I am 89 and a retired electrician. Most of my life I fished on the Solway with Haaf nets, Poke nets and from my boat. I was brought up at the Back of the Hill and can remember fishing boats sailing east through the Solway viaduct in 1934/5 when it was being dismantled.
Local fishing families had boats but when the boats weren’t fishing the men went Haaf netting. Many also had the Poke nets.
Fishing families included the Willacys, Raes, Irvings from The Back of the Hill and Warwicks, Daltons and Andersons from Watchill.
My father James and his brother George were Haaf netters and I would go down as a boy and hold the shallow hauls for the fishermen. I got a licence of my own when I was 15 in 1943/4. In those days waders were made of canvas. They had to be constantly repaired and only lasted one season. I knitted my own nets. We used hemp and needed two Haaf nets per season. You had to try and keep them from drying out in the sun because the sun weakened them. After hemp, fishermen made nets from Terylene before using nylon and other synthetics.
At the start of a season the Council would allow fishermen who didn’t have the money to pay for their licence to catch a fish then make payment. Vagrants were also allowed to fish one haul behind Seafield Stake net in the ebb.
During the Second World War prices for fish were set by the government. Seven shillings a pound for salmon and six shillings a pound for grilse. Photographs were not allowed to be taken during war time but fishermen took very few photographs anyway.You tried to keep catches quiet because if others heard about you fishing in a good place they would come and try and take your ground.
Haaf netters from the ‘Back of the Hill’ mostly fished the ebb in the channel between the viaduct and the river whilst fishermen from ‘Watchhill’ usually fished the ebb between the viaduct and the ‘Altar stone’. If fishermen came to fish in the other area they always got a frosty reception. Anyone could go to the flood though.
Many of the fishermen had nicknames e.g. Chiel, Chiefy Jock, Whirly, Tradge, Cookie, Slogger.
My best catch was in the flood at the ‘Inby’. I had five salmon in one lift. The same tide Jimmy Pool had seven grilse in one lift. I liked fishing the early flood and then the late flood in the ‘Stennar’. There were far more fish in those days than there are now. Before farm fish, the Solway nets were one of the main suppliers to the nation of fresh salmon and trout.
The biggest salmon I caught weighed thirty pounds but the most unusual catch was two turtles in the poke nets.
The most unusual experience I had occurred at the Inby. Around fourteen men were fishing on a calm day when we saw what looked like a massive swelling in the water coming towards us from the direction of Silloth. At first we thought it was a submarine but there was no conning tower. It kept coming towards us and we had to leave the water. It carried on through where we were fishing and turned at the line of submerged poke nets behind us. At this point there was a massive swell and we saw a dorsal fin, it was a whale. We could see the shape of the whale under the water and it stayed more or less in the same place. We went back in to fish but kept a close watch for what remained of the tide.
The saddest incident that I remember at the haaf netting was in the 1950s. The men were fishing on a ‘hem’. Jim Rae got into difficulties and Joe Johnstone went to help him. Both men went over the edge and were pulled out down channel by a punt. Unfortunately Joe Johnstone was dead.
Hems are where the water runs over an edge from shallow to a deep hole. They are good for catching fish but the sand is often soft and dangerous.
When all the Stake nets and Poke nets were set, the channel was often in a different place than it is now and there was often a hem on the ‘Gowkie’.
When Tommy Dykes was Provost he suggested that the fishermen form an Association to protect their interests. The Annan Royal Burgh Fishermen’s Association was thus formed and I was the first chairman.
Fred Bryson who had the let for the Stake nets asked me to mark out the positions for setting the Poke nets which I did for many years. I was also the netsman representative on the Annan Fishery Board. In those days there was an equal number of angling and net interests on the board.
In 1992 I gave evidence on behalf of the Burgh fishings at the High court in Edinburgh. A private river interest had taken an action out against Haaf netting in Annan but we won the case.
For many years I have guided Riding of the Marches riders out to the Alter Stone as part of ride outs or Riding of the Marches ceremonies. This I continue to do.
I have loved the years spent fishing, many shared with my friend Bob Aitchison. It was a way of life for my generation and peers.
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