash and vibration, making its presence known and quickly piquing the interest of any nearby mackerel.
As I mentioned before, Spanish mackerel are a very important and incredibly popular commercial species throughout most of the Indo-Pacific. With lovely white flesh, a firm texture and rich flavors it’s not hard to understand why they’re such a sought-after table species. Like most fish, it’s a good idea to brain spike and bleed your catch before cooling it down as soon as is practical in order to best look after the meat, putting a little effort into looking after your catch will pay dividends later when on the plate. While quite uncommon, ciguatera poisoning is still a potential concern worth noting. It is caused by eating fish contaminated with ciguatoxins produced by Gambierdiscus toxicus, a common species of dinoflagellate found on and around coral reefs. Small fish feeding on the algae are in turn eaten by larger species, causing said ciguatoxins to bioaccumulate in the food chain and reaching potentially dangerous levels in apex reef predators like large mackerel. For such a strong and powerful fish, they are extremely fragile and, unfortunately, when caught land-based tend to release quite poorly. This makes releasing them impractical as they likely won’t survive the ordeal, so when targeting mackerel make sure you’re prepared and able to fillet and look after such a potentially large catch.
Few species can compete with the Spanish mackerel, from the aggressive takes, insane speeds, magnificent patterns and tasty fillets, there’s not much they don’t have to offer the fanatical land-based angler. The bread and butter of the west coast land-based scene, and a hard-won capture on the east coast, these fish are responsible for many smiles, plenty of tears and countless memories etched into the minds of those dedicated anglers willing to do what it takes to turn this dream into a reality.