I began fishing in the year 2000. I had no family association with netting but my grandfather had introduced me to angling. I often used to accompany my grandfather on angling trips as a boy and I suppose that’s where my interest in fishing began. I was also a member of a fishing club at school, which was started by Mr Gibson.
I would find it very hard to choose between angling and haafnetting, I like them both equally. In the past I’ve spent many hours on both activities. However in recent years, because of the lack of fish, my visits to both river and shore have been curtailed. Having said that, I fished plenty of tides this year and also this year I have fished on the rivers: Tummel,Tay, North Esk,Eden, Border Esk, North Tyne and South Tyne.
To put matters in context, this year I caught my maximum three permitted salmon on the haaf and have caught less than half a dozen salmon on the rod. Whereas in 2011 I landed 64 salmon on the rod, 43 of them from the Annan. I cannot remember how many I caught haafnetting, but is was a lot less than 64. The conditions for rod fishing were excellent in 2011; there were lots of spates, which encouraged salmon to enter the rivers.
The biggest salmon I have ever caught was a twenty pounder when haafnetting. However by far the biggest fish I have grappled with was a fish I hooked on the Annan. It was so big it was impossible for my fishing partner, Alan woodhouse to scoop it up into my landing net. I think it would have been at least thirty pounds and perhaps forty pounds. I have had many adrenalin bursts whilst fishing but on that occasion I was actually trembling. As they say:’ the tug is the drug’. That tug was something I’ll never forget. I’ll always need the drug of fishing but I’ll be very lucky to come to grips with a salmon of that size ever again.
Two of the hardest tugs I’ve had in a haafnet came from a 2lb trout and an average sized grilse. A fish does not need to be big to really shake the net; it depends where the fish hits the net. I’ve been so alert anticipating tugs that I’ve reacted to any sudden movement when I’ve been relaxing at home! Jumpy haafers were common in Annan especially in the summer months when fish were running!
Haafnetters used to get a disease called ‘Annan salmon fever’ when they became obsessed with fishing and couldn’t wait for the next tide. It became like a drug and you only came off the drug at weekends and the end of the season. Unfortunately, with declining catches, cases of Annan salmon fever are in severe decline.
In recent years catches have plummeted, particularly on the west coast rivers. Many people believe this is because migrating wild salmon are picking up masses of parasitic sea lice from the sea cages where farmed salmon are intensively reared. The situation is not so severe on the east coast where there are no salmon farms but even on these rivers, catches are well down on previous years, in particular the autumn run of fish has pretty much collapsed. It is believed that the warming seas have led to a collapse in the krill that salmon feed on. Certainly the fish that do return look undernourished compared to former years.
I have had a few scares whilst haafnetting. Once I was fishing on my own at the gowkie. At the end of the tide I set out for the shore and tried to wade through a gut of water. Suddenly I found myself in soft sand up to my knees. I managed to crawl out and then tried to cross through another stretch of sand to be met with the same result. The tide was approaching fast so I walked as far up the shore as I dared and tried to cross the gut again. With my heart in my mouth I inched my way forward and after what seemed like an eternity, I realised I had successfully waded through the water and had hit hard sand. Firm ground never felt so good! On another occasion I got stuck in mud crossing a creek. I had to lay my beam across the mud and wiggle myself free. It’s a lot more difficult than it sounds!
I enjoy watching wildlife when haafing. I’ve often seen porpoises, deer and foxes whilst fishing. They always add more interest to fishing trips. The most unusual fish I have caught was a small Thornback Ray, which was like velvet to touch.
There have been lots of changes since I started fishing. The most obvious is that there are far fewer fish to catch. The whole estuary appears to be sanding up and there are fewer area of good ground to fish. Since the poke nets and the stake nets have been taken out the ground is a lot flatter so there are fewer deeper channels and guts to fish. Many fishermen think the windfarm at Robin Rigg has led to changes in the Solway, but we can only speculate on that.
Haafnetting is a great hobby if you love the outdoors and don’t mind not catching fish every trip. Nowadays all the haafnetters get on well and the ‘crack’ is part of the enjoyment. You must also be prepared for a real scare from the Solway tide every so often, bitterly cold winds, soaking rain and feeling distinctly soggy very often. I’ve often questioned my sanity whilst haafing but I’ve never arrived home from a fishing trip and wished I’d stayed home. It’s always worth the effort just for the feeling of well being that being out on the Solway gives you.
My favourite type of fishing is a drop over. One leg of a beam will be in deep water the other in shallow water. This type of haafnetting is usually the most productive and I’ve caught good numbers of sea trout by this method.
It’s a real shame that fewer and fewer people are angling or haafnetting. Nowadays haafnetting is only a hobby, which primarily involves keeping fit and chatting to fellow haafnetters. Salmon fishing is caught in a spiral of decline and very few younsters are interested in taking it up. It is a great shame that a tradition that dates back hundreds of years is in such decline. If the government would allow us to take one salmon per season the tradition would continue. It is not a lot to ask.
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