Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/A few words about sprats


Notwithstanding the comparative insignificance of the sprat as a member of the fish-tribe, its importance, as an article of food to the poorer classes of society, is so great that I may, I hope, be pardoned for including it in my list of fish for special consideration.

Sprats, as most people are aware, are gregarious fish; and the amount of them taken, during the brief period of the sprat-season, is so enormous as entirely to defy calculation. The fishery is carried on to a vast extent on all parts of the British coast, and affords a temporary livelihood to some thousands of people. Sprats are caught in the greatest abundance in very thick foggy weather, for which reason the month of November is the best month for their capture. The season commences properly on the 9th of November, and terminates, or should terminate, at Christmas. The first sprats taken in the Thames, at the commencement of the season, belong, by ancient right, to the Lord Mayor; and a dish of these little fish is, I believe, always placed on the table at the annual banquet which is given to celebrate the installation into office of the chief magistrate of the City of London.

Sprats, like flounders, have the peculiar faculty of thriving in either salt or fresh water, and may be taken as far up the river as Blackwall and even London Bridge.

I shall not here re-open the much-disputed question as to whether sprats are really a genus per se, or whether they are in fact young herrings; but I will just make a few remarks on the probability of the latter being the case. In the first place, it is a noteworthy fact that when the herrings disappear the sprats appear; and this would seem to indicate that they are the young brood, some two or three months old, left behind by the parent-fish.[1] Further, though it is asserted that sprats are taken with the roes in them (as a proof that they constitute a distinct species), I never yet saw one with a fully-formed roe; nor does it follow, by any means, that the fish, even if they did contain roes, would be capable of renewing their species. Young nestling-birds of the hen-sex contain ova from the time of their being hatched; but no one would think of arguing from that fact that callow birds could possibly propagate their kind. Again, much stress has been laid on the trivial fact that the belly of the sprat is serrated and rough, whilst that of the herring is smooth. This roughness is probably merely a projection of the ventral bones, which tones down as the fish increase in size, much in the same manner as many an angular-elbowed “Miss in her teens” does.

I might, if I would, bring forward many arguments to prove that the sprat is neither more nor less than the young herring, but such is not my object at present. I may, however, be permitted to add, that when we know that such a creature as a tadpole becomes a frog, and recollect the changes of the salmon in its “parr,” “smolt,” and “grilse” states of existence, we have very good ground for supposing the sprat to be no exception to that universal rule of change in growth which is common to the young of all the species of creation, even to man himself. With these few and, as I think, not inappropriate remarks I will pass on to my subject.

Sprats are caught in two distinctly different ways—viz., by the “drift” net and by the “stow” net. When the former method (which is far the best) is adopted, the nets hang down perpendicularly, as in herring-fishing, and each little silvery victim is secured in a separate mesh by its gills. These fish must of course be the finest and best, as only sprats of a certain size could be secured in the mesh; and, moreover, the fish thus taken are not dragged about and bruised, as they are when the “stow-net” is used. The “stow” much resembles the trawl-net it its operation, and is used to drag the fishing-ground in semicircular sweep. In this net all-sized sprats are caught, some several inches long, and others no larger than whitebait; and of course some amount of sorting is entailed. Sprats caught thus are sold cheaply, at so much per pound or measure; but the “drift-net” sprats, which are very fine, are sold at so much per hundred (generally from 4d. to 8d.), and are reserved for the best markets. The sprat-fishing is pursued by night, and the boats fish close along the shore. Any visitor to the sea-side in the month of November may, by giving a small gratuity to the “skipper” of a sprat-boat, obtain the privilege of accompanying him; and it is a pretty and curious sight to see the heaps of glittering fish tumbled out of the nets into the small boats employed in the fishery.

Sprats of course are very seldom indeed seen on the tables of the better classes, except when the partakers of them happen to be dining or supping quite en famille. The sprat, like the herring and plaice, is essentially a poor man’s fish; and it is quite impossible to overestimate its enormous utility as an article of food to the labouring-classes. The sprat-season is looked forward to with far greater anxiety by the poorest sort of Irish than is the venison-season by the epicure; in fact, but for the sprat, many thousands would often go dinnerless.

