Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Something about mackerel


The mackerel fishery commences at the latter end of February, and lasts until the end of June, but it is at its best in the months of April and May. The fishery is always pursued by night, and for this reason, that the mackerel—like the herring—swimming in mid-water, would otherwise see the net, and pass under it. To make this clear, I should remark that the nets in mackerel-fishing are not “trawled” or dragged on the ground, as for flat-fish, but are so “shot”—that is, put out from the boat—as to hang down curtainwise; thus each mackerel becomes entangled in endeavouring to pass through the meshes of the net, for mackerel, like herrings, will push straight on. Each mesh is made wide enough to admit the head of the fish, but not the thickest part of its body; consequently, when the head is once through, it can neither advance nor recede. The mesh will not allow it to advance, and should it attempt to draw back, the reversed gill catches in the mesh. The reader will understand from this, that each fish is caught in a separate mesh, whereas in other net-fishing the captives are all ignominiously shuffled together in one struggling mass. It will be seen, then, that the fishermen, by calculating the depth at which the mackerel swim, and so adjusting their nets as to sink that distance, intercept the fish in mid-water, and take them in the manner described. It is easy to imagine that, unless the fishery is pursued at dark, the mackerel—always a wary fish—will pass beneath the net and swim on.

The mackerel-fishery is carried on after a fashion very similar to that adopted for taking herrings, excepting only that the mesh of the mackerel-net is broader than that of the herring-net, the former being, as everybody knows, the thicker fish.

The mackerel taken in autumn with the herrings are never very large, on account of the smallness of the herring-mesh, but they are far sweeter and firmer than the spring mackerel, and of course are roeless, the spawning season for mackerel having passed. These mackerel are known in the market as “Michaelmas mackerel,” and fetch good prices.

In mackerel-fishing, when the nets are down—a feat which is performed at dusk, and some miles from shore—the boat is allowed to drift (as in herring-fishing), with her sails down, or at least with only one small sail set. The track of the nets is shown on the surface of the water by long lines of corks and floating barrels, and the nets extend a vast distance. The fishermen often know where the fish are, from the fact of a shoal of mackerel leaving an oily mark on the water, which at dark has a luminous and phosphoric appearance, and on a fine sunny day resembles a broad deep band of blue ribbon floating on the sea. This curious phenomenon I have often witnessed, both at night and in the day time. A large shoal (“school” the fishermen say, but this of course is merely a corruption of the word) contains countless thousands, and extends many miles. I have seen myself, on a fine June morning at sunrise, a line of the prisms reflected from the backs of the mackerel some miles long, broken at intervals by a cross-tide, where the sea was of a beautiful emerald green. The beauty of this spectacle I need scarcely say was great, and the sight of this broad purple belt barred with green, almost golden in the sunlight, was worth anybody’s while to walk miles to behold. Sometimes a few fish straggle from the main body of the shoal, and then it very often happens, that of two boats not a mile apart, the one will take some thousands of fish, whilst the other will not take a score. Mackerel are not sold like herrings by the “last” of 10,000 fish, but by the thousand or the hundred, and in a bad season I have known them sold by the score, and even by the dozen. I am now speaking, of course, of the wholesale trade, as between the boats themselves and the great market-dealers. The wholesale price is from 8l. to 12l. per thousand, or from 2d. to 3d. per fish: 4d., 6d., 8d., and sometimes 1s. per fish are the prices of prime dinner mackerel to private consumers; still I may venture to assert that “three for a shilling” may be considered a fair average market price. The average price obtained by the fishermen is 6l. per thousand, but I have known it as high as 16l. per thousand. I have, on the other hand, known thirty sold for a shilling; but such an occurrence is witnessed only once in a lifetime. As each boat carries six men and a boy, the average earnings of the fishermen from the mackerel are from 10l. to 30l. per head, and the average “take” per boat, 500 to 1500 or 2000 fish per night. Sometimes a boat will take 10,000 to 20,000 a-night, but on the other hand, she may be a month at sea and not exceed a few hundred each night. Again, should fish be plentiful, down comes the market price; consequently it is not always the heaviest “takes” that are the most remunerative, and it is better for a boat to maintain a moderate success each night than to meet occasionally with a great turn of luck. The ages of the crew average from 50 to 20, exclusive of a boy of from 12 to 18 in each boat. Few of the crew exceed 50 years of age, as a rule. The average of married men in the crew is not much over one-half, and many boats contain two or three of a family, perhaps a father and two single sons. The “boy” has usually an elder brother or his father in the same boat with himself. Making allowance for bad weather, and the time lost in mending and tanning nets, the average number of nights on which a boat can fish is only thirty; for though mackerel are caught from January until July, many boats do not commence till two or three months later, and the mackerel season proper is from about the 25th of March until the beginning of June. Few boats go to sea more than three nights per week, and some not so often. A boat often loses much time in getting to shore with her fish if the wind be unfavourable, or there be a calm; she also loses time in landing her cargo, for a mackerel-boat must discharge her fish, and cannot salt them and put to sea again directly without landing them, as the herring-boats do on emergency. Salting would spoil mackerel for the market, whereas it simply prepares herrings for curing. Should a dead calm come on, the boats may have to row in some fifteen miles, and I have seen a whole fleet thus becalmed. On such occasions the first boat or two “skim all the cream” of the market, and the last cargoes which arrive go for almost what they will fetch. I have known mackerel sold at eight in the morning for 16l. per thousand, and much finer fish sold at six p.m. the same day for 2l. the thousand. The first, no doubt, were retailed in London at 8d. or 10d. a-piece for dinner-tables, whilst the fate of the latter was, I suppose, the costermonger’s barrow. The usual price of “Michaelmas Mackerel” is 6d. a-piece. They have, as I have stated, no roes, but they are far firmer than the spring fish.

