Little Pigeon Cove harbor, on Cape Ann, on the north shore of Massachusetts, was a virtual fish trap back in the day when there were actually fish to be trapped. The granite breakwater narrows the mouth of the harbor and schools of tinker mackerel, perhaps chased into the harbor by plundering stripers or blues, tended to swim in a circle, round and round the harbor. Every few minutes the fish would pass under the dock where we kids would be lying on our bellies, dangling baited hooks into the water and yanking up the mackerel and watching their little forked tails beat a staccato tattoo on the dock.
I don’t remember fishing with a rod and reel until I was in my teens. We were using hand lines, stout cotton cords wrapped around a simple square wood frame. The line was permeated with a kind of pine tar that prolonged their useful life, and it smelled good. It smelled to us of fishing, the leading occupation of the little village, smelled like the nets of the little seiners and trawlers that fished out of the harbor. Sometimes the nets would be hauled ashore to be dried, laid out on the fields at Balzarini’s farm, and to be mended where needed. As a ten-year-old I learned to handle a net-needle and mend a hole in a seining net.
The mackerel were occasional visitors. There were always pollock swimming under the dock, easy to catch on a hook baited with a seaworm dug from the rocky mud beside the seawall. And the bottom of the harbor held fat flounder. One day Freddy Hillier and I untied a skiff, rowed out to his father’s lobster boat and hand-lining over the rail caught forty pounds of flounder in a couple of hours. We took them ashore and sold them to the local fish dealer for ten cents a pound and were rich.
One day when the tinkers swarmed into the harbor the Silvas’ little trawler was tied up at the dock and I discovered that mackerel were very tasty. I forget who was fishing beside me — one of my grade-school pals — but as soon as we brought a few mackerel up, the boat’s cook cleaned them and fried them in the galley and brought them up to us on soft white bread. I thought they were the best thing I had ever eaten.
So when I watched a guy out on the Rockland breakwater a couple of weeks ago catch a bucketful of tinker mackerel, the memories came, and back at the house I rigged up a couple of light spincasting rods. The Bro and I walked out to the lighthouse and began casting jigs and catching mackerel, about ten inches long.
A mackerel is quite a handsome fish, all silvery belly and sky-blue back with distinctive black vermiculation. We took some home, brushed on olive oil, sprinkled on sea salt and grilled them out on the deck. I know a lot of people, including folks who eat a lot of fish, avoid mackerel because of their reputation for being oily, “fishy” and bony. Served raw in a sushi joint mackerel do have a strong flavor, because the fish is at least a day old. But when you have a small, fresh mackerel coming hot off the grill with its skin just a bit charred, all you need is a squeeze of lemon juice. The flavor is rich and sweet, and most of the bones lift right out with the spine after you tease off one filet.
We’ve since been back to the breakwater and caught more mackerel, but for me, one ingredient is missing that would make the fish taste even better: an old-fashioned tarred handline, wound around a simple wood frame.