I started haaf netting in 1976. I have always been interested in fishing. As a small boy I began by fishing for tadpoles, newts and frogs in the canals of my native Manchester. Later I graduated to fishing for perch and roach with a rod and line.
In the summer holidays my dad would take us wild camping where my brother Tony and myself would snare rabbits and guddle trout. When my family moved to Annan I thought I had moved to heaven, I could fish real rivers which contained the king of fish himself: the Atlantic salmon. I regularly biked to Rigg and Robgill to fish the kirtle and I could often be found below the Annan bridge fishing for eels, sea trout and brownies.
I caught my first salmon when I was ten. Even though it was a Kelt (a spawned fish) capturing it is embedded in my memory. I moved away from Annan in my teens but returned to teach at Annan Academy in 1975. By that time my dad and elder brother Tony were established haaf netters. I therefore had a seamless route into the hobby. In those days it was possible to earn the equivalent of a week’s wages with the sale of one or two salmon, so the money I earned from haaf netting was a very useful addition to my family’s budget. I distinctly remember catching a salmon at the end of the 1976 season and buying the whole family new shoes with the proceeds.
In the seventies, fishing at Gretna was like stepping into the Wild West. Many of the fishermen were virtually full time haafers and used every dirty trick in the book to gain an advantage over other fishermen, including sabotaging other fishermen’s equipment. As soon as darkness fell, what rules there were ceased to exist, as did recognition of the fishing border, which separates England and Scotland! In those days fish were abundant, anglers were catching as many fish as haafnetters so bailiffs seldom appeared. As a result a kind of pleasant anarchy existed.
They were good times despite the nuisance of having to put up with deliberately damaged gear. I used to fish all hours, inflation was nearly seventeen per cent in 1976 and I was desperate to make money. As a result I remember being permanently exhausted during the summer months. But I am thankful I was able to supplement my meagre wages from haafnetting.
There have been many changes since I started fishing. There are fewer fish and a lot more restrictions. It was common to catch really heavy salmon a few decades back. My dad caught a salmon weighing 28 pounds and he had several over twenty pounds. I have only caught one salmon over the twenty-pound mark and that was twenty years ago. Having said that, my son Danny holds the family record. He landed a 28.5-ferox brown trout. However I keep telling him, tongue in cheek, that his fish does not count because rod fishing is an inferior skill when compared to haaf netting.
I have many memories of my time haafnetting. I can vividly remember catching my first salmon with a haaf net. I caught it in the Thorny Pool at Redkirk Point Gretna. It hit my net like a missile. I will never forget the burst of adrenalin as I struggled to throw it over my beam. It is said that catching a salmon with a fly rod is the most rewarding sporting experience. But, having caught salmon on both the fly rod and the haafnet, give me a good pull in the haaf net every time: -nothing beats it for me.
I remember one morning my brother and myself were fishing a flood tide in the Stennar. I was half asleep, having risen at 3a.m when I noticed a dorsal fin projecting from the water about a hundred yards from us. We were frozen to the spot half curious, half fearful. It came within twenty yards of us and then disappeared from view. Whatever species it was, that dorsal fin was intimidating!
I also remember a particularly stormy night at Gretna. Every other haafer had gone home because there were so few fish. The weather had been dry for weeks but rain had eventually arrived accompanied by a dramatic thunderstorm. Sea trout began to move in massive numbers. They were colliding with my end sticks, the outside of my net, hitting the back of my knees and of course, many were ending up in my net. That night was a real experience of nature that I felt privileged to be a part of. Trout were so thick in the water you had to experience it to believe it. I will never forget the drama of that night: thunder, lightning and phenomenal numbers of sea trout. The memory of making my way off the shore, my route occasionally illuminated by violent flashes of lightning, with my bag so heavy it nearly choked me, will stay with me all my days.
I recall fishing a hem. A salmon of only ten pounds hit my shallow net. The salmon must have been travelling at terrific speed because it literally spun me around. Brian Nicholson was laughing at me and said: ‘Are you taking that fish for a walk?’ I think that was the best pull I have ever had.
About ten years ago I remember walking onto the sand about an hour before dawn. As dawn began to break I began to make out huge mounds on the sand. I strained my eyes to determine what these shapes were and as it became lighter it became clear that the mounds were in fact the dead bodies of cattle which had drowned the previous night. There had been a thunderstorm and a herd of cattle from Cumbria had been panicked by lightning and stampeded into the Solway. Not a pleasant sight.
