Pier Fishing for Pacific Mackerel    

At the Redondo Beach Pier

  In 2003, I took a break from throwing lures at largemouth bass and went with my brother to the Redondo Beach Pier here in California to fish for Pacific Mackerel. This page is an account of what happened. At the Redondo Beach Pier there is ample pay parking, public bathrooms, a bait and tackle shop, a fish cleaning station, and numerous shops and restaurants catering to the tourist trade. You can fish from only designated areas of the pier. Here in California, you can fish from a public pier without a license. The wonderful Pier Fishing in California website has a description of the pier. It is a very urban pier, and it gets considerable fishing pressure. We went on a weekday (he seldom if ever goes on Friday, Saturday or Sunday) to avoid the crowds.

This Page  Now Updatedfor 2006

  The Pacfic Mackerel
  Above: the quarry: Scomber japonicus, the Pacific Mackerel. (Also called American mackerel, greenback jack, chub mackerel). Pacific mackerel are distinguished by having green coloration along the back. They often travel in schools, eating fish, crustaceans, and squid. They are not a particularly wary fish (they are not line shy and are not put off by exposed metal terminal tackle) but do put up a good fight for their size. Being voracious eaters, they account for the majority of bites off of area piers.  
  My brother is a regular at the Pier, and he pretty much specializes in fishing for Pacific Mackerel, though with saltwater fishing with cut bait, you never know what you will haul up.  Pacific Mackerel are not highly prized as a food fish, so he seldom keeps more than he can use as bait for future fishing trips, and the rest are released back into the ocean.  Most recipes I have found are for Atlantic species of mackerel. The other oddity is that local freshwater anglers use mackerel as cut bait for catfish! He manages on a fixed income, so pier fishing (no license or admission costs!) is his economical pastime.

bait and tackle shop

  He uses low end freshwater rods and reels (he is on a fixed income) and he says that heavier rods and reels could certainly be used, but his stuff is a compromise on portability and affordability. Like any good angler, he religiously sharpens his hooks. He swears by the Uni Knot for most applications (as I do) and swears at the more popular Improved Clinch Knot (it let him down once and let a really big yellowtail get away). Spinning reels are preferred. Baitcasting or conventional reels are not as useful: Redondo Pier, like most piers, prohibits overhead casting, and it is difficult to perform the preferred underhand pendulum cast with baitcasting gear. The hard part about the underhand pendulum cast is that you cannot practice it at home (unless you happen to have a 25 foot replica of the Eiffel Tower in your backyard that you could stand on). As someone who has taken over a year to finally get to the point where I don't backlash most of the time when largemouth bass fishing, I can only imagine how long it would take to learn to pendulum cast without backlashing using baitcasting gear.
  A crab
  The anglers next to us caught this crab: you never know what will be brought up when ocean fishing. We brought up some starfish, which are indicators that your hooks are too close to the bottom.  

The Method Summarized

Rods 6.5 to 7.0 foot Medium to Medium Heavy Power (Freshwater) Spinning
Reels Medium to Medium heavy freshwater spinning reels (He uses those with the highest line weight capacity listed on them of 12 pound test: think of the Shimano spinning reels with the number 4000 in their model name).
Line 12 pound Berkeley Trilene Big Game, clear
Method Still fishing with cut bait; strike detection is by watching the tip of the rod.
Cut bait: Mackerel and/or Squid cut into slender triangular pieces about 2.5 inches long. Bait can be purchased or stored frozen; you can even fish it frozen, as it will defrost in the ocean. Also freshly caught Mackerel, cut the same way. At right: hook the cut bait at two points, leaving the point of the triangle to dangle. You can use just squid or just mackerel or both on the same hook. With frozen baits, you can cut the bait at home and bring it to the pier in a plastic food storage box. Frozen anchovies (another possible bait) and frozen squid are readily available from pier bait shops; you can save previously caught mackerel for bait. Fresh squid can be purchased more economically from a supermarket or fish market. [Note: my brother has subsequently changed to hooking the bait on a single point; which is less work and just as effective]   Method for hooking the cut bait

Mustad 3366 hook

Size 4 or 6 Sproat (Mustad 3366, upper left) or "live bait" O'Shaughnessy (Mustad 9174 , lower left) tied onto a gagnion or sliding sinker rig (see below). The Mustad 3366 are sharp 95% of the time right out of the package. Hooks not shown in proportional size to each other. Both of these hooks are not very expensive.


