Mackerel bring in the Spring
The words "the mackerel are running" mean only one thing to a New Jersey fisherman: it's fishing time again!
Water temperatures are still quite cold in March and early April. But, when the Atlantic mackerel finally arrive it signals that the warming trend has finally begun.
These fast swimming beauties provide some fast and furious action. In warmer years, they can be found in late February but most other years they appear after mid-March. In the coldest of years, they do not appear until early April.
Several party boats will make forays to the mackerel grounds. Mackerel fishing is not difficult.
The mate or captain will be able to see the mackerel on his fish-finder and tell you how far off the bottom the fish are located. Listen to them and you may land two to four fish on a single drop.
If there aren't too many people on a party boat, you can get away with a light spinning rod. This will afford more fun than the heavier conventional rod and reel rigs used on most party boats.
Because mackerel are related to tuna, they are pound for pound, good fighters that can be lots of fun on a light spinning rod, or even a fly rod.
Macks are not known for their culinary qualities, but that is because few people eat them. If eaten fresh - the day they are caught or the day after - they can be wonderful.
They are a dark-meat fish, so they must be cooked accordingly. Simple broiling can be fine, as can baking his fish in a thin, tomato-based sauce.
Just as important, mackerel are used by many as baitfish for the coming year. This bait works for striped bass, weakfish, summer flounder, bluefish, and many other gamefish. Stock the freezer with a dozen or more for late spring and summer fishing action.
In addition to mackerel, a few party boats will start trips this month to the offshore wrecks. The fish that make these early appearances include tautog (blackfish), ling (mostly red hake), and the occasional cod and pollock.
This is bottom fishing, so you will need a fairly stout rod and reel (conventional or spinning), that can handle sinkers up to 8 ounces depending on water depth and current. Top and bottom hook rigs are appropriate, baited with clam, squid, or, even better at times, crab. Rods and rigs can be rented on the party boats.
All of these fish are great for the table. Make sure you get them on ice quickly and keep moist. Ling do not freeze very well, so plan to eat them quickly. They are a soft fish that can be very good when cooked the same day they are caught.
Try one of the many excellent Spanish recipes for whiting (merluza in Spanish). Fresh parsley can make all the difference, as can a salsa or a tomato-based sauce for baking.
Do not keep any fish you do not plan to eat. By putting them back, they will be there for next year's and will be a bit bigger.
A word of warning: remember it's still March and it can get mighty cold out on the ocean. Take the proper precautions: bring clothes that will keep you warm and dry, dress in layers, including a wind and water repellent outer jacket and pants.
Although there are cabins on the party boats, the cool, clean air of early spring can chill you quickly.
Paul Kerlinger has been fishing since he was 8 years old.
He's a dedicated salt water fly fisherman who enjoys nothing more than working a Cape May area sod bank or jetty.
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