Using a Sprat to Catch a Mackerel (2011)

It doesn’t matter if you’re a surfcaster or a big game fisherman: there are always times when you need fresh bait. 

It’s pretty easy these days to stop at the local tackle store to pick up packets of pillies and squid, sorting your requirements for a day’s fishing. However, there are times – like when you are away on holidays or you need a particular type of bait – when the ability to find and catch your own bait is necessary. It’s a fishing skill that should be well honed.

The great thing about collecting your own bait is that it often involves a fishing trip to catch bait for a fishing trip! It’s also a great opportunity to teach new anglers techniques that will come into play as their angling skills develop. Or it might involve gathering shellfish such as pipis, cockles and tuatua; not only are they good bait for sprats and piper, they’re also very effective when targeting larger fish such as trevally, moki, tarakihi, snapper and other mollusc eaters. Better still, it’s something the whole family can do and is a lot of fun.


Tuatuas are fun to collect and appeal to a wide range of fish species.

To be a successful shellfish gatherer you need to go out during the last few hours of the outgoing tide, as most shellfish beds are only accessible during this time. You also have to be prepared to get a little wet wading around in the shallows. Finding shellfish usually involves digging around in the sand about 5-10cm deep until you find them. Often they will be in clusters.

Another advantage to gathering shellfish, apart from the fact you can eat them, is that they will live in a bucket of seawater for a few days. 

Mussels are another easy-to-collect shellfish that makes great bait. In some areas they can be collected near the waterline along rocky shores and on structure when the tide is out, but if you need to find some in a hurry, throw on a mask and snorkel and have a look on any mooring lines, channel markers or structures that have been in the water a while. You should find plenty.

For most angling situations the most versatile bait tends to be small baitfish such as sprats (yelloweyed mullet), piper (garfish), various mackerel species and, occasionally, pilchards. All these small baitfish appeal to a wide range of fish, presented alive, dead or as cut baits. I have found that in many situations fresh bait significantly out-performs frozen bait. 

To catch these small fish, a few basic items and a bit of knowledge about their habits are required. Sprats, for example, can be found in harbours and estuaries in large schools. They are quite easy to catch using a float trailing a 50cm trace with a small (size 12 or 16) trout hook and a piece of shellfish bait on the end. Sprats also respond well to sabikis when biting freely. Same as most baitfish, one of the best spots to find them is around wharves. 

Piper are another small fish worth catching. They inhabit very similar areas to sprats, but also like sheltered bays between rocky points, and would have to be one of the ultimate baits for big snapper and kingfish. 


You need to have your bait catching gear ready to go

However, they can be very tricky to catch; this is when hook size and a good touch are important. Piper swim just below the surface and can be attracted by ground-baiting with wet rolled oats or bread. Use a light pencil float and very small hooks – size 16 trout hooks are perfect (especially those with a long shank, as this makes the hook easier to remove if swallowed). It is important to let piper move off with the bait before striking. 

There are times when there is lots of bait around, but they don’t seem to be feeding. In those situations a throw-net is a great solution, and is also handy if any bigger mullet show up. Although there’s a bit of a knack to throwing one, with a bit of practice you will get results.

Various mackerel species also make great bait, with the most common being jack mackerel (yellowtail), koheru and slimy mackerel. The mackerel species make hardy live baits for every species, from john dory to marlin, and also make fantastic dead baits when fished whole for big snapper. 

Jack mackerel show up all over the place, and the easiest way to catch them is with sabikis rigs, especially in lumo-green colours, although there are plenty of ‘pink shrimp’ fans out there, too. If you want to target mackerel for bait, the best times are at first light or dusk, as this is when they are most active. They are also attracted to strong lights over the water at night. There are times, especially during darkness, when it appears mackerel are not feeding. In this situation try: fishing deeper; using a very vigorous jigging action; or try baiting your sabiki hooks with thin slivers of fish or squid, and further encouraging them to feed with a berley trail.


Colour and size can make a difference when fishing with sabikis.

Koheru and slimy mackerel can also be targeted with sabikis, although the larger specimens are better targeted with a small, chrome 7-gram jig fitted with a single hook and fished on a light spinning rod. 
Then there are the larger baitfish such as kahawai, skipjack, trevally and barracouta. If barracouta are present, they are pretty easy to catch and make excellent deep water baits for hapuku, bass and the like, as well being effective on snapper when used fresh in big strips. 

Kahawai and skipjack tuna can be frustrating to catch, as they are often seen but won’t take any lures. The keys to getting strikes in such situations usually involve finding the right lure size and speed. As both species will probably be feeding on very small prey such as whitebait or krill, try using a similarly diminutive lure that represents this prey to trigger a feeding response. 


Don't discount the humble bait-catcher 

When fishing for larger baitfish for bait rather than sport, I prefer to set up a bungy line, with either a paravane (diving board) or trolling weight attached. These devices enable light lures to get down to the feeding fish; you can run a couple of bungees and get the bait into the boat quickly.

Another easily-caught bait is squid. These are usually found very early in the morning or late at night, but can also turn up during the day. If you have a squid jig at the ready, it is not hard to convert a fresh squid into top snapper bait.

There’s an old phrase that goes, “It takes a sprat to catch a mackerel” and there is a lot of truth in that when it comes to fishing: good bait-catching skills often equate to good fishing results.


December 2011 - Adam Clancey
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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