Mustad 9174 hook

The most important part of all the gear is the terminal rig: which is called a gagnion (rhymes with "canyon").  A typical gagnion he uses for mackerel is diagrammed below. Hooks are tied onto the leaders (or snells) with a Uni Knot; the loops at each end of the rig are tied with the Perfection loop. The short leaders are tied to the main leader by back to back uni-knots. The two hook snells are about a foot apart. He does not use a snap or snap swivel to connect the sinker to the line; the perfection loop is slipped through the eye of the sinker and then opened up and looped around the sinker (an application of the interlocking loops method of fastening).

Cast it out as far as you can, letting the sinker go to the bottom, and then reel in the slack. Current and wave action may make the rig move quite a ways from where you originally cast it. Set the rod down, leaning it against the rail. The idea is to keep the bait suspended off the bottom. Wind in line as slack appears in the line. Periodically (say every 15 minutes) reel it all in and cast it again, as you need to replace missing bait and remove weeds hung up on the rig. Strike detection is by watching the tip of the rod: the mackerel will bite at the bait, making the rod tip quiver. The fish basically hook themselves, as you wait for a persistent bend in the rod tip (say, 6 seconds) do a hook set, and then reel it in. Due to the geometry of the terminal rig, the heavy sinker and the off-to-the-side nature of the snells make a hasty swing ineffective. See diagram at the right.

method of fastening a terminal sinker using a perfection loop instead of a snap swivel.



Above: method of fastening a terminal sinker using a perfection loop instead of a snap swivel.


hookset diagramn


Above: keeping a tight line means the main line is a straight line from sinker to rod tip; if you swung when the line is straight (left), most of the energy goes into lifting up the sinker. If you let the fish move with the bait (right) the main line is no longer in a straight line and the energy of the swing goes towards moving the hook into the fish.

Gagnion rig (also called a high-low leader)

Above: Gagnion rig (also called a high-low leader)

A Sliding Sinker Rig

Above: A Sliding Sinker Rig

A Happy Angler lands a Mackerel  

Above: A Happy Angler
lands a Mackerel



  The second rig used by my brother is a sliding sinker rig (above). A uni knot is used to tie line onto the swivels, the snap and the hook. A perfection loop is used for the sinker. A plastic bead is used to protect the knot from the snap. This rig is similar in purpose to a lot of other sliding sinker rigs: the idea is for the fish to be able to take the bait (and hook) and swim with it a ways before it can detect the weight of the sinker. It is opposite of how I would have thought to make this rig in that the hook is on the main line and the sinker is on the subordinate line (called the sinker dropper). The hook side leader that we used that day (and it caught the most fish) was only about a foot long. For active fishing (see below) the sinker dropper can be a short as 12 inches and for still fishing, a longer dropper of 2.5 - 3 ft. could be used, along with a heavier weight. Note: a "dipsey" sinker is the same as a "bass casting" or "bell" sinker.

This rig can be fished a little more actively than the gagnion. Cast it out, counting the seconds it takes to hit the bottom. Slowly crawl the rig in. On your next cast, let if fall for fewer seconds before reeling it in, and then repeat, each time going to a different depth. On a crowded pier, you can't really cover the water by fan casting at different angles: here you are covering what water you can by casting to different depths. If you feel or see bites, drop the rod tip to give the fish more line (so it swims away with the bait and helps hook itself). Reel it in when the you feel that the fish has positively hooked itself.

This rig is also versatile; if you use a snap swivel instead of a swivel, you can change out the hook leader for a gagnion (also remove the sinker dropper). That way you can convert this back to a gagnion without too much retying.

