Posted by: 1000fish | December 29, 2010

Istavrit not Constantinople (a.k.a. The Trojan Horse Mackerel)

Dateline: December 29, 2010 – Istanbul, Turkey

To find the last time an English-speaking person had a day this rough on Turkish waters, you would have to go back almost 100 years, to Gallipoli in 1915. (The location of an ill-fated WW I invasion of Turkey by the British, which had the twin consequences of damaging the career of a young Winston Churchill and, to the great delight of The National Enquirer and related journalistic enterprises, launching the acting career of Mel Gibson.)

The vacation in Turkey was Marta’s idea. I certainly knew there was a country in the area, and I had some vaugue idea that it had been involved in world history at some point. I even knew there had been an Ottoman Empire, although I am still unclear on what they had to do with footstools. But Marta, with her education in Classics and ancient world history, had specific sights and activities in mind, and I just went along for the ride. This is not to say that Istanbul was not delightful. The food is wonderful. The people are incredibly nice. (If you ask directions to a bank, they won’t just point two blocks away; they’ll walk you there.) And the sights and history were simply breathtaking – the gateway to Asia, crossroads of so many different civilizations. There are some of the most amazing houses of worship in the world – the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Chora Church. There are world-class museums, which are even more fabulous in winter because they have central heating. And there is Topkapi – the Sultan’s Palace – those guys knew how to live, except that the whole eunuch thing upsets me.

                                      That is just SO wrong.

                      The New Mosque from across the Golden Horn

  Steve and Marta freezing in front of the Hagia Sofia. Note the Fenerbahce hat.*

                            The Blue Mosque in the early evening.

Galata Tower. You could hit our hotel with a rock from here, not that we tried.

                Marta in modest garb for a Mosque visit. Giggle.

The children’s Trojan Horse at the Turkish Archaelogy Museum. Look carefully, and you’ll figure out why Security asked us to leave.

Of course, it goes without saying that I was determined to catch a fish in Istanbul. My contacts had warned me – repeatedly – that it could be quite cold this time of year. My contacts had also warned me – repeatedly – that the only thing that would bite this time of year was the “istavrit” – juvenile horse mackerel which swarm the Bosphorus in winter. Indeed, anglers line up elbow-to-elbow on almost any available water, all with long, surf-type rods and a sort of giant sabiki rig – 10-20 small hooks with a small hair skirt. The Galata bridge is absolutely packed with fishermen, and as we walked across it on that first day, we could see everyone was catching dozens of the little beasts, all the same species, all the same size. This is likely what hell will be for me – a cold place teeming with one species of fish that I have already caught.

The process of getting on to the water involved a complex set of connections linking back to good old Jens Koller, the famed German fishing guide, race car driver, and linguistic pioneer. (See Jens had connected me to a fishing friend of his in Turkey, Ergiz Esen, who had in turn arranged for a charter boat (The Bayracktar, skippered by Captain Selim) to take us out for a day on the Bosphorus. We set up December 29 as the day, so that Marta and I would have a couple of days to settle in and see the sights.

We started around 8 in the morning, and it was bone-chilling cold. An evil, windy, damp cold that shot right through Gore-tex and fleece like a cheesecloth diaper, not that I would know what one of those actually feels like, and OK, fine, the whole idea is creepy and I wish I never brought it up. In any case, the cold got unbearable quickly, pretty much while we were walking from the parking lot to the boat. And it seemed to get windier as the day went on. We had the option to fish as many hours as we chose, and while Ergiz thought 3-4 was going to be more than enough, I still could not imagine not sticking out the whole day.

            Steve and Ergiz freeze their behinds on the rolling Bosphorus

Ergiz is quite a keen recreational fisherman, who spends his daytimes working for Mercedes in Istanbul. He is quite a car fanatic, which goes well past my automotive knowledge, which stops somewhere right after putting air into tires and right before changing oil. Indeed, as a college junior, I once drained the transmission fluid from my Honda and added more oil. That didn’t go well.

The guide set up bait-catcher type rigs, but I was quite determined that I would catch something new and astonishing, and so I left Marta to the sabiki jigging. And she did an outstanding job, catching a couple of dozen istavrits before I even set up for them. Ergiz and the skipper were suitably impressed.  After fruitlessly dragging bits of bait around the bottom for a couple of hours, I relented and put on the istavrit rig. And then, just to piss me off, the little beasts made themselves scarce for about an hour.  But after a frigid delay, they started biting for me too. I got a few of them and took appropriate photos while I tried to keep my hands warm. The scenery was still beautiful – the sweeping Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge, the steep hills on either side of the Bosphorus. But it was cloudy and grim and these scenes were devoid of warmth or light, as if they had been painted by Thomas Kinkaid’s evil twin. (The little-known Ralph Kinkaid – “painter of blight.”)

A confused horse mackerel and a bemused Marta. Note that she has taken the layering concept to its logical conclusion.

