Jonathan Couch, a Victorian naturalist from Polperro in Cornwall described mackerel as: ‘an ever wandering race, which in addition to the habit of periodic movement, are ever led by impulse to be continually shifting their ground and thus render the pursuit after them one of the most uncertain that can be imagined.’
It will be one of those days when you wake up and the water is calm and the air is completely still and the sky is blue and the folds in the hills across the bay can be picked out clearly in the sunlight. We will have had a lazy breakfast sat outside the yellow door, bacon and brown sauce and lots of coffee. Some of us might have gone out on the water and over the morning our arms will have been marked with the faint white trace of dried salt water and our faces will be tight from the sun.
Someone will be getting lunch ready in the Cottage and I will have walked up to the pub for a pint to have with the food. A man will be sat at the bar with a couple of notes and a handful of change in front of him so rather than taking my pint back to the Cottage I decide to let lunch carry on without me for a while and settle down to talk.
There will be some pleasantries over the weather.
‘Oh it will be fair for a few days yet but they say it will rain again on Friday. But you’ve had it good this year. Are you still here for long?’
‘You’ve been here before. You know where to go. But go for the small ones. The bigger ones are not worth the eating’.
‘Take their heads off and fillet them and put them in flour and cook them in butter. They have to be fresh though. Out of the sea that day otherwise they are no good’.
‘Where best to fish for them? You shouldn’t be asking but you know the castle by Kilcrohane. Well put your boat about a quarter of a mile from the rocks and line yourself up so you can see green grass through the windows of the castle. There is a channel down there that they run through. There are always a few to be got there.’
‘We were catching so many we couldn’t keep up. They were spilling all over the bottom of the boat.’
‘My grandfather used to salt them. Split them and take out the back bone and clear them of blood. They need to be completely clear of blood otherwise the whole lot of ‘em will go rotten. Cover them with salt and leave in a barrel. After a few weeks rinse them and cover them again with salt. They were good they were I can taste them still. We ate them in winter when I was young’.
‘There was a man fishing for mackerel from the pier at Union Hall. I heard him talking and he said that he ate them with rhubarb. Have you heard of such a thing. He put some in their belly, he said, before cooking them. I can’t imagine the taste. You’ve had them with gooseberries? What did that taste like?’
The man pushes a note across the bar towards Mary and gives a nod towards my empty glass. She takes it away and puts it in the sink and she picks up a clean glass which she puts on to fill.
‘They are a heavy fish if you have too many of them. I like a couple of small ones otherwise you’re faced with them.’
Mary puts the glass of black liquid in front of me gently wiping its side with her fingers. I take a big draught the white foam sticking to my lips which I rub away with the back of my hand. The taste of it is burnt, bitter and cool.
‘I’ve got an old kettle in the cabin and if we catch a few out in the bay I’ll boil them in that. Just use the water straight from the sea. They will be fresh see and they don’t taste better and sweeter than that.’
‘Did you see the dolphins chasing them in? There must have been twenty of them chasing them into the bay off beyond Owen Island. Jumping clear of the water they were to chase them. Tommy had them going under his boat.’
‘Speak to Tommy about that. He’ll know. You know his boat don’t you, Freedom, the blue one down on the pier.’
‘The late afternoon is best but wait for a rising tide. You see that point there, the point just off Owen Island. They pass through there on a rising tide. The water’ll be thick with them.’
‘No-one caught anything last week. I went out three days and not one. You know that once they are gone they are gone. I don’t know where they go to. Paddy now he says it is the red tide. You see it sometimes with the sun and they don’t like it you see and that’s it. You remember last year and the rain. The water in the bay was brown with it there was so much of it coming off the hills and they went then as well. Last year in August there was two weeks and no-one caught a fish. Well that was the rain. You can’t win on that can you with the sun its red tide and with the rain its brown water. You know its lucky we catch any fish.’
‘Did you get anything out there I saw you go out?’
