The Jack of all trades - The many uses of Jack mackerel

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Joel Westcot
29 October 2015

Jack mackerel are a tasty bait and are attractive to both fish and fishermen. Put one on your hook but keep a couple for an appetizer and you will understand why predators happily eat them.

Horse or jack mackerel, yellow tail or by their Maori name hautere are a fish that many may hold in low regard, worth little more than squashing under foot and threading on an 8/0 hook.

In fact this is an excellent use for them but there are many others too and I have often found myself pursuing these guys with the kind of determination most reserve for game fish.

There is no doubt Jack mackerel (Jack macks’) make excellent bait, be it live, dead, butterflied or cubed but much less recognized at least here in New Zealand they are also a very worthy table fish.

Michael Jenkins with a Snapper that took a liking to a jack mack bait.

This article will shed some light on this particularly useful member of NZ’s marine food chain and will focus on its use as a dead or cut bait and on some quite delicious culinary possibilities.

Jack Mackerel can be found New Zealand wide, grow to 50cm and can live for nearly 30years. Similar to their cousins the trevally and kingfish they are sleekly built little predators and can move through the water with impressive speed.

They are often encountered in large schools in 5-15m of water where current meets foul. They also conveniently make their home around man-made structures such as bridges and wharves making them an easily accessible target for any angler.

Jack mackerel love sabiki’s

The most common method of catching Jack mackerel is on a sabiki rig, a string of 4-8 simple flies tied on tiny fine gauge wire hooks.

Sabiki’s can be very effective and if you get onto a hungry school it’s not uncommon to get several fish on every drop. At times Jack macks can be present but fussy and you may need to add some tiny slivers of bait to your hooks to entice a bite.

More proof that snapper love jack mackerel.

Remember to cut baits small and switch them out every ten minutes or so as squid seems to lose its attraction after soaking it for a while. Always use a sinker at the bottom of the rig to help reduce tangles and use enough weight to get to the bottom, as this is where the fish will often be found.

Sabiki’s usually come in a string of seven or eight flies and good tip to reduce tangles is to cut the string in half and use just three or four flies. This also means less hooks to bait should you need to, it makes them much more kid friendly and is less wasteful.

Now you have a bucket full of Jack mackerel you will want to start turning them into something more substantial, namely a big snapper!

Stray-lining is one of the most effective methods of targeting big snapper especially in a berley trail and Jack mack’s are excellent bait as they are oily, naturally prevalent and last well on the hook.

It is their longevity that sets them aside from pilchards. Jack macks will often survive a picker onslaught long enough for a bigger fish to be attracted by the commotion and seize the bait from the pickers.

How to rig Jack macks

An effective and popular way to rig Jack mackerel for stray-lining is to butterfly them. To rig them in this fashion slice the fillets from the head without making a vertical cut, then remove the backbone leaving the two fillets attached to the head. This exposes plenty of flesh allowing natural oils to escape, the scent of which are irresistible to big snapper.

A butterflied fish can be rigged using two hooks, the lead hook inserted into and curved out of the top of the head and the trailing keeper hook inserted through the trailing fillet and half hitched in place. There’s always something comforting about having a butterflied bait drifting out the back, rod in holder, reel out of gear, ratchet on and just waiting for that ziz zizzz!

If you are fishing from the rocks a whole Jack mackerel can be preferable for its castability, it’s also less time consuming and messy to rig.

If fish are tentative on the bite a good idea is to fish smaller baits and one option is smaller Jack macks with their heads removed. Tearing the head off carefully so as not to pull out the gut is a good way to create a smaller oil exuding bait, a couple of slices across the flank can help too. I like to place the bottom hook through the belly, as this is often where snapper will bite first.

Another excellent use for Jack mackerel that prize-winning surfcaster Michael Jenkins told me about is its use as a surfcasting bait.

The first step in his method is to fillet the Jack macks and freeze the fillets flat in a zip lock bag.  

1. If you haven't already frozen a bunch , remove the fillets from the small jack mackerel.

2.Discard the head and backbone (good for berley)

3.The hooks here are Black Magic c.points, the top hook is a 4/0, the bottom a 5/0

4. Put the bottom hook through the center of the big end of the fillet, flesh side first and back through the skin side and repeat for top hook at the tail end of the fillet.

5. Fold the lengthwise edges of the skin toward the hooks and bind the bait cotton so the hooks protrude only from the exposed flesh.

6. The bait should be bound tightly with about 15 wraps and the cotton held in place with a couple of half hitches.

Many people find frozen jack mackerel more effective than fresh. This is likely because the freezing process degrades the flesh’s cells and subsequently more scent and oil is released.

The $64 million eating fish

Here is something some may find hard to swallow, our humble Jack mack is a delicious food fish in fact according to Statistics NZ $64 million dollars worth of it was exported in 2012. Although some of this mass was destined for the fish meal factory they are prized by many countries for their eating qualities. Japan is one such country and here they are even targeted as a sports fish!

In Japan Jack mackerel or aji is often eaten raw as sashimi and served with just soya sauce and grated ginger.

To prepare, a very sharp knife is essential through out so the flesh is sliced and not torn.

The fish should be gutted and de-headed taking care to remove the pectoral fins and associated bones. The tough bony scales along the lateral line should be sliced off and the fish filleted and skinned in the usual manner.

The rib cage, pin and any other remaining bones should be removed and finally the flesh rinsed, dried and cut into appetising slices. Serve with a small portion of soya sauce and grated ginger, dip and eat! Remember fish destined for Sashimi should be killed and iced as quickly as possible after capture.

Another excellent Japanese option is to cook Jack mackerel ‘kara-age’  or deep fried style.

The first step is to fillet the fish, again remembering to first remove the bony scales near the tail and slice off the rib cage.

The next step is to marinate the fillets in a mixture of ginger, garlic, soya sauce and sake. Use about 2 parts soya sauce to 1 part sake. For eight small fillets you need about one tbsp. of soy, a tsp. of sake, a tsp. of grated ginger and a small clove of sliced garlic.

Mix the fillets through the marinade and leave for about 30mins. Then roll the fillets in flour.

Finally heat some oil in a fry pan, slip in the fillets and fry to a golden crisp. The crunchy bite sized fillets are flavour packed and deliciously complimented with a cold beer, a perfect appetizer for that baked snapper main!

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