Casting Hackle For Mackerel

Reprinted from Fly Fishing Quarterly Magazine

Belfast Bay MackerelOne of my fondest fishing memories is of a morning spent with my kids, chasing mackerel in a small row-boat out behind the old sardine factory in Belfast Bay.  It was one of those picture-book July days on the Maine coast; when sun splashed from the masts of all the sailboats moored in the harbor and fish seemed to swarm to my fly on nearly every cast.  Yet idyllic as it was, that day really wasn’t all that different from a number of other mackerel fishing outings I’d enjoyed.

I think the reason it stands out so vividly in my mind however, is that I’d just returned from a couple of fruitless Atlantic salmon trips in the Maritimes, and was itching to get the feel of a fish on my rod.  So, when one of my first casts produced a thick-bodied, 17″ mackerel that stripped line off my reel with a couple powerful runs, I probably savored it a lot more than others I’d caught in the past.

One thing that probably prevented me from fully appreciating these fish earlier, was that they are so common and easy to fool.  Although at certain times and places, they can be selective.  Like many fly fishermen, I had to go through the “bigger, farther, harder” stage, before I could settle down and enjoy the fishing in my own backyard.

Fortunately, that day on Belfast Bay changed a lot of things for me. And, as I continued to catch and release one mackerel after another, I became re-acquainted with the simple fact that catching fish is fun!  Since then, I’ve made dozens of other mackerel fishing junkets to the coast, and had a blast nearly every time.  After learning a few of the basics, you can have fun casting hackle for mackerel.


Mackerel are widely distributed along the Atlantic seaboard from North Carolina to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  As close relatives of tuna, they are a migratory, schooling fish that spend much of their time in the open ocean.  Yet unlike most other pelagic species, mackerel have a tendency to move into shallow, coastal areas when water temperatures are in the 50’s and food is abundant.

As a result, anglers along much of the east coast get a shot at these feisty battlers as they work their way along the shore each year.  According to Dave Keifer, Director of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, “South of Cape Cod, movements of mackerel are strongly influenced by the weather and frequently difficult to predict.  Additionally, ocean currents along the mid-Atlantic states often tends to keep them well out from shore.”  Thus, scoring consistently in these regions frequently requires a sea-worthy boat and a dedication to fishing.  Angling friends in New Jersey and Long Island, tell me that there are times, however, when the mackerel move in close enough for fly casters to reach them from shore.

In Maine, we are especially fortunate.  Here on the northern fringe of the mackerel’s range, water temperatures remain comfortably cool throughout the entire summer and feed is generally abundant.  Thus, fish usually arrive in late June and stay until early September.

The unique contours of our coastline makes Maine ideally suited for salt water fly fishing.  Among the countless sheltered bays, rocky points and coastal islands, anglers in a small boat or canoe, have the opportunity to fish over large schools of mackerel.  And, during the two hour period on either side of high tide, shore-bound fly casters often have access to large schools of fish as well.


Maine Mackerel FishingAs with any migratory species, the first step in catching mackerel is finding them.  In a boat, this often involves trolling around until you get a few strikes or see a school rippling the surface.  You can accelerate this process by carefully looking for clues that indicate where fish might be.  Groups of seabirds hovering in one place, seals, and clusters of other boats are all reasonable things to look for.  One of my favorite tricks is to follow the chum line that is unintentionally established by lobster boats as they move around an area working their traps.

Shore-bound fly casters are forced to take a completely different approach.  Typically, this involves first selecting a site where mackerel are likely to congregate, and then finding a wharf, jetty or rocky ledge that can be used as a casting platform.

At first glance, this may seem like a considerable handicap.  But, up and down the coast, dozens of productive places can be found, simply by inquiring at a local tackle shop or marina. Ironically, some of these shore accessible honey holes (particularly those in the vicinity of fish processing plants or salmon farms) attract so many fish, that anglers with boats often anchor and fish the same places as the shore bound fishermen.


Mackerel are a prolific, fast growing species that grow to about 10 inches long as one-year-old “tinkers”, and reach 13 – 15 inches as two-year-olds.  Adult fish range from 17 – 21 inches and weigh about two pounds.  In their classic book, Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, Henry Bigelow and William Schroeder indicate that, “young mackerel feed largely on copepods and various other small planktonic animals; while adult mackerel eat a variety of small fish and will often bite greedily on almost anything that moves.”

This statement makes it sound like once you’ve located a group of mackerel, the hard work is done.  And, when pursuing fish in open water, this frequently isn’t too far from the truth.  Over the years, spin fishermen have found trolling with brightly colored pieces of plastic tubing set in multiple hook rigs (called “Christmas trees”) to be an extremely effective way to catch mackerel.  And recently, fly fishermen have been adapting these rigs to their needs as well.

