Mackerel Fishing UK | How to catch mackerel in 22 tips

This guide to mackerel fishing includes tips for spinning, feathering and float fishing from the shore in the UK. We will explain how to increase your chances of catching mackerel. But first, let’s start with the basics like the tackle, mackerel season and best time to catch them. 

Table of contents
Mackerel fishing season
How to catch mackerel by spinning or feathering
Best bait for mackerel
Advanced shore fishing tips
▪ The best mackerel lures

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Mackerel fishing tackle: The three methods

mackerel fishing lure set up

1. Mackerel feathering with 2-4oz weights

The most common method for catching mackerel in the UK is mackerel feathering. This involves casting out a string of hooks with a weight on the end, usually with a fairly heavy rod. This is the same method essentially that sustainable commercial boats use for mackerel fishing, only they use 100’s of hooks per line.

All you have to do it take the mackerel feathers out the packet and attach a 3oz lead weight to the end (depending on the casting weight of your rod, which will be written on it). Then cast these feathers out and reel them back in. If you are fishing shallow water, you may need to retrieve quickly to avoid snags on the bottom. Hopefully you are fishing at a harbour with deep water, as these spots are often best and frequently have clean ground that’s easy to fish.

When using the kit recommended below, the weights used should match the casting weight of the rod to prevent snapping. Also, I strongly recommend replacing the line that comes on reels. 2oz leads are handy if you don’t know what strength line is on the reel as they’ll put less strain on your line.

This set up is low cost and does the trick for summer mackerel, but not much else. If you are looking for something more serious for catching mackerel for years to come, you may like our guide to the best mackerel rods, in which we highlight a range of feathering rods.

mackerel fishing set up

2. Spinning for mackerel

Our preferred option is to use a spinning rod with single lures. On these rods, you tie on a single spinner to the end of your line. These rods are light so you’ll get much more fun out of these smaller fish compared to feathering. It’s a more sporting approach, but is just as effective as feathers and gives you more options in terms of what you might catch. A rod that casts about 50-60g is light enough to have a good sized mackerel put a proper bend in the rod. It won’t snap if you tie on a 50g dexter wedge, unlike some lighter rods. Below are a couple of reasonably priced rods very suitable for spinning for mackerel with a range of lures and spinners.

  • Penn Pursuit Rod & Reel – available at amazon and veals
  • Abu Garcia Devil Spin (pictured above) – available at amazon
mackerel fishing gear

On a spinning rod of around 9ft, you want a 4000-4500 size reel from Penn, Shimano or Daiwa if you want something reliable. The new Ninja and Legalis are two exceptional choices this year, we have tested both. If you are using regular monofilament line (the see-through stuff), the spool on a 4000 size will be wide enough to prevent line coiling. 12lb monofilament is plenty strong enough for using lures up to 40g, as long as your drag is set for bigger fish.

If you are using braid, you could use a 3000 size reel which would make the set up lighter overall, and will allow for much further casting. However, with braid, you must use a leader, which requires being able to tie a braid to fluoro leader knot. If you’re unsure what reel size to get, a rod and reel combo is simplest.

cheap casting jigs
Basic casting jigs for snaggy ground
major craft casting jigs
High end casting jigs for clean ground

Finally, if you’re going spinning you will need some spinners. The classics like the dexter wedge and toby spoon both work, however wedges cast much better so I never recommend toby spoons. If you’re after something more technical, a modern casting jig will cast further still. Some of the expensive one’s are designed to flutter slowly through the water as they fall, making it more likely mackerel will intersect.

You can view our recommended lure rods for mackerel and our guide to the best mackerel lures for further info on spinning. Next I will talk through float fishing for mackerel, then we will get into the general fishing tips.

float fishing for mackerel

3. Float fishing for mackerel

Float fishing, which involves suspending a bait for the mackerel under a float which is propped up with a little weight. Float fishing is the most relaxing way to fish and it’s thrilling to watch a float disappear. It’s also good with kids that can’t cast just yet.

The best approach for float fishing is to use a longer rod over 10ft, so that you can lift up the slack in your line more easily. This will prevent the fish getting off as easily. Secondly, you should adjust the depth you fish at regularly if you’re not catching fish, until you work out how deep the fish are. Finally, using a size 1/0 hook with white mackerel belly, squid or sandeel as bait is a good idea. You want the hook point exposed and towards the bottom of the bait so fish can’t nip it without hooking up.

