Making a quick and cheap DIY mackerel rig

Step 4 of making a mackerel rig


After moving from landlocked Vermont to the coast of Maine a few years ago, I became enamored with fishing for Atlantic mackerel during the summer months. In late June or early July every year, large schools of these sleek, colorful, fish move from their deep-water winter habitat into harbors and coves where they can be easily caught by an angler with even the most basic fishing gear.

One particularly effective method for catching mackerel is with a rig often referred to as a mackerel tree. A mackerel tree is simply a length of heavy monofilament line off of which shorter lengths of line branch.  At the end of each branch is a hook dressed with a brightly colored or reflective material. When mackerel are present and biting, an angler jigging, trolling, or casting with such a rig can hook multiple fish simultaneously, resulting in exciting fight while also maximizing the amount of delicious meat brought home to the grill or smoker.

Numerous commercial mackerel trees are available for purchase, perhaps the most effective of which are the Sabiki rigs offered by Hayabusa. Effective as these rigs are, they are also relatively expensive at $5 to $6 each. While such a price tag may not seem excessive, snags and subsequent lost gear is inevitable when fishing from Maine’s rocky coastline. An angler can easily lose half a dozen rigs during the course of a season.

Being a person who prefers to spend effort rather than money, I decided to give building my own mackerel rigs a try. Here’s a breakdown of what I did.

Tools and Materials

Mackerel rig making tools and materials

  • Fly tying vice (Cheap models will work)
  • Fly tying bobbin
  • Scissors
  • Brightly colored thread
  • Brightly colored hook dressing
  • Superglue
  • Size 4-6 corrosion resistant hooks
  • Size 12 barrel and snap swivels
  • 20-25 lb. test monofilament fishing line

The Easy Part: tying the flies

Step 1

After locking a hook into the vice, wind a base of thread onto the hook. Start just behind the eye and wind thread a third of the way to halfway down the shank. Add a few drops of superglue to the thread.


Step 2

Attach the dressing material to the hook by winding thread over the hook and dressing a few times. For dressing, I’ve been using florescent pink and florescent green spawn netting for no other reason than I was able to obtain packages for $1 each at a local salvage and surplus store. Any bright or shiny material (such as florescent yarn) will likely work as mackerel are not a particularly fussy fish. Use whatever is cheap and available.

Step 3

The details of this step will vary depending upon what dressing material is being used. I attached a square of spawn netting to the hook by a corner and then twisted the netting into a cord. I then wound that cord around the hook’s shank in a spiral pattern toward the eye. Approximately 1/8-inch behind the hook’s eye, I secured the material.

Attaching the hook dressing

Winding the dressing onto the hook.

Step 4

To create a “wing” I simply bent the excess dressing material back toward the bend of the hook and secured it in place with a few wraps of thread. I then trimmed off excess material.

Step 4 of making a mackerel rig

Step 4 of making a mackerel rig

Step 5

Finish the fly by wrapping enough thread just behind the hook’s eye to firmly secure the material in place. This creates something of a “head”. To ensure the thread does not unravel during fishing, saturate the “head” with superglue. Allow all glue to dry before attempting to remove the fly from the vice.

Final step of tying a mackerel fly

While there is a slight learning curve to tying even the basic fly needed for a mackerel rig, with a little practice a finished fly can be produced in 5 to 10 minutes.

The Hard Part: Completing the Rig

This is the part of the project that gave me the most trouble. This is likely due to the fact that I never had the patience to learn more than a few basic knots that I use for pretty much everything. Still, I ultimately came up with a system that mostly works.

Step 1

Cut a piece of monofilament approximately 3 feet in length. This will act as the “trunk” of the mackerel tree. Also cut 4 additional pieces of line, each one about 8-inches in length. These shorter lengths of line will become the “branches” of the mackerel tree.

Step 2

Tie the “branch” line across the “trunk” and knot securely in place. A knot must also be made in the “trunk” line or the branch will slide out of position. Repeat this step with the other branches, spacing them 4 to 6 inches apart.

Tying a mackerel rig

Step 3

Trim off excess line as necessary and affix a fly to each branch. Branches should ultimately be between 2 and 3 inches in length.

Step 4

Securely affix a barrel swivel to the “trunk” 4-6 inches above the first fly. Securely affix a snap swivel to the “trunk” 4-6 inches below the last fly. The rig is now complete.

A DIY, home made mackerel rig

The overall length of the rig as well as the number of hooks on a rig can be modified to suit individual preference. I have found that rigs that have more than four hook and are longer than 24-inches in length are ungainly when casting and more prone to tangle.

Does it work?

Making a quick and cheap fishing rig is a good way to kill a little time, but unless it actually catches fish, it is little more than a colorful decoration.

To put my rig to the test, I made an evening trip to the Schoodic Peninsula in eastern Maine to fish an incoming evening tide. The fishing was a little on the slow side as the mackerel had not yet arrived en masse in the region.

However, I did hook and land two of the small pollock (often called harbor pollock) that inhabit Maine’s near-shore coast more or less year round. This was encouraging. My experience has been that any rig or lure that will catch Pollock will also catch mackerel. Additionally, a wonderful feeling results when a DIY project results in something other than abject and comedic failure.

A small pollock that fell for a DIY mackerel rig during a recent fishing trip.

A small pollock that fell for a DIY mackerel rig during a recent fishing trip.

As I expected, A few hours into my fishing trip, I allowed my rig to get a little too close to the bottom where the sinker promptly wedged itself into the rocks. I had no choice but to break the line and surrender the homemade rig to the ocean. With less than a dollar in materials and a half hour of time invested into the project, such a loss was a minor defeat at the most.

The fishing was slow, but the scenery was awesome.

The fishing was slow, but the scenery was awesome.