I was born in 1957 and started haaf netting at Loch and Dornock when I was 15. The family came from Watchall and Howgill in Annan.
My grandfather was a well-known local poacher before the Second World War. I still have his ‘felling stick’, with which he used to kill rabbits. My father, Tommy, haaf netted but he mainly fished poke nets at Annan. ‘Snooze’ Thorburn had taken over from Sandy McGlasson as manager of Loch and Dornock nets and because he had haafed and drank with many of the Annan haaf netsmen he gave their sons the chance to fish. I was called ‘Young Tommy or Young Dalton’. I started at the same time as John Warwick and Andrew Donaldson. The three of us continue to haaf net at Annan.
My father only went haaf netting with me once and then I was told to get on with it! I used to follow other experienced men picking up tips and learning from watching what they did. Early on though, I had a scare. It was a Saturday morning. I had been fishing the ebb in the channel with Joe Thorburn and there was a lead to cross inside us. The other fishermen had already left the ebb and were fishing the flood in the lead. When Joe and I left the water I discovered he was walking up the middle to go off much nearer to the Loch and I needed to cross where the men were fishing. The incoming tide was a raging torrent. I was only Five foot four inches and the water was up to the top of my waders. The other men shouted instructions and encouragement and I bounced along with the tide back through to the others. It was a close call! However, Joe did give me good tips about fishing ‘edges’ and ‘lips’.
Another time I remember walking off into a hard wind. I was carrying a heavy bag of fish. I was struggling and my nose began to bleed. ‘Sass’ saw my predicament, came over the sand and carried my beam for me. These helpful incidents were the exception. In those days the men were sticklers for the rules and were competitive and secretive about good fishing ground. It wasn’t uncommon for a squad to give outsiders the ’silent treatment’.
I learned most when I started fishing at Annan. By then I had mainly taken over fishing my father’s poke nets. I teamed up with an old poke and haaf netsman ‘Whirly’ Rae. Billy was a character. He had been in the infantry throughout the Second World War and he used to say “Hitler f…….up his youth and Maggie Thatcher f……. up his old age”. Billy used to dry out teabags for re-use by hanging them up on a line. I remember Billy fishing the edge of a hem above the ‘Brig Feet’. He got into difficulties and had to let his beam go. ‘Pussy’ a young fit fisherman stripped naked and swam into the deep to retrieve Billy’s beam. He did that because he respected Billy. Billy bought ‘Pussy’ a bottle of whisky as a thank you. I learned basics like “keep a salmon’s nose up”, “walk back – take the pressure off”. I also learned about lots of traditional hauls on Annan ground. It was a good partnership, Billy had experience and knowledge and I was fit and strong. Because we were on the Rigg early to fish the ‘pokes’ we spotted a good place to ‘haaf’ when other haaf netsmen weren’t there. We fished this spot for weeks with another poke netman, ‘Cloggie’, secretly taking the fish off for us, until one day we were spotted