  • Super budget fishing kit for getting started – available on amazon
  • Float fishing rig – deal on amazon
  • The best mackerel bait is squid or white mackerel belly – available in super markets

Mackerel fishing season & timing

The main mackerel season runs from April – September

The mackerel season in the south of the UK is longer than it is further up north. The mackerel run usually begins in late Spring in the South West. In the far north, the season can begin later, mid to late summer.

In June and July, colossal spawning shoals of mackerel break up into smaller shoals which ascend the shallows around the British coast. They feast like teenagers on herring, sprats, sandeels and whatever they can find to snap at. After the mania of Spring is over, the mackerel stick around in the coast into Autumn and beyond. I caught em’ Christmas Eve 2021 in Cornwall.

You can catch mackerel in winter, and the largest fish tend to be caught then. It’s pretty easy to catch mackerel in December some years in the south. However, the best time for mackerel fishing is early summer.

20 tips for mackerel fishing

20. The best time of day for mackerel fishing is early morning and early evening

Mackerel feed all day from first light to last light, but like many species are most active first thing in the morning and in the hours leading up to dusk. They are sight feeders and you’re unlikely to catch them at night time. Maybe by morning they’re hungry after a night of not eating, and in the evening they are keen to get a last mouthful in before darkness falls! Who knows. It’s likely that the bright sun makes mackerel more cautious, because they are more visible to birds and other predators then. 

19. High tides are best for mackerel, especially spring high tides

Your chances of catching mackerel are much higher if you go fishing for the 2 hours before and after high tide. If you fish at low tide from many harbours or piers your chances are very small.

Mackerel often follow the tide as it pushes in. Often at my local harbour, you will see the commercial boats about 100m offshore catching mackerel around 2-3 hours before high tide, then in the 2 hours leading up to high tide we will start catching from the harbour. Mackerel fishing at low tide can be good but your chances are far, far lower. Go to BBC Tides, check what the tide is doing and aim to fish the tide 2 hours up and then 2 hours down. 

Spring tides are when the tide comes in further than usual, and then goes out further than normal. They have nothing to do with spring time. You can see these on BBC Tides because the high tide is higher than usual and the low tide is lower than usual.

Mackerel feathering

18. Mackerel feathering is the best way to catch large numbers of mackerel

A ‘spinner’ or ‘lure’ is an artificial fish imitation. The original mackerel lure for UK fishing is the mackerel feather, which used to be made from chicken feathers. Mackerel spend their lives chasing and eating small baitfish. When they see something that looks like a fish, they eat it.

There are two main methods of spinning for mackerel – mackerel feathering and spinning with individual lures. Feathering involves the use of a string of hooks with a weight on the end. If you go to a harbour anywhere in the UK in the summertime, this is what most people are doing because it results in the most catches.

mackerel feathering

Feathering for mackerel with a pack like this and a 3-5oz lead weight is the best way to catch lots of mackerel easily. When you open up a packet of mackerel feathers, you will have a sting with two loops at either end. On one end, you attach your lead weight. You tie your mainline to the other end with a knot like the blood knot.

17. When feathering for mackerel, cast over sandy ground

If you’re using mackerel feathers, you don’t want to cast these over rough ground – over weeds and rocks. That’s because with 4-6 hooks, you’re very likely to get in snags you can’t get out of, and lose your rig as well as create plastic and hook pollution in the sea. This is a common beginner mistake.

Mackerel feed over both clean and rough ground, so there’s no need to fish over rough ground for them. If you’re fishing over rough ground, I would recommend using a single lure or spinner instead to reduce your chances of getting snagged. To get out of snags, pull the rod sharply upwards – don’t apply pressure gradually – respond fast and hard for the best chance of getting out of it. 

16. Better tackle means a longer casting distance when feathering

You can gain an advantage by being able to cast further, as sometimes the fish will be feeding further offshore than most angers can cast. Using lighter line, a longer rod or braided fishing line will help you cast further. The best gear for maximising casting distance is a 11ft light beach casting rod, but this has sporting limitations! (e.g. it will not bend much when you hook fish!). Often, mackerel will come right up against the harbour wall, so while a long cast is useful, it’s not essential. For this reason, we’d recommend buying a light spinning rod instead.

