Mackerel Fishing on the Lillie May

Mackerel Fishing on the Lillie May

It was a pin-sharp sunny day: warm, but with enough of a breeze to stop it from being overbearing. I tore down towards the water’s edge, ahead of the others, worried that departure time was approaching fast. The shingle beach at Beer, with its smooth honey-coloured pebbles, crunched and gave way underfoot, sucking my boots into a quicksand of stones.  My sister gave me a helpful shove as I manoeuvred myself upwards onto the makeshift jetty, where we met the skipper Paul, before clambering into the boat.

We were briefly surrounded by an invisible cloud of diesel as the engine started, which dissipated when we launched into the open water, the offshore wind in our favour. Chalk cliffs loomed on our right, like a toothsome smile, dazzling in the early afternoon sun. I licked the salt off my lips and savoured the view as we motored away from the shoreline, entranced by the channel of churned water in our wake.

Beer was once known for its smuggling history and was home to Jack Rattenbury, an infamous 19th century West Country smuggler.  Whilst the links to smuggling seem to have faded over time, there has been a long tradition of fishing out of Beer.  This is a practice that continues today, as evidenced by all the colourful boats pinned to the shore, and the beachside hut selling fresh fish and Beer crab.

During the summer, large shoals of mackerel return to the shallower water by the coast in order to spawn and it is here that you have the opportunity to catch a fish supper of your own.

We pulled up, turning off the engine so the skipper could give us instructions about how to handle our fishing tackle – a simple block and line with a baited hook at the end. The sea cradled the boat, rocking us into a soporific lull. I exhaled, closing my eyes and turning my face up to the sun, as a feeling of contentment and ease engulfed me, and I recognised the familiar sense of belonging that comes over me whenever I am at sea.

Bait and lines cast, we continued on, rounding Beer Head as we followed the coast to the right.  The water seemed at times almost teal in colour, as it lapped at the side of the boat, its mood ever-shifting.  It became a little choppy as we ventured further out, the surface smattered with diamonds flashing in the light.

My son was first to haul in a mackerel: a handsome and substantial fish, its silver and black scales glinting like chain mail. He dropped it onto the deck, and I had the unpleasant task of removing the hook from its mouth. I struggled a little and as I finally freed the fish from the barb, it gave a mighty wriggle and slipped from my hands, high tailing it straight out through the scuppers into the lapis depths, to live another day. Curse my clumsy butterfingers.

My niece was next to land a fish, and my sister had more success removing the hook and safely placing it in the bucket waiting on the deck. I may have an overactive imagination, but I swear there was an expression of outright incredulity on the face of the fish, as she handled it.

Our skipper gutted the unlucky sole catch of the day and placed it on a string for us to carry off the boat. Back on shore, we made our way slowly up the beach, slipping and sliding on the pebbles as we went. We set up a little camp around a picnic table and relaxed in the sun for a couple of hours, variously occupying ourselves with dips in the sea, books to read, notebooks to scribble in, and ice-cream cones.

Walking back up the hill at the end of the day, we felt cleansed by the sea air and agreeably wearied.

Katy Emma Partridge
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Katy Emma Partridge is a writer based in Devon.  She also makes creative journals and eclectic handmade books about nature, travel, art and life

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