It’s a safe bet that many Field readers will harbour fond memories of sunny summer days spent in pursuit of that most obliging of all saltwater fish, the gorgeous and ubiquitous mackerel. 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.
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