Focus on Nature: When the mackerel run, run after them

Cast netting is a method universally used to catch fish. I can remember watching natives using them in New Guinea when I was in the service.
BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | Cast netting is a method universally used to catch fish. I can remember watching natives using them in New Guinea when I was in the service.

Though winter is still holding onto the North Fork, down here in Florida the colder days have left and days in the 70s and 80s are now more common. Our winter here was colder than usual but not like last year, when we had dead fish lining the water’s edge, casualties of the cold. We have no complaints when we watch the North Fork weather reports day after day.

With Florida’s nicer weather, people are heading to the beaches more, shorts instead of long pants are seen and short-sleeve shirts abound instead of hooded sweatshirts. The mackerel are running and the fishermen are happy.

We took a ride one afternoon down to the bridge between our island and the next and watched fishermen at the edge of the water and others on the bulkhead casting into the bay with light tackle. They were catching mackerel and their white buckets were filled. We also saw some using cast nets on the docks with good results.

While the fishermen stood and talked and we watched, we could see dolphins diving in and out after mackerel all along the waterway heading toward the bridge between the bay and the gulf. We never tire of watching these sleek black torpedo-like mammals. Usually you can see only the dorsal fin protruding from the water, but occasionally one leaps partway out of the water after some fish, probably a mackerel like the ones the guys on the dock were catching.

Dolphins were once common in our local waters and as a child I remember seeing them in the South Race off Robins Island. The dolphins we observed most recently on the East End were the well-known ones that came in to a small shallow creek in Sag Harbor a few winters ago; the local people worked hard to circle them and coax them back out to deeper water. We drove over and watched and it was bitter cold and windy as the people in the boats worked to save these dolphins.

I often wonder how fish and other denizens of the deep sleep. Dolphins do not sleep; they just rest for short periods of time. They merely take cat naps at the water’s surface for two or three minutes at a time. At night these naps increase to seven to eight minutes.

Another interesting fact about dolphins is that they don’t breathe automatically as other animals do; they have to breathe voluntarily, so if they are knocked unconscious they literally stop breathing and die.

As the men fished they talked of cooking and eating mackerel. Some say they make them into fish cakes, which sounded good, and others talked of filleting them and frying them, but when we researched mackerel, to our surprise we came up with an interesting recipe from the Gill-lectable Gourmet’s Guide to Long Island Fish:

Greenport Baked Mackerel
2 mackerel (8 ounces each), whole dressed or boned
1 cup tomato juice
Half of a fresh pineapple, diced
2 tablespoons vinegar
One-quarter green pepper, diced
1/4 teaspoon salt
Artificial sweetener to equal 6 teaspoons sugar
4 ounces onions, sliced, cooked and drained
Simmer all ingredients except onions and fish in saucepan for approximately 30 minutes. Add onions. Place mackerel in baking dish. Fill cavities with tomato mixture. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for approximately 25 minutes, or until fish flakes easily.
Serves 2.

We haven’t caught our own mackerel as yet, but plan to go out fishing in the next week when our son comes down, so we haven’t had a chance to try the recipe. It was kind of fun to just find Greenport listed in among the many fish recipes.
When we overheard some of our neighbors talking of going fishing, Barbara decided to watch for them when they returned to the dock to see if she could get some pictures of their mackerel. When she met them at the dock she found they had a good day on the water, but not a profitable fishing day. They had caught just one fish and she photographed it in the bright sunlight as it lay glistening on the dock.

Mackerel are elongated, streamlined fish with a compressed body and a pointed snout. They are dusky blue on top with silver undersides. They have small, needle-sharp teeth that help them catch fish, shrimp and squid.

Mackerel also pass through our area on the North Fork, which brings to mind years ago when one of my students invited me to go mackerel fishing with him. We used a rig with four or five jigs on the line and fished in the deep water between Shelter Island and Greenport. I was amazed how quickly and forcefully the mackerel took to our rigs. Sometimes we brought up three or four at a time. I look forward to doing some mackerel fishing soon down here in Florida.