I also recall buddies Brian Nicholson and Brain Povall managing to sink two tractors in soft sand. I will let Brian Povall tell the story in his profile. Suffice to say Brian Povall would have put Usain Bolt to shame that day as he ran to get help. The thought of it always makes me chuckle.
Not so funny was the occasion Mel Anderson was washed off a hem. He clung to his beam and my brother Tony threw him his haafbeam to use as extra buoyancy. John Warwick ran to telephone 999 from Whinnyrigg house. A helicopter was scrambled from RAF Lossiemouth and it arrived surprisingly quickly. Fortunately, Mel, aided by a fellow haafer, had managed to reach safety, so between us we tramped a message in the sand to inform the helicopter crew that all was well. With a quick thumbs up from the pilot, the helicopter circled us and was gone. It was an eventful night, which fortunately ended happily. John took a photograph of Mel as he lay stranded on a sand bank. The photograph and the accompanying news item made headline news in the Annandale Observer.
I love the sense of freedom which haaf netting brings. I also really enjoy the banter with the lads and the inevitable wind-ups. Haaf netting is a pleasant way to observe wild life. We often see porpoises, seals, otters, roe deer and foxes. For anybody interested in birds it is a unique way of spotting dozens of species.
I really enjoy the different weather conditions, from hot sunny days to icy winds and driving hailstones. I used to really appreciate the night tides, the shooting stars, the fire (phosphorescence) in the water and the break of dawn when the sun warmed your chilled body. Nothing like it!
There are some spectacular cloud formations and fabulous sunsets, which can be viewed from standing in the Solway. Often it is worth going out just to witness Nature in her various moods. Even light conditions are completely unique to the Solway. The Solway is a treasured place for my fellow haafnetters and myself. I’ve returned from the Solway frozen to the bone, wet through, my skin wind burnt having caught absolutely nothing, but I have never regretted going to fish. A bad day at the fishing is always better than going to work or watching television!
There are of course downsides to haaf netting. I hate getting a bad draw and then having to fish behind the back with little chance of catching anything. In the old days there was always other fishing spots to try but latterly the Solway is very flat and straight which restricts the places you can fish.
A major irritation is the never-ending restrictions and regulations placed upon us. This is ironic because Annan haafnetters have always been at the forefront of voluntary conservation measures. We are now regularly observed and filmed by Environment Agency bailiffs, so much so we are made to feel like criminals. It is all completely unnecessary as haaf netsmen in Annan police themselves and our presence in the Solway deters poachers. An Annan netsman has never been convicted of any breach of fishing regulations.
One should never forget that the Solway can be a dangerous place. Once when I was fishing a hem the sand completely gave way beneath me. I held on to my beam and managed to swim my way to safety. I came back the very next tide because if I had left it any longer I may have lost confidence and never returned. Lots of haafers have had a fright and never returned and I did not want that to happen to me.
My favourite form of haaf netting is fishing flood tides. Half an hour of the ebb tide and then fishing the flood tide ending the session by holding my beam by the end in the Stennar would be my ideal day out. I love fishing shoals but only when I can get a shoal to myself. One year Tony and myself discovered that it was possible to shoal fish in Seafield at four hours ebb. We had it all to ourselves for weeks, even hiding fish in the sand to deter prying eyes. That was fun. However that situation seldom happens and there are lots of guys with better eyesight and faster legs than me.
I have caught quite a few different species of fish in the Solway: -dog fish, plaice, eels, cod, bass, sparling and jellyfish the size of dustbin lids.
If anybody were to ask my advice about taking up haafnetting, I would strongly advise accompanying an experienced haaf netsman for at least two seasons before they venture out on their own. Remember if you make a serious mistake you cannot press the rewind button and start again. The Solway rarely gives second chances. Never think you know all there is to know, because the Solway can be a great friend but a cruel enemy. Many fishing families have tragically lost family members in the Solway. You must never underestimate the Solway’s power, ferocity and unpredictability. I would strongly advise never, ever to venture out in fog or when fog is forecast.
Regrettably, haaf netting is on the verge of dying out. We are now not allowed to retain any salmon we catch. The Scottish Government has forcibly shut down the town’s stake and poke nets. By doing so the government has deprived Annan Common Good Fund of an annual five-figure sum it received from net licence revenue. This is patently unfair. The government must offer compensation. If they continue to refuse to do so, Annan residents will miss out on this sum forever.
The remaining thirty haaf netsmen must be granted a small quota of salmon, otherwise a unique activity and part of the town’s identity which dates back to at least Viking times, will be lost forever. If the government refuse to permit us a quota I believe it will be guilty of both cultural and historical vandalism. Any Scottish government should defend and preserve Scotland’s heritage, not destroy it.
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