“Mackerel Sky” – Weather Lore That’s A Bit Fishy

Do these old weather lore rhymes still hold water today? And what do they have to do with fish?

Weather lore is one of our favorite subjects here at Farmers’ Almanac. Each fall, we share the signs of a hard winter, and it is our most popular weather lore story among our readers. But there are many other sayings passed down from our ancestors who relied on nature to forecast what was to come. How many of these fish-related weather lore sayings have you heard?

Fishy Weather Lore

If you enjoy weather lore, you may be familiar with a certain fish that makes an appearance in various old sayings:

Mackerel scales and mare’s tails
Make tall ships carry low sails. 

While it’s a lovely rhyme, it doesn’t make much sense to the average person. What does it mean?

This bit of weather lore isn’t exactly about fish. The mackerel scales in the rhyme refers to cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds, which are middle-level, heap-like clouds that often appear in rows, like sand ripples in a tidal pool, or more accurately, like scales on a mackerel. Mares’ tails describe thin and wispy cirrus clouds, which are indicative of strong high-level winds.

These types of clouds are influenced by shifting wind directions and high speeds, typical of an advancing low-pressure system.

Mariners knew that the combination of “mare’s tail” cirrus clouds above “mackerel scales” altocumulus clouds meant deteriorating weather conditions—high winds and precipitation was coming, so the sails should be lowered to keep them protected.

The scaly fish makes an appearance in another old weather lore saying:

Mackerel sky,
mackerel sky,
Never long wet,
never long dry.

What is a mackerel sky? It’s a name given to a sky covered with those same puffy cirrocumulus and altocumulus clouds arranged in a pattern of waves, with blue sky peeking through so that it resembles the scales on the back of a mackerel.

If mariners spotted altocumulus clouds and air pressure began to fall, they could expect rain. But it would mean rain only for a short period (“never long wet”), because as the warm front moves quickly along, so will the precipitation.

And speaking of fish, another favorite weather lore saying you may be familiar with involves trout:

Trout jump high
When rain is nigh.

When rain is “nigh” or on its way, it’s usually accompanied by a low-pressure system which can cause plant particles that were trapped at the bottom of a lake to rise thus providing feed for small fish. The small fish are, of course, food for larger fish like trout. So you may see them jumping as they feast.

Today, we use weather apps on our smartphones and rely on our local meteorologists (and your Farmers’ Almanac, of course) to get weather predictions. Even sailors use advanced technology in the form of weather buoys in the oceans to help guide them. But while these sayings are not in popular circulation anymore, we can see they still hold water.

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Michael Avery

But how are they formed? An explanation of the process involved ought to be available to add to these fascinating ,folksy insights of shepherds and shipowners. Please, some science !

Susan Higgins

Hi Michael, are you wondering how the folklore sayings were created, or how the clouds are formed? Clouds form in different circumstances based on stable or unstable atmosphere, coupled with moisture, water vapor, ice crystals, temperatures, etc. We have a lot of information on clouds: https://www.farmersalmanac.com/crazy-clouds-understanding-unusual-sky-formations-17761 PS: we love science!


I so enjoy your articles like this!!! Thank you for sharing this history of creative human adaptation, evolution and navigation through symbols and stories… The connection here is poetic and undeniable, beautifully developed by closely experiencing and connecting with nature as it is presented to us… What a beautiful reminder to awareness and tuning in to our surroundings.


Well, FA Staff, you’ve done it again! Thank you. Once again you’ve so clearly illustrated how practical, reliable and nature-backed many of our forefathers’/mothers’ quaint old sayings actually were; whole generations of us who learned to depend on such wisdom have more safely and effectively pursued livelihoods on land and at sea, providing the means to support our families and loved ones – often making the difference in whether or not we got to grow old enough to see our children raised.
I trapped and fished on the Labrador Coast as a young man raising a family. Some of your readers may be familiar with another “old sayin'” I learned to rely on. Each winter morning was met with some time trying to determine what sort of weather was in store and preparing accordingly. If it began to snow, it was said that if the falling snow flakes were big and heavy then there was merely a short-lived flurry or squall on the way, not amounting to much to worry about. However, with smaller flakes falling one could expect a significant amount of snow to accumulate before day’s end.
Again, thank you and keep up the fine work you do.

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