Learning how to catch doggie mackerel for the table has become a family tradition in my house and recently my son had a chance to put his skills to the test.
Ever since I was a boy, early morning fishing trips in search of the humble doggie mackerel have been a winter ritual.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat in a small aluminium dinghy in the pre-dawn cool as it glides over the swells of the Coral Sea, on the way to one of the local hot spots.
I didn’t come from a fishing family. My father, and grandfather for that matter, weren’t fishermen.
But for me, it was different – I loved fishing . . .
Despite growing up in a small town a long way from this country’s major population centres, the fishing was tough. Loss of habitat to farming lands and over fishing had taken their toll through the years.
Soaking a bait in the local river was, more often than not, a waste of time. Of course, if you had a boat big enough to make the thirty-odd kilometre trip out to the Great Barrier Reef, a piscatorial nirvana awaited.
Everyone use to fill their eskies out there in those days but our family didn’t own a reef boat, so that wasn’t an option.
I was very lucky though, because somewhere around my twelfth birthday, my parents bought me a small aluminium dinghy – known affectionately in this part of the world as a ‘tinnie’.
As I was too young to have a boat license, it was fitted out with a six horsepower engine which was small enough that you didn’t require one.
There was no way I was going to the reef in it, but it did open up a whole new world for me!
Out of the river mouth and about three kilometres north up along the coast, were a pair of rocks aptly named ‘the twins’.
Provided the sou ‘easterly winds weren’t too strong, my little boat could make the trip in about twenty minutes and it soon became a favoured fishing spot during the cooler months when the doggie mackerel congregated there.
During the week at school, myself and one of my friends (who was equally as keen) would plan our weekend sojourns.
Come Saturday morning, dad would tow my little boat down to the ramp at the Coconuts, picking up my friend on the way, and have us there before the sun had risen.
We’d be rugged up in track suit pants and beanies, shivering and wishing the sun would hurry up and bring us some warmth.
Dad would wait until we’d launched the tinnie and got it started, then go home and get ready for work. He and my mum owned their own business, so he’d come back and pick us up after he’d locked up the shop around lunch time.
Having access to this ‘greener’ pasture worked wonders on my catch rate. Where once I struggled to bring something home for the plate, now I was bringing fresh fish on a regular basis.
So much so, that I don’t think my family had to buy fish anymore. It felt good to be able to provide like that.
I think deep within most boys, and men for that matter, the basic hunter-gatherer instinct still exists.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe my parents let me go on these trips unsupervised, especially in the early days when, as I said, I was just twelve.
I think the fact that both my friend’s parents, and mine, weren’t fishing or boating people allowed us to bluff them into thinking it was no big deal.
Most of the time it wasn’t, but there were a few hairy trips home when a big sou ‘easter sprang up . . . and there was that one time when two fourteen-foot tiger sharks attacked our dinghy.
But I digress.
These days, I have a son of my own and at thirteen he’s a great kid, but there is no way I’d let him go out fishing for doggies alone or with a friend of the same age.
They’re just kids.
And the thing is, he wouldn’t want to anyway as it’s outside his comfort zone. To him, dad organises the fishing trips and is always on hand to deal with any problems that come along.
Different people have different lives and mature at different rates. Things are starting to change, though.
I’ve been trying to encourage him to start doing a bit of fishing without me. Not because I don’t enjoy spending time with him – quite the opposite.
I think it’s important for him to start being a little bit more independent.
The other day was a classic example.
His 21-year-old cousin dropped around to see if we wanted to go out to chasing doggies. My son’s eyes lit up straight away as he’s been itching to get out there.
I declined the invitation, but told him that the pair of them should go without me. My son was a little bit awkward about it, but there was no way he wasn’t going.
That night I helped him rig his lines in preparation for the morning, answered any questions he had, and assured him he’d have a good time.
I’d taken him to the ‘twins’ fishing for doggies many times in previous years and had taught him what I know about catching them.
All the same, as I helped him get his gear ready, we went back over the main points: just after sunrise is the best time to catch them; casting pilchards on a trio of ganged hooks around the rocks is a tried and true method of getting a strike; use a wire trace so their razor sharp teeth don’t cut your line; and when they hit, let them run and wear themselves down before bringing them to the boat.
Next morning I saw him off at 6:30am. The weather was good; light winds and clear conditions.
By 11am they were back and, with pride, boyo presented us with three lovely, little doggie mackerel he had caught.
I could tell by his smile he’d had a ball and was probably feeling that same satisfaction I had felt all those years ago when, I too, provided food for my family.
It’s a good feeling.
And in a way it felt like I had passed the mantle on to him in a way. Bringing fresh fish to our table is a role he can take on now.
Sure, I still enjoy fishing, but my days of spending whole weekends on the water are gone.
I don’t have that level of enthusiasm for it anymore. A couple of hours here and there is enough for me.
I hit the big four zero this year so it must be an age thing.
But for my son, the fun is just beginning.
When it comes to preparing doggie mackerel for the table, to me they are best when eaten on the day of capture, being a fish that doesn’t freeze well.
It’s also important to keep them on ice within minutes of capture to ensure premium quality.
North Queensland is full of fish snobs who turn their nose up at anything that isn’t coral trout, red emperor or nannygai, but I believe almost every type of fish can taste really good if you cook in a way that suits it.
For me, fresh, fillets of doggie mackerel are perfect for lightly coating in flour and shallowing frying in extra virgin olive oil. Just make sure you season the fillets with salt and pepper before coating them.
Fry on one side in a frying pan over high heat for around 5 minutes (or until golden brown) then flip and fry on second side for about 3 minutes.
You don’t want to overcook it and dry the flesh out.
Once cooked, remove and allow to drain on paper towel for 30 seconds before plating up.
Goes really well with freshly-picked salad leaves from the garden (I use a mixture of mignonette lettuce and endive), slices of lemon for squeezing, and crispy potato wedges or potato chips (fries, for any of my American friends who are reading this).
I also whip up a tartare sauce to go with it.
Start with some homemade mayonnaise and load it up with chopped capers, pickled jalapeno chillies (I grow and preserve these myself), a dash of white wine vinegar and a handful of dill, once again from my garden.
These flavours are awesome with a mildly flavoured fish like mackerel.
If you live outside of North Queensland, substitute with any firm, white-fleshed fish from your local area.
Note: Doggie mackerel (also called school mackerel) have a minimum size limit of 55cm and a bag limit of 10 per angler in Queensland. Always check your local regulations before going fishing.