I have haaf netted at Annan for fifty-five years. I obtained my first licence when I was twenty years old. In those days you had to have somebody on the Council to promote you in order to be granted a licence. I was friendly with Jock McMurdo and he was instrumental in getting me my licence.
I worked at Boyds with “Pobbles” Carrol and he offered to show me how to haaf net. I shared with him for some time but really he liked to fish on his own so I began fishing with Billy Irving. Billy and myself, for devilment, fished mighty close to the river mouth one night but it was poor fishing, we would have been better off in the middle of the Solway. If I remember rightly we caught two trout and ten ton of thick weed. When I began work at Chapelcross I met the late Sam Adamson and I used to fish with him until John Warwick started his annual summer holidays at which point John and myself fished together.
This was the start of what the rest of the lads called the ‘Nicholson gang’, which grew to include my two sons Ian and Terry and latterly Brian Povall. Brian used to fish with the ‘Dalton gang’ but that arrangement came to an abrupt ending after a disagreement. Once I had taught Brian a few tricks, Brian proved a very useful addition to our gang and an extremely lucky fisherman. So much so, that the Turner gang have attempted on several occasions to lure him to their gang. Although lots of inducements have been offered, Brian is under a verbal contract, has high standards and will not be transferring to any other gang.
When I first started fishing there were two territories divided by the old viaduct railway line. Back o’ the Hill fished below the railway line and Annan men fished in front of it. This rule was relaxed for flood tides however. There was a lot of competition and mistrust between the gangs and it was common for gangs not to speak to each other. Having said that there were lots of old characters: Salad bowl, old Whirly, Hash, and ‘Slogger’ Warwick, the father of John Warwick who has the same nickname of ‘Slogger’.
I have had many misadventures during my time. Once when fishing above John and Ian I decided to walk down channel to join them because they were catching and I wasn’t. It was a lovely day so I let the beam float with the tide and I strolled behind before abruptly plunging into a flow hole. Only my floating hat was visible with the rest of me submerged. I struggled out to be greeted by hoots of laughter from my fishing mates. They didn’t even help me empty my waders! I also once, in the middle of the night, slipped on the sods, fell flat on my back and was wedged in a dub with the beam on top. My breath had been knocked out of me. My comrades were dumfounded, I had vanished. Eventually they found me flat out and covered in mud. On another occasion I was fishing a hem and caught a fish in my deep tail. It had such power and the sand was so soft that I was being dragged further and further into the deep. At first my partner John Warwick thought I was clowning but he eventually realised I was in trouble and pulled me out. I have also been disoriented in fog. However the poke nets were a godsend as I bumped into them and simply followed their line to the shore.
I have an undeserved reputation as somebody who is not averse to bending the rules a little. As a boy I was accused of taking salmon without a licence. I remember a policeman delivered a mighty kick to my backside as punishment. I swear to this day I was only looking for flounders. I was also once accused of the heinous crime of deliberately fishing in front of the back under the cover of darkness. Brian Povall and myself ventured out to fish but because it was such a wild black night we could not locate the rest of the fishermen. We were well and truly lost. After the tide when we got back to the car park we were accused of foul play, but the absolute truth was that we could not find the rest of the fishermen. Ironically, Brian and myself got nothing and the others were very successful.
There have been other occasions with disagreements between fishermen. Once John Warwick and myself stood on a breest rather than join George Renwick and Barry Turner in the water. There had been no draw so we were perfectly entitled to stand on the breest. Messrs Renwick and Turner accused us of foul play. How could it have been foul play when there was no rule broken? At the fishing you have to know and use the rules to your advantage.
I also had an exchange with Barry where Barry implied that I would rather catch a grilse in his haul than a salmon in my own. I agreed that this was
indeed the case! Even Barry had to see the funny side.
I have even been in the doghouse with my own team. One morning we were crossing the channel to fish with our English licences near Dornock. I spotted a fish and shoaled it. John was disapproving, concerned that the fish may have been caught in Scotland…way outside the area for which we had licences. Eventually I managed to reassure him that the fish in question was just and more in an area for which we each had a legitimate licence.
I remember another time fishing with our English licences. We had found a good spot on the English side of the Esk. Other English haafers joined us but because they had to wade the Eden couldn’t beat us to the best hauls. We enjoyed good fishing but one day we turned up to find two English desperadoes had brought their haaf nets to the Scottish shore at Dornock so they could try and beat us on.
Many, many moons ago I took a young lad haafing. As it got dark I instructed him to check out the stake nets. Sometimes there would be fish washed out or stranded in a pool outside the net after they had been fished. I expected him to return with nothing or at most a trout. When he returned I noticed he was walking in a very peculiar manner. He had been far more successful than I had anticipated and found two salmon and two trout. He had nothing to carry them so had placed the fish in his waders. He looked like the ‘Michelin man’ as he shuffled awkwardly towards me. A lucky night’s fishing indeed!
There have been many changes since I started fishing; all of them to the detriment of the fishing. New legislation meant we lost the right to fish until 12 o ‘clock on a Saturday morning. There are other new restrictions: we are only allowed two trout per tide, we are not allowed to keep any Sea Bass and from next year all salmon must be returned to the water…. which I think is ridiculous. There are no young boys entering the hobby as it is just not attractive to them anymore.
I started my working career as a welder at Cochrans before moving to Boyds and then spent 27 years as a process worker at Chapelcross. There were quite a number of other Chapelcross workers who also fished. The holidays and flexible shift patterns were most conducive to having time off during the summer months. I have thoroughly enjoyed haafing throughout these years. I love being outdoors and always thought of each tide as an adventure. Most of the time I was disappointed but I love that element of unpredictability about haafing. I have caught some unusual fish: Skate, Sparling and Dog fish. I have also been nosed on my backside by an inquisitive seal! My biggest fish was twenty- three pounds, but I have seen a fish of thirty- eight pounds, which was caught in the pokes, and a fish, which weighed forty -two pounds that had to have a special fish box made for it at Newbie fisheries.
The hobby is not without its frustrations. I hate being allocated a poor draw. This generally means that you have to fish behind the back and watch those more fortunate catch all the fish. Hard running water and dirt in the water are also not pleasant.
My favourite type of fishing is on a good breest with the water just covering my backside and the tide pulling on hard. I have always been most successful in this situation.
If I were to give advice to a young person starting out in the hobby I would advise him to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut. Never go out in fog and watch the older fishermen and learn from them.
Due to health problems I don’t think I will take a haaf licence again but I will continue to come down the shore and watch what is going on. The gang are appointing me ‘Chief bag-watcher’.
I would like to see a permanent display in Annan museum of the fishings. All the traditions surrounding the stake, haaf and poke nets are rapidly being lost. It would be nice to think there will be a permanent reminder of them for the people of Annan to enjoy.
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