Black Macks – Bill Bowtell 2017

Over the years I have experimented with trying to consistently catch Spanish mackerel at night. Especially during the summer period when daytime temperatures and strong sunlight, lessen the chances of a prolonged daylight “bite” period.

Years ago it was the general opinion that mackerel stopped biting (feeding) after dark. Then didn’t start to move into a feeding mode, or pattern, until the early daylight hours. But I suspect that this belief had several origins. One, marketing and sale options of the commercial fisher working inshore grounds close to a town; two, safety of working in, and around, shoal and reef areas at night before the advent of GPS; and three, the general ambience of being on the water at first light after a good nights’ sleep, and being able to see what you are doing.

There is no scientific reason tosuggests, that Spanish should not, or do not, bite at night. To the contrary, is it known that Spanish mackerel have extremely good eyesight and are very proficient hunters under low light conditions. So the question really comes down to, “Do Spanish mackerel move at night to feed, or do they remain stationed at a point and only feed if the opportunity arises, e.g. a passing, or balled-up bait school?

Again there is both scientific and anecdotal evidence that suggests that Spanish move during the hours of darkness. Long time mackerel fishers will regularly refer to schools of fish arriving at nominated shoals, or reefs, immediately after periods of southeast winds. And those who work these fish will tell you that these patterns can be, and generally are, as regular as clockwork year in, year out. From a personal perspective I have witnesses this phenomenon on many occasions at places such as Hummocky Island and Liza Jane Shoals at the southern end of Keppel Bay and Conical Rocks and Findlay’s Reef at the northern end.

The fish display their arrival by free jumping, leaping high into the air, often as high as 6metres. It is a spectacular sight to see when forty, fifty, or even a hundred fish, take to the air simultaneously to announce their arrival. Most of the old mackerel fishers are of the opinion that this is done by the fish to rid themselves of the slime that they build up on their bodies immediately prior to a mass migration. Why this happens is not conclusive, but common belief is that it (the slime) reduces water friction when the fish are on the move. Most of this mass migration is done at night.

The other indicator of mackerel movement at night is the number of Spanish caught as an incidental catch in offshore set gill nets. The early practice of an offshore set gill net was primarily to catch shark in the zone up to 3 nautical miles offshore, known as “Predator Alley”. Nets that were set wide of, or adjacent to, headlands and near inshore reefs and shoals inevitably took an incidental catch of Spanish.

These nets were shot and set, just on dusk and pulled before dawn. Any fish that meshed and were caught did so during the hours of darkness. The fish had to be moving. But were they feeding? Two regular areas for this type of activity, here in my own patch, were Corio Heads and Five Rocks, both rocky headland features, to the north of Keppel Bay, with deep seaward waters.

A few years back I fished the Rama Wreck just wide of Five Rocks with good mate, Shane Bietzel. It was a nighttime trip and we were mainly after grunter and fingermark. The mackerel moved in and stayed on the bite until about three hours after dark! Not the big Narrow Barred Spanish mackerel, but “Doggies”, or School Mackerel. We got a few and kept some for bait. After nearly cleaning us out of hooks they finally gave up around 9.00pm and we then got amongst the fingermark and grunter.

Amidst all of the commotion going on in the boat during this lesser mackerel session, Shane made the comment and asked the question, “Why don’t Spanish bite at night”? My reply was (I thought anyway) logical, “Because we don’t specifically fish for them!” That question and answer conversation started a chain of events!

My early attempts at night fishing for Spanish were generally when the fish were “on”. That is to say, if one went fishing at dawn, or late afternoon, on the right tides and with good fresh baits, then fish were assured. These trips were always concentrated around the months of April and May, and then again during August and September. Again at very specific locations.

This early experimentation was somewhat limited and usually followed the same fishing procedures that were employed during daylight hours – top running baits of either wolf herring, or Watson’s Leaping Bonito dragged around just behind the arc of light thrown by the deck light. There was never a thought of putting down a deep running bait sheathed with a lumo squid skirt, or fronted by a series of glow beads weighted down with a #6 glow sinker.

A few weeks after the night rip with Shane, my son Andrew and I headed north to Cape Manifold for a night and early morning fishing session. Our targets were nannygai and Spanish.


Getting our troll baits at the Rama Wreck on our way north was easier than usual and we arrived at Manifold Island two hours earlier than expected. The tide was pouring in and a big percussion wave was building up on the current line as it raced away to the north of northeast. It was 3.00am and as back as ink, except for the myriad of stars across the southern sky. We had two main options – anchor up for a sleep till the tide steadied, or try for a reef fish in one of the quieter pockets inside the Cape itself.

The Cape and I have shared many moments over the years and she has released quite a few of her secrets. One, is where the mackerel sit at this particular stage of this particular tide. I suggested to Andrew that, even though it was still dark, we troll a couple of our fresh baits and see what happens. And then added, “that I had never tried this spot at night.” It was all new.

