Serendipity on a silver platter

Outdoor Living

GLISTENING BOUNTY The silvery greens, iridescent blues, shining whites and subtle pink reflections of a shoal of mackerel.


Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

High tide was just on dusk; a serendipitous arrangement, one which fills every angler’s heart with hope.
And here we were on a largely unexplored rocky headland with a bucketful of bait and the prospect of a perfect evening ahead. This must be the best thing about autumn. The heat of summer has brought water temperatures to a peak. Dusk is once more within reach of even semi-civilised people. Baitfish abound. Indeed, immense shoals of herring fry and sandeel thronged just below our feet. Surely the predators would be on hand.
Far out in the bay, way beyond casting distance, we saw the surface of the sea prickling as something drove those small fish up. Birds descended from above while mackerel and pollock attacked from below. Who would be a sprat?
In time the action drew closer to the shore until we could see the scatter of tiny fishes launching themselves skyward in an attempt to escape the hungry jaws below. Gulls, gannets and at least one skua swarmed over the waves, all apparently insatiable. Guillemot and razorbill joined them, paddling comically to pick at what they could. Cormorant and shag appeared from nowhere, diving repeatedly to snatch one victim after another.
And there, one hundred yards from the shore, a large, dark fin cut through the water. It disappeared for a few seconds, then came back into view and sped to circle the thronging shoals. We saw it no more.
We cast light lures for mackerel and soon pulled our quota ashore. Mackerel must be eaten fresh. Freezing makes that firm flesh limp and destroys the fine flavour. Salted mackerel is famine food. In an emergency it might be welcomed, but while the fish are there they must be eaten fresh, straight from the sea. Catch, kill, cook, next day at the latest; that is the way.
Another man, more than an angler, arrived with a dustbin and a powerful rod armed with a line of feathered hooks. Long casts far out from the shore brought him strings of fishes one after another, so that before long he had 30 kilos of fish to haul the half mile back to his car. Surely he’d stop, we thought. But no, like the fox in the chicken run he had the taste of blood and was determined to make the most of the moment.
As the tide began to ebb, the concentration of baitfish drew closer to the rocks, as we knew they would. It would have been easy to scoop scores of mackerel from below, for the water was soon a boiling rage of fish. Small ones leapt onto the rocks in a desperate attempt to escape those pursuing them. Mackerel launched themselves from the water in their frenzy to feed and landed right at our feet.
There was only one thing to do. A small one of these was taken, killed, and fixed on a large hook. A balloon served as a float, and the whole was allowed to drift with the receding tide. Forty, fifty yards it went, before the balloon ducked decisively below the waves. I lifted the rod and wound with the reel, finding nothing at the end.
We checked the bait. It was intact and unmarked. Again it was allowed to drift, and once more something tried to swallow it. This time I felt a formidable weight with a determined draw on the line. A quick head shake followed before the line went slack. This time the bait was gone.
We started again. The balloon float made another fifty yards before it dipped once more. This time the hook found its mark and something large and heavy plunged across the waves, stripping line from the reel with ease.
What could it be? Some kind of shark, that much is certain. Tope? Perhaps. The Irish record for these razor-toothed predatory fish is a shade over 30 kilos. Or could it be a blue shark, a species responsible for at least four fatal attacks on people?
Perhaps we were attached to a porbeagle shark, maybe even the same one tagged by fishery scientists in April of this year. At 2.8 metres in length, that monster had an estimated weight of 200 kilos.
We would never know, for the great fish caught the line with its tail and was gone.
We have six or eight weeks before the mackerel shoals leave our shores. Those big shark will follow them. My mind is afire.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.