The basic set-up consists of 4 or 5 flies, connected about 18 inches apart via a series of droppers.  Most streamers or woolly worms work well, as long as they are brightly colored and not too big (#4 or #6 are ideal).  Red and white, or plain yellow, are the two most popular color combinations; but I usually just use any colorful trout streamers or salmon flies I have – and seem to get good results.  Be sure to flatten the barbs on your hooks, because reaching in among all those droppers to release a couple of lively mackerel can be quite a death-defying experience.

A fancy rod and reel is not a pre-requisite for fishing one of these dropper rigs.  Generally, I carry two outfits, a 6 weight rod set up with an intermediate sinking line, and a 7 or 8 weight rigged with Hi-speed Hi-D. I always use heavy leaders (15-20# test) because: (1) you need a stiff line to help keep the multiple droppers from tangling around each other  (2) you will frequently hook several fish at one time and need line strong enough to bring them all in.  I always tie a swivel in at the front and some weight (usually a metal spoon or 1/4 oz. sinker) at the trailing end to help keep the flies riding true.

Dropper rigs are a very effective way of catching mackerel in open water, but I prefer casting an individual fly.  Once a school of fish has been located, I quickly change over to a rod pre-rigged with a small streamer or woolly worm and begin flailing away.  This technique works great, as long as you maintain contact with fish. You’ll probably find yourself switching back and forth between the single fly and the droppers, because in big water, “losing” and re-locating the schools of mackerel is usually an on-going process.


Stringer Of Maine Mackerel Many anglers believe that specific groups of mackerel settle down and become established in certain areas for the whole summer.  Jed Otis, a friend who owns a cottage on Blue Hill Bay, recently told me, “Fish generally appear out in the narrows everyday about an hour and a half before high tide.  Frequently, they can be caught right in among the boats moored in the inner bay, or from the rock wall along the shore, until an hour or so after the tide turns.  As the bay begins to drain, the mackerel retreat out into deeper water, only to return again, eight hours later.”  He isn’t really certain  that the same group of fish returns to the bay each day.  But, considering the regularity of their appearance, it seems very possible.

In most years, these semi-resident populations of mackerel become established in countless locations along the Maine coast, providing fly fishermen with great sport, in an intimate setting, throughout most of the summer.  But these fish can be considerably more difficult to catch than those which are on the move farther offshore.

Most people think this is because they key-in on the feed that’s present in a given area.  Ed Gray, a former salt water guide in the Mid-coast area says, “Mackerel established in one place for a while fall into a feeding pattern, just like trout in a river.  As a result, they become more selective and difficult to catch.  In places where lots of food is available, I’ve seen them become so selective that it’s sometimes difficult to catch them on anything but bait.”

Well, none of the mackerel I’ve tangled with begin to approach the finicky attitude of a spring creek rainbow.  Nonetheless, I have encountered many groups of fish that would refuse flies that were too big, too gaudy, or retrieved in a manner grossly inconsistent with the movement of their natural prey. I enjoy having to work a little to catch mackerel, and think this semi-selectivity that these resident fish display only adds to their appeal.

Belfast Sculpture

Wonderful carvings like this have graced the Belfast waterfront for many years. To learn more, or purchase one, visit

Over the years, the patterns I have found to be most effective are: (1) Small streamers (Grey Ghost, Red and White, Barnes Special, Mickey Finn) with marabou or hair wings and a few strands of crystal flash  (2) Small woolly worms and woolly buggers with yellow, red or black bodies and grizzly palmered hackle  (3) Scud patterns tied with olive or pink antron  (4) Marabou flesh flies.  These flies are typically fished on a sinking line that has a 10 foot leader tapered to 8# test.  Some days, I experiment with a variety of retrieves before finding one that the fish like.  But, since I often fish in areas where the changing tides causes the water to flow noticeably, a fly quartered downstream and slowly twitched or drawn back across the current is quite effective.

In general, mackerel are an under-utilized species among the majority of East Coast fly fishermen.  Throughout much of their range, they are pursued primarily by charter boats and people with heavy spinning gear.  Because they are over-matched by this type of tackle, their reputation as a sporting fish has suffered.  But don’t let this fool you.

On a fly rod, a two pound mackerel can put up a bulldogging battle that makes it feel like you’re fighting a fish more than twice that size and weight.  And frequently you can catch them until your arms ache.  But don’t just take my word for it.  Next time you want to have some fun, grab your rod and head down to the coast when the mackerel are running.


I’m a strong advocate of catch and release fishing, but because of their tremendous abundance, I often keep a few good-sized mackerel for the table.  Their eating qualities are excellent, provided that they are kept on ice from the moment they are taken from the water, and are eaten fresh (not frozen).

The simplest way to prepare them, is to fillet and remove the skin from all the fish at once.  Then, place the strips of meat on a large piece of ungreased, heavy-duty aluminum foil.   I lightly sprinkle mine with lemon juice and seafood seasoning, but a wide variety of garnishes will do.  Mackerel are a naturally oily fish, so you don’t need to add any butter or oil before cooking.  Since all of my mackerel are caught during the summer, I generally grill them on an outdoor barbecue.  But broiling them indoors, or even cooking them in a toaster oven, will work just as well.