Here let me record my opinion that it is a popular but mistaken idea to suppose that full-roed fish are the best. Common sense ought to tell us that any creature on the very verge of parturition cannot possibly be in a state of health. Perhaps with fish this is not of so much consequence, but I am confident that anyone who has once eaten a properly-cooked autumn mackerel will never again give the preference to the poor mother-fish, almost bursting with roe. We consider salmon out of season in spawning time; we even make “fence-months” for all fresh-water fish; and why so many persons should esteem a mackerel or a herring fit for nothing unless it is on the point of spawning, I confess myself quite unable to decide.

Mr. Henry Mayhew, in his work on “London Labour and the London Poor,” has furnished us with some valuable statistics respecting the number of fish annually sold in the metropolis, and from these I find that, though, numerically speaking, soles, plaice, and herrings are at the head of the list, mackerel find great favour with all classes. Plaice and herrings, being the cheapest fish that come to market, of course find a legion of purchasers amongst the very poor; indeed, but for these two most valuable additions to their meagre fare, our poor would rarely go beyond a vegetable diet. The low class of Irish, for instance, in the season, eat fish at least three times a-week.

Mackerel sometimes grow to a very large size, and I have seen them exceeding two feet in length and weighing many pounds. There is a bastard kind of fish called the “horse-mackerel,” which somewhat resembles the herring, and is often caught with a hook. I have taken it thus whilst fishing for whiting. When the mackerel is caught with a hook and line, as is the case on some parts of our coast, the bait used is a worm or a piece of red cloth, and sometimes a piece of a mackerel itself. With regard to the red cloth, I do not conceive that the fish has any intention of eating it, but that it is irritated by that colour, as are other living creatures (the bull and the turkey, for instance), and, flying at it, gets hooked!

The mackerel men, at the close of the season in July, go home and prepare their boats for the herring season, which commences at the close of the mackerel season on the Scottish coast, though the herrings do not reach our south-eastern coast till the end of September.

Hastings, Filey, Scarborough, Whitby, Folkstone, Dover, Shoreham, Newhaven, Kingsdown, Plymouth, Ramsgate, and Rye, send a great many boats to the mackerel fishery. The domestic economy of the luggers is precisely similar to that of the herring boats, and they carry the same number of hands. They live well, principally on good fresh beef, beef puddings, dumplings, sweet cake, and plenty of green vegetables, and drink coffee, tea, water, fresh milk, and a little rum, but carry no spirits to sea. The cost of living is estimated at 1l. per day for each boat of seven hands, and that clears all expenses. The boy on board acts as cook, and caters and washes for the crew. Many crews treat these boys with great generosity and consideration, exempting them from the harder portion of the work, and evincing in their rough manner much practical kindliness. I have witnessed some touching instances of this, and, indeed, kind treatment is the rule rather than the exception. In some boats the boy takes an equal share of the money earned with the men, but it is more usual to accord him a half share, or to pay him a trifling amount weekly; and he has, as I have observed, generally a brother or staunch friend in the same boat who looks after his comfort and interests as far as may be practicable.

