Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Mackarel in the bay!


About the centre of the large bay stretching from Porland to Berry Head lies the pleasant village of Seaton. Let us suppose ourselves rambling on the beach at Seaton on any fine morning from May to September, which is the season for mackarel coming up the bay. That common sea-side sight, the smoke of a distant steamer, is never seen here, as the mail packets going down Channel, after sighting the Bill of Portland, stretch across the bay to the Start, and then make the Lizard as their last landmark. Still there is no lack of bustle; pleasure boats and trawls from Beer, a celebrated fishing village, speck the sea in all directions. Often, too, a collier anchors near the beach, and by means of barges plying along, a rope made fast to the shore rapidly transfers her cargo to the carts. Teams of five horses are requisite, together with a plentiful allowance of lashes and shouting, to drag each load up the treacherous pebble beach to firm ground.

But at some sixty yards from shore are two or three large fishing boats, with a heap of nets in each; two or three men standing up in them, in the attitudes of the fishermen in Raphael’s cartoon of the Miraculous Draught; and three or four more leaning on their oars and keeping her head out to sea, eager as an University crew before the starting gun is fired. Signs of mackarel have been noticed in the bay, and all eyes are turned on a group of comrades strongly relieved against the sky on the top of the cliffs. Suddenly these men observe a ripple in the offing, like a catspaw of wind ruffling the surface, but which their experience tells them is the rush of shoals of sprats to the surface to escape the attacks of the mackarel, or these fish themselves playfully sunning their noses. With a loud shout up go their caps into the air; the captain in the boat below gives the word, “now boys,” and the muscles on four pair of brawny arms simultaneously leap out, as each boat gives way before the vigorous stroke. The look-out men rush headlong down the cliffs to the shore ropes, and curious spectators begin to draw to them from all parts of the beach. The captain at the stern of each boat is paying out the net, leaving a long curve of floating corks to mark the track. Soon the boats turn, and taking a wide circuit in hopes of enclosing “the school,” make for the shore, where the captain leaps out with the rope attached to that end of the net in his hand. The panting fishermen rest on their oars a brief space to recover breath after the “spirt,” and then following his example, dash through the foam to assist in hauling.

This is the most arduous part of the whole business. The nets, or “seines” as they are called, are from 130 to 300 fathoms in length; 220 is about the average at Seaton. They are heavily weighted with leads, and from enclosing such a large space of sea and so many fish (as the men hope), the tide also perhaps setting off the shore, are only dragged in with great difficulty. So all idlers on the beach are pressed into the service; workmen, and the whole seafaring population, wives often included, lend a hand at the two ropes. If it be the beginning of the season, the news of mackarel in the bay spreads like wildfire in the village. The hunting propensities of a lower civilisation break out afresh: the cobbler leaves his bench, the grocer’s apprentice drops the scales, his master is seized with a like infection, shop-doors are bolted, and all make a stampede to the beach. Here you may see a brawny fisherman busily hauling, sprung from a long line of famous smugglers; next him is an eager Cockney, or an enthusiastic clergyman, pulling away manfully to the great detriment of his coat. All are glad to lend a helping hand, but it is hard work. The little Cockney soon succumbs. Can that be our friend the parson giving in? No, he is retiring a moment to deposit his coat at a safe distance from the throng, and now returns to the rope with a remembrance of the old days coming over him when he helped to pull his college boat to victory. He does not mean to give in if all the skin is frayed off his fingers by the rope (no uncommon accident to a beginner). “Fall to’t yarely! Bestir, bestir!”

This is what passes at the seine nearest the village. Lower down the beach, where the enthusiasm is not so hearty, the fishermen are sitting down on the shingle, one above another, hauling from this position with a scornful affectation of far niente, as they see the crowds flocking to their rivals.

But now the gang we first visited are contracting their seine, and the two ends are approaching each other. Meanwhile we may mention that these nets are manufactured at Bridport, cost fifty or sixty pounds, and are sold at so much per lb. to the eight or ten fishermen who generally make up a company. It is necessary that they be thoroughly dried after each draught, or if replaced while damp in the boat, they “heat” in a day, and are so hot that they cannot be touched with impunity, after which they speedily decay.

Half-an-hour has been spent in vigorous hauling, the purse of the net will soon come in, and the catch be known. Now the excitement is intense. There may be three or four mackarel in it; there may be ten thousand. The cockney and his sisters fancy there will be three or four hundred, they do not quite know why. The fishermen are silent, watching two or three of their comrades in the boat, who bring up the end of the net, and peer into the depths to catch the welcome glitter of the mackarel. Not much is said, but they look rather gloomy. Their mates on shore are not reassured, but pull with a will. Up comes the first waif of the deep, an old spider-crab, sprawling in the meshes. He is sullenly seized by a leg, and ignominiously flung out on his back. Next comes up a cabbage-stalk, to the amusement of the bystanders. Now for the last haul; it does not feel so heavy as it ought to do.

“Yo, ho!” sing out the men, and the purse is soon stranded. Alas! not a mackarel is visible! A confused heap of cuttles (Sepia officinalis), and sea pens (Loligo vulgaris), all very spiteful, and oozing out ink at every one who treads near them; ten or twelve worthless flat-fish, a large pebble and a mass of seaweed, make up its contents. The fishermen growl, and proceed to fling out the cuttles, and dry the seine, while the laughing spectators move on to the next net.