‘Were you here for the mackerel fishing competition? The Joe Tobin Cup. Will Cotter won it this year. Five men he had on his boat with a line each and they caught 353 mackerel in the two hours. He took his boat out beyond the breakers there and they put the lines down deep and they couldn’t stop pulling them in. Feck I tell you but there was other boats and feck all they caught. Martyn there with the green boat, he’s a fisherman and he went out with thirteen lines and in the two hours they caught nine fish. Now he’s supposed to know where they are. Will Cotter, he came back to the pub and he got given the cup and he filled it with whiskey. Every man, woman or child, they walked through that door, he made them have some, King Mackerel, he called himself and when the cup was empty he put it on his head. More like a mackerel bloody fool!’
‘If it is calm and the mackerel are in you can see them moving up the bay. Their movement through the water, there are so many of them, it churns the surface, and there is a change in the colour. There must be thousands down there they create a passage, a river that runs through the bay.’
‘Did you see last night there were boys on the pier catching them? Brenden’s boy it was I think. There were sprats in the bay right up hard against the wall under The Butter House, you could see them colouring the water. They had a rod with a hook on and all they did was pull it through the water and they pulled out three mackerel in a minute. I expect Brenden had them, had them for his tea. I’d not seen them so close before. We could see them from here. They were jumping out of the water to get at those sprats.’
‘Do you know Paddy O’Brian. You do you must do. He has the blue house on the hill behind the church. He feeds the head to his dog. Doesn’t matter if they have just come out of the sea the feckin’ thing eats them down. Eats them cooked as well it does. But feck its breathe smells. Smells like the pier when its hot and the boxes are full of bait. But it can’t get enough of them.’
The man has a thick black beard an inch and a half long that covers the lower part of his face. His hair is long and black as well. There is only a small amount of red face and two piercing blue eyes that can be seen though the black bush. He has thick heavy hands. When he buys me the second pint he reaches over to shake my hand. He doesn’t squeeze my hand but I can feel the weight of that half of his body pressing down around my fingers.
The pier smells of rotten fish. There are two old freezers that run along the wall and they get filled with a haul of fish that stay there for a few days before being bucketed out to a boat and used to bait the pots. A brown stain leaks out from the bottom of them and leaches down the cracks in the concrete.
Mary pours another pint. It is my round now. The glass is filled almost to the top and allowed to settle. Her fingers fuss at the tap, getting it right. Outside the sky is still blue and in the mid afternoon the sun seems to lift off the water in the bay so the air is filled with light and silver.
‘What bait do you use? The best is a bit of their own. Catch a couple and use a sharp knife to take off a fillet. Cut those up and hook them so the silver skin looks out to the water. Its that silver that catches their eye. Like one of their own passing they have to follow and if it is small it might be food so they take a bite and that’s them on the hook.’
‘Any old flash of silver will do. Look at them straight out of the water. You can find something like that with a hook on the end they will take it.’
‘I like them with squeeze of lemon to take off some of the richness.’
’Old Jack Mitchell he used to live in the old house up from Donneen Pier. You know the pier it’s a bit fallen down now. The ships used to come there to pick up the barrels of salted mackerel to take to America. The barrels would be lined up the road to the top. Well Jack Mitchell he got too old to take a boat out but he liked his fresh mackerel so he’d fish for them down on the pier. He’d walked down there with his line and throw it in over the water on a high tide so it got beyond the rocks. There was hardly a day went by he didn’t get one. He only had three hooks on the line, he said, he couldn’t eat more than three in one sitting. He said, you don’t need to bait them just polish up the hook so it comes up silver and they’ll take to that if they’re in the water. He’d have them for his breakfast with bacon. He liked the sweet cured bacon and he’d fry it butter and when that was done cook the fillets of mackerel in the same pan. He’d eat it on toast. There was barely a day went by he didn’t catch a fish from the pier. He said once he got three on Christmas day morning and they tasted better than the feckin’ turkey!’
