The Ultimate Guide to Keeping Mackerel Alive for Successful Fishing Trips

Are you an avid angler who loves the thrill of catching mackerel but struggles with keeping your bait alive? Look no further! In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore tried-and-true methods to ensure your mackerel remain lively and fresh, maximizing your chances of landing that coveted catch.

Why Keeping Mackerel Alive Matters

Mackerel are incredibly popular baitfish, prized for their oily flesh and irresistible scent that lures in larger predatory fish. However, these speedy swimmers have a high metabolism, making it challenging to keep them alive for extended periods. Dead or dying mackerel lose their appeal quickly, reducing your chances of a successful fishing trip.

By mastering the art of keeping mackerel alive, you’ll have a constant supply of fresh, lively bait that will entice even the wariest of game fish. Not only does this improve your odds of hooking a prize catch, but it also ensures you’re using ethical and sustainable fishing practices.

The Essentials: Water, Oxygen, and Temperature

To keep mackerel alive, you need to understand and address their basic needs: access to clean, oxygenated water and cool temperatures. Neglecting any of these factors can quickly lead to their demise.

Water Quality

Mackerel are saltwater fish, and they require specific water conditions to thrive. Ideally, you should use fresh seawater to maintain them. Avoid using freshwater, as it can cause osmotic stress and lead to their death.


Like all fish, mackerel need oxygen to breathe. Without proper oxygenation, they will quickly suffocate. Ensure that the water they’re kept in is well-aerated, either through constant circulation or by using an aerator or bubbler.


Mackerel are cold-blooded creatures, and their metabolic rates are directly affected by water temperature. Keeping them in excessively warm water will cause them to become stressed and use up oxygen faster, leading to their demise. Aim to maintain the water temperature between 60°F and 70°F (15°C to 21°C) for optimal survival rates.

Effective Methods for Keeping Mackerel Alive

Now that you understand the essential requirements for keeping mackerel alive, let’s explore some practical methods to implement on your next fishing trip.

Live Wells and Coolers

One of the most common ways to transport and maintain mackerel is by using live wells or coolers. These containers provide a controlled environment where you can manage water quality, oxygenation, and temperature.

  • Live Wells: Many fishing boats come equipped with built-in live wells, designed specifically for holding baitfish. These wells are typically plumbed with a continuous water supply and aeration system, ensuring optimal conditions for your mackerel.

  • Coolers: If you don’t have access to a live well, a cooler can serve as an effective makeshift solution. Choose a cooler large enough to accommodate your mackerel without overcrowding, and be sure to drill holes in the lid for ventilation and water circulation.

Maintaining Cooler Live Wells

To keep your mackerel alive in a cooler, follow these steps:

  1. Fill the cooler with fresh seawater, leaving enough room for the mackerel to swim freely.
  2. Add a battery-powered aerator or bubbler to oxygenate the water continuously.
  3. Place frozen water bottles or ice packs in the cooler to maintain cool temperatures.
  4. Change the water every 15-20 minutes to replenish oxygen levels and remove waste.
  5. Avoid overcrowding the cooler, as this can quickly deplete oxygen and increase stress levels.

Tub or Pool Noodle Live Wells

For larger quantities of mackerel or extended fishing trips, you might consider using a tub or pool noodle live well system. This setup allows for better water circulation and oxygenation, keeping your bait lively for hours.

  • Tub Live Well: Use a large plastic tub or barrel, and drill numerous holes (approximately 1/2 inch in diameter) along the sides. Secure pool noodles or floating devices around the outer edge to keep the tub afloat. Fill the tub with fresh seawater and place it in the water next to your boat, ensuring it remains partially submerged. This setup allows for constant water circulation and oxygenation.

  • Pool Noodle Live Well: Create a live well using pool noodles by cutting several noodles into pieces and tying them together into a circular shape. Secure a mesh or netting material inside the noodle ring to contain the mackerel. Attach a rope or line to the live well and tow it behind your boat, allowing for continuous water flow and oxygenation.

Frequent Water Changes

Regardless of the live well system you choose, it’s crucial to change the water regularly. As mackerel excrete waste and consume oxygen, the water quality deteriorates rapidly. Aim to change the water every 15-20 minutes, or more frequently if you notice the water becoming cloudy or the mackerel showing signs of distress.

Shade and Insulation

Exposure to direct sunlight can quickly raise water temperatures, stressing your mackerel. Consider providing shade or insulation for your live well setup to maintain cool temperatures. You can achieve this by covering the live well with a wet towel or placing it in a shaded area of your boat.

Handling Mackerel with Care

Proper handling techniques can also significantly impact the survival rate of your mackerel. Avoid excessive crowding, rough handling, or exposure to air for prolonged periods. Use soft, knotless nets or rubberized dip nets to transfer mackerel gently, minimizing stress and injury.

Final Thoughts

Keeping mackerel alive is an essential skill for any dedicated angler looking to maximize their success on the water. By understanding their basic needs and implementing the methods outlined in this guide, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying a steady supply of fresh, lively bait that will entice even the most elusive game fish.

Remember, responsible fishing practices not only improve your chances of a successful catch but also contribute to the sustainability of our marine ecosystems. So, embrace these techniques, have patience, and enjoy the thrill of reeling in your next trophy catch with the help of your vibrant and irresistible mackerel bait.

Live-Baiting for Mackerel | The Fishing Show


How long can a mackerel live?

Atlantic mackerel grow fast, up to 16 ½ inches and 2.2 pounds. They can live up to 20 years and are able to reproduce by the time they reach age 2 to 3.

What is the best live bait for mackerel?

The best live baits for catching trophy Spanish mackerel are going to be menhaden, herring, mullet and sardines. This pretty much goes for the entire East Coast. Other species can be used as live bait, but these appear to work the best.

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