Between the months of May and September, the coastal waters of the UK are visited by shoals of mackerel – a delight to those who prefer their food direct from source and without clingfilm. For years considered a second-rate eating fish, recently the mackerel has been re-considered by fishermen and cooks alike – and deservedly so. It is plentiful, nutritious (high in Omega oils), and – unfortunately for the fish – extremely easy to catch. The most important thing is that a fresh mackerel fillet, patted with flour, fried and served with a squeeze of lemon juice, a slice of bread and butter and a cold glass of beer – is one of the best suppers ever.
Being fortunate enough to live by the coast, and being part-owner of a second-hand river canoe, it’s possible on most summer evenings to paddle out into the harbour. After a work day, and when the sea is mirror-flat (the only time its safe – our canoe isn’t really designed for the sea) it’s a great pleasure to glide along until we’re about 50 metres out, and then tie up to a buoy. With the sun lowering but still warm, in the calm of the bay we’ll start to fish.
Countless words have been written about the restorative effects of being in, on, or near water – and they are all true. No matter how stressful or draining a day at work has been, within five minutes of being on the sea, there’s a wonderful sense of carelessness, not as strong as after a long run or good surf, but still very special. Especially as there’s hardly any exertion involved in this kind of fishing. The canoe bobs gently and we sit at either end, with handlines over the side – hoping to catch our dinner. Often we’ll fish until the light dies and it is rare to go home empty-handed.
Of course you don’t need a canoe to catch mackerel. Most seaside towns will advertise trips on boats where equipment is provided and you’ll be pretty much guaranteed to catch. But the simplest and least expensive way to have a go is the old-fashioned way. You’ll need a rod and reel (borrowing is cheap), a weight, and a set of feathers – usually six hooks strung together with silver foil lures attached (for around £3 from a good tackle shop). If you’re unsure, ask someone else to set up the line for you.
Mackerel swim in to shore from deep seas to feed on the incoming tide. The best time to try and catch them is half-an-hour before high tide, and at this time in any coastal town worth its salt there will be fishermen ‘jigging’ for mackerel – whether for bait or plate. Cast from a safe place into calm water and then jig the line. This means pulling the line shorewards and then letting it drift out again repetitively and rhythmically. This constant motion will hopefully mimic the small fry the fish are looking for. Shaped like a torpedo, the mackerel is a voracious hunter, and has been clocked travelling 19ft per second after prey. If the conditions are right, then it shouldn’t be long before your line starts thrumming and you’ve made a catch. It’s not unusual to haul up five fish at once, but to take only what you need seems a good rule, and joeys (juvenile fish) should be put back until next year.
Another good rule is ‘an hour from hook to plate’ – mackerel, like most things, is at its most delicious when fresh, and part of its (unfairly) bad reputation comes from the fact that the flesh spoils quite quickly, so eat them as soon as you can. Cleaned whole fish or fillets can of course be frozen – but don’t keep them longer than a month.
The simplest method of cooking as mentioned earlier is by far the best – but being so versatile, there are many mackerel recipes, and many more you could invent yourself.