Tackle and Tactics
Mike Ladle


Information Page.



08 February 2009

There are few things tastier than a fillet of mackerel. Grilled, poached, fried or smoked, the old Scomber scombrus, fresh from the sea, is a meal fit only for gourmets and sea anglers.

Of course, the secret of the mackerel’s fantastic flavour lies in the fact that it is an oily fish with its own built in aromatic basting: the sort of delicacy that a cordon bleu cook would be delighted to create if only he knew how.

Because of its availability and strong, fishy odour the mackerel is not simply a good meal but is widely regarded as the universal bait. Most anglers seeking big fish usually chose a large, oily mackerel; although the fact that the mackerel bait catches fish does not necessary mean that it is the best choice. In fact, for most sea fish mackerel must be quite a rare meal.

Mackerel are mid-water to near-surface swimmers operating far above the hungry mouths of bottom living cod, dogfish, rays, conger and the like. Yet despite these possible shortcomings, it is a fact that sea anglers devote a great deal of time, ingenuity and effort to the capture of these little fish. Although it is possible to catch mackerel on tackle appropriate to their size, habits and fighting, free-swimming capabilities, few people try to do so. Not so many years ago the trolled mackerel spinner was the traditional means of filling the bait box. Today the majority of fish are caught on strings of hooks dressed with feathers, plastic tape or some other material intended to stimulate small fish or other mackerel-food-sized morsels.

In boat fishing, when the fish are thick on the ground, it may be possible to haul up full strings with little or no knowledge of the fish and minimal skill in handling tackle. Not so from the shore. You only have to spend a few hours on the Chesil Beach during a hot summer day to see that some anglers have perfected the art of feathering from the shingle slope.

Stripped to the waist, the experienced mackerel man sits on the beach with his hat tilted over his eyes. All around him are anglers engaged in frenzied activity, casting and retrieving continuously but landing only the occasional fish. When he judges that the time and tide are right our expert stands up, shakes the odd pebble out of his shorts and picks up his tackle. The rod is no miracle of modern science but a fairly stout twelve-foot pole, which has seen better days. On the butt is clipped a fixed-spool reel, clearly intended to give him a brisk retrieve with minimum effort.

Body and rod flex in a powerful curve and the big lead wings its way out to sea followed closely by a trail of glistening, opalescent, tape-clad hooks. With the rod held almost horizontally and pointing along the beach the angler begins to crank the handle of his big reel and, with in seconds, his rod takes on a steeper curve than that caused by the drag of lead and feathers. As the rod swings in to an upright position and retrieve is speeded up and, shortly, a chain of silver, iridescent, kicking fish is lifted from the surf to be unhooked with a few deft movements. With the minimum of time wasted the whole exercise is repeated and, 20 minutes later, our model angler is trudging up the shingle bank, rod in one hand and carrier bag well filled with supper and conger-bass bait, in the other.

There is no doubt that, as a means of obtaining first class bait and food, the method described above is very effective. However, all the anglers fishing the Chesil Bank could not compete with a single commercial fishing boat in terms of numbers caught. We are all well aware of the potential inroads which modern fishing methods can make in to stocks. The North Sea herrings were fished almost to extinction, and mackerel have recently threatened to go the same way.

There is an obvious threat to mackerel in our seas so scientists in England and other European countries, have recently turned their attention to the numbers, distribution, production and in particular the numbers of separate stocks or groups which are present. For years it has been clear that the mackerel around the British Isles behave as though they are two distinct units. The North Sea mackerel spawn in the middle of the North Sea, migrate North to the summer feeding grounds after breeding and then rest, over winter, off the North of Scotland, before repeating the whole exercise.

The so-called Western mackerel, which are responsible for most of our sport, spawn off southwest Ireland; over winter off north west Ireland and feed all round our coast. Due to the different sea areas in which they are born the offspring of the two stocks spend their early months in water of different temperatures and consequently they grow at quite different rates in the first year. This difference in growth leaves its mark on the fish. The ear bones (otoliths) are zoned with rings like those found in tree trunks and the first ring of North Sea fish is much narrower than that of their southern relatives.

It is also known that they’re are big differences between the changes in abundance of the two groups because of variation in year class strength and fishing effort. All of this suggests, of course, that the North Sea and western mackerel stocks should be controlled separately in terms of quotas and other management restrictions.

However, recent scientific work, based on the modern techniques of genetic finger printing, have shown that, despite their differences in growth and behaviour, the two stocks belong to the same race and their genes are identical. In short, despite the importance of mackerel to the ecology and the economy of our seas, we are still woefully ignorant about many important details of their lives.

Next time you are shaking a full string of silver beauties in to the fish box spare a thought for their well being and stop when you have caught sufficient for your needs.

If you have any comments or questions about fish, methods, tactics or 'what have you.'get in touch with me by sending an E-MAIL to - docladle@hotmail.com


Not only exciting sport on fly gear but also a wonderful breakfast.'