Fish showed on the sounder as we moved into and across the area. They were schooled up like Spanish do, in a staircase type pattern, but these fish were in a tighter knit. They could have been big trevally, or even big Queenfish, as I have regularly taken both species at this spot. There was a fair amount of uncertainty in the reading. But, fish were there and the pattern consistent with Spanish macks.

If there was uncertainty, then it was short lived as the starboard side rod, rolled back and the 15kg mono, literally sang as it left the spool. The run was fast, wide and furious, and even in the limited deck light, the line pointed high into the shadow. This was a big fish and every indication was that, it was a Spanish.

The particular fish went 38.6kgs, or a shade under 85lbs, in the old imperial scale. It was gaffed and hauled into the boat around 3.50am. Four more fish followed that morning. Two of which were caught before dawn and the other two during, and just after, sunrise. The exercise had been a success, if not a little surprising. But what it did do, apart from leaving a lot of unanswered questions, was give confidence in the fact that Spanish do bite at night if the bait is put in front of them. But would it be consistent? Or, was this just a coincidental one-off?

It was nearing spring, the winter had been mild and there were several northern flowing currents pushing through Keppel Bay, intercepting all of the rocky points north to Cape Manifold. The tides were right. It would be a good time to again visit The Cape.

I had told Shane of our nighttime success and how we went about it. He was keen to give it a go, and nailed a beautifully conditioned 15kg fish before “Old Sol” had poked his eyes over the horizon. Although it was our only fish before dawn, the fact that it took the bait showed that they were (or at least could be enticed into) feeding. This capture also provided further confidence in the techniques that we were using to successfully target these fish.

The rig and technique were simple, but effective, and basically the same as the ones used during daylight hours, with three significant changes – heavier trolling heads to get the baits down to around the 5-8 metre mark; highlight the baits by either sheathing them in a glow squid skirt, or run a series of glow beads at the head of the bait; and, shorten the dropback of the baits so that they run just into the shadow beyond the arc of the deck light.

In the first instance this meant making up a range of weighted trolling heads based on the size of baits being used e.g. School Mackerel (50cm minimum limit), wolf herring, Watson’s Leaping Bonito etc. It was found very early in the piece that the most successful trolling depth was down around that 5 to 8 metre mark, so the sizes of the heads turned out to be quite large. But they worked and it was found that on each subsequent trip (even to other locations such as The Pinnacles and Flat Island) showed the fish at, or around, that depth during the hours of darkness.

There was some conjecture as to whether the glow beads and glow squid skirts made any significant difference when compared to an un-skirted bait, or a regular pink squid skirt. There is no conclusive evidence either way at this time, as catch numbers are still relatively small. And the effects of weather conditions have not yet even been considered! One thing however, is that all fish taken thus far have struck a bait with some form of luminous enhancement. Pink squid skirts with big luminous eyes are a favourite.

Possibly the most significant trip to date where Spanish have been targeted with success during the night came in early October 2016. I had gone just beyond the northern sector of Keppel Bay to chase some grunter and settled down at anchoraround 6.30pm at a spot just wide of the shoal. It is a gutter of sorts and any fish moving in, or around the shoal, generally pass along this corridor. The fishing was good for this reason and by 11pm, I had my bag limit of grunter, plus a couple of nice sweetlip and a lone trout. The trevally had really worked me over, as did a few of the resident sharks. But it was a good nights’ fishing. I rolled the swag out on the floor of S-Cape and fell asleep.

Around 3.00am a gusty little breeze kicked in from the north and I got up to check the anchor and my position. I cast a glance across at the sounder which I had left running and studied a significant show of fish. By their pattern, they appeared to be all mackerel – big ones. They had arrived during the night.

My original plan was to get up just before dawn and troll the shoal for a couple of hours in the hope of getting a Spanish, or two. But with the fish right under the boat and the tide just about to turn the temptation to give it a go was too great. Plus, there was also a greater level of understanding and confidence built up by the successes of the past 12 months. This would again be a real test.

The old adage is, “that the early bird gets the worm”. In my case this was true. Fishing was all over by 4.00am and three Spanish mackerel lay in the icebox, after a total fishing time of only 35 minutes. These were not big fish, but school sized fish of around 8-9kgs. The ocean was alive with them. They arrived and were feeding freely.

The significance of that trip was two-fold. I stayed on the reef until dawn, tidying and cleaning up S-Cape after the night’s fishing. At picaninny dawn two boats arrived and started bottom fishing. Ten minutes later, as the sun and temperature rose, two more boats arrived and started trolling. I never saw a fish caught. A check of my sounder on several occasion showed no fish in my area. Out to the north west a solitary tern could be seen dipping and occasionally diving over a school of bait. Upon investigation I came over a large school of Spanish macks, just holding above the bottom, in a stationary position. They were not feeding. It could only be assumed that they had already fed. The fishery had closed down as if someone had turned a switch. And that was right on dawn.

The second factor was that, although my fish were all taken on trolled fish baits of wolf herring and sea-pike, a check of the stomach contents of the Spanish showed all three fish were full of pencil squid and halves of my baits – nothing else. And this has also been the case with several of the other fish taken at night.

There is still a lot to learn.