Mackerel spinning

15. Mackerel spinning with single lures is most effective with a light lure rod

Mackerel spinning with single lures is done with light spinning rods, so that the relatively small lures can be cast out. Rods that bend more can be used with lighter lines and can cast smaller lures a longer distance. Mackerel only have small mouths, so it’s best to use lighter gear if you’re using single spinners. This approach also means mackerel can put a real bend in the rod. You can find out more about light spinning gear in our mackerel set up guide.

mackerel spinners
Spinning for mackerel with single spinners like these means you don’t need to use any extra weight and can fish with a lighter rod, so the mackerel fight harder.

14. Lure depth is the secret to successful mackerel spinning

The first thing I will ask other anglers when spinning for mackerel is ‘how deep are you fishing’. A good place to start looking for mackerel with your bait or lures is half way down towards the seabed. From there you can experiment. You may find that the mackerel are feeding close to the surface, or in winter they could be closer to the bottom if there are fewer bait fish around.

To control the depth you are fishing at, you can slow down or speed up your retrieval speed. In your first cast, it’s a good idea to cast out, let your lure sink, keep a tight line, and count how long it takes to go slack. You can change the depth you fish at based on your awareness of how long it needs to sink for to reach the seabed.

13. When the mackerel are not yet in, don’t target them

When my friends and I fish our local harbour, we fish for mackerel for about 10 minutes. If we don’t catch on casting jigs (metal spinners), we’ll fish for something else instead. Then we can catch bass or wrasse while we wait for the mackerel to come in.

When somebody else catches a string of mackerel, we will start fishing. The fish come through in runs, so why not wait for a run of fish rather than fish when nobody is catching? However, it’s essential to fish for 10 minutes first because it could be that everybody else is fishing too fast (near the surface) or not casting far enough, and just because they aren’t catching doesn’t mean you won’t.

The other advantage of using a light spinning rod is that even when you are targeting mackerel, there is a good chance you will catch something else at the same time. Whereas when feathering, it’s mainly the mackerel that are interested in your lures.

lure fishing for mackerel

Float fishing for mackerel

The appeal with float fishing for mackerel is that you get to watch the tantalising dipping and bobbling of your float as a fish takes the bait, just before watching the float disappear beneath the water. Because it’s such a relaxing way to fish, sometimes you start day dreaming and then realise your float is nowhere to be seen, and it’s now 6m under being pulled along by a monster mackerel or garfish. Float fishing also allows you to catch a wider variety of species than you are likely to catch on feathers or hard metal lures.

12. The best bait for mackerel is a white mackerel strip

The best mackerel bait is mackerel or garfish. Any oily fish that spreads a slick which fish can see and smell. Rag, lug, squid or sandeel also work. The white belly meat from mackerel is often favoured because it has tougher flesh which holds the hook better. A long thin white strip of mackerel belly also has an appearance like a sandeel or baitfish which may provide a small advantage.

mackerel fishing from the rocks

11. The best size hooks for mackerel is size 2-3

The best size hook for mackerel is size 2-3. 1/0 is popular but too large to maximise hook ups, and you will miss out on catching garfish. Size 1 is also fine. If you’d like to catch garfish too, just think how small and hard those beaky mouths are. We recommend these hooks. It’s always good practice to use a strong, sharp hook and a hook sharpener will keep your hooks that way after each session.

10. Don’t forget to change the depth of your bait

One of the most important things is to experiment with fishing at different depths, because if the fish are all feeding lower in the water and you’re only fishing 4m under, you might not catch a thing. Nearer the surface you will catch garfish and mackerel. Further towards the bottom you’ll catch more wrasse and pollack, too.

One final float fishing tip for mackerel – use braid for line. Braided line floats on the surface which will give you much more direct contact with your float. It’s the best type of line for mackerel fishing by far.

spinning rod and reel being used for mackerel fishing

Shore & Pier fishing tips for mackerel

9. Find deeper water using the free Navionics web app

Mackerel are a pelagic species, which means they roam the open seas looking for food. Unlike most other species we catch in the UK, mackerel are not as fussed about structure. They don’t linger around wrecks, harbours or prominent underwater features to the degree that many other species do. You can use the Navionics web app to check water depth in the area you plan on fishing.

