I was born in 1953 and have been Haaf netting since 1981. In those days there were waiting lists for Haaf and Poke nets. I was allocated Duncan Souter’s Haaf net licence when he gave it up. Duncan was a well-known angler who had a great knowledge of the river Annan. He always caught more on the rod than he did with the Haaf. My first Haaf net beam also came from Duncan but I have made many more myself since then.
I can also knit and repair nets, I learned how to do this from John Dalton, another Haaf netsman who also used to work with the Stake nets at Loch and Dornock.
I started fishing as a boy down the Welldale catching flounders and eels, angling properly in 1975 at Winterhope. The next year I fished at Shillhill, Murraythwaite and Castlemilk virtue of the Anglers Club in Annan. I still fish with a season ticket at Murraythwaite. In 1981 Time Share took over some of the river and I was wary of them taking over other beats so I began Haaf netting.
I was brought up at Lower Kenziels, Back of the Hill, Annan and was used to seeing lots of fish as a child. My granny and grandpa had Poke nets and my uncles Billy, Henry and John Irving also Haaf netted.
I was basically self-taught at the Haaf netting but received advice. ‘Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut’. Back of the Hill was nicknamed ‘Jodrell Bank’ because lots of people had telescopes observing everything that was going on. It was difficult to catch fish without someone knowing about it.
During the first two years I only fished west of the viaduct on the Sand Rigg (Annan). Most fishermen from The Back of the Hill did this because the fishermen were very territorial. Some fishermen didn’t speak to others especially if you were new or from another part of town. However, the channel moved north of the Altar Stone near the Scottish bank and there was nowhere at the Annan side suitable to fish. The Haaf netsmen had to fish east of the viaduct on both sides of the channel. Since then the Haaf netsmen go anywhere to fish.
The fishing has changed greatly since I started. There are a lot less fish. You used to be able to kill as many fish as you could catch but now kills are strictly restricted by legislation. Haaf netting is now a hobby. As a result it is less competitive and a lot friendlier. In the past, if you were prepared to put in the time and effort, you could fish the ebb in the lead then go to the ebb in the channel then fish the flood then go to the Stennar for the late flood. Two tides, day and night. Over recent years the ground has changed with the Solway sanding up. Some people blame the removal of the Poke and Stake nets but I think the building of windmills on Robin Bank sandbanks has also contributed to the problem. The Stennar is now completely flat and the lead filled in. The main channel is also shallower and follows a different course than it used to. During the summer you would see lots of men fishing on the Scottish and English sides but now there are days when nobody is out fishing.
It was during a night tide that I had one of my scariest experiences. A group of us were fishing a ‘Heading’ and had to wade across water to get to the shallow before walking down and fishing in to the deep from the English side. The fog came down and we could not see anything more than a few feet in front of us. We knew the flood tide would not be long so decided to head back to shore. We had to walk up before crossing over to the Scottish shore but lost our bearings. We had come on from the ‘Pitching’ but ended up at Annan Harbour. We had to follow the shore and eventually got back to the viaduct. That same night another Annan Haaf netsman who was fishing at Dornock got lost in the fog and was surrounded by the incoming tide. He had to float with his beam until he was deposited on a sandbank. Luckily for him it was a small tide that night.
I also had a bad experience on a ‘Hem’. The end-stick got sunk in the sand and snapped with the force of the tide. Hems are dangerous and that is one form of haaf netting I do not enjoy.
I have observed some unusual things whilst fishing: On the English side of the Solway herds of cows often graze on the salt marshes. One night there was a violent storm blowing in from the South West. In the morning a herd had been trapped and carried across the Solway by the tide. When the tide ebbed all that was left were dead bullocks lying on the Annan sands.
Another time there was about eight of us fishing in a back when a white ball of light flew horizontally across in front of us from the Scottish side before shooting straight up and out of sight. We couldn’t quite believe what we had seen but everyone had observed it. There was nothing reported on the media so we could only conclude that we had seen an UFO.
My most embarrassing memory was when I sunk a tractor that a group of us were using to go to the channel. I took a shortcut from the usual route because I was going to drop my mate off somewhere else to fish but we hit soft sand in the lead. The front wheels went straight down with the back-end in the air. I went off and borrowed the Poke netsmen’s tractor and trailer to pull mine out but they got stuck in the sand as well. Very luckily we were able to borrow a massive tractor with huge wheels from Carrs in the town. It was very powerful and the wheels were so big they couldn’t sink. Our tractors came out with a massive plop, just before the tide arrived.
My most unusual catch was a cuttlefish which felt like velvet but I have also caught a blue trout. It had red spots with white piping on the fins. I have seen another Haafer catch a Skate and as a child I can remember my grandfather taking me to see a Turtle on the Annan Rigg. If the Poke netsmen got too close it would chase them.
My best catch was nine salmon in one tide. Other fishermen always say I am lucky when fishing.
I thoroughly enjoy both angling and Haaf netting. Both forms of fishing require skill but there is no doubt Haaf netting is more physically demanding and much more dangerous. It is also a lot less harmful to the fish when fishing catch and release. The fishing has provided a complete contrast to my working life as a fitter.
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