Whether caught from boat, beach or pier with a simple lure, mackerel fishing is part of the fun – and flavour – of the British coastline, says Adrain Dangar
There is something endearingly nostalgic about mackerel fishing, taking you back to childhood summer days spent trying to catch them from a boat, beach or pier. But we shouldn’t take this saltwater fish for granted, say Adrian Dangar.
Find out how to communicate your passion for fishing to your children with Tobias Coe’s guide for inspiring the next generation. Or take a look at John Bailey’s A-Z of river health, from Acronyms to Zander, via Dredging and Water Companies. And if fishing is really no more than an excuse to be in a beautiful place with old friends, check out the most idyllic Scottish salmon fishing beats.
It’s a safe bet that many Field readers will harbour fond memories of sunny summer days spent mackerel fishing. My earliest recollections date from childhood holidays on the south Devon coast, where my brother and I would wake up at dawn and scour the blue seas overlooked by our holiday cottage in the hope of seeing Plynlimon anchored in the bay. Days would pass without a glimpse, until one happy morning the converted trawler owned by family friends was bobbing gently in the swell.
Within the hour we would be clambering on board for a nautical adventure, the highlight of which was trolling a paravane and lure off the stern for mackerel. For young schoolboys, there was nothing more exciting than holding the orange cord between finger and thumb in anticipation of a distant subaqueous thump as another fish grabbed hold of the lure and was hauled into the boat quivering like an iridescent ingot of living metal. Other times we would lower sets of primitive feathers tied to rusty brown hooks into the green depths, which frequently yielded a dozen glittering prizes from a single drop.
The zebra-like stripes of black, green and aquamarine that decorate the back of a fresh mackerel are sensationally beautiful and appear far too exotic for anything native to our shores. In common with the glorious plumage of a winter cock pheasant, they are a sight of which I will never tire. It is a small wonder that the species has lent its name to an evocative British skyscape and been the inspiration for countless artists working in every medium from paint to clay.
To hold a fresh mackerel in the palm of your hand (these shoal fish rarely exceed a pound and a half in weight, although the shore-caught record is a few ounces shy of 6lb) is to feel the taut, solid and muscular body of a member of the tuna family, celebrated for taste, speed and power. As they possess no swim bladder, mackerel are able to change depth with great rapidity and must keep moving on a relentless hunt through the oceans at speeds of up to 5.5 metres per second. The summer visitors traditionally arrive off the British coastline in huge, predatory shoals from late spring onwards, not moving back to deeper waters off the Shetland and Norwegian coasts until the shorter days of autumn. Beginning with springtime in Devon and Cornwall and filtering up to the west coast of Scotland by August, the jubilant words “the mackerel are in” reverberate excitedly around coastal Britain to signal the start of one of nature’s most enduring bounties.
During this summer season the mackerel’s quest for food is relentless, energetic and utterly consuming, for the fish must use these months to prepare for migration back to colder, deeper waters and a winter of comparative abstinence. The species’ main summer prey includes sand eels, herring, sprats and whitebait, which make the sea’s surface fizz with noisy exuberance as they seek to escape the pelagic predators beneath them. Such surface activity also acts as a magnet for flocks of equally deadly and opportunistic seagulls, which hammer the hapless baitfish from the skies above and advertise the presence of mackerel shoals to observant anglers. All of this makes mackerel the easiest of all fish to catch in the ocean, for they will open their large, silver-framed mouths to wolf down with impunity anything resembling a smaller fish.
When the mackerel are properly ‘in’, shoals can be targeted with great success by casting spinners and lures from just about every seaside pier in Britain, but a personal favourite is to hunt them down with a fly rod amongst the rocky coves and inlets that characterise the west coast of Scotland. In a good year – and they are far from guaranteed these days – I have seen hundreds of tiny whitebait driven so aggressively inshore by packs of mackerel that an ebbing tide leaves behind glittering heaps of tiny, marooned fish gasping for air. Every year I return to a favourite west coast bay with my fingers tightly crossed for action; hopefully, I am greeted by the welcome clatter of a massacre in full flow tight up against the rocky shoreline, which sounds like the deluge of a summer storm battering calm seas.
