Skip to content
Landing page show after 5 seconds.

Wrestling Cleggan’s seas for mackerel

Outdoor Living

DEEP-SEA SILVER A shimmering school of mackerel.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

The call was overdue. “There’s a break in the weather this week – how about we settle on a day and just go?”
“OK,” I said, “what day were you thinking of?”
“It doesn’t matter what day – just as long as we don’t have this wind and rain we’ll be fine.”
While I pondered over the intricacies of getting a day afloat on the ocean, weather events came and went until, suddenly, we were faced with the very real prospect of completing the year without a store of mackerel, pollock and other deep sea fishes to see us through the darker days ahead. So, as Johnny suggested, we ‘set aside a day’ – which meant we be ready to go at the drop of a hat – and made a last minute arrangement at his behest.
“There’s only a two-metre swell,” he said, with undue optimism. A two-metre swell is fine if you’re standing on an oil rig or laid back in one of those reclining seats on a passenger ferry, but when you’re on a 20-foot sailboat that sits so low in the water that the merest ripple prevents you from even glimpsing the horizon, waves any more than a meter high feel decidedly hazardous.
But we went. Before we did, we filled our bellies with pancakes – great, stolid things that sat in my belly like ballast and ought to take me straight to the bottom should I be so unfortunate as to fall over the side, rather like the stones that Arran fishermen once carried in their pockets lest their time should be up. There’d be no struggling to stay afloat for them, nor for me, I thought, as I took a third helping.
There was a brief delay as alternative oracles were consulted. There appeared to be some kind of consensus – a storm out at sea would send forerunning waves, yet the day would be bright.
My first sight of Cleggan Bay filled me with apprehension. It was wild, with mountainous peaks that crashed at the cliffs and roared as they fell back upon themselves. They thrashed and foamed and scraped and clawed at the black rock. They sucked at thick banks of wrack, tearing it free by the armful and throwing it onto the shore. One after another they defied gravity to climb imperiously from deep troughs, each wearing a white crest of foam. How could such a small boat navigate such seas?
As if he could read my mind, Johnny spoke up. ‘It’ll be worse tomorrow,’ he said.
Perhaps it will, I thought to myself, but even if it was, that doesn’t make it alright today.
Johnny leaped over the gunnels like a madman. He strained at ropes and hauled at the anchor while beckoning me aboard with a manic grin. ‘It’ll be better once we get out to the islands,’ he yelled as another wave broke over the bow.He was right. Just a short distance from shore the breakers disappeared and we had nothing more than the gentle, rhythmic undulations of an restful ocean. Thirty minutes later we were hauling strings of mackerel from the deeps, and as always I had to stop what I was doing to admire the streamlined shape and the iridescent greens and blues that cover this most underrated of fishes. They aren’t big – not one of them would tip the scales to the pound mark – but they are more tasty than any other. Mackerel don’t have a swim bladder so must keep swimming their entire lives, and all that exercise develops firm flesh that is packed with nutrition.
Other fishes followed – wrasse (gunner, Johnny called them), pollock, coalfish and a few lesser species. A school of bottlenose dolphins came to inspect the boat and entertain us for ten minutes, seeming more liquid than the sea itself, perfectly streamlined and slick. A mother swam at the prow with her calf at her side. Those few moments alone made the day worthwhile.
We landed with a fair basket of fish and, I thought, a monumental task ahead, for they would all have to be cleaned as soon as possible. Instead, we made the rounds of a few houses and gave away most of our catch. One man gave crab claws in return, another a bag of lobsters, one more a promise.
On reflection I considered this the best part of the day. There was no angling for profit, no advantage considered. Johnny had fish and was glad to share his fortune. Isn’t that the way it should be? Now I must go again.