Misc Notes:
  • The gagnion rig can have more than two hooks, but my brother says that rigs with more hooks tend to tangle, especially when there is a fish on the line.
  • I noticed a few other anglers were using rod mounted bells (as are used by freshwater catfish anglers) for strike detection.
  • Another angler successfully used this rig: egg sinker, bead, swivel, leader and then hook (basically the same as a freshwater "Carolina Rig"). There was cut bait on the hook, and the leader was about 5 feet long. The angler either let the bait drift with the current or actively retrieved it. This lighter weighted rig did tend to go all over the place, perhaps running a greater risk of entangling with neighboring anglers' lines. My brother has also seen split shot rigs (which are basically the same format) also used with good success.
  • The underhand pendulum cast is quite simple - the experienced anglers there simply swing the line back once and cast the rig out with a flick of the wrist. The height of the pier allows you to use a long rod and long leader, since you are so far off the water. I had some difficulty, in that I am not at all used to such heavy weights.
  • The basic rule is to use as heavy a sinker as needed to hold your rig in place; though at times, some drift is desirable.
  • My polarized sunglasses did not really provide me with the visual benefit I normally get when chasing largemouth - the sea was really opaque (and somewhat distant due to the height of the pier). You should still wear sunglasses, however, for UV protection and protection against wayward lures and hooks. And here on the west coast, the setting sun means a lot of sun in your face.
  • Some anglers brought a small pail of fresh water; this was used as a "finger bowl" - for dipping your hands in before wiping them off. This seems like a good idea (but it does mean bringing yet another item). Your hands can get quite messy from handling the bait and the caught fish, and just wiping them on rags (bring lots of rags!) still leaves a sticky residue which will get on your rod handles and reels. When you get home, scrub your hands with toothpaste to get rid of the fishy smell.
  • Since the fish are basically hooking themselves (I'm not really sure that the swing does a whole lot), it seems to me that "circle hooks" which are even better for fish to hook themselves with, would be a good choice here. My brother has not yet tried these, so I don't have any real information on using these hooks.
  • The mackerel bite is somewhat sensitive to the weather; the warmer the weather, the better the bite. Also, the later in the warmer seasons of the year, the larger the mackerel.
  • When the pier is crowded, tangles with your neighbor are unavoidable. You may find someone wanting to move their rod under (or over) yours if lines are crossed, or you may have to exercise great patience as you and your neighbor untangle a horrible mess.
  • Rinse off your rods and reels with freshwater when you get home to help prevent corrosion.

A pier angler prepares for an underhand pendulum cast


Above: an angler lets loose an underhanded pendulum cast. The height of the rail made it difficult to do a conventional hook set: unless you draped yourself over the rail, you couldn't reel the rod tip down and then yank up.


bait prices, circa 2003


Above: bait prices, circa 2003.


A package of frozen anchovies


Above: on a subsequent trip, we observed nearby anglers successfully using anchovies for bait, so we purchased some and then caught some fish. Bring a knife and a cutting board to the pier so you can easily cut bait. (Or use kitchen shears to cut the bait). Redondo pier is made mostly of concrete and metal; there are very few knife friendly surfaces which would serve as a substitute cutting board. (There are a few rail mounted cutting boards: there is one visible in the picture below).  Cut the anchovies into cross sectional pieces about 3/4 inches long (don't try to make triangular pieces) and place them on the hook any way you can. Discard the heads, but you can use the tail sections.


This tiny sculpin was released back into the water



Above: light tackle (especially with a flexible rod tip) can lead to more hookups, but the short (4 ft.) rod and the spincasting (closed face) reel had difficulty in reeling up even smaller mackerel. This tiny sculpin was released back into the water.

  Flexibility and Adapting

My brother states that you must be flexible when fishing. Try different terminal rigs, retrieves and hook set strategies. On the day we went out, the combination of defrosted mackerel and squid were not producing well, so he tried fresh caught mackerel, and we got more bites. He says to observe the anglers around you and see what they are doing right. (Freshwater bass anglers call this "establishing a pattern" - seeing what works that particular day in that particular environment.)

Bring extra line and terminal tackle to the pier so that you can make up a rig on the fly to meet current conditions. He suggests using clear line (not blue or green) for both your main line and leaders - clear line shows up well against the water and also is more visible when you need to untangle your line and leaders from someone else's.

