Continued from last Saturday
A few days later I went back to the north-east of the island, this time with my fishing rod, threading it through the tall stems of Bracken as I walked, or even hoisting it over my head, above the dense canopy of fronds. I’d not managed to find anywhere else on Colonsay with deep water within easy reach of the rocks but here conditions seemed perfect. I find sea fishing to be one of the most complete and fulfilling ways of spending time in nature. There is the solitude (at least on this occasion) with no-one else for miles around. There is the need to read the landscape and the tides in order to find the best spot. And there is the mix of both terrestrial and marine wildlife depending on which way you turn your head as you stand at the interface between the two. More than that, you are getting your hands dirty and directly interacting with wildlife rather than simply watching it go by. There is, hopefully, the handling of the fish, its rapid despatch and the knowledge that, later, you will eat what you have just caught. That, in itself, plays to one of our most basic and long-established instincts. In a rare departure from the norm, it is a pastime unencumbered by the restrictions of officialdom. No permissions, permits or licences are required. It is free and open to everyone. It’s not much fun for the fish, of course, but there is the consolation that it was caught in the most sustainable way possible, harming nothing else in the process, and treated with respect throughout.
I fished using a spinner – a heavy, shiny piece of metal, repeatedly cast out and reeled back in to mimic a small bait fish. It requires less patience than casting out a stationary bait and waiting, and it burns more calories. Offshore there were a few Shags, a distant Great Northern Diver, a scattering of Eiders and a Black Guillemot, or Tystie, that had already lost its dapper black-and-white plumage from the summer, sporting an untidier, almost dishevelled, mottled-all-over effect. A Shag came closer in to the rocks as it fished, each dive launched with a refined leap forward into the water. The larger Cormorant lacks this graceful prelude, flopping inelegantly underwater without the jump. In areas where both species occur, as here around Colonsay, the difference can be a helpful way to distinguish between the two. As a soundtrack there was silence, or lapping water on rock, or the mournful, haunting duet between Curlews and a seal pup missing its mother.
I paused from fishing as the Shag came close to my casting range, wary of an experience the previous summer in Sutherland. On that occasion a lone Guillemot was fishing in the water I was casting into. I didn’t think anything of it and when I felt a hard rattle and tug on the rod I assumed I’d hooked another Mackerel. Then the line went slack and up to the surface bobbed the Guillemot, looking somewhat shaken as it ruffled its feathers back into place. It had been fooled in the same way as the Mackerel I’d already caught and was lucky to have avoided the hooks. With the benefit of hindsight, I suppose the incident was unsurprising. If a fish thinks a piece of metal is another fish then why wouldn’t a fish-eating bird make the same mistake?
There were no Mackerel here after an hour of fishing and I wondered if, in early October, it was already a little late in the season, and they had retreated further offshore for the winter. I’d reached the stage where every new cast was to be the last one and, forty minutes later, it finally paid off.
The Mackerel is a fish sent from heaven. Everything about it brings joy. I find it reassuring that despite all the damage caused by overfishing, if you cast your line into deep water anywhere along the west coast of Britain, in summer, you will likely catch them. They roam the seas restlessly in packs, like miniature tuna, constantly on the move, snapping at anything that resembles food. Even a bare hook can sometimes catch them if the glint of thin, polished metal draws their eye. Strings of feathers take advantage of the pack mentality. The first fish snaps at its ‘prey’, and the others see this and move in, looking to take advantage of a feeding opportunity. They cannot afford a more considered approach – they would lose their meal to the next fish.
They are also stunningly beautiful fish, with a streamlined, torpedo-like shape and a series of short, triangular ‘go-faster’ finlets towards the tail. They are delicately patterned with dark wavy stripes that cut across an iridescent green-blue background on the upper surface, onto the silvery flanks below. These stripes, apparently, are used as visual markers by the fish to help keep the school together. On a bright day you know you’ve caught a Mackerel when it is still several feet underwater as the sun lights up the gaps between the stripes, and the whole fish flickers. It is a fish that you must catch for yourself if you want to enjoy it to the full. As an oily fish it spoils quickly. If it has been hauled out of the sea in a vast net, left to thrash around on deck and then had a journey of several days to the supermarket, packed in ice, it will provide an ordinary meal. Line-caught and grilled within a few hours, the taste is unrivalled. To be concluded at 12:45 on Saturday…