Winter Mackerel Like the Good Ol’ Days - The Fisherman

Winter Mackerel Like the Good Ol’ Days

2019 2 Winter Mackerel HEADBOAT
For many party boats running out of Jersey ports in January and February, any shot at mackerel has always been a worthy shot at catching some fish. Photo by John DeBona.

Having been born in the mid ‘70s, I was able to enjoy many great spring Atlantic mackerel seasons off the Central Jersey coast.  Every year, you could count on the Bostons to show up sometime in April, and many seasons they would continue to hold in our area well into May.

During warmer winters, those mackerel would show much earlier, sometimes even in late February, and anglers targeting whiting and ling cashed in on the mackerel bite on split trips or as bycatch.

As the years have gone on, the spring fishery has waned tremendously along the Jersey Shore, as the migratory patterns of these fish have changed.  It seems that most mackerel are caught during the warmer months now, and they are typically thimble-eye or chub mackerel, not true Boston mackerel.  However they always tend to mix in with their close cousins.

In current times, anglers who passionately target Atlantic mackerel really have only one good crack at them, and that’s over the winter, getting them on their reverse trip, opposite of their old time spring migration.  This winter fishery has been around as long as I can remember, but it has truly been a boom or bust fishery. When it’s booming, it can rival or even exceed the old time spring fishery that we were so used to having for so long.  When they show up though, they show up en masse.

My first winter mackerel trip was sometime in the early ‘90s, on a Christmas break (sometime between Christmas and New Year’s) from college aboard the Norma-K III from Point Pleasant.  Whiting fishing was nearing its end, ling fishing was slow, and the only game in town was either mackerel or tautog.  The plan that day was to start out catching the mackerel, and then head inshore for the blackfish.

I recall the weather being relatively mild, maybe in the upper 40s.  Seas were calm, and we headed for an area east of the Asbury high rise, out near England Bank.  Immediately, on the first drift, literally everyone on the boat was getting three and four bagger jumbo Bostons, with coolers filled in almost a blink of an eye.  I remember thinking to myself, “Why haven’t I been fishing this winter mackerel run all along?” The rest of the day was the same, and then we went togging and caught some nice blackfish. The lasting impression of this trip was how good the mackerel fishing was and simply how many more there were compared to spring runs, which could have some long lulls.

Needless to say though, I was sold on the winter run of Boston mackerel.  Since then, whenever I have had the chance to do it, and the fish were available, I have tried to jump on a head boat to load up for shark and fluke baits, as well as saving some for consumption for my family, friends and neighbors.

Mackerel Basics

The approach from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s hasn’t really changed much, so that is a plus. Mackerel rigs, with three, four or five hooks adorned with colored tubes still work well for the Bostons.  Red, pink, green, yellow or silver tinsel work well as do black tubes and even sabiki rigs. Typically anglers looking to load up will bring a medium or medium-heavy conventional outfit loaded with 30-pound mono (If you choose to use braid, just call the boat beforehand to make sure they allow braid onboard.).  Make sure the rod has enough backbone to lift several mackerel over the rail and onto the deck of the boat.

Most store bought rigs work just fine, with pre-tied teaser rigs and tubes, with a dropper loop at the bottom for the sinker and a barrel at the top to tie the rig to your terminal end of the running line.  If you choose to tie your own rigs, you can purchase pre-made mackerel tube hooks at most bait and tackle shops, again adorned with the tubes or tinsel. All you need is a 4- to 6-foot piece of 30-pound mono with as many dropper loops on it as you want for teasers, with a loop on the end for the sinker and a good strong barrel swivel at the terminal end to tie your running line.

Bring multiple rigs, with different colored teasers and different numbers of teasers on them. Also remember to try and mix up the colors!  You’ll need an assortment of sinkers, varying from 6 to 16 ounces, and also a few diamond jigs with red or dark green tails; typically AVA 47s or 67s work great for this, and they can be swapped out for your sinker if you want to add another mackerel to your stringer.

Don’t forget the large cooler with ice, and also make sure you dress appropriately for the weather.  A pair of bibs help keep you relatively dry, and the pesky scales of the mackerel will only partially permeate your jacket or sweatshirt under the bibs.

On the Boat

Be on the lookout for the first boat to announce plans to seek out the mackerel this month, and be sure to arrive early; if you can, secure a spot towards the bow.  Make sure everything is in working order, and your cooler is near where you’re fishing.  I typically start with 8 ounces of lead and adjust from there depending on the speed of the drift, if I’m fishing under the boat, etc.

For some expert advice, I recently reached out to Capt. Mike Ardolino from the Brooklyn VI sailing from Sheepshead Bay in New York.  Mike is an authority on winter mackerel fishing in the New York Bight, and has been running these trips for many years. He said they sometimes start looking for the fish towards the end of December, and the fishery can really heat up around the start of the New Year, with the run going on into January and hopefully beyond.  Mike said they’ll typically fish in anywhere from 50 to 150 feet of water, and the ride out is usually somewhere between 30 minutes to two hours; wherever the fish are, they will burn the fuel to get you on the fish.

Once you arrive to the area that’s holding the mackerel, the captain will set up the drift and will sound the horn for you to get your rigs into the water. Usually, the captain will give the crew a heads up of how far down the mackerel are schooled, so you should be dropping your rig just below the school, and working your way back to the surface by yo-yoing the rod and rig through the water column.  If the macks are there, you will feel a quick bite and will immediately feel the resistance, and if you double and triple up, you will feel more weight.

Work them up to the top, and carefully swing the fish over the rail by lowering your rod down towards the water, and slowly lift your rod (Don’t grab the tip.) and lift the stringer onto the deck; being aware of your surroundings so that you don’t hit anything that can break, including fellow anglers. Get your fish right into the cooler, onto the ice, and if you choose to, bleed them (This will take forever if the fishing is good but if you are using these fish for consumption, bleeding them does help.).

When I did this regularly 20-plus years ago, my uncle taught me the “count” system of dropping the rig slowly to the bottom, with your thumb on the spool, and slowly counting until you start getting bites.  If the boat stays on the fish, and you get bites on a count of eight, just keep doing that until it stops working. Also, it pays off to sometimes get your rig down to the bottom, bringing it up quickly to avoid dogfish, and then slowly working it up from the bottom to find even more fish that are sliding down below the main school.

Caring for Your Catch

Mackerel are used both as bait and as food, but caring for them, and keeping them on ice ensures that the flesh is firm and is rendered useful when you intend to use it.  When mackerel fishing is good, you can fill a cooler in a half hour or so. With that in mind, please try to only retain what you intend on using.

If you plan on having them filleted, the deckhand will take care of that for you, and please be sure to tip them for doing this service.  Again, try to bleed them (if they aren’t already bleeding) when you get them into the cooler. If you choose to take the mackerel home to freeze and use for bait for shark fishing, fluke strips, crabbing, or as bait for another fishery, make sure you freeze them in smaller batches so you can have access to them and use them as you need them.  Salting helps tremendously, especially for fluke fishing!

I grew up eating mackerel, and as table fare, they are certainly tasty and some people absolutely love them.  My grandfather broiled them with fresh tomatoes, garlic, onion and paprika, and they were definitely a nice treat and a change of pace from sea bass, fluke and flounder.  Sushi is another ballgame for mackerel, and I’m told that they are delicious when prepared properly by a sushi chef.

This is a great winter fishery that can both cure cabin fever and put some fish in your cooler whether you’re looking to use them as bait for the upcoming shark and fluke season, or for consumption. If there’s a boat advertising the mackerel right now, give it a shot.

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