Saturday, April 21, 2007

Mackeral on the fly

Mackerel on Fly(Scomber scombrus)

High summer and an early start to venture out to do some fishing before the tourists arrive in their droves along the South Cornwall coast for a day of sunbathing and swimming. The sun had not long been in the sky when Steve Beacall and I arrived at a little rocky outcrop known locally as Mackerel Rock just as the tide was beginning to ebb. We knew that there would be mackerel around in numbers here and the small fishing boats were already out in force trolling feathers about half a mile offshore.

We set up our rods and poured a coffee to take the chill out of the misty early morning air and watched as the gannets dove into the sea like white arrows to feed on the abundant shoals of sand eel that had by now ventured out from the shallows to feed. Our cups empty and packed away we took up our positions and made our first cast into the deep clear water. Di7’s are needed here to fish at the level mackerel prefer to hunt. A small brightly coloured fly is all that is needed for these fish so a size 4 blue over white fly was likely to work fine here. Steve was the first to hit a mackerel on his second cast and the little mackerel fought hard before it was landed and released. Then it was my turn as a mackerel pulled at the line from one side to the next. For their size these fish fight as hard as any trout and do not give up easily. Anglers who catch these on traces of six to eight feathers can winch them in on the heavy tackle they use but I dread to think how tricky it would be to land even two or three of these fish at a time on a fly rod.

The morning wore on and as the sun rose higher in the sky the crowds began to arrive on the nearby beach at around 8am and the rock mark became impossible to fish resembling a pincushion with the number of float rods that now covered this little patch of rock. As we were leaving an angler asked, “Had any luck”? “About forty fish between us" we replied. He looked at us quizzically noticing that we had been using fly rods then asked “where are the fish”? “We don’t keep them, we returned them all”, we replied. The look of consternation and bewilderment on his face was priceless, he was obviously thinking why we should have returned the fish. We thought that there may be some for next time as we headed for home.

The mackerel (Scomber scombrus) is probably the first kind of saltwater fish caught by those among us who have wet a fly line in the sea. They are a small fish related to the tuna family but what they lack in stature is more than made up for by their ability to put up a determined fight on light tackle. Mackerel are pelagic fish that can form vast shoals that can clearly be seen feeding near the surface where they prey upon smaller fish such as anchovies, juvenile herring and other juvenile fish, even other mackerel and sand eel. They feed by sight and will readily take any bright fly or feather bait and have even been caught on shiny bare hooks.

Mackerel spawn in the open seas as two main areas stock groups in the deepwater offshore in water temperatures of 10 to 12 degrees Celsius. There are two groups of breeding stock, those that spawn in the North Sea do so between May and July and the western stock, as they are known, spawn in the vast areas over the Continental Slope of the Atlantic during the period between March and July. After the eggs hatch the young drift in the stream of plankton pushed along by the ocean currents where they feed, form shoals and grow quickly through their first year with 100% of the population reaching maturity at around three years old and measuring around twelve inches.

As they become more developed they cover vast distances in search of food swimming constantly through the surface layers to a depth of around sixty feet sometimes going deeper. These fish are built for speed and are very muscular little fish that need to remain on the move to stop them from sinking because they lack a swim bladder. Mackerel can live for a relatively long time and have been observed to reach the age of eighteen years old and the British rod caught record was a fish weighing almost seven pounds. Fish of this size are usually caught well offshore by commercial fishing methods but would certainly give anyone a run for their money if caught using fly tackle.

These oil rich fish are a much sought after food item in our seas that are hunted and eaten by their larger relatives the tuna as well as shark, cod, bass, squid, marine mammals and sea birds. The mackerel is a popular bait because of its oil rich flesh and it is used whole or cut into strips by many anglers to catch a range of both saltwater and freshwater predators throughout the year. This makes the mackerel worth imitating if you want to target some of the larger specimens and species found offshore when fishing from a boat.

Through the summer months the smaller fish aged one to four years old can be caught close to shore using fly tackle from rock marks that have deep water out in front. They can be caught here even in the middle of the brightest of days but during the periods of the day when light levels are low they can be caught in the much shallower water off beaches. Arriving in large shoals they can provide the fly angler with a great deal of sport over an extended period of time and in my opinion fight harder than a trout of the same size and weight. They arrive in our coastal waters at different times of the year dependant upon sea temperatures and geographical location. In the South West spring arrives early and you can expect to find mackerel from April onwards and you can expect to catch them right through to December when there is a final winter run of fish. In the Northern waters the mackerel don’t show up in great numbers until around June and remain inshore for a shorter period of time moving away again in the late autumn.

The tackle you use need not be heavy so a rod rated #6 to a #8 will be more than adequate for these little fish although there is always a good chance that your fly will be hit by a bass. With this in mind and that you will be casting flies tied on hook sizes 2/0 down to size 6, your tippet will need to have a breaking strain of 8 pounds plus to stop the flies breaking off during the casting stroke. The line that you choose is dependant upon the depth of water available and generally I would recommend using a fast intermediate or a fast sinking line. Fly selection is made much easier by the mackerel’s attraction to anything shiny, even a bare hook as mentioned earlier, so a small brightly coloured sand eel pattern or a small clouser minnow works incredibly well. There is no real skill to catching mackerel and if they are where you are fishing you will catch them. A sink and draw or a steady hand over hand retrieve is all that is needed and don’t be surprised to see several fish attempting to take your fly. All in all the mackerel is an abundant and entertaining little fish that you will want to catch again and again.

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