Most Maine children growing up within an hour’s driving distance of saltwater have caught Atlantic mackerel, a ubiquitous and extremely cooperative species that swims along our coast and tidal rivers from late spring through early fall.
Even non-anglers have wrestled mackerel, after an angling friend talked a non-fisher or two into dunking bait or casting flies or shiny lures from a dock, ledge, bridge or breakwater — a Maine rite of passage.
Action picks up in late June and in fact, mackerel come so close to shore that it endears them to anglers.
Sure, folks catch mackerel in the open ocean, but casual anglers with white five-gallon buckets dot shoreside spots that attract marauding mackerel schools — spots like the bridge over Passagassawakeag River in Belfast, the Breakwater in Rockland Harbor, the fort at Popham, and Scotland Bridge over the York River. Readers can add plenty more to the list.
When my first mackerel ever smacked an offering, I was 7 years old and fishing from ledges near Fort Popham at the mouth of the Kennebec River.
The fish measured 14 inches, and to a kid my age, it fought like a demented greyhound. Compared to freshwater species like white or yellow perch, sunfish and pickerel, it did pull all right.
Fish have always ranked as my favorite main dish, and that day at Popham, my parents iced the mackerel, a crucial step for oily species that quickly go bad in summer temperatures, and the air need not be that hot.
These days I still put fish on ice but add another step — a plastic ziplock bag so they don’t lie in melted water for hours, which softens flesh. I prefer keeping the meat dry and frigid for maximum taste and texture.
The plastic bag also keeps the cooler from smelling too fishy for a more genteel picnic later, but just touching the plastic with smelly hands to zip the bag adds enough odor to contaminate the cooler. A simple washing with baking soda and water helps remove the offending smell.
That day so many years ago, my mother baked the mackerel on a rack to get the meat above dripping oil that quickly filled the pan bottom, and she served the dish with wedges of fresh lemon to cut the oil more. A sprinkle or two of salt didn’t hurt, either.
I’ve enjoyed mackerel ever since, and it surprises me to see writers penning statements that apologize for eating mackerel:
One book author proclaimed, “Good but oily,” and another said, “It depends on tastes. Oily but good to some people.”
Mackerel sizes intrigue folks who notice certain peculiarities:
For example, Atlantic mackerel range from Cape Hatteras to the Canadian Maritimes and average 12 to 18 inches long. Though a 2-pounder is unusual, this mackerel does grow to 21/2 pounds. A few readers may have caught ones that large, but the kicker is this: The world record weighed but 2 pounds, 10 ounces and came from Norway way in 1992.
Compare that species to chub mackerel that range from Cape Hatteras to Nova Scotia, much as Atlantic mackerel do, but average 12 inches. Shockingly to me, the world record for this mackerel with a smaller average weight is 4 pounds, 12 ounces.
King mackerel grow large, as the name implies. They can reach 50 pounds, and the world record is 93 pounds, but a 20-pounder would pop eyes. A 10-pounder would please me plenty. Kings range from South Florida to North Carolina but stray up to New England.
Atlantic mackerel have taught many Maine children how to play and handle fish, including fighting, icing and cooking them. The playing part interests kids the most, a great learning aid for teaching fishing skills.
One learning experience happened to me when I was 16 years old. A friend took me on a boat off Newagen by The Cuckolds lighthouse, where a school of 16-inch mackerel hit my bucktail with reckless abandon — a Red-and-White on a size 10, 6x long hook with peacock-herl topping. That day I knew these fish were teaching me plenty about playing 16-inch fighters on a fly rod — great practice for northern Maine brookies.
Mackerel swim over much of the world, and the family includes different genera and species. Anglers need a guidebook for the details.
Before leaving the topic, let me add a quick point. When cooking mackerel, acidic sauces made with mustard, lemon juice or vinegar enhance the flavor. You’ll thank me for this tip later.
Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: