I started haaf netting when I was 16. I had been helping a friend’s father clean the stake nets at Annan when they were operated by Fred Bryson. Later, I went on to work on, and set the stake nets, with John Woodman and continued working them until they were stopped a few years ago. During this time, Andrew Donaldson and myself shared ownership of Clatty nets and operated them until their sad demise.
Setting the nets in February and having your hands under the freezing water, sometimes even moving ice out of the way, trying to tie prods is one of the most abiding memories of my early years on the shore. I absolutely fell in love with the Solway and felt like I was keeping alive the ancient traditions of the stake netting. Being part of a group of around 14 of us, all working together to bring the nets from a bare, barren Solway to the finished article was an amazing feat, especially as every part of it was done by hard labour.
We were always at the mercy of Mother Nature and I have seen us working on one part of the nets only to come back the following day to find it destroyed by the raging Solway tides. After the nets were set and fishing had started, I fished the nets with John Woodman and was responsible for fishing, cleaning and the constant maintenance of the largest range on the shore that we had at the time, Battlehill.
Fishing the nets was a 24-hour, tide dictated, labour of love. It was extremely hard work, but very rewarding. I loved watching the sun rise over the Solway Firth on an early summer’s morning is something not very many people have witnessed.
Conversely, batting through howling gales and driving rain with nowhere to hide was not the most enjoyable experience, but it had to be done.
Because I was a regular stake net setter I was given the opportunity to try the ancient tradition of the haaf-net with my other colleagues on the Liberty ground, which is situated between the Altar Stane and Dornock. I was given Fred Bryson’s original old fishing beam, which I remember was very heavy and awkward to carry across the Solway, I seriously wondered what I was doing!! I soon got used to it though and loved every moment of it from then on. The peace and sometimes solitude of being out on the Solway is most enjoyable. As is pitting your wits against the environment and hunting for a suitable area to fish, and hopefully land a catch.
We were always aware, and respectful of, the dangers and constant fickleness of the Solway Firth and the natural elements. I remember very clearly, not long after I started haafing, a group of us were walking off the shore one Saturday morning. The fog came down and completely disorientated us. We were through the channel and knew we’d be safe and only had a couple of hundred yards straight ahead to make it back to our cars but, we ended up making land much further away than we expected. It was such a sobering and stark reminder of how we needed to be prepared to tackle all the elements the Solway could throw at us.
I began working for the Scottish Ambulance Service but continued to haaf net in my spare time. I remember whilst being on shift one evening the call coming in to attend to a fisherman who had been washed up and had been recovered just below Rigg. Luckily he was safe and well but he had been caught out by the fog and had no option but to hang on to his beam as the tide flooded around him, lifted him and carried him up stream where he eventually beached. He was very cold and relieved. I imagine this would have been an experience that he’ll never forget.
I have met many characters during my time fishing; too many to mention but I used to fish with an older gent, Mr Samuel Adamson, who sadly passed away a few years ago. He worked alongside me on the stake nets and we haafed together often. He always like to fish in the shallow side, meaning I always had the deep, hard run, and he was one of the luckiest fishermen I have ever met. The rest of us used to say that if he fell into a bath he would come out with a fish. Sam and I usually fished drop-overs and ebbs, which we found to be most successful.
In the later years I took out both an English and an Annan haaf licence with Andrew Donaldson, which meant we could fish different ground above Liberty towards Eastriggs and down to the mouth of the Annan river. This meant I was able to fish on shoals, which is shallower water and you can hopefully see the salmon marking the top of the water as they pass through the Solway. You had to stand and look out for the mark on the water and then run to get above the fish to hopefully scoop it up, all the time trying to beat the other fishermen in the chase. Running to chase a salmon in a pair of chest waders is a skill in itself! This sometimes led to some choice words being shared by the men but it very rarely escalated further.
Both the stake nets and the haaf netting on the Solway have been an important and valuable part of my life. I have seen, felt and heard so many things that most others won’t have. I have witnessed a lot of wildlife, including the numerous sea birds that flock to the Solway, seals and otters. Fishing at daybreak one summers morning I even saw a porpoise give birth, about 20 feet away from me! The baby porpoise swam right past with its mother swimming alongside to keep it safe.
The peace and sometimes solitude of being out on the Solway is most enjoyable. As is pitting your wits against the environment and hunting for a suitable area to fish and hopefully land a catch.
There are a lot less fish and a lot more restrictions now than when I started fishing. There are also far fewer haaf netters. I would encourage anyone interested to go and try it before it is lost forever! Don’t let the historical and cultural importance of haaf netting to our area die off in the same manner as the stake nets have.
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