The mere name recalls pleasant visions of rippling waters flecked with white, of sunny skies, and the healthy, salt, sea breeze whistling through the rigging; of a pile of little silver billets, two or three still quivering in the throes of death, and of a weather-beaten man with genial face who gently encourages us to continue hauling in those two-pound leads, breaking backs none the less. There are three hundred mackerel lying on the floor of the lugger, which means that we have hauled in our lines three hundred or more times. No ! friend, we have come for pleasure, not for toil. If you would add to the catch, take the lines yourself while we recline in the stern sheets and smoke, and hold that tiller smoothed by hardened hands on many a voyage.
Everyone is acquainted with the appearance and taste of the mackerel, but few would be the wiser for the telling that of branchiostegals it has seven, that pseudobranchise are present, that the air bladder when present is simple, and that pyloric appendages are numerous. He is a fish of brilliant colours, marvellous activity, and when fresh caught is most beautiful. Scomber scomber is his most approved classic title, but naturalists have several names for him, some asserting that there are several species, others that, as with trout, there are simply certain differences of appearance of no fixed character, all the mackerels being in fact one and the same fish.
The only local names for mackerel which I have come across are the terms joey for the shoals of immature fish a few inches in length which appear in the Bristol Channel in September ; shiners, a name used off the West coast ; and harvest mackerel, large fish caught at end of summer. The great majority of mackerel in the Bristol Channel appear to be immature, but are not so small as the joeys which weigh half a pound or thereabouts. Round about the rocks will be found fish three or four times as large ; but these are coarse and poor eating, while the half-pounders are particularly delicate.
Some of the finest mackerel come from Ireland. There the nets sometimes secure from 15,000 to 30,000 fish per boat. On many parts of the East coast of England large numbers of mackerel are caught by means of nets. Lines are not much used, the fishermen declaring that the water is too thick for the fish to see the bait; but whether this view be correct or not I have never had an opportunity of testing.
On all our coasts this useful fish is more or less abundant, and is widely distributed over the more temperate portions of the world. Some of the best are caught in the English Channel ; some of the worst, from an edible point of view, in the Mediterranean. As a matter of fact, we know very little about the wanderings of the great shoals of mackerel, beyond the fact that in winter they stand far out to sea, and in summer come close inshore. For years they may apparently forsake one portion of the coast and then return to it again in undiminished numbers. Such changes are possibly in consequence of the natural food supply having diminished ; as soon as it has regained its former condition the fish return. One of the earliest places at which mackerel are found inshore is Plymouth, the local boats sometimes taking them in February or March. But for our purpose they are a summer fish, and admirably serve to while away the time at many a seaside resort, the resources of which, natural and artificial, are soon exhausted.
Among the many reasons for which we should regard the mackerel with especial favour is the fact that they are, in their small way, tending to increase the wealth of an impoverished country, Ireland to wit. I see from the Fishery Reports that in 1893, 467,560 barrels of mackerel, valued at 152,512 l., were caught on the Irish coasts, principally west and south ; and over 51,000 barrels of Irish mackerel were cured and sent to America. Pickled mackerel is to the New Yorker what salted herring is to the German; and by the late failure of the American mackerel fishery Ireland has been greatly benefited. I am glad to say that the development of the West coast fisheries continues, thanks in a great measure to the active endeavours of the Congested Districts Board. In 1893, 6,579 vessels and boats, manned by 24,001 men and 1,215 boys, took part in the fisheries, showing an increase of 208 vessels since the previous year ; 730 more men and 240 more boys having become engaged in this work. We even find eleven Irish boats from Wicklow attending the Scotch herring fishery, a piece of enterprise which it is to be hoped was well rewarded.
Talking of enterprise, when the American mackerel fisheries failed, a fishing schooner from Gloucester, Massachusetts, sailed right away to Norway in hopes of making a haul of those very large and handsome Norwegian mackerel which in America fetch a high price. Owing to bad weather, only fifty-nine barrels of fish were captured. The return voyage, a distance of 4,400 miles, was made in twenty-two days. American fishermen have even visited the coast of Africa in search of mackerel!
There are some very tall stories related by old writers about mackerel. According to AElian, the fishermen of his time used to train them to act as decoys, just as a little dog is trained to lead wild ducks into the hoop nets of the wildfowler. These remarkable fish would head a shoal and lead it into the nets which were ready spread. More than this, the progeny of these decoy scombers inherited the same remarkable powers. Then there is another story of a Norwegian sailor who went bathing, when a shoal of hungry mackerel surrounded, and nibbled and worried until by gentle persistence they worked him some distance out to sea. Assistance came in the shape of men in a boat, but it was with some difficulty the poor fellow was lifted on board, and he was in such a state of exhaustion from loss of blood that he soon died !
Another charming story, of the nature of so many found in popular natural histories, was once told by Lacepede, who quoted Admiral Pleville-Lepley as his authority. On the coast of Greenland are certain shallow bays which are almost land-locked. The water is clear, and the bottom of mud. There, throughout the winter, thousands of mackerel might be seen with their heads stuck in the mud and their tails pointing skywards ! As might be supposed, when they first resumed the vertical position at the advent of summer, their eyesight was affected, and they were netted without difficulty ; later on they were caught with hooks and lines. I love these old stories which writer after writer repeats so carefully, each with some little touches and additions of his own, just to give ' an air of verisimilitude to a bald and otherwise unattractive narrative'.