Cut Mackerel for Catfish

In southern California, cut mackerel is the most popular bait for channel, white, and blue cats. The few legal livebaits such as shad, crawfish, mudsuckers, and waterdogs produce well under certain conditions, but more and bigger cats are caught on cut mackerel than on any other bait.

Throughout most of the state, the only legal cutbait is dead saltwater fish, and mackerel usually is the species of choice. Of the commonly available saltwater species, mackerel excels because it has a strong fishy flavor combined with a high oil content that appeals to catfish.

The two most common mackerel species are the smaller, milder-flavored Spanish mackerel and the larger Pacific greenback mackerel. Some experts swear by ultrafresh, sushi-quality chunks of the thin-skinned Spanish variety, but the thicker-skinned greenback is the most popular and available, either fresh or frozen.

The Trouble With Mackerel

Of all the kinds of fish one could choose to cut up and use for bait, mackerel is anything but user friendly, especially for those who shorefish and have to cast a baited hook any distance. When cut and placed on a hook, whether fresh or slightly thawed, the soft meat easily separates from the skin and flies off during the cast. Warm flesh turns to mush, rendering it useless.

Old-time surf fishermen were among the first to take advantage of salt-cured baitfish such as anchovies and mackerel. The curing process involves varying amounts of rock salt and brown sugar, which preserves soft baitfish and toughens the meat, making it more durable for casting beyond the waves. To this day, cured mackerel is a mainstay in the surfcaster's arsenal and also has possibilities for catfishing.

Although frozen mackerel are available at most bait shops and marinas, most cat anglers keep a few in their freezer until needed. Just before a trip, frozen mackerel go into the ice chest with plenty of ice to keep them frozen during transport.

When it's time to bait up, take a mackerel from the cooler, slice half-inch-wide strips off the side, and thread a strip onto a 2/0 to 6/0 octopus-style hook. The rest of the bait is then returned to the ice chest.

A Better Way

Tons of catfish have been taken with this simple method, but many improvements are possible. One problem with the traditional method is that you may lose half your bait if you cast far. If you don't lose it, it's probably because you've learned to pack a big wad of bait tightly on the hook to prevent it from flying off. Trouble is, when using a big wad of bait, you inadvertently obscure the hook point, reducing the chance of a solid hookset — critical on pressured waters where bites often are few and far between.

Unless you catch your own bait, your best bet is to visit a fish market. Markets serving Asian communities usually have fresh mackerel on hand. Select a few of the largest, freshest, and firmest greenback mackerel; their coloration often appears more blue than green. The larger 14- to 16-inch fish have a thicker skin, which is a plus for bait purposes. Place them in the freezer for a while to firm them before processing.

With a cutting board and a sharp knife, fillet each fish and cut the fillets into half-inch square pieces, leaving on the skin. Trim the pieces so they're about a quarter inch thick, and save the scraps. The square pieces are the essence of the baitfish, containing the flavor of the skin and the fatty tissues just beneath it, including the blood-rich dark meat.

Bag the pieces in a slide-lock bag, and you're ready to fish with fresh bait or freeze it for later use. Two 14-inch mackerel processed this way yield a sandwich bag about half full of bait chunks. I usually divide this into two or three bags and fish with one bag at a time, keeping the rest as cold as possible until needed.

When I go fishing, the bait's ready to put on a hook, eliminating the need to haul a large ice chest, cutting board, and fillet knife. If I'm shorefishing, this also minimizes interaction with bothersome flies, bees, and yellowjackets, which have a strong attraction to mackerel scent.

Rigging Tips & Tricks

These chunks work well when threaded onto a 2/0 to 5/0 wide-gap hook such as a Mustad 37140 or Eagle Claw L14417S. You can cast a country mile and still have your offering intact when it reaches the bottom of the lake. It's also more difficult for smaller fish to steal the bait, as the skin portions are tough. And most importantly, the hook point remains exposed.

Another advantage of this method is that after the hook is properly baited, you can drop it into a tub of your favorite dipbait and work it around without having the whole mess disintegrate before you cast. I've found that catfish sometimes want only pure mackerel, and at other times or at different lakes, they prefer it enhanced with dipbait.

Anglers pursuing trophy blue cats sometimes use the head of the mackerel, cut an inch behind the gills, with a large hook inserted through both lips. Some use whole fillets hooked through one corner of the fillet or three whole fillets hung on a big treble hook. Still others prefer to cut the baitfish into inch-thick steaks and pin them on a large hook.

In California, perhaps the most popular presentation for mackerel in calm waters is called fly-­lining, a saltwater term describing the use of a hook and bait only, with no sinker. The reel is left out of gear, and a catfish is allowed to pick up and run with the bait a short distance before the reel is engaged and the hook set. Whether from boat or bank, this technique requires fairly light tackle, usually 6- to 12-pound test.

If long casts are required, or if much wind is present, then the sliding sinker rig is the next best choice. When the fish are aggressive or for fishing moving water, the three-way rig can be a good choice, especially for tight-line methods with the reel in gear. In this case, circle hooks such as the Eagle Claw L197 or L198 can be used; a 5/0 hook works well with chunked ­mackerel.

Don't Toss '¨Those Scraps

Back to the cutting board. After cutting up the mackerel into bite-size pieces, you're still left with leftover bits. Toss the scraps minus the bones into an old blender, press the puree button, and you have instant mack sauce, useful in a variety of ways.

I use it as dip for nightcrawlers, live crawfish, or to freshen up mackerel after a bad cast. I also use it to make mackerel-flavored doughballs by adding the slurry instead of water to a mixture of one part flour and two parts white corn meal. Mix well and knead to the desired consistency.

If you're creative, add other ingredients to the mackerel sauce while it's still in the blender. Cheese, blood meal, garlic, or perhaps a dollop of your favorite dipbait can be used as part of a doughball recipe, dip sauce, or added back into the cutbait chunks and allowed to soak in the fridge overnight before freezing.

Where chumming is legal, try sand chumming, a trick used by some West Coast saltwater guides. Take a bucket of oily fish such as mackerel and either chop or grind them, and add an equal amount of clean sand (purists buy washed playground sand). Add some water, mix thoroughly, and freeze the concoction into slabs, blocks, or cubes. When chumming in moving water, the frozen blocks sink quickly to the bottom. As they thaw, oils float up through the water, column attracting fish from all depths.

By the way, a gritty, citrus-based hand cleaner like Fast Orange works well for removing mackerel smell from your hands.

Other saltwater species work well for catfish, too. Pacific bonito, another oily member of the tuna family, works just as well as mackerel, sometimes better. Their thicker skin is an advantage, and bonito fillets can be chunked in similar fashion. Cut anchovies, sardines, yellowtail, and barracuda, plus squid, shrimp, and clams also are well received by the catfish clan.

Even if you live far from any ocean, you might want to give mackerel a try. It's a proven trophy cat enticer on the West Coast and might be effective in your region, too.

*Kirk McKay is an avid catman and saltwater fisherman from Winnetka, California.

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