As the weather and our coastal waters warm up (15 degrees appears to be the trigger point), mackerel will start coming inshore and in June you'll easily be able to catch them with a simple rig. It's a great introduction to sea fishing.
The simplest way to experience mackerel fishing is to book a spot on a fishing trip. You'll find them in most harbour towns these days and you can expect to pay a few pounds per person for a two hour session with all kit and instruction supplied (plus a share of the spoils) which is pretty good value and a great introduction for real beginners. But, assuming you'd rather invest in some kit that you can use at your own pace and whenever you're down at the coast, here's my mega mackerel masterclass to help you catch your own sustainable dinner, direct from the beach.
Don't be tempted to spend hundreds of pounds on tackle online. You can kit yourself out for a mackerel session for well under fifty pounds and the best place to go is your local tackle shop. Not only will you be supporting local businesses, you'll also be getting access to a wealth of free fishing information. Fishing shop owners are a friendly bunch and will be happy to talk as much as you like, especially if they smell a sale. They should know everything about their kit as well as vital local knowledge on the best spots. Tell the shop owner what you're after and hopefully you'll come out with at least the following:
- A rod (suitable for casting),
- A reel (again, suitable for casting rather than boat fishing or fly fishing).
- Main fishing line and a "shock leader" line.
- A selection of mackerel feathers (pre-tied strings of 3 to 6 hooks, with a feather, foil strip or similar sparkly adornment).
- A selection of ledgers (a simple lead weight or "bomb" in a streamlined shape, with a small loop at the top to attach to your line) from 2oz to 4oz.
If you're a complete novice you'll need to know how to set the kit up. Your helpful shop owner should be happy to show you how to do this but make sure you pay attention. You'll need to know a few basic knots as well as how the rod and reel work, so don't be shy to ask and make sure you've committed it all to memory before you part with your hard-earned cash.
When to go
Although mackerel are present in our waters all year round, they usually only come inshore in late spring and will be at their peak in June and July. The first thing to remember is that mackerel are either within casting distance of the shore, in which case you should catch some, or they aren't, in which case you won't, however hard you try. A wise and experienced angler once told me that the best way to fish for mackerel is to wait until you've seen someone else catch some, then get casting - and there's a lot of truth in that. If you can't wait or there's no one else around, you can maximise your chances by fishing at high tide and in the hours either side of sunrise and sunset. Calm, still days are best but as mackerel have no eyelids, they don't like bright sunlight - if it's a very sunny day, they'll be nearer the bottom. Signs you might look for include a thin slick of oil on the surface of the water and seabirds diving into the water (they aren't actually eating the mackerel but the bait fish - usually sand eels - that the mackerel are chasing.) In the height of summer you might even see the sand eels bubbling on the surface of the water, sometimes just yards from the beach. Mackerel have even been known to beach themselves in the hunt for their food.
Where to go
You'll need a beach or pier that gets you easy access to deep water. So, rapidly shelving pebble beaches like Chesil in Dorset, are ideal, or any long pier, such as Brighton. Piers may have rules about when you can fish so it's worth checking in advance. Rocky headlands are also good but they can be very dangerous and you'll need to take extra care on these.
Casting and retrieving
Set up your kit and get casting. Aim to get as much distance as possible. Although the fish can be very close to the shore, the further you cast, the more water you'll cover and the more chance you'll have of catching. But remember that you can vary your depth too - it's no good casting miles and constantly retrieving your feathers though the top 10m of water if the fish are at 20m. So, mix it up a bit. Leave a few seconds before you start your retrieve to allow the weight to sink a bit. If that draws a blank, try again but with a quicker or slower retrieve. You'll see people lots of different techniques - some people just reel straight in, others prefer to twitch the rod or use a series of pulls and reeling in. Give all of these a go and find the one that suits you. Ultimately, they'll all work if the fish are there.
You'll know when you've caught anything - there will be a sudden increase in resistance and you'll feel the fish fighting at the end of the line. It's an exhilarating feeling if you've never caught one before but, once you've felt that initial tug, it's worth trying not to get too excited. The fish that's there is likely to stay hooked but your other hooks may well be in the middle of a shoal and, if you give it a few more moments, you have a chance of catching a few more. So, wait a few seconds and then reel in. With this method it's not that unusual to score a "full house" with a fish on every one of your hooks. Unhook your catch and give each fish a couple of sharp blows to the head with a "priest" or study stick. It can appear brutal but it's the most humane method and ensures a quick death. Mackerel spoils very quickly so once you've killed it, gut it as soon as you can and then store it in a cool bag or a bucket or water.
Then get that barbeque lit. The fresher the better is definitely the rule for mackerel.
If you fish regularly throughout the summer you will have days when you can catch hundreds of mackerel. It's easy to get carried away but try only to catch as many as you're going to eat. Once caught, mackerel can't be released as they have a very sensitive skin membrane which degrades as soon as it's been touched. If handled by human hands, even very gently, mackerel will die within days. They do freeze well but mackerel are always best fresh. So if you don't have a plan for them, best to leave them in the sea and come back another day. Conversely, some days you'll do everything right and just won't be able to catch them. If that's the case, pack up, and get down to the fish and chip shop before you get totally fed up. There are no guarantees with fishing and it's important to know when to cut your losses. Retain some of your enthusiasm for another day and remember that it wouldn't be any fun if you caught something every time, now would it?