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Collaring a dogfish

Outdoor Living

IN THEIR ELEMENT Water-perfect, sleek, almost balletic, dogfish are almost impossible to kill humanely, and are much better left in the sea where they belong.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

Even if the trout rods have to be put away for another year, that doesn’t mean there’s no fishing to be done, for the ocean holds more than we know. Yes, we will find the usual, in the form of dogfish of both the Lesser spotted and Greater spotted varieties. Yet there should be so many other types of fish close to shore, with the number of species increasing as our waters become warmer.
I went with James to fish from the pier at Ballyglass, Belmullet, where we hoped to catch an early codling. We cast large mackerel and worm baits into a racing tide and caught large lumps of seaweed, these torn free from their rocky stanchions by recent storms and swept to and fro through ebb and flow, as if the ocean itself conspired against us. Frustrated, James cast instead into the slack water to the right of the pier. ‘That,’ he said, with authority, ‘is where the cod will be.’
As he wound in to pull the line tight the tip of his rod nodded heavily. ‘There now! Didn’t I tell you as much? It’s a cod alright, it has to be.’
The fish came rather easily through the water, then rose to the top, writhing sinuously as only dogfish do. James was crestfallen. He lifted his catch out and picked it up by the tail. It regarded him solemnly, blinked twice and did it’s best to fight free from his grasp. He grabbed it around the throat and the fish responded by wrapping its tail around his wrist and rasping at his skin with its own rough hide.
There is something about dogfish. Any cuts or scratches inflicted by their sharp teeth are very painful, even though their teeth are short and the wounds superficial, and the sharp scales that cover the length of their body are almost as bad and likely to cause a mild infection.
James and the dogfish wrestled briefly, until he managed to get his hook free and flung the fish back into its element.
‘Some folks like to eat them,’ I told him. ‘In Dublin that would cost you a fiver. Rock salmon, they call it; sounds much more appetising than dogfish, doesn’t it. All the chippers sell it – rock salmon and chips, seven or eight euros.’
James was appalled. ‘Them? They eat Them? Dirty things – the doggies, not the Dubs. Scavengers of the sea, that’s what they are, and no good for anything.’
He threaded more bait on his hook and cast out to the same area. Almost immediately his rod tip pulled down and gave that familiar slow nod. I already knew what was there. James wasn’t so sure. ‘Its a cod this time, a cod, for a certainty...’
As he pulled his catch ashore it came to the surface with that same weak wriggling motion, stared at him bleakly as he swung it to hand and rubbed at his wrist in the same manner as the one before. He looked at it dubiously. ‘They eat them, you say?’
The fish stared at him and blinked. Dogfish are the only fish I know that actually blink. Their eyes are deep brown, soft and friendly. They speak, or nearly do. ‘Please, don’t hurt me,’ they implore. I remember the first time I took one home. When I whacked it over the head with a length of wood it merely closed its eyes momentarily, then gave me a reproachful look, as if to ask ‘Why?’
‘They do eat them, but they’re impossible to kill. All you can do is wait for them to die. It’ll probably happen by the morning.’
That was too much for James. He let his fish live, dropping it head first from the side of the pier and watching it swim languidly away. Out of water dogfish might not be much to look at, with their large head, toothy jaws and rough skin scraping as they writhe on the floor, but just watch them in their element! Water-perfect, sleek, almost balletic, they are much better left in the sea where they belong, rather than gasping at the back of the fridge for twenty-four hours before finally expiring.
These are actually members of the shark family, and as such have no real bones, just one central cartilage that runs the length of the body. Their flesh is bland, but can be made to taste of batter, or salt and vinegar.
We caught more than we could count. ‘Why are there so many?’ James wanted to know.
‘Because,’ I said, ‘there are so few of everything else. Next week, perhaps, there’ll be cod.’