The mackerel hunt these sheltered coves in relays, herding their prey into shallow water and wreaking three or four minutes of carnage before dropping swiftly back into deeper water to regroup before the next savage attack. A silver Toby lobbed out into the middle of the bay seldom fails to score, but it’s much more fun to sit tight and wait for the feeding frenzy to recommence within easy casting distance of a 5wt fly rod. It doesn’t matter too much what fly is on the end of your cast – anything from a silver streamer to a sunray shadow will do the trick – but it’s important to get the fly out as soon as the action commences. One fast strip is all it takes for a silvery green torpedo to grab the fly and tear line from the reel with a ferocity only matched by tropical bonefish. If you are quick about your work, expect to land half a dozen before the shoal vanishes for another 15 minutes or more.
As mackerel are not readily found so close to shore, fishing from a boat is the easiest and most productive way to catch them, either by jiggling a string of feathers up and down in some 20ft of water or by using a spinning rod to cast out and retrieve lures. With both methods the secret is to find and retain contact with a shoal of hunting fish. The depth at which they are feeding may change suddenly and without warning and is dictated by a combination of the quarry species, weather and tides. Letting a line of feathers down slowly on a marked line and jigging it up and down every few feet will usually pinpoint the depth, but feast can quickly turn to famine when the fish move on and are temporarily or permanently lost. Sonar fish finders are the obvious (entry level models are surprisingly affordable) answer for the regular sea angler, but perhaps a bridge too far for a Field reader just out to have some fun and catch enough for the pot.
Which brings us to the culinary merits of a delicious, oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, although the dense flesh is quick to go off if left in hot sunshine, as endorsed by The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, which noted the frequent references to ‘stinking mackerel’ in English literature. The fish has traditionally been consumed fresh in the UK, however, our Gallic neighbours preserved mackerel by pickling them in copious quantities of salt.
Many rod-caught mackerel on both sides of the Channel are now gutted and thrown – literally, for the fish cooks beautifully within its own crisp skin – straight onto a beach barbecue for a feast of sweet, succulent meat easily prised away in compact white and brown chunks from a conveniently robust backbone. No other catch is quite so easy to cook in situ, which is why mackerel hotspots along our coastline are often revealed by smoke unfurling from the beach and sand dunes.
For something a little different, it takes minutes to fashion an impromptu smoker to transform mackerel fillets into tasty, smoke-infused delicacies that can be enjoyed either hot or cold. Any flameproof container with room to accommodate a metal or tinfoil grill will suffice, beneath which is sprinkled a handful of hardwood sawdust (the by-product of a logging session with the chainsaw is ideal), with the fillets placed on top. The lid of the enamel casserole dish (or whatever other container has been improvised), is replaced to create a makeshift oven, which is positioned above fire to envelop the fish in hot smoke. Delicious with horseradish sauce and brown, buttered bread, the leftovers can be taken home and mashed up with pepper, fresh lemon juice and mayonnaise to provide a flavoursome pâté that will keep for several days in the fridge.
Chances are that you will catch many more mackerel than can be consumed at one sitting. If so, they can be gutted, washed off in the sea and popped straight into the deep freeze when you get home. Forget about individual bags; just leave each fish to set solid before transferring it into a heavy-duty dustbin liner to dip into for barbecue fodder throughout summer. Try keeping some fresh ones back to create a sensational ceviche of raw mackerel cubes sprinkled with olive oil and soaked in lime and lemon juice with peppercorns and onion slices to spice up the mix. Served with pickled cucumbers and horseradish mousse, there are few fresher, better or more original starters with which to wow your post-lockdown guests.
Throughout our lives mackerel have been readily available for these tantalising feasts, but the signs are out there that, in common with many other oceanic species, their health and habits may be changing. North-east Atlantic mackerel appear to be arriving in our waters earlier and leaving later each year, which has been attributed to sea temperatures warming at up to 0.9°C per decade. The zooplankton that many of the mackerel’s prey species rely on for sustenance thrive best in cold water, and as those organisms move ever farther north, so do the herring, sprats and whitebait. Having been absent for centuries, mackerel now frequent Icelandic waters in large numbers during winter.
But all is not lost; there is no record of how many mackerel are caught each season by thousands of sport anglers and holiday makers, but we do know that more than 150,000 tonnes were landed by UK vessels alone from our waters during 2019. As usual with nature there is no straightforward answer and no guarantees for the future. But one thing is certain: this year, I will be after the summer visitors as soon as they arrive here in the North-east. And whether I catch them from the shore with a fly rod or with lures or feathers from a boat or Whitby Pier, I will cherish every one. For there may come a day when we can no longer take mackerel for granted.