There is probably no fish the price of which varies so much in the market as the mackerel; and, as it is in great demand, the London buyers can usually clear off their stock without difficulty. It is a fish, however, that speedily loses its delicate flavour, and on that account is only to be eaten in perfection at sea side places. No fish so quickly dies when once out of the water; the splendid prismatic brilliancy of its colours, when first taken, fades with the life of the fish, and gives place to a mottled blue and green shade far less beautiful. I am told, on reliable authority, that the “seine” fishing, as practised on the Devonshire and Cornwall coasts, is a very curious sight; but I have never yet had the good fortune to witness a “take” with the “seine net.” By this method the fishermen enclose the mackerel in a circular net, and, standing on the beach, thus haul them in. Such a practice may occasionally, no doubt, be very successful, and should the “catch” be large, must afford a pretty spectacle; but I should imagine the method I have treated of in this paper to be less precarious, and, as a rule, more profitable. Turbots, and even salmon, I believe, are caught in the “seine” net, and, of course, a great quantity of refuse, such as crabs and inferior fish. In fact, from all I can gather, the “seine net” must be exceedingly like the “trawl;” and if so, the mackerel thus caught would, I should suppose, be more likely to get bruised than those caught in the regular mackerel nets. A set of nets is a very expensive affair indeed, a good set of either herring or mackerel nets are worth from 120l. to 200l., and often more, so that if a boat loses her nets, she loses “the means whereby she lives.” The mackerel boats are usually constructed on the principle of shares, the boat taking one-third of the gains for her expenses, and the hands sharing the other two-thirds. On the Yorkshire coast, at Filey and Scarborough, for instance, the yawls sometimes belong to owners who pay the crew regular weekly wages, and take their chance of a loss or profit.

I think myself that the “share principle” is undoubtedly the best, as all parties have then an interest in increasing the “take” of mackerel, and go to work “with a will.” In May and June a small shoal of mackerel, known amongst fishermen as “in-shore mackerel,” will come grubbing along the coast at not more than a mile or so from the beach, and many are thus taken by the little sailing punts that abound in all fishing towns. It takes but two men to manage one of these boats, and if they can take a hundred, or even half a hundred fish per night with their little “fleet” of nets, it pays them well.

I have been at some little pains to ascertain the averages of “takes,” and of the men’s earnings each season, and the other statistics given above; and though I have occasionally found a difference of opinion prevail, I have no doubt whatever that I am pretty correct. Perhaps I may further say (though these exceptions only add double force to the rule) that I have known a crew to earn 50l. per man in a good season, and that the largest “take” I ever knew of by one boat in a single night was 48,000 fish. I have heard of 100,000 fish being taken; but such a case never came under my own notice as regards mackerel, though I have known herring boats frequently to exceed that amount of fish. The boat I mention as having taken 48,000 mackerel in a single night was a small boat, and she had even more fish in her nets, but was compelled to shake them out, being afraid to risk carrying them as there was a heavy sea running. It must be borne in mind that in counting or “telling” herrings, 132 fish are reckoned to the hundred, so that a “last” is in fact far more than 10,000 fish, and possibly this is not known to many of my readers. Mackerel fishermen, when about to prosecute their calling, always like to see what they term a “goodish” breeze, that is to say, a light fresh wind, which, without being a gale, is yet sufficiently strong to “ruffle” the surface of the sea considerably. These light breezes, yet so powerful in their effects, frequently occur towards the end of May, and in the first two weeks of June; and hence mackerel-fishers have a saying amongst themselves, that

When the corn is in the ear,
The Mackerel begin to stir.

So excellent is the flesh of the mackerel, that it is hardly possible to spoil it, however cooked. Boiled with parsley or fennel sauce, broiled, kippered, or stewed, it is equally enjoyable. A most excellent pudding may be made of boned mackerel, well seasoned, if the fish is mixed with very thin slices of good ham. The mackerel “pots” better than perhaps any other fish, and thus prepared is, as a breakfast condiment, hardly inferior to salmon. Soused mackerel, with good white pepper, vinegar, and bay-leaves, most of us have found a welcome addition to the bills of fare of our breakfast and supper tables. As I have now done justice to the good qualities of the mackerel as a table fish, I will hasten for the present to take leave of my readers.

Astley H. Baldwin.