Sprats cured, red-herring-fashion, are excellent for breakfast, and I think there are few palates, even the most fastidious, which would not relish them. To cook fresh-caught sprats, take three or four dozen of the largest-sized “drift-net” ones and broil them over a very clear fire, serving them up with melted butter and cayenne pepper; or they are excellent floured, and served whitebait-fashion, with cayenne and lemon.

The sprat when cured is often palmed off for the anchovy, but it possesses this peculiar property, which may always serve as a guide to the unwary—viz., the bones of the sprat do not dissolve when it is prepared as a condiment, whilst those of the anchovy do. Nine-tenths of the fish sold as “sardines” are neither more nor less than sprats preserved in oil. The real sardine is, I believe, a fish peculiar to the Bay of Naples: at any rate, the Neapolitan sardines are the best.

I have endeavoured to ascertain the probable yearly weight of sprats consumed in London, but can obtain no reliable data. Making allowance for the variation of price in the market, I find that the average money-value, taking one year with another, of the sprats sold in the metropolis is 25,000l. Taking one penny per pound as about the price usually given by the working-classes, our readers will be able to form some idea of the astounding trade driven by the sprat-dealers. The first sprats of the season taken in the Thames belong, as I have said, to the Lord Mayor; and there was, I believe, in the time of Henry VIII., a royalty on them, as there is at the present day on sturgeon.

The sprat-trade, though it is brisk at Billingsgate whilst the short season lasts, is carried on mostly by costermongers, who retail the fish on barrows in the streets. Most of these men vary their trade according to the season; selling, for instance, fruit and vegetables in the summer, sprats and other fish in the autumn, nuts and oranges in the winter, early flowers in the spring, and so forth. They are as a rule a very improvident class of men, rarely saving, though often earning (for their station) large weekly amounts. Of course there are some honourable exceptions. I must, however, do them the justice to affirm, that if treated with civility, they are ready, with scarcely an exception, to afford every information in their power concerning their trade to those who, like myself, have had occasion to go not unfrequently amongst them.

Sprats are singularly “taking” baits for most kinds of sea-fish. In my experience, which has been a rather extensive one, there is no bait equal to a sprat for taking codfish, as I have mentioned, en passant, in one of my former papers.[2] The mackerel also is especially fond of sprats; and where mackerel much abound, as for instance on the Cornish coasts, the poor sprats are to be seen often flying out of the water in showers at the approach of the mackerel shoal. It is not often, however, that sprats are found inside the mackerel; as that fish, like the salmon, immediately it finds itself in danger of being caught, disgorges the entire contents of its stomach. The river-perch has the same habit of disgorging; and of all fish, I think the trout and cod are oftenest found to contain a great variety of food. Both cod and trout in the death-agony will throw up the greater portion of the food in their stomachs, but the salmon and perch will do so as soon as they feel the hook. A month since I hooked a perch, which, as soon as he came to the top of the water, “blew” out three or four minnows. The perch does this in such a curious fashion, that after being hooked, he will sometimes push the bait which has enticed him a good six inches up the gut-line, as if disgusted with being ensnared.

Sprats taken as sprats vary much in size, which of course, supposing them to be the young of the herring, is easily accounted for, as they would go on growing to the full herring size. I have seen them six or eight inches long, taken in the drift-nets. It is my opinion that such so-called sprats are the young herrings about two-thirds grown, and those of the early spawning. I take the smaller sprats to be the later-spawned herrings. We have so much to learn about fish and their ways, that even those of my readers who may differ from me on this point will not, I am confident, like to contradict me. Until very lately, young salmon in their “parr” state were supposed to be a distinct species; and I have above instanced the wonderful transition-state of the frog, as proving that in Nature’s book there are far more mysterious changes than our philosophy ever dreams of. At present I will only add that this short paper was designed, not for the purpose of opening a controversy, but with the sole aim of affording a few moments’ amusement to those who may think it worthy of perusal.

Astley H. Baldwin.

  1. The fishermen have a saying,—“Good-by, Mr. Herring; welcome Mr. Sprat.’
  2. Vol. VII. p. 597.