Locally known as "Boston" mackerel, small Atlantic mackerel are a prime forage species for many game fish in the Northeast U.S., especially bluefin tuna. Anglers here also fish Boston mackerel live off kites, cast into schools of bluefin feeding at the surface and as chunks, but trolling mackerel is the traditional method for chasing bluefin.
During the heyday of the giant bluefin fishery all the high-lining crews trolled rigged mackerel spreader bars, daisy chains, and single baits. While few pull the bars and chains anymore, select top-producing boats still pull single baits rigged with or without chin weights from outriggers, planers, or right from the rod tips in the prop wash.
When prepared and rigged properly, Boston mackerel are durable baits that draw big fish. During the spring when the mackerel begin to run, we will catch our own bait with sabiki rigs and prep a number of them for the upcoming season. Once we have procured a cooler full of large "trollers" we begin to prepare these baits for frozen storage and subsequent rigging.
The first step is to "hydro-gut" the baits. Hydro-gutting removes the innards of the mackerel via water from a hose to avoid quick decay when the baits are eventually thawed out. This process is accomplished by making a small incision in the gill membrane on each side of the head. Next, with a small knife, delicately enlarge the anus. The hose is inserted into the anus of the bait using a nozzle attachment (found at any hardware store) that tapers down to fit inside the bait without damage. Simply turn the nozzle on and watch the innards exit the bait from the slices made in the gill membranes.
Once the baits have been "hydro-gutted", the backbone must be removed with a deboner. This can be done after the baits are thawed, but removing the backbone ahead of time cuts down on prep during valuable fishing time.
To rig the Boston mackerel, you will need rigging floss, needles, and a chin weight (if you are rigging one to swim versus skip).
1. Adding the Hook
Aboard the Mulberry Canyon we use Mustad 7691S 10/0 hooks attached to 220-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon. Begin by inserting the hook into the body cavity of the bait from underneath the gill plate.
The hook should protrude from the bait between the "notch" of the ventral fins.
Once this is completed, run the leader out through the mouth so that the gill plates close naturally.
2. Close the Gill Plates
With your rigging floss and needle enter from one side of the head while holding the bait upside down. Push the needle on through the opposite gill plate. Make sure you running the needle THROUGH the loop created by the leader and chafe tube. This helps maintain the position of the hook inside the head. Take both tags together, tie an overhand knot and cinch snug to the bait. The gills will be closed.
3. Closing the Mouth
Now you'll want to shut the mouth of the bait to make it watertight. Using your needle and floss, enter from the bottom of the jaw and out through the nostril. Re-enter needle through the opposite nostril and back out the bottom of the jaw, while making sure the leader is running into the mouth on the centerline of the bait. Tie the two tag ends together and cinch.
Don't cut the floss yet. Now you must readjust the pulling point of the leader from the hook eye to the nose of the bait. Using the remaining floss from closing the jaws and make seven or eight half-hitches up the leader from the nose (Picture 11).
4. Adding a Chin Weight
The Boston mackerel, as rigged, can now be pulled as a skip bait from the outrigger quite effectively. If you want the bait to swim in an upright natural position beneath the surface, you'll need to affix a chin weight.
Begin by stringing a long piece of floss through a 4- to 8-ounce chin weight and tie a needle to each tag end. Run one needle from the bottom up through the top of the head, just in front of the bait's eye. Run the second needle from the bottom of the bait up through the head, just behind the eye. Take the two tag ends and twist three times to cinch the floss tight to the bait's head. Tie an overhand knot, cinch tightly and trim the tag ends.
A chin-weighted "mack" is phenomenal planer bait for bluefin, and these baits are best trolled between 3.5 and 6 knots.
Traditionally, trolling mackerel were rigged to run naked. Recently, manufacturers like Canyon Gear Lures have produced skirts that fit perfectly over the nose of a rigged bait. The Canyon Gear Hoo Machine XL is designed primarily with horse ballyhoo in mind, however we fished these skirts over Boston mackerel aboard the Mulberry Canyon with great success this past season. The XL Hoo Machine is also weighted so you can still get a great natural swimming action without a chin weight.