A tote of mackerel slides noisily down a metal chute into a warehouse at the fish pier in Chatham. It’s dark and chilly and I’m standing with Willie Ligenza, who caught the fish.
I asked him if today was a good haul. “I saw you got what, about five, six hundred pounds?”
“Yeah, it was a pretty good haul,” Ligenza said. “I got between 400 and 500 pounds today, it was a pretty good haul.”
How do you fish for mackerel, I asked. What kind of gear do you use?
“I use one handline, with eight hooks on it, and a lead weight on it,” Ligenza said. “And that’s pretty much it.”
“And you can bring up up to eight fish at once?”
“Yes, I personally can handle about eight fish at once,” said Ligenza. “I guess if I had a longer arm span, I could do more than eight. But right around eight is what I prefer on my line.”
Ligenza uses surgical tubing for bait. He said the fish like anything that sparkles, and they’re actually pretty beautiful themselves. “Just like a tuna fish. It looks like a baby Bluefin tuna - just not giant, just a little tunny, up to two pounds. And, they have every color in the rainbow.”
We got to talking about how Ligenza likes to eat mackerel. “Actually, there’s a lot of different ways to cook it,” he told me. “You can smoke it, you can pickle it, you could eat it as sushi. You could bake it, fry it… there’s a ton of different ways to cook it, and it has a lot of good fats in it. All different ways, it’s just in how you prefer to eat it. Not a lot of people know about it, just because we’re used to eating other fish.”
I love mackerel. The sushi chefs at the restaurant where I work brine it and serve it over rice as nigiri, and at home I pan fry the fish whole. They have a rich, buttery flavor that is fishy - but that’s how they’re supposed to taste. And if you’re worried about things like vitamins D and B12 and omega 3 fatty acids, mackerel are an excellent source of all three. Willie mostly fishes for mackerel in the fall, but he says they also come by the Cape every spring.
“Usually they migrate down to Maryland, and then they migrate up to Canada, and then they go back down to Maryland in the wintertime,” he said. “I’ve read some articles that say the whole mackerel migration is moving Northeast, so we might see more mackerel around here for a longer period of time, giving us more time to fish for them.
This would be good news for local fishermen—mackerel populations are doing well according to advocacy sites like fishchoice.com, and you don’t need fancy boats or gear to catch them. Willie says the challenge is finding a market for mackerel.
“We’re trying to find new markets and new ways to get rid of them,” he said. “It isn’t always easy because people are used to cod and haddock. But it’s a hook fish, so it’s more substainable and has less impact because mackerel aren’t overfished. It’d be nice if people would start eating things like mackerel and dogfish and stayed away from codfish and haddock.”
Local mackerel are in season now, though many fish markets don’t carry them unless they hear from customers that there’s demand. If you’re up for giving mackerel a try, ask your fishmonger if they can get you some.
RECIPE: Whole Pan Fried Mackerel
1 medium size mackerel per person
1 clove garlic per fish, minced
1 egg per fish, lightly beaten
all purpose flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
butter, for frying
Gut the mackerel. Take a sharp knife and cut up the middle of the underbelly, from just past the tail to the gills. Slip your hands in, remove the viscera, and wash the fish out with cold water. Pat it dry, make 2-3 diagonal slits along the length of the fish on both sides, then rub the fish with the garlic. Dip each fish first in the egg, then in the seasoned flour. Warm up the butter in a large cast iron skillet and fry the fish for 4-5 minutes per side, or until a golden crust forms and the inside meat is just cooked through. Serve hot, with a squeeze of lemon juice.
This episode of the Local food Report Originally aired October 8, 2015