September is a great time of the year for Land Based Mackerel Fishing at Cape Hillsborough….

Conditions: Light wind and glassed out seas
Season: Early Spring
Strategy: Fishing off the rocks for passing pelagics
Technique: High speed spinning with metals
Target: Mackerel
Gear Set Up: 3-7kg 9’ 3 piece travel rod with 5000 size reel, 15lb braid and 20lb leader
Lure Types: Hardbodies, slugs, spoons and stickbaits
Session Rating: 8/10

Camping and land based Mackerel fishing at Cape Hillsborough was the first thing I thought of when more time off came my way.  I set up my swag at the Smalleys Beach camping ground about 10 minutes drive from the Cape. The  campers next door were a friendly lot and we soon got chatting over a cup of tea.

Around this time of the year, most rocky headlands along the Queensland coast overlooking deep water will yield land based Mackerel. Small-sized early-season Mackerel were present around Cape Hillsborough in large numbers as they chased the schools of bait both in the bay and out off the headlands. The Mackerel were not picky and seemed happy to strike at anything in front of them. Large numbers of Mackerel and perfect weather meant it really was a prime time for land based Mackerel fishing at Cape Hillsborough.

My first encounter with a Mackerel was on the outgoing tide on day one. A large school of juvenile fish had set up in a deeper channel surrounded by some small rocky islands. Water was sucked off the flats, over some shallow strewn boulders and into the deep where the predators hung back for their morning meal to be washed past their noses. I stood up high on an overlooking boulder with a birds-eye view of everything. I cast out a 4” hardbody and twitched it back with the current.

Heaps of Small Mackerel

This technique produced a lot of small 40cm-50cm fish. While the fish were not of a legal size they were loads of fun to catch and release. The Mackerel competed in smalls schools in a frantic race to hit the lure first. The bigger sized lure meant I wasn’t getting bitten off and I landed around 8 fish over the hour with a few dropped fish at the base of the rocks. Inside the packs of Mackerel there was also the odd Wolf Herring and even a few over-sized Bream.

The Bream frequently charged out after the lure from under the rocks to fight the Mackerel for the lures. The high vantage point and made this a truly fascinating sight to witness.

Cape Hillsborough Mackerel not up for the dawn bite time

The following day I changed locations and concentrated on the deeper water on the outside of the headlands. I arrived at dawn and commenced casting slugs out deep with no success. It wasn’t until the sun hit the water that the fish began to get hungry. At first, the hits were coming from right in close to the rocks and right down deep. The problem with this was that my metal lures were getting bitten off on the drop.

Catching Mackerel down deep on metal slugs

The challenge here was to not let the lure sink down into the feeding zone. The timing of the drop and retrieve was critical. To do this, I used a count of “4”. If I let it sink any longer than that, the lure would usually get taken completely and I wouldn’t see it again. Commencing the retrieve at the right moment tempted the fish to strike the lure from below and connect with the trailing trebles already in motion.

Spotty and School Mackerel to 70cm

I was soon landing lots of legal School Mackerel up to 60cm long. By 10 o’clock a school of larger fish comprised of both School Mackerel and Spotted Mackerel came busting up through the area . I landed fish to around the 70cm mark and witnessed some metre plus Spotties chasing my lures without actually striking. I had 300m of 15lb braid on my reel ready for the epic runs of these bigger specimens but could not connect to any of these trophy fish.

The lures were mostly taken on the drop or the moments after lifting it off the drop with the occasional strike coming near the surface. These 50-70cm fish had lightning fast runs but quickly ran out of steam after taking 20 or 30m of line. I landed around a dozen or so fish in that size range with three of those kept for a feed.

Technique for landing and handling Mackerel

Mackerel are a delicate fish and do not always release well. My landing and release technique definitely improved over the course of the session. After getting the fish in close, I guided it up the rock face with the incoming swell, wrapped the leader twice around my hand before lifting it completely clear of the water. From there I put the lip grip on the fish (so they did not damage themselves on the rocks) and plucked out the lure with the pliers while it hung suspended off the ground.

