Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The cod fishery


Having in a previous paper given a brief account of the method used in “Trawl Fishing” with the net for the supply of metropolitan and other tables with soles, plaice, and such like staple commodities of the fish-market, it may be interesting to contrast with that fishery the means employed for taking the cod, whiting, and other choice inhabitants of the seas which are not usually caught with nets, but with hooks and lines.

“Long-lining,” as it is familiarly called by those who prosecute this kind of fishery, is not only practised most extensively on our own coasts, but also on those of Newfoundland, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and other countries. To say nothing of the many thousands to whom this kind of fishery affords a means of livelihood, it is in itself, as a matter of pleasure to the sea-side visitor, one of the most amusing pastimes possible to conceive. The writer, who has enjoyed this exciting sport times innumerable, knows of no other—not even salmon fishing—more exciting and exhilarating.

The wholesale fishery is carried on by small fishing smacks or “bangers,” as the fishermen popularly term them, each of which is constructed with a large deep well, into which the fresh sea-water is allowed to enter by means of a grating. This is for a double purpose, viz., to keep the fish alive after taken as long as possible, and also to enable the cod-smack to remain at sea as long as may suffice to catch a good supply of fish before proceeding to that part of the coast where there may be a market for them. Each smack carries a “fleet” of lines, as they are termed, varying in length from one to three miles, but of course the amateur fisherman would commence with a small “fleet” of not a tenth part that number. The cod line itself is in thickness about that of a blacklead pencil, and to it are attached, at intervals of a fathom apart, smaller lines a yard long, and not much thicker than twine. These are called “snoods,” and to the end of each “snood” is fastened a very large strong hook, the shank of which is usually two inches in length. Of course, to complete the entire set of lines, a great many are fastened together, the length of each line being usually about six hundred feet, and consequently having a hundred hooks. The entire set, when fastened, carry several thousand hooks, and extend, as before noticed, some miles. The lines are kept down to the bottom by very heavy stones attached to the end of each line, whilst at the extreme end of the “fleet,” that is the entire set, are strong anchors securing the whole. These anchors again are connected by stout cables to large floating buoys, corks, &c., on the top of the water, which serve to mark the spot where the lines lie. Both “shooting,” that is lowering, and also hauling the lines, is the work of many hours. The “shooting” is of course very tedious, but the excitement of the haul more than makes up for the infliction.

The baits employed are a whelk (which, as most of our readers know, is a large shellfish), a piece of fresh herring, or a sprat. (The unfortunate whelk is of course taken out of its shell before being impaled on the hook.) Of these baits the whelk certainly possesses the virtue of being tough, and therefore, by remaining longer on the hook, and consequently by serving many times and obviating much trouble, is the favourite bait of the fishermen. The writer, however, has no hesitation in saying that a sprat is by far the most taking bait, which the following instance may be sufficient to exemplify. In November of the year 1855, the writer fishing with the “long line” some little way off the North Foreland, and with a “fleet” containing only 280 hooks, caught fourteen fine cod-fish (the largest weighing thirty-four pounds and a-half), besides skate, large whiting, conger eels, &c., using sprats for bait, whilst a “professional” cod smack-fishing, not a mile off, and whose hooks amounted to upwards of 3000, caught but three fish, and of these not one was over ten pounds in weight!—the bait used by the smack being whelks. Nor was this a solitary instance. The result of our respective fishing was in the same proportion, so many times, that the fisherman sent his boats along shore to purchase sprats for bait, and at his next haul caught six score, or 120 fish!

