Line Fishing off Whitby

by Leo Walmsley

Published in the Yorkshire Post, July 1946

It was one a.m. We were drifting to herring nets, 26 miles out from Whitby. It was dark, the sky overcast, with a threat of thunder. The wind was south-east, not violent, but enough to raise a jowl1 and tear white streaks from an otherwise invisible sea for there was little 'burn' or phosphorescence in it.

      The lack of 'burn' troubled Marney (skipper of the keeler Easter Morn since Henry Lunn his father had retired). It's 'burn' that makes the surface-feeding fish visible. On a dark night you can spot a shoal of herrings miles away. But tonight it was mackerel we were after and for a very special purpose. We wouldn't know we had a single fish until we 'haled'2. That would be soon, however. The nets had had two hours. Would I give them a shout below.

      I put my head through the cabin hatch. The cabin was shaped like a flat-iron, the points of the bows; three bunks in tiers on each side; a galley stove, its bars red hot at the broader end. Five figures rose from the bunks at my shout. John Lunn, the engineer, was the first to climb out and go aft to the engine. Then there were Bill, Bob, Jim and 'Hutch', each pulling on his oilskin as he came on deck.

      The engine was started; the warp passed round the hydraulic capstan. The brilliant deck light was switched on, and soon the first net was coming over the side. Last time I had seen nets was September. Then literally you could scarcely see the net for herrings. They'd come over the side in one great silver wave. And the crew had been bored. Now after a few fathoms of empty net there was an excited shout.

      'There's yan! There's yan! Aye, and another. There's six or seven.'

      We picked those mackerel out of the net as carefully as if they had been salmon trout. Potentially they were as valuable. For we were netting and overing. A sprat to catch a mackerel. A mackerel to catch – well, we didn't know yet. There were sixteen nets. It took an hour to 'hale' them. Our total catch was two boxes of mackerel, a single herring and of all things, a single pilchard.

      'Best shot we've had this season!' was Marney's verdict.

      'There'll be a fry for us as well as enough for our overs. Come on lads. Let's be at it. We want our last 'over' shot afore daylight.'

      The mackerel were chopped into lumps as big as an egg. The first of the long-lines or 'overs' was placed level with the gunnel forrard of the wheelhouse. A man stood on each side, the box of bait handy. A buoy and an anchor went over. We turned at half speed across the tide. Then Marney, from the wheelhouse, gave the word 'Go!'

      Each of the vicious hooks had to be seized from the moving coil of line and baited as it came. The wind was still fresh and the boat pitched and rolled wildly. But the shooters hands worked so fast I just could not see them. There were sixteen 'overs', each three hundred and sixty fathoms in length, a total of more than five and a half miles. It took an hour to shoot them. And it was still dark.

      We went below. The pitching and rolling seemed twice as violent there. The heat from the stove was intense. For a squeamish person, mackerel fried in bacon fat, with black tea and sea-moistened bread, might not have seemed exactly suitable. But I, thank heaven, was not squeamish, although I insisted on toasting the bread and I wasn't sorry to get on deck again. Soon the others were up too, their oilskins on. The sky was overcast but the day was breaking. Before haleing fishermen are usually rather humble.

      'There won't be much on this line,' Marney predicted as we picked up the buoy of the last line we had shot. 'It hasn't had long enough. But we may do better on the second one.'

      Despite the jowl the sea was crystal clear by the side of the boat and there was light enough to see the line coming up. But all I saw at first were the lumps of mackerel untouched on the hooks. And about twenty came in before the man who was haleing said, 'There's yan coming noo, I can feel him!'

      I saw it coming fathoms down, a huge cod with bubbles streaming from its gills. It was gaffed aboard. A few more hooks with baits intact and then came a very silly-looking whiting, a foot in length. But the man haleing was not discouraged by that.

      'There's summat big coming unless we've fouled t'bottom. Aye it's a fish. And more than yan!'

      I saw it at last, a huge skate and it took two men to gaff it on board. And behind it was a ling and down below there were more fish gleaming like flags on a line. And from then on the fish really began to come in. There were gaps of course, some where all the hooks were bare. But there were 'runs' where every hook had a fish. And what fish! Mostly they were cod, none under twenty pounds. Many over thirty! But there were ling and conger and skate and – great excitement – a fine halibut. There were a few haddocks and there were some whiting, but in every case the whiting had become a bait itself and helped to hook a cod or ling.

      There were other things of special interest to myself. A hook had torn a bit of rock from the bottom. It was like a surrealistic picture with a clump of dead men's fingers on it and crimson anemones and a fantastic marine worm. Some of the fish had lampreys stuck on to them, slimy, evil eel-like things that Marney called 'devourers.'

      No wonder that a king died of a surfeit of them.

      Five and a half miles of line had to be hauled hand over hand, and with that weight of fish! Imagine pushing a wheelbarrow that distance!

      The threatened thunderstorm broke at last. There was torrential rain. The wind shifted. The sun came out and there was calm for a while. The Halers, taking turns, sweated at their task. Then the wind got up again stronger than ever from the south-east and the jowl got worse, but the haleing went on and the decks were hidden in a mass of slithering monster fish. We'd started haleing at dawn. It was noon when the last dozen hooks came in, each with a cod or ling on it and Marney swung Easter Morn's head round for the three hours' run home.

      'What's our catch?' I asked him.

      'Two hundred and fifty stone, I reckon.'

      'And what will it fetch?'

      'Control prices, four and six a stone. Maybe less, but certainly not more.'

      'And what will the housewives pay for that when they get to the end of the queue?'

      'Don't be funny.' he said. 'I've heard that one before. You've got to remember there's been a war on. What about the bread rationing?'


1 jowl – the head and shoulders of a salmon, sturgeon or ling
2 hale – to drag or draw forcibly.

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