They are also more often found in slightly deeper water. If the water is 5m or more where you’re casting, you are more likely to catch mackerel than if it’s 3m. If you’re fishing in 20m of water you have a greater chance still. Mackerel will feed in just a few inches of water, and indeed they actively try to chase baitfish right up onto the beach to corner them. However they don’t spend most of their time there. 

A rookie error would be to go fishing from a random beach you don’t know when you’re on holiday, because unless it’s a beach that gets deep fairly quickly like Chesil beach, or a beach that is known for mackerel fishing, it’s pretty unlikely you will catch mackerel in the shallows. This is why people flock to harbours, and more experienced anglers may seek out deep water rock marks to avoid the crowds but still have deep water access. 

spinning for mackerel

8. Mackerel probably die after being handled

Mackerel probably die after being handled. Their oily skin doesn’t cope well with contact with human hands, and gets burned by the oils in our skin. It’s better to just not fish for them once you’ve caught your fill unless you need them for bait or a big BBQ the next day! When using single lures, especially with disgorgers, it’s possible to release mackerel without ever touching the fish.

7. Kill mackerel by breaking the neck 

The best way to kill mackerel is by inserting your finger onto the roof of the inner mouth, and then bending the head backwards sharply. The neck is weak and breaks like a toothpick, causing instead death and minimal twitching. This also often tears the gills, which bleeds the fish, improving the flavour and reducing the rate at which they go off. 

how to kill mackerel

If you don’t want to break the mackerels necks, buy a priest and put it in your tackle bag so you always have it. It’s useful to have a priest anyway, because for most other species breaking the neck is not an option. 

6. Bring disgorgers with you when using treble hooks

With mackerel feathers it’s fairly easy to unhook fish. However, if you’re using lures with treble hooks or Sabiki’s, it pays to have a set of disgorgers you can use to remove hooks. Often hooks are deeper in the mouth of the fish than you can reach, and it’s messy trying to unhook fish while they’re slipping out your hands, shaking their head and potentially driving a treble into your hand. 

5. Use braid to increase casting distance and bite sensitivity 

Whether you’re using a beach caster or a modern lure fishing outfit, braid will allow you to cast much further and increase sensitivity of your rod to your rigs. This means you will feel every last bite from the mackerel and cast probably about 30% further or more. It’s a significant improvement and you will never look back. If you use a beach caster, this 25lb braid is perfect. If you use spinning rods, read FISHMAG’s full guide to braided  line. 

When fishing on busy harbours with lots of beginners that might cast over your line, braid has the advantage of cutting through monofilament.

deep water mackerel fishing

4. Work out where the mackerel are feeding

A common mistake is to cast and retrieve at the same speed each time, usually too fast. This results in your lures or feathers only ever being worked over the top section of the water. What if the fish are deeper? If on the other hand your weight is too heavy and you reel too slowly (this is rare), you might not be searching the upper sections of the water. 

To give an example of where this has paid off for me, I arrived once at a harbour with about 7 other anglers fishing. One had been there for ONE WEEK and not caught anything. They were all using feathers, and I had a light spinning rod.

My light braided line allowed me to cast further than them by about 5-10m. I also paused for much longer after my lure hit the water to search out the full depth of the water. It turned out all my bites were near the bottom. My approach from then on was to cast as far as I could, let the lure reach the bottom, fish slowly there, and then reel the lure in very quickly just to get it back in so I could cast again. There was no point fishing anywhere else – I had worked out where the mackerel were feeding. I caught a fish every other cast and the whole harbour was filled with frustration and amazement. 

It’s crucial to work out where the fish are feeding! (decent line gives an unfair advantage, too). 

3. Work out where the best mackerel spots are on the harbour or pier 

Some harbours and piers have areas that provide access to more productive areas for mackerel than others. At my local harbour, Mevagissey in Cornwall, this is by the point near the light house. Because the boats come in and out there, the water is deeper and there is a channel. It’s also the area with the deepest water. You will almost always catch 3-5x as many mackerel from this area. 