  2005 Update: Baits
  Thus far in 2005, my brother has been catching larger mackerel on cut up fresh mackerel; the frozen bait seems to yield only smaller fish. The strategy: bring a smaller amount of frozen mackerel, catch a mackerel or two and then cut those up for bait.
  2005 Update: New Rigs
Gagnions and sliding sinker rigs weren't performing well in 2005, so my brother tried some other rigs and these seemed to work well...

Carolina (Fish Finder) Rig:
Carolina (Fish Finder) Rig

This rig is identical to a freshwater carolina rig, often used for largemouth bass fishing (Bass fishermen use bullet sinkers in this rig now, but the early versions of this rig used egg sinkers). Saltwater anglers often call this a "fish finder" rig, though that rig usually has a sinker slide with the sinker instead of an egg sinker. For finicky fish, use the full length 5.5 ft leader of 6 pound test with a size 10 hook. Otherwise, use a 10 pound leader.  For cautious fish, just hook the corner of the bait through the skin, leaving hook point exposed. Be sure to adjust your drag for the 6 pound line.

Cast the rig as far out as you can (the long leader makes for difficult casting).  You can (1) retrieve it back slowly and steadily (no pump and wind) suspended in the water column (imitating a drifting piece of bait) or (2) just let it rest on the bottom (what largemouth bass anglers call "deadsticking").

When you feel a nibble, slowly lower the rod tip (you will feel a tap-tap-tap from the fish) letting the fish have line. When they tighten up the line, rip his lips off.  Other anglers wait for a 4-6 inch rod tip deflection and then swing.

Slip Float Rig

The Slip Float RigThis rig is particularly effective in the warmer months and in clearer water. This rig is identical in format to many freshwater slip float (or slip bobber) rigs. The slip float is made of a 3/4" diameter dowel. Use a 1/16" drill to drill a hole though the center.  My brother sees how far the drill bit goes into the dowel and then limits the length of the dowel accordingly. He whittles a rounded shape on one end (use knife, file, whatever) and the float is painted red for visibility. He uses Testors model paint. A standard commercial slip float can be substituted, but is should be colored for visibility.

A knotted rubber band (pink, red or blue works best for visibility) is used as a slip float stop: as in most slip float rigs, it controls the depth of the bait. My brother usually sets this at  rod length (6-6.5 ft.). Longer would be too awkward.

You need to adjust the weight of the split shot(s) to the the water. The split shot should be right above the knot, not separated from the knot as in the diagram. The main line is 12 pound test, and the leader is 10 pound test, bound together with any line to line knot (back to back uni knots, surgeons knot, etc.).

This rig tends to drift a lot, so it does not work well on a crowded pier with a lot of lines in the water.

      A  commercially produced slip float A  commercially produced slip float: they are usually colored for visibility. They come in a large number of shapes and sizes. You probably don't need the fancier ones designed for extreme sensitivity.

Do a long cast, and as the rig goes past the target area, stop the line with your hand over the spool. This ideally swings the bait farther out than the float.  A successful cast has the float and rubber band coming together as the rig sinks. (This cast can be difficult to perform without tangling). Occasionally nibblers (top smelt or other baitfish) will pull enough on the bait so that the rig straightens out an otherwise bad cast. This rig is difficult to cast (the hardest part of the process) if you get one good cast out of three tries, you are doing well.

Just let it drift unless it gets too close to other lines. 

A casting bubble


 A casting bubble, a commonly
available type of slip float,


Nibblers will submerge the bait a few inches, but Mackerel will have an aggressive strike (usually without nibbling as on other rigs), taking the bait, dramatically accelerating the movement of the float (usually at a downward angle). Let the float travel 3-6 feet, then swing.

If you use a commercially available slip float, use larger sizes (my brother's slip floats are 3/4 by 2.5 inches)

Despite its drawbacks, this rig is the most fun of all: you get to see the movement of the float - more dramatic than watching your rod tip.

