The Coalfish, a fine sporting fish, is remarkable for the extraordinary number of aliases under which he passes. Ichthyologists have given him various Latin names, but these fade into insignificance before the remarkable titles by which he is known on different parts of our coast. He is probably called coalfish on account of the nearly black colour of his back, which, however, in some places is a dark green. He is the saithe of Scotland ; in Cornwall they call him the rauning, or ravenous pollack ; while the commonest name for him on the Yorkshire coast is parr in childhood, and billet in middle age. Coalsey, coal whiting, and black pollack are also common names, and those who have visited the north-west coast of Ireland, and are taken out glissaun fishing, will recognise in their captures the billet of Scarborough. The Irish fishermen, by the way, have a theory which is very likely founded on fact, that when a glissaun or coalfish is hooked and is drawn through the water, its comrades follow it, regarding it as the leader of the shoal. Two lines, and often more, are used, depending from long bamboo rods, the bait being a rough wool-bodied fly. When a fish is hooked it is not drawn in until a second glissaun has taken a fly. Then one line is hauled in, and the other, with the unfortunate fish struggling at the end, left out for the shoal to follow. The sport, while it lasts, is fast and furious, and there is no difficulty in keeping a fish out on one of the lines. Mackerel fishermen have much the same idea. When fishing in fresh water I have often seen several fish follow one I had hooked and was bringing to the surface. Chub, perch, and sometimes roach will do this. Once a chub, hooked some fifteen yards from my punt, was followed in every turn and movement by another of about the same size which swam close to its side, and did not leave it until the landing net was about to be used. There are similar instances on record in the case of trout and, I think, salmon, in which both fish have been netted.
The late Dr. Day collected a number of local names for coalfish, from which I complete my incomplete list. Sillocks (Scotland) ; blue-backs (Yorkshire) ; also baddock, bil, billiard, black pollack, black jack, bleck, coalsey, coal whiting, colemie, colmey, cooth, cuddy, dargie, gilpin, glassock, glashan, glossan, glossin, green cod, green pollack, gull-fish, harbine, kuth, lob, lob-keeling, moulrush, pillock, podlie, podling, pri?ikle, rock-salmon, saithe, sethe, sey-pollack, skrae-fish, stenlock, and tibrie. The fry are variously termed soil, poodler, billets, or billiards, up to one year ; also cuddies, saithes, coalman, saidhean, or suyeen (Moray Firth), gerrocks (Banff), and herring-hake (Aberdeen). In County Down the fry are gilpins, next size blockan, then gray-lord, and adults glashan. In some localities the young are cudden, pickey, and glassin. At Portrush the following names are given according to the age of the fish : cadan (pr. cudden), ceithnach (pr. catenach), glasan (pr. glashin), and, when full-grown, gray-lord.
The name cuddy is, so far as my experience goes, commonly applied to the young of both pollack and coalfish in Scotland, but is, perhaps, more strictly the property of the young of the saithe. These little fish give rare sport to the fly fisher on a warm August evening, as I have described on p. 168. They sometimes come very short to the fly which, if fish skin, may have its holding powers improved by the addition of a small triangle just beyond its tail.
Coalfish are found on all our coasts, but are, perhaps, most plentiful off Yorkshire, in the north of Scotland, and all round Ireland. They are sometimes taken in the Downs by the whiting and cod fishermen. The coasts they appear to favour are steep and rocky, and when they come close inshore in the evening on the top of the tide, chasing sand-eels or the herring fry, they give grand sport indeed to the man who can cast a straight line and can play a fish.
Though found close to the shore, they like not such shallow waters as are frequented by pollack, the largest fish being taken in several fathoms of water on the edge of a tideway. It is, as a rule, when feeding on the fry of other fish that they come close to the surface. At other times they hunt in shoals along the bottom in search of food, and may be caught on any ordinary bottom-fishing tackle. I have made several good bugs of them on the Yorkshire coast when paternostering for cod, using mussels as bait. Coalfish spawn in the spring, and by August attain the cuddy size of about four or five inches, when little bare-legged youngsters sit on projecting rocks and catch dozens of them.