If you find yourself on a harbour, check out whose catching, and when somebody leaves and you get your chance, move into that area (without casting over anybody else’s line of course!). 

2. Invest in a lure fishing outfit

Mackerel feathering is the best way to catch lots of fish for bait or for a BBQ for like 10 people – but what if you don’t have a BBQ with 10 people coming up the next day and you don’t need bait? I fear there can be a lot of waste with mackerel feathering – it’s like a gold rush, and soon you have 50 fish you don’t know what to do with.

On an ultra light lure rod, mackerel can even go on runs and take line. It’s a whole different experience. 

Mackerel Q&A

What is the best month to catch mackerel?

May-June is the best time to catch mackerel, although they are caught all summer in numbers and larger specimens are sometimes caught in winter.

Where do you find mackerel?

Mackerel are a pelagic species which means they constantly roam the open seas. They are found at a range of depths and can be caught from the shore and offshore in boats. 

Are mackerel in yet?

Mackerel are usually in from late April onwards but this varies by year and location. 

Do mackerel die after being handled?

Yes, a study has shown that after being handled mackerel die due to the burning of their skin from the natural oils in human hands. Wetting your hands does not help. 

What is the best time to catch mackerel?

The best time to catch mackerel is dusk or dawn and at high tide. Spring high tides are often the best as they push bait fish closer into shore and the mackerel follow them in. Mackerel can be caught anytime, however. 

What tide is best for mackerel fishing?

The best tide for mackerel fishing is a spring high tide. These are tides when the difference between high water and low water is at its greatest, and the flow of water is strongest. Big tides push bait fish closer into shore and mackerel follow them in. 

What’s the best mackerel fishing gear? 

The best mackerel fishing gear is a simple spinning set up with an 8-9ft rod, 16lb monofilament line and mackerel feathers such as these Japanese sabiki feathers. The most fun way to catch mackerel however is with a light game set up. 

Mackerel fishing off the beach?

You can fish for mackerel off the beach but this tends to work best at beaches where the water gets deep very quickly or when you know lots of bait fish are being pushed close into shore. 

What’s the difference between a mackerel and a scad or horse mackerel?

Scad don’t look much like mackerel at all. They have sharp spines, a silvery colour, huge eyes and bony scales. You won’t confuse the two, except in name. It’s a myth that it’s hard to eat scad, you just have to know how to fillet and debone fish.

Horse mackerel are also known as scad, jack mackerel or in Japan ‘Agi’. Why am I mentioning Japan? Well because unlike the UK where scad are generally regarded as a bony bicatch, in Japan they developed a highly advanced method of lure fishing specifically for catching these fish, that is now known as LRF (’Light Rock Fishing’) in the UK.

In Japan, Scad (or a closely related species to the Scad) are a delicacy that’s eaten raw as sashimi. They even have a whole day dedicated to celebrating the Scad, called Aji Himono Day. Scad actually make for great eating, they just require you to pick out the bones before cooking.

Scad are populous in the warmer months and often appear in shoals alongside mackerel. They are caught in much larger numbers at night and can be seen under lights that shine onto the water as silhouettes of slow moving shoals. Despite being associated with mackerel because they hang out together, they don’t actually look or behave in the same ways. The scad has huge great eyes for seeing in the dark. I don’t know this, but I imagine they feed in much deeper water than mackerel.

The best way to catch scad is without a doubt with Sabiki feathers, which are light regular mackerel feathers but with smaller hooks. Glow in the dark sabiki feathers would be the best for fishing at nighttime, but few anglers actively target Scad outside of Japan. WIth LRF gear, casting jigs are the best, indeed, many of our high end casting jigs in the UK are Japanese imports designed for catching Scad.

Where do mackerel go in winter?

In November, mackerel begin to disappear into the depths, where researchers believe they linger around the bottom near the continental shelf, in dense shoals. They swim as if half awake in offshore pits, feeding around the bottom and waiting for February, when they make their way back to the shallows and split off into somewhat smaller shoals again. Then the frenzy begins once more, feeding on plankton and krill and whatever lure you throw at them. Once the fish are one year old, they are big enough to eat.

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