‘There is nothing so easy as catching mackerel. But I have had it out there and there is nothing biting. But its depressing to be sat in a boat for two hours and not a thing. You would think that on a day out in August they would be jumping in the boat but these days there is nothing you can be sure of. I’ll tell you don’t waste your time waiting to catch mackerel. If you’re not catching them soon. If they are not biting in a few minutes come back to the pub and watch the other feckin’ idiots doing it.’
At that he turns his back to me and faces the bar again and I am stopped with the conversation. Lunch in the Cottage is probably over and the talk will have stopped there as well although there will be no wondering where I am.
I finish my pint and walk outside. The road leads down the small hill from the pub past the pier on my right and then to the Cottage. The air is still filled with light and the blue sky arches overhead. I am giddy with the Guinness and walk back down.
A few days later I stand myself back at the bar in Arundel’s and it is early evening and I am drinking a pint and trying to follow the flow in the conversation of the men sat in the corner. The talk is so fast and the accents so thick the only word I can make out is the oft repeated “feck” every time a point has to be made, which is often.
The taciturn looking man with a black beard stands next to me. He turns to face me and asks: ‘Can you follow them talking?’
‘Not a thing,’ I tell him.
‘You were out fishing again this afternoon did you get some?’
‘Not a thing,’ I say again.
He smiles: ‘Well there’s nothing so scarce as mackerel when they are not there. You can go anywhere to fish for them but if they are not in the water you’ll not get a thing. And they go sometimes in the summer. Most years there will be a week in August and there will be no-one who will catch a thing. But then the shrimp start to come at the end of the month and the fish come back. Just following their stomachs they are. The greedy feks.’
We both stare down at our pints for a minute before he continues.
‘But when they are back in August you can fish for them through to November, if you want them. Most men I know have had their fill by then. But if you want there will be plenty there. Come November they are big as well, all that food, but then there’ll come a day and they will be gone off to the dark waters to sleep off their food before they come back in the Spring. Now I, I heard that one of Napoleon’s generals found where they go in the winter. He was sailing off Greenland and they came near these shallow waters and there was a strange shimmer in the mud. Well his men got out and they waded through the waters and that colour in the water was mackerel tails and they had buried their heads in the mud. Do you believe that?’
He pokes my arm gently with a thick finger and then shakes my hand again. ‘Look I’ll get you a pint. Mary can you get Ralph a pint.’ He pushes a handful of change across the bar as Mary starts to pour.
‘There’s nothing to that of course, that story, but they go to deep waters in the Winter and they’ll be back again when its warm. And when you are catching them and they’re thick in the water you’ll always have too many of them.’
I ask him a question: ‘Do you think there’ll come a year when the mackerel don’t come back in the Spring?’
He doesn’t answer but finishes his pint. We both look out through the window over the great bulk of water that is Dunmannus Bay. Here it is about half a mile wide, further up by the heads it is five miles across from The Sheep’s Head to The Mizen.
‘If the mackerel are gone then we’re all gone. Look at that water out there. I hear now there are nets that would stretch across the bay and they’d drag up every feckin’ fish in there. Well they can have them but if they’re gone they won’t come back and once the fish are gone then it would be quiet here. We’d be down eating the seaweed and limpets and they’d make you sick and soon there’d be nothing left. The feckin’ idiots they need to leave alone.’
There is an anger in his voice then and he turns away to look over the bar. ‘Mary,’ he calls, ‘Mary this idiot thinks they’re going to be catching all the mackerel so there is feck all of them left. Mary take this note here and put it behind that bottle there and make sure he gets a good pint when the mackerel are gone for good.’ He passes over a note and Mary tucks it behind the till.
‘Look at the sky now it is a mackerel sky. See how the clouds are lined up and the blue behind is like those black marks over a mackerel’s back. You get rid of the fish you can rub out the sky and that will be it.’
Mary puts the two pints in front of us and takes the change from the bar. He tips up his pint and drinks to the fish. I join him and back out in the bay a mass of mackerel churns on in blue silver and green turning ever on chasing sprats. We drink at the black liquid and our thoughts keep with the mackerel and the deep waters they lie in.