And still I kept fishing. Istavrit, istavrit, istavrit. They hit bare sabikis, they hit baited ones, they hit bigger hooks, they hit everything. I grimly stuck it out, figuring something else had to jump on sooner or later. But it didn’t. We moved spots. We went shallow. We went deep. Asia side, Europe side – they were everywhere, and there was nothing else. And, in case I hadn’t mentioned it, it was COLD. Marta was quite a sport about the whole thing, but she did start dropping a a few subtle hints, like shivering, as the day dragged on and I refused to leave.

It was late in the afternoon when I finally acknowledged the sound of Marta’s chattering teeth and decided to give it up. Ergiz and the skipper breathed (visible) sighs of relief and we headed to the dock. Yes, it was a frosty and pointless adventure, like my father’s second honeymoon, but it was still my 66th country with a fish caught. So it had that going for it – but of course I was faintly unsatisfied that I had failed to get a new species. I have to be fair and point out that Selim was a good skipper and he worked his butt off – but it was a difficult day, and it’s not like I hadn’t been repeatedly warned.

                                  Captain Selim of the Bayracktar

Ergiz drove us back to our hotel through some stunning traffic. But it was amazing to pass all kinds of historical treasures on the way – remnants of ancient city walls, buildings from the middle ages, and all with the commanding skyline of the Old City in the distance. He seemed to know the history behind all of it – certainly our best tour guide of the trip.

Marta and I then warmed up for an hour, taking showers until the hot water ran out. We then headed back out to the Istiklal Caddesi to do some shopping and track down a nice dinner. We found a building with two well known restuarants, one on the first level, one on the second. We ended up trying the ground floor option – an outstanding Turkish meal.  We wanted to try the second floor, but that’s another story. And after finding a few more scarves and other assorted bargains, and after eating far too many of the roasted chestnuts being sold on almost every corner, we finally returned back to the Galata Antique Hotel and prepared to turn in for the evening.

And this is where library time can be almost as important at fishing time. Before I fell asleep, I was thumbing through my well-worn copy of Fishes of the Eastern Mediterranean, a thriller that far surpasses any Tom Clancy novel, especially the surprise ending where they cleverly put the Balistidae where the Labrids should have been. I gave a half-hearted look at the page with the horse mackerel – good old Trachurus trachurus. Glancing at the bottom of the page, I just noticed another horse mackerel species, the Mediterranean, and I nearly passed it over, as differences between the species in this genus tend to be controversial and at the DNA level. But I read it anyway, and as it turns out, the difference was actually pretty darn simple – the scales on the front half of the lateral line of the fish are much smaller than the scales on the back half. Did I dare get my camera out and have a look? I slowly flipped back through the shots until I found an appropriate closeup, took a deep breath, and began zooming. For once in my amateur ichthyological life, it was completely obvious – front half scales small, back half scales big.

The Mediterranean Horse Mackerel – Trachurus mediterraneus – AND JAIME HASN’T CAUGHT ONE.

I shot upright, giving a fist pump and an ill-advised whoop of joy. (I say ill-advised as Marta was asleep next to me. Or, to be technically correct, she HAD been asleep next to me – she is an incredibly light sleeper and somehow woke up because I shouted in her ear.) A new species!! What cold weather? What wind? What hypothermic, abruptly-awakened girlfriend? The day had been a smashing success – Ergiz and Selim were epic Turkish heroes! And the best was yet to come, as we were heading to southern Turkey on New Year’s morning for some serious fishing. Well, Marta didn’t really view it as a fishing trip, but that again is another story.


* The Fenerbahce Hat – On our first day in Istanbul, we were about an hour out into the city when I realized it was unacceptably cold on my thinly-protected scalp. I decided I must buy a knit hat immediately. The first likely store we came upon sold soccer souvenirs, and they had two knit hats, a tasteful, low-key blue one, and a rather loud red and yellow one that reminded me just a bit too much of the Washington Redskins, who I will never forgive for keeping the Detroit Lions out of the Super Bowl in 1991. So I bought the blue one, not even aware at the time it was for a popular local soccer team called Fenerbahce. The Turks are passionate about their soccer, and especially so about their team rivalries. Moments after I bought the hat, Marta and I were waved through a long line for a museum, by a smiling guard saying “Fenerbahce, number one!!” We were also given discounts at souvenir shops and cafes. Of course, on a couple of occasions, supporters of the red and yellow team walked up to us on the street and said “Boo Fenerbahce!” Luckily, none of these people were police or airline security.




  1. Hi Marta, oh, of course, hi Steve,

    great storytelling and very nice photos! Come again in springtime or (even better) in autumn and we catch something more interesting than horse mackerels.


  2. […] The Rough Scad.  It’s somewhere in the Horse Mackerel family, a group well-known to us from the Turkey adventure – see… […]

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