Pacific (Chub) Mackerel

Species: Scomber japonicus (Houttuyn, 1782); from the Greek word scombros (an ancient name for the common mackerel of Europe) and japoniocus (of Japan). Given the name Pneumatophorus japonicus diego in the early Fish Bulletin #28.

Alternate Names: Greenback, green mackerel, green racer, greenies (or candy bar greenies—small mackerel), blue mackerel, striped mackerel, zebra mackerel, right mackerel, chub mackerel, frog, tiny tuna, mac, big mac, mac trash and my favorite—macaroni. Called macarela del Pacífico in Mexico. 19th century commercial fishermen often called them tinker mackerel, little mackerel or Easter mackerel. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, SoCal newspapers referred to large mackerel as “cornfed mackerel.” Given the number of Midwesterners who had moved to California in the late 1800s, and the fact that large and stocky men and women in that area were often called cornfed (in a healthy sense), the name would seem to make sense. My goodness, what a plethora of diverse names.

Pacific mackerel — Thomas Orozco, Pepper Park Pier, San Diego

Identification: Typical mackerel shape with am elongated body tapering at both ends; identified by the long space between the dorsal fins, 25 to 30 black to dark green bars and spots across the back, and irregular spots on the sides.

Size: To 25 inches and 6 pounds. Most caught off piers are less than 18 inches. The California record fish weighed 2 lb 8 oz and was taken at Los Angeles in 1995.

You don’t need heavy equipment for most macs — Shelter Island Pier in San Diego

Range: Gulf of California (some sources say Bahia Banderas) to southeastern Kamchatka, western Gulf of Alaska. Also Panama to Chile and Islas Galápagos.

Pacific mackerel — Hermosa Beach Pier

Habitat: Pelagic, feeding mainly on euphausids (small, shrimp-like crustaceans, i.e., krill, usually 1/8 inch to less than an inch), squid, and young fish. Found from the surface down to about 100 feet.

Piers: Common at most piers in California north to and including those in Monterey Bay (generally at the more northern piers in late summer or fall). Best bets: Imperial Beach Pier, Oceanside Pier, San Clemente Pier, Balboa Pier, Newport Pier, Redondo Beach Pier, Redondo Sportfishing Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Manhattan Beach Pier, Malibu Pier, Stearns Wharf (Santa Barbara), Goleta Pier, Gaviota Pier and Monterey Wharf #2. Generally uncommon at piers north of Monterey Bay although recent warm-water years have seen them move north. In 2009 mackerel began to show up at the Pacifica Pier that sits just south of San Francisco. Next they entered San Francisco Bay and became fairly common at many piers along the San Francisco waterfront as well as several piers in the East Bay. But, they continued to move north!  In September of 2014 we had one taken at a “Kids Fishing Derby” at the Trinidad Pier north of Eureka (75 miles south of the Oregon border) and then in October of 2015 I caught one at the Citizens Dock in Crescent City, just 20 miles from the Oregon border. in 2016 several were caught at the Del Norte Street Pier in Eureka as well as at other spots in Humboldt Bay. Mackerel follow the baitfish and the baitfish often follow the warm water.

Pacific mackerel — Hashem Nahid (Mahageer), Redondo Beach Pier

Shoreline: Sometimes taken by shore anglers fishing from jetties in southern California.

Boats: One of the mainstay fish for southern California boats although some years also caught north at least to Monterey Bay.

Pacific mackerel — Robert Gardner (Redfish), Cabrillo Mole, Avalon, Catalina Island

Bait and Tackle: Caught on a wide range of baits and artificial lures. A very simple method is also the most common; it is especially useful when fishing from a pier that sits down near the water. Simply attach a size 4-2 hook to the end of the line, put a small split-shot sinker a couple of feet above the hook, and use a small strip of squid, 2-3 inches long, or a bloody strip of mackerel, as the bait. The rigging can be used as is, or used in conjunction with a small float so that the bait stays a few feet under the surface of the water. If available, live anchovies are also excellent bait. When a school of mackerel is in one of their ravenous moods, a Sabiki/Lucky Lura-type bait rig can be deadly and will often produce a fish on every hook (which can lead to tangles and loss of the rig). The most fun can be had with a light outfit and a small artificial lure—a light bonito-type jig or even a cast-a-bubble with a bucktail fly. Generally the bait, whether live bait or cut bait, should be kept moving. A technique that often works is to cast out a high/low leader baited with cut anchovy or piece of mackerel, let it sink toward the bottom, then immediately begin a medium speed retrieve; mackerel will often hit it on the way up, usually just before it gets to the surface. At times, when a school is really hungry, the mackerel will hit on anything and everything (although I think pieces of mackerel are the best bait) and this leads to the common term: “mac attack.” It’s an appropriate title.

Pacific mackerel — Trinidad Pier (north of Eureka) —a rare treat this far north

Food Value: Mackerel are a fairly strong flavored fish, a fact that stops some people from eating them. Too often they wind up being used as bait, as fertilizer, or being thrown away. At the same time many people find them delicious. Typically the difference is due to the way they are handled and cooked. Being a fairly oily fish, the flesh can quickly deteriorate and soften. Put them on ice after capture, keep them cold, and use within a couple of days, and you will be starting with a much more palatable type of flesh. In addition, you can remove the darker (muscle) flesh from the side of the fish (the lighter the flesh the more mild). Lastly, if you want to reduce the strong flavor, cook utilizing methods that remove oil from the flesh—broiling and barbecuing being the best.  If you have a smoker they can also be made into tasty jerky. It’s recorded that in England there has been a special dispensation in existence since the seventeenth century that allows mackerel to be sold on Sunday. Thus the quickly spoiling fish are not wasted. It simply affirms the necessity of keeping them cold and eating them while fresh.

The flip side is that some groups prefer the strong flavors. They know that using spices that complement the flesh produces a tasty and favorable piece of fish. Still, mackerel may not be the fish for those raised on the mild tasting, white-fleshed fish used for fish and chips (cod, halibut, rock cod, etc.).

A mess of macs from Wharf #2 in Monterey

Mackerel caught at the Newport Pier in 1998 by Sucnguyen. Newport and similar deep-water piers like Balboa, Redondo Beach and Monterey Wharf #2 are frequently the best places to catch mackerel.

Comments: Mackerel numbers seem to go in cycles; for years they will be fairly uncommon and then there will be years when they will be at nearly every southern California pier. Recent years have seen huge catches. Unfortunately many of these mackerel go to waste. I have seen people who loaded buckets (or gunnysacks) with mackerel day after day at their favorite piers. I sincerely hoped they used them. Pacific mackerel are pretty little fish and terrific fighters for their size. Seafood, A Connoiseur’s Guide and Cookbook by Alan Davidson, comments on the “attractive and flashy appearance of mackerel,” noting that the “French name maquereau also means ‘pimp’” and that “in the past mackerel was a term for dandy in England.”

Pacific mackerel and Pacific sardine — Goleta Pier. Both fish will sometimes school in the same areas and when they do anglers are assured a good catch of fish.

 An uncommon to the area Pacific mackerel from the Del Norte Street Pier in Eureka




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