I have a lively recollection of initiating some ladies into this small form of sea fishing, one stormy day in the Lews. An immense trap dyke runs for some distance into the land, exhibiting on the coast a sheer wall of rock between two and three hundred feet high, which trends in gigantic steps down to the water. On one of these steps, in shelter of the rocks rising abruptly behind us, we sat in mackintoshes and cared little for a south-west gale which sprang up.
We began about low water, and then the little fish would only feed near the bottom. Our hooks were of the smallest, baited with fragments of the dwarfed mussels growing almost at hand among the crevices. As the tide rose, the fish came gradually nearer the surface, until, at the full flood, they were feeding within a foot of our little cork floats. The rain ceased, but the wind blew harder than ever, and I shall never forget our walk back to the lodge along the top of the cliffs. The whole country was running water, and every few yards small streams were pouring over the edge of the cliffs. But these hastily improvised waterfalls had not dropped a fathom before the wind caught them and hurled them back on to the moor, deluging us with the drainings of the land. However, home we brought our cuddies dead—eleven dozen of them—and delicate eating they proved that night at dinner. The following day they were soft and watery.
A friend living in the islands still further north caught no fewer than two hundred score of cuddies in one winter ; but these were fish varying from three-quarters of a pound to one and a half pound. In Orkney there is a spring run of coalfish which go from ten to twenty pounds in weight, large numbers of which are caught by the fishermen, who trail small eels. Both in the Orkneys and Shetlands the liver is cut out for oil, the rest of the fish being often thrown away or used for manure. I believe there is an oily extract from the liver which is of service in tanning.
As food the coalfish is certainly inferior to the pollack, having a peculiar flavour of its own which is not altogether pleasant, and lies, I imagine, in the skin. This can, however, be overcome by judicious manipulation in the culinary department. An excellent way of dealing with a large catch of these fish is to have them kippered. I made the experiment some years ago, and the result was a success in every way. In fact, there is hardly a fish in the sea which cannot be treated in this manner. A kippered codling is certainly much better eating than the same fish plain boiled. Kippered mackerel, too, is a most estimable creation of civilisation. But it is, alack ! a thing to be eaten with caution, not to say fear, for the mackerel being a bad-keeping fish, it frequently happens that the unscrupulous fishermen, if unable to dispose of their take at a fair profit, sometimes hurry their two-days-old fish into the smoke house and produce an article which, though tasting well enough, is apt to work ill on those who eat of it. An imperceptible but very dangerous decomposition originates in the mackerel not very long after it has been caught. Beware of those which are dull as to their gills on the fishmonger's slab, or weedy as to their brown flesh when on the table.
But to return to gadus alias, which is as appropriate a term for him as any of those conferred by Linnasus, Pennant, Couch, Yarrell, and the rest. As the coalfish feeds on the surface, in midwater, and on the bottom, there is hardly a method of fishing described in previous chapters which will not suffice to take him ; but the best sport of all is certainly to be obtained with the fly rod when he is feeding near the surface. He rises savagely at the fly, like a fresh-run sea trout as yet in ignorance of the wiles of the angler, and if there is a big shoal of them, should one by any accident miss, another will take his place before the fly is lifted from the water. These fish are grand swimmers and full of pluck, and play gamely from first to last.
The very strong tackle necessary for pollack is hardly required for coalfish, for they can be played in orthodox fashion ; but there must be abundance of line on the reel, as a provision against conflicts with large fish. Whiffing you may take them ; paternostering you may take them ; and they pick up a bait lying on the bottom. But a mussel, or piece of fish skin, or lugworm, will be infinitely more attractive if moved through the water. If there is a slight bobble of the sea and we are fishing from a boat, it is best not to let the lead rest on the bottom, but to wind it up a foot or two, which will cause the baits to dance up and down and keep time with the motion of the boat. When these fish are met with, the angler should make the most of his time, for the shoal may not stop under the boat or close to the rocks more than half an hour. While there they will be caught as fast as the line can be cast in, the fish played and unhooked, unless the angler is a bungler. On the whole, I am almost inclined to say that gadus alias ranks higher as a sporting fish even than the pollack, though the latter takes precedence in this chapter as being more frequently sought after, and better known to sea fishermen.