The Pollack, of all the members of the Gadidce or Cod family, is, from a sportsman's point of view, by far the most important. When first caught it is a very beautiful fish ; its back of dark green bronze, lightening towards the sides, where it is marked with gold, the belly being nearly white. Soon after death, however, its back darkens, its lower portions become a dirty white, and the beautiful brown eyes get quickly glazed over. In shape it closely resembles the coalfish, but anyone who has once seen the two side by side will never mistake them, the coalfish having a bluish-black back and none of the golden brown colour of the pollack. Moreover, the coalfish has depending from its lower jaw a rudimentary barbule, while the pollack has none. As there are instances on record of fish having been caught which appeared to be hybrids between Gadus pollachius and Gadus carbonarius (coalfish), it is quite possible that the angler may at times be puzzled to determine the exact species of his capture.
The size of the pollack seems to depend very much upon locality. On many parts of our South coast one of 4 lbs. would be regarded as large, while at other places a five-pounder would be deemed a fish of no importance. Those I have caught on the north-west coast of Scotland ran from 4 lbs. to 11 lbs. in weight. Couch stated that he had a specimen weighing 24 lbs., and there is Lord St. Levan's Land's End fish of about the same weight. A friend tells me, however, that he has occasionally heard of fish weighing 30 lbs. to 35 lbs. : these are certainly very rare.
On the West coast of Scotland and off the Isle of Man pollack are, rightly or wrongly, supposed to follow the herrings, keeping at some distance seaward until the autumn, when their prey comes inshore and enters the sea lochs. When the herrings depart, the pollack follow, and pass the winter in deep water—such is the belief of the fishermen. The only reason to doubt this is that we cannot see beneath the surface, and it may be that the fish only take a bait well when herrings, etc. are about. The probability is that the smaller and more active school pollack follow the herrings, mackerel, etc, while the larger fish always haunt their fastnesses off headlands and rocky places generally.
Pollack are believed to spawn between Christmas and the early spring, the exact period probably differing, as it does with most fish, according to the locality.
Mr. Mathias Dunn, of Mevagissey, has placed on record an interesting account of porpoises attacking both the young and full-grown pollack. Some Mevagissey fishermen saw a battle of the kind taking place, and on putting about and sailing up to the spot, found that over thirty large pollack in a more or less moribund condition were floating on the sea.
There are very few places on our coasts where pollack are altogether wanting, but in apparently suitable localities they are occasionally very scarce. Small and medium sized fish are found in great quantities on the Devonshire coast, growing larger as we reach Land's End. So far as I know, the best sport of all with pollack is obtained on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, where, the fish not being very saleable, they are not sought after by the professional fishermen, and are, in consequence, very plentiful.
I rather incline to the opinion that pollack fishing is very easily overdone, and fishing grounds—more particularly those skirting headlands and outlying islands—more or less depopulated, at any rate for a time. When fishing is carried on over large submerged reefs of rocks, and generally in fairly deep water, the fish may be both scattered and plentiful, and no appreciable harm will result from the angler's attacks. But if you take a number of small channels between islands—little pieces of water which are almost like rivers and ponds—in a week's fishing most of the largest pollack will be thinned out, and the place may feel the effect of the attack for a considerable period. The same may be said of a solitary headland, a resort for pollack along miles of otherwise barren coast. I have seen several instances of spoilt pollack grounds ; take, for example, the end of Filey Brigg. At one time this spot had a reputation for large pollack, but now very few are caught there, the constant whiffing to and fro across the end of the Brigg having, it seems, thinned out the fish.
I once spent a few days at Scourie, on the west coast of Sutherlandshire (people go there to visit the island of Handa), and did a good deal of whirring for pollack. I fished there for a whole day, catching only one lythe, as these fish are termed in Scotland. In the evening our man confessed that there were ' no many lythe' thereabouts. There used to be plenty, but he thought most of them had been caught. If we—a friend and I—would go a couple of miles down the coast we should do much better. So we forthwith set sail, arrived at the spot in question, and left our boat in a sheltered bay for the night. We walked over there the next morning and had some very fine sport.
The wanderings of sea fish are so mysterious and uncertain that I may be utterly wrong in my surmises ; but, in any event, there is no particular object in slaughtering these fine sporting fish by hundredweights. When forty or fifty pounds of pollack have been brought into the boat the rest might very well be returned. Unfortunately, these fish do not keep well, and therefore, if a great quantity are caught they are as likely as not to be wasted. In fact, they are only fairly good eating on the day of capture, but superior to coalfish. They are greatly improved by being crimped as soon as caught, and make by no means despicable kippers.