The same scene of hauling in is being enacted here. Now that the general interest is centred on them, the men feel the dignity of their position. They stand up now. The wives help as much as their tongues will allow them, for a very brisk quarrel is going on. A perspiring, wrathful individual, who looks like a broken-down tide-waiter, “armed with a little brief authority,” has issued some order to these Naiads, in a manner their hot west-country blood resents:

“Us bain’t a goin’ to drag her any nigher,” you hear them affirm.

The excited tide-waiter runs up to them over the nets, and by so doing, brings down a fresh nest of hornets about his ears, in the shape of the husbands, who angrily call him off. The ladies, reassured by the unexpected succours, venture to assume the offensive, and the head virago shakes her fist in his face, denouncing him as a thief. Here a general explosion ensues. A visitor standing by interferes to prevent a breach of the peace. Work is suspended by the husbands (gladly enough) for a moment, while they reduce their irate spouses to a grumbling submission; the quarrel resolves itself into an angry discussion between the virago and her would-be pacifier on the outskirts of the crowd. But the purse is approaching the shore. Surely there will be something this time! There are two or three dunlins coursing over the space circled by the corks, and a gull or two is stooping down in it, and reappearing with a sprat in its mouth. Good signs these, think the old hands. Here is the inevitable spider-crab again, fast in the meshes as before, looking as much out of his element as a hermit who should be suddenly dragged by his heels into a ball-room. No time to free him now; the net is piled over him. Murmurs of admiration run through the crowd, countless shoals of sprats are being dragged in, some dart through the meshes and so escape, others leap over the net in their fright, the sea is alive with them. Most of them are stranded on the beach, however, where the small boys fill their baskets. Here is the first mackarel entangled by his gills in the meshes! there is another. Now for the last pull! A shout breaks forth, and a panting heap of flapping mackarel, a thousand in number, though they only seem two hundred, is dragged on the shore. All press down to see them. A wave breaks over the unwary one’s feet; no matter, it is worth getting wet to see that iridescent mass of living purple and amber, and you must be quick, the colours fade when they are dead. Only just drawn to the edge, every other wave washes over them, and stimulates them to increased efforts to escape to their native element. But it is all in vain, they are soon stilled in death, flung into baskets, and deposited in a heap on the beach.

As a specimen of the uncertainty of the takes, we may mention that early in July this season, a haul such as we have attempted to describe took two fish. Bad weather followed, and no more shoals came in till the 25th, when 2000 were taken. These were sold at 9s. per hundred, or 14d. per dozen. Again, during the evening of the 28th nearly 8000 were captured. On the 1st of August 12,000 were taken in three hauls, while in the afternoon of that day 15,000 were caught at once! The scene that ensued beggars description. It was impossible, owing to their numbers, to pull the net on shore, so the men dashed in up to their necks (the beach is very precipitous), and stretching another net outside the first to take those which made their escape from it, proceeded to bale the fish on to the shore with iron bowls. The tide was coming in, and the utmost expedition had to be made. These were sold at 4s. 1d. per hundred, or a halfpenny each. On this day alone 30,000 mackarel were caught on the beach, by which the fishermen expected to clear 80l. A penny a-piece is the average price for the fish on the shore when tolerably plentiful. Some days, however, the boats go the whole length of the bay without being able to head the “schools,” while at other times such numbers are taken that they are carted off to spread on the fields.

The owner or owners of the net take half of each catch; the other half is divided between the men in the boat and those who haul in from the shore, the former having the larger share. Every bystander who helps to pull in may claim a fish or two. Formerly, a tithe of every catch went to the vicar, but this has now fallen into disuse.

It is a great treat to a naturalist to assist at one of these takes. Many are the curiosities of the deep he may then obtain. The great parasitic anemone is often brought in; but perhaps the variety of fish caught with the mackarel is the most interesting feature of the whole business. You may speedily become an ichthyologist at Seaton. We have seen along with 3000 mackarel, two salmon taken at one haul, one of fourteen lbs. the other of seven lbs. weight, which were sold on the spot for a sovereign. Cuttles, squids, and jelly-fish of various kinds were also taken, dog-fish and whiting, “dun cows and long noses” (to use native names), bass, flat fish, turbots, gurnards, crabs of all kinds, mullets and congers, John Dories with their comfortable aldermanic corporations, thousands of sprats, &c., &c. There were also several green and red fish, far more brilliantly coloured than is generally seen out of tropical seas, such as the fisherman in the “Arabian Nights” might have caught.

But a fresh bustle is going on. The men have beached their boat high and dry, and elevated an old coat, called “a scout,” on an oar at her prow, to signify to intending purchasers that the market is ready for them. Down they troop: first the carts of richer speculators which will carry off the fish to Taunton or Exeter, these being the furthest points to which the Seaton fish are generally taken. Next come several worn-out fishermen, beating couples of sleepy-looking donkeys bearing panniers,—these will hawk the mackarel through the neighbouring villages. Mingled with them is a crowd of private purchasers, and now is the time for Paterfamilias to pick and choose. If the take has been in the evening, the shades of night will fall before all the bargains are made and the chaffering concluded.

Perseus tells us that at Rome the doom of bad poetry was to be sent to the fishmongers for mackarel to be wrapped in it; we must, indeed, finally all “come to vile uses,” but may the like fate never befal our prose!