Technique for releasing Mackerel

The release of these fish is just as important. As quickly as possible after getting the hooks out, the fish should be returned to the water. I used the lip grips to swim the fish around the shallows until they start to kick and then release them. One time I got lazy and speared one of the fish back into the water without swimming him. It hit the water and lay stunned for a moment. That was all it took however for a massive 14kg Cod to come out from below the rock I was standing on to engulf the entire fish. Only the kicking tail of the Mackerel could be seen hanging out from the Cods mouth. The Cod shook its massive head furiously before disappearing back under the rock with with his Mack snack. I felt bad for my Mackerel but it was actually pretty cool to see.

Keeping Mackerel

If the Mackerel are not put quickly back in the water and swum properly, they do not survive. If the Mackerel you catch experiences something like an epileptic fit while out of the water – don’t bother releasing it because it is already dead.

I kept the three Mackerel from the session which would not have released well.  They were hugely appreciated by my neighbours back at camp who I had became pretty good friends with. We put them on the BBQ, shared a few home brew beers and reflected on what a great spot Cape Hillsborough was.

If you are interested in going to Cape Hillsborough, Steve Morgan has penned a useful article  on the area focusing on its improved prospects for fishing. Also check out this awesome article for a some more in depth coverage on how to catch that land based Mackerel of a lifetime.

If you enjoyed this post, feel free to leave a comment, read more reports at or even sign up for the latest posts to be delivered directly to your email account.  Thanks again for reading – Scoutfisher












  • Luke says:

    Hey mate, looks like you had some pretty fun sessions. Have you ever hooked into some good sized spanish here? Or spotted any?

    • Tim Sibley says:

      Hey Luke – sorry for the late reply – My wife and I have just had our second baby son and things are a bit hectic as I sure you can imagine.

      I do not know Cape Hillsborough as well as I would like as I have only been there a handful of times so can’t really comment on Spanish Macs with any certainty. My gut feeling however is that if you are fishing there at the right time you would more than likely be in with a good shot for one.

      That last session I did see one Mackerel chasing my lure that was clearly well over a metre but I suspect that would have been a Spotty.

      I have personally witnessed large Spaniards pulled in off the Mackay Harbour rock wall an hour south so there is no reason they would not be there also.

  • stephen says:

    Hello scoutfisher really enjoy reading your blog from the uk, would the macs be there in june or july? as i will be in townsville for 6 weeks to visit my son and i want to do a bit of camping and fishing, i will be going to lucinda as well,but i want to try south of townsville as well as north,also to catch pelagics in oz does the water need to clear? many thanks

    • Tim Sibley says:

      Hey Stephen – Sorry for the delayed response. Mackerel season is just starting now in north Queensland – your timing is good. Just came back from a week up at Lucinda – we struggled a bit and didn’t get any Barramundi – I recommend getting a guide if your up there. There is so much to fish and sometimes you just need the local knowledge to show you when and where the fish are at. If not a guide then definitely your local tackle shop. Clear water is not necassary. The most important points to remember for pelagics is 1. go early in the morning and late in the afternoon. 2. Rocky points/structure with high current flow 3. Where there is bait (just out of the current) then the bigger fish will also be. 4. Small metal slugs are cheap and very effective. Best of luck with it.

  • Tommo says:

    Hey mate loved the article, just moved to mackay & wanted to catch queenies & mackies. Went to wedge island off cape hilborough and caught heaps of mackies and a decent queenie ( All catch and release). All because of you I found this place and had a good day, Thanks buddy ??

    Also I can’t recognise where you are fishing, are you in the northern side of the bay or closer to wedge island ?

    • Tim Sibley says:

      On that session – I moved about a fair bit. The Wedge Island area is an awesome spot for Wolf Herring, Mackerel and a whole bunch of others that undoubtably swim around that area. The other spots I was fish are Haliday Bay, Smalleys beach and Ball Bay

  • Tommo says:

    Also what lures & metals did you use, that worked well ?
    Looks like you have a Rapala Xrap with a short bib In one photo.

    Sorry for the bad grammar, thats iPhone auto correct for you ?

    • Tim Sibley says:

      On days like that any metal worked well – If I recall correctly I was using cheap K-mart slugs. I lost a fair few slugs to bite offs so when the fish are feeding like this I find cheaper is better and there is no noticeable drop off in quality on lures like slugs. My all time favourite Mackerel lures are the Flasha spoons with large metal blades (any brand) coming a close second. Think that was an X-rap. I also have some cheaper X-Rap knock-offs but notice they do not cast anywhere near as well as the proper Rapala X-raps.

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