The pollack does not possess so many local names as the coalfish, but is fairly well supplied in that respect. On many parts of the English coast he is always termed the whiting pollack, and the great North-country and Scotch name for him is lythe. Other local names are leeat, leet, laithe, skeet, green-ling, and greenfish.
The pollack is essentially a rock fish, loving a free run of water, and frequenting the shallows rather than the deeps. I have caught large lythe in only four or five feet of water, and in the evening known them leap up into the air after a bright spinning bait as it was being drawn into the boat which had just passed over them. In the daytime they very much resemble pike, lying hidden among seaweed, ready to pounce out upon any passing prawn or fish, but rarely troubling to come to midwater or to the surface. Thus it has often been said that pollack fishing in the daytime is a useless proceeding, the fact being that the anglers have been at fault in not sinking their baits to bring them within sight of the quarry. I am not speaking of small fish, but of the large lythe one finds in the north of Britain. Small fish of one to four pounds are often very plentiful in fairly deep water where the bottom is rocky, perhaps congregating together in some little basin among the rocks, or other favourite place. There ragworm or live shrimp fished near the bottom would probably be successful. When such a spot is discovered, the marks should be very carefully taken.
A friend whose veracity is beyond question tells me that once when leaning over the boat and looking down through the clear, smooth water, he saw a strange sight. A pollack of 6 lbs. rose from the bottom and seized and absorbed a rubber eel which was hanging motionless from the boat. The day was sunny, which makes the incident the more remarkable.
The various methods of pollack fishing have already been described in previous chapters. Amongst others there is drift lining with live sand-eels, whiffing with dead ones on natural or artificial spinning baits, and fly fishing or whiffing with large sea flies.
There is no absolute rule in the matter of pollack baits, the fish having what I may term local appetites. But the two which stand first and foremost are sand-eels—alive for preference—and a very young sea or freshwater eel. Almost, if not quite, as good are any small fish of elongated shape, such as the gunnel, variously known as butterfish and swordick of Orkney and the nine eyes of Cornwall. For moderate-sized pollack there are few more deadly baits than the large ragworm, which, on that account, is termed on some parts of our coast the pollack worm. Of artificial baits there are few better than a red rubber eel, sole-skin baits, and the red phantom. Often more successful than the foregoing are the feather baits mentioned in Chapter IV. They are sometimes found more effective in the daytime than the rubber eels.
The best pollacking is enjoyed during the early autumn, but a quantity of small fish are caught during the summer. On the coast of Devonshire thousands of small pollack are taken on whiffing lines in the early spring. A large number of baits (see Belgian Grub, p. 139) are used, and often several small fish are hauled in at once. About pierheads and suchlike places there frequently lurk a few pollack, and those who would catch them must rise early, before the water has been disturbed by boats, steamers, and paternosters, and let a single hook baited with a live pollack worm hooked through the head —the line being weighted with a half-ounce pipe lead—down among the fish, which, if not feeding very bravely, will often be tempted, particularly if a slight sink and draw motion is given to the bait. A few pollack are caught from Deal Pier in this manner during the early spring and summer.
When pilchards or any other fish or marine creatures on which pollack feed are very abundant, the artificial bait sometimes fails ; then the angler should study as far as possible to fall in with the passing fancy of the fish. A six-inch strip of pilchard-skin together with a smaller piece of mackerel-skin is often used as a bait on the Cornish coast. Three inches of gurnard-skin is a good whiffing bait. Where the fish run very large, large baits must be used. I have known success attend the use of indiarubber eels, made by an amateur out of a piece of black rubber tubing, double as thick and double as long as the baits ordinarily sold in the tackle shops. The hooks on which these indiarubber eels are mounted are tinned, and very apt to be rather blunt; indeed, when fishing in the daytime close to the bottom the hooks are likely to come in frequent contact with the rocks and so get their points smashed. It is very desirable, therefore, to carry either a watchmaker's file or a roughish quick-biting hone for renewing the point. Sharp hooks are of the first importance in sea fishing.
May I again remind the tiro that the pollack is a powerful fish and requires very strong tackle, and that this is particularly the case in water of moderate depth where the bottom is rocky and weedy, for headlong will the fish go into his submarine fastnesses unless firmly held. There must be no yielding to a pollack in his first rush, except in some places where the bottom is fairly free from seaweed or the depth of water is considerable.