The lines are “shot” whilst the tide is slack, and suffered to remain down—the whole strength of it—until it again slacks, when they are hauled. The fishermen entertain the prejudice that the “flood” tide is preferable to the “ebb” for taking many fish. The writer, however, in his experience (which has not been slight), has not found it so; and indeed the real truth is that the cod in the sea, as the pike in the river, is of so voracious a nature that he will bite at whatever may come in his way, and whenever it is set before him. In a cod-fish, weighing seventeen pounds, caught by the writer in October, 1854, there were found a plaice of a pound weight (quite fresh), three whole herrings, a sand-dab, a piece of a bullock’s hide, two large crabs, about four dozen prawns, a large piece of chalk, and four trowser buttons! In another, caught four days later, were two whitings, a horse-mackerel, five crabs, two polypi (sea anemones), and shrimps ad libitum. So eccentric indeed is the cod in his diet, that, during a long autumn and winter’s fishing, the writer amused himself with making memoranda of the singular contents of some of the fish taken by him.

The hauling of the lines is very hard work, and is performed by three or four people, as thus:—One or, as the case may be, two, pull the smack’s boat against the tide as fast and carefully as possible, whilst another hauls the lines, and a fourth (or if there is but one rower, a third) stands ready by the hauler with a large “gaff” or stout pole, to which a hook is affixed, in order to secure the struggling captives as they are drawn to the surface. Of course the hauler will encounter an invigorating shower of brine, with which and the excitement he is certain to secure at least an appetite for his chop and pint of pale ale afterwards; and if he carries, as most boating parties do, a case of sandwiches and “pocket pistol” of Cognac for present service, he need be under no fear as to the consequences of a “jolly sousing.”

A curious variety of fish are taken on the “long-line.” First will come the cod, the monarch of deep-sea fish, and his weight will vary usually from eight to thirty pounds or more. Cod, however, on the British coast, seldom run larger. On the coast of Holland, the Doggerbank, and Newfoundland, they are of great size. The Newfoundland have the credit of being the best; but the writer’s experience would incline him to doubt their superiority to those caught on the Dutch coast. The fishing smacks sell their cod to the Billingsgate and other dealers by the score, and they are retailed at a vast profit. It is very common to see a fish that would fetch half-a-crown on the sea-coast fetch from fifteen to thirty shillings in the metropolis, so that the profits of the retail dealers, it will be seen, are not despicable. They run some risk, however, as a “glut” would seriously affect their market. There is indeed, in its way, as much speculating in Billingsgate as on the Stock Exchange, and the cod, being a “dinner fish,” the sale of it is curiously influenced by the amount of gaiety going on in the metropolis, which alone takes twice the quantity of the entire kingdom; and indeed almost all fish used throughout England pass somehow through London in their transit from the sea to the dinner table.

Besides the cod, very fine whitings (some several pounds in weight, such as but few Londoners have seen) are taken with the “long-line,” as are immense black skate, and a species of thornback called “roker.” Plaice, also, and turbot, take the herring bait freely, or indeed any white bait. Conger eels, dog-fish, and nurse-dogs are the source of more plague than profit to the cod-fisher. On the Scottish coast, ling, tusk, and even haddock, are taken on the cod-line, the last mentioned of which fish has of late years become very scarce, and especially so on the English coast. The best haddocks are the Dublin Bay ones, and those taken off Yorkshire. The Scarborough, Filey, and Whitby fishermen take many, and the Flamborough Head haddocks are excellent, either fresh or cured. The proper way, however (and this may be a hint to gastronomes), to dress a fresh haddock is to stuff it with a veal stuffing, boil it, and afterwards serve it up with slices of lemon, and a port or claret sauce. Some use shrimp or lobster sauce; but the above is preferable.

The annual revenue of the “long-lining” cannot, of course, be estimated, but it is something very large; and the value of the cod caught on the British and Dutch coasts alone averages a great many thousand pounds sterling. The capital employed in the fishery is great, and as the “hands” of the cod smacks are usually paid good weekly wages, successful or not, the owners run considerable risk. In some boats the men are paid no wages, but take a share in the profits; but this is not usual. The expenses also, for bait, harbour-dues, wear-and-tear of lines, &c., &c., are very great; but, on the whole, the speculation is usually a good one for employer and employed. Of course much might be said of the Newfoundland fishery, which is quite a feature in itself, and of the various ways of curing and disposing of the fish, but the writer has already exceeded the limits he proposed.

Astley H. Baldwin.