  2006 Update: Feather Rigs
In 2006, the  "feather" gagnion is now popular on the pier. In this case, the "feather" is similar to a freshwater trout fly, but is larger and heavier. Feather rigs seem to be outfishing cut bait, so much so that it is common to see multiple catches on feather gagnions.  Back in the late nineties, the feather was the hot set up, and it is now back again..

a feather gagnion

Above: a feather gagnion, made of 12 pound test, heavy sinker or jig, with 3 or 4 feathers on 2.5 inch 10 pound droppers, 12 inches apart. The main line (12 pound test) has a snap swivel and the top of the gagnion has a loop.

Droppers are tied with interlocking uni nots, the same as with a bait gagnion.  A relatively heavy sinker or jig (2-3 ounces) is required. A jig with its treble hook is more likely to be lost to snags, but does allow for more possible hookups, since the fish are hitting the jig as well as the feathers. A chromed torpedo sinker (a sinker with line tie loops at both ends) with a treble hook at one end could also serve as a jig, but torpedo sinkers are hard to find these days.

A fairly long rod, 8 or 9 feet produces a longer cast, which may be crucial.  A medium spinning reel will work.

Due to the fairly constant expense of lost jigs, my brother makes his own  He has so far not found inexpensive hardware store epoxy spray paint to be very durable, as the paint is easily removed by abrasions. He has tried white and white with black stripe, but the white outperforms the white with black stripe handily. He has seen blue and chrome work as well. A commercially produced equivalent jig could be a Sumo Jig,  Hopkins no equal, Hopkins shorty, or a  Kastmaster of equivalent size could be used.

Feathers can be home tied, but it requires a fly tying vice, knowledge of the whip finish knot and some manual dexterity. It is, however, easier to tie than a trout fly due to its larger size.

When fishing do a long underhand cast, let it sink to the bottom, retrieve it in jerks (jerk, reel down, jerk, reel down, etc.). A few times a slow steady retrieve along the bottom might work, but it is the exception.

As you jerk, you might feel a sudden weight, as if you had snagged something. Then reel in very quickly. The jerk is the hookset. Note how far out you are getting bit, so you will cast to that distance again.

It is not uncommon to have a full gagnion, but this can lead to tangling problems. The fish can still hit your hooks even when  you are reeling in quite quickly.

Homemade jig
Above: medium sized homemade jig (the body is about 3.5 inches long, and it has a size 4 standard bronze treble hook). Homemade snaps are on both ends.  He finds that split rings take too long.
homemade yarn fly
Above: homemade yarn fly (size 4 Mustad 3366 hook, chartreuse polypropylene yarn tinted cellophane accents, red thread sealed with clear nail polish).
homemade flashabou yarn fly
Above: homemade flashabou yarn fly (size 4 Mustad 3366 hook, green flashabou, red thread sealed with clear nail polish).
From a sabiki lure: a hook hooed with a wax paper-like material.A commercially available equivalent to the feather gagnion is the "Sabiki" rig, "Piscator" rig, or the "Lucky Lura" rig. These have a glow bead and the hooks are hooded with a wax paper- like material. If you can find inexpensive versions of these, these would be a very good alternative to tying the feathers yourself. Be sure to sharpen the hooks (if needed).
The chasing rig
Above: The chasing rig. A single feather and a jig, simulating a larger fish chasing down a small prey.  Can be used when the bite is hot, the advantage is the lack of tangles with fewer hooks. Since there are only two hooks, you can use a lighter rod.

Picture Credits:

Further Reading:

  • Jones, Ken. Pier Fishing in California. Aptos, CA: Marketscope Books, 1992. You can purchase copies of this book from the Pier Fishing in California website.
  • Korvach, Ronnie. Saltwater Fishing in California. Aptos, CA: Marketscope Books, 2000.

Envelope for storing rigs


Above: My brother's very practical method for storing gagnions, leaders, and snells: hooks are set into slits into the cardboard card and the line is wrapped around the card. The card is stored in an envelope and the envelope is labeled. Discarded breakfast cereal boxes provide an suitable raw material for the cardboard card part of this. Groups of envelopes can be rubber banded together and stored in your tackle box. I've copied his method for use in storing hooks and leaders for powerbait fishing for rainbow trout. (This method does not work well for treble hooks, however - unless they are really small.)


James S. Koga
February 20, 2015