The mackerel are going to leave any day now, and I will be sorry to see them go.
For the last six weeks they’ve been schooling in Cape Cod Bay, about a mile or two outside the channel that leads into Barnstable Harbor. And I’m guessing we’ve caught at least 200 of them. Although I think mackerel, handled right, are a fine eating fish, and pickle almost as well as herring (more on that later), we’ve eaten very few of those 200. The rest of them, we’ve tortured.
The fishing that happens in this part of the world, at this time of year, is some of the best fishing there is. Although I have precious little experience of fishing in other parts of the world, people who’ve fished far and wide can back me up on this. Livelining mackerel for striped bass in the Barnstable Harbor channel is one of the best ways ever, anywhere, to get your dinner.
The first step is catching the mackerel, and that’s pretty fun in itself. You go out to where you think they ought to be – and a combination of experience, local advice, and fishfinder images help you figure out just where that is. Then you drop your diabolical sabiki rig, a string of tiny little hooks that snag on everything and tangle if you look at them funny, but are very good at catching mackerel.
And you jig. You let the weight you’ve attached to the end of your sabiki go to the bottom, and then you pull up on the rod, making the little hooks, which have little feathery tails on them, look like something mackerel want to eat. Then the weight sinks down again, and you pull up again.
You usually don’t know exactly where the mackerel are – sometimes they’re deep, sometimes they’re shallow, sometimes the big ones are deep and the small ones are shallow – so you gradually reel in your line, a couple of turns each time you jig.
When they hit, they almost always hit in force, and it’s common for everyone in the boat to get fish at the same time. It’s also common to catch more than one at a time, and not at all unusual to pull up a rig with a fish on every one of those little hooks. My personal record is six.
The hooks are small, and do minimal damage to the fish. If you hold the hooked mackerel over the livewell and give the hook a little shake, the fish usually just drops off. When you have a goodly number of mackerel in the livewell, you head back inland to the channel and the torture commences.
Kevin and I have been schooled in the art of livelining by our friend Bob, who’s been fishing these waters all his life. There’s no universal agreement about any fishing issue, and this is no exception; there are many ways to catch a striped bass with a mackerel. But Bob’s way has worked very well for us, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned about fishing, it’s to keep doing the things that catch fish and to stop doing the things that don’t.
We fish the outgoing tide, when the striped bass that have congregated in the shallows of Barnstable Harbor on the flood tide seem to swim out with the ebb. If you’re a fish and you want to leave Barnstable Harbor, there’s only one channel in which to do it, and that’s where just about everyone with a fishing rod and a boat goes this time of year.
You motor over to your favorite spot, wherever that is – and it changes with the time of year, time of day, time of tide, weather conditions, phase of the moon, and astrological sign of the captain – and shut off the engine. You grab a mackerel from the livewell and put a big hook through the top of its head.
I am under no illusion that the mackerel enjoys this.
You then toss the hooked mackerel into the water and give it enough line to swim away from the boat and wait for it to attract the attention of a striped bass. I’m certain it doesn’t enjoy this either.
You leave the bail on the reel open when you do this, so the line can come off the reel just as thread comes off a spool; nothing holds it. Nothing, that is, but your fingertip. With no check whatsoever, the mackerel could swim to Portugal, where there are no striped bass. This, you want to prevent. Since the mackerel is a small fish and can’t pull the line with much force, keeping a finger on the line as it comes off the reel is sufficient to do that.
It’s amazing what you can read from that one finger. As the mackerel swims, you feel the line move. If it jerks its head, you feel a stronger tug. That quarter-inch of fishing line in contact with your fingertip tells you the story of what’s going on under the water. A light, consistent pressure is a mackerel under no immediate threat. Strong tugs, widely spaced, are an understandably irritated mackerel trying to get the damn hook out of its head (it occasionally succeeds). Get a series of jiggy staccato yanks, and there’s a striper in pursuit.
When your mackerel gets jiggy, you pay very close attention. You might pull it in a foot or two to see if you can get the bass to give chase. You try and figure out whether the bass is too small to swallow the mackerel and is trying to nibble, or if the bass is big but lazy or picky or just not hungry enough to battle desperate bait.
And then your line gets yanked off your finger and starts spooling off your reel at top speed. You let the fish go for a bit – you don’t want to yank its mackerel clean out of its mouth. Then you flip the bail.
There’s nothing like the zzzzz noise of a fish taking line against the drag.
You let the fish keep going until the pressure lets up just a bit. Then you start reeling him in, always keeping pressure on the fish so it never gets enough slack to shake its head and free the hook. As you do this, you try to gauge its size. You usually know if it’s quite small or quite large, but some little fish have a lot of fight and some big fish just come swimming in.
I know that those of you who come here regularly are tired of hearing me say it, but catching a fish is wildly exciting. The excitement isn’t precisely commensurate with the size of the fish, but there is a correlation. When a jiggy mackerel tug turns into a giant striper yank, the adrenaline flows in the most even-keeled, phlegmatic of anglers.
Let’s see. It’s fun! But it’s torture. Fun! Torture …
It’s a problem.
I’m willing to stick a hook through a little fish and send it out to lure in a big fish, but only to put food on the table. When I have my limit of two striped bass, I stop. Because, on a good day, you can get your limit in about twenty minutes, that can make for a mighty short outing. It’s been hard, these past six weeks, to stow my rod and head home when the fishing is about as good as it gets, but I just can’t justify catch and release.
At least not with this kind of fishing. The hooks we use – circle hooks – almost always get the striper through the lip, but there’s no avoiding the occasional gut-hook, and a gut-hooked fish will almost assuredly die after release. And then there’s the mackerel. We none of us know what a mackerel goes through when it’s sent out as bait. A fish doesn’t have a sophisticated central nervous system, and the degree to which it feels pain isn’t well understood. But I’m damn sure that mackerel isn’t enjoying it. If there is such a thing as fish torture, this must be it.
The justification is that it puts food on the table; to date, we’ve landed about 130 pounds of striped bass filets. We’ve eaten quite a bit, given more to friends, and frozen enough so that we’ll have fish all year. But justifications don’t get you to buy a big boat and a big truck to pull it, to drop everything when the fish are running, to spend hours and hours on the water even in iffy weather. You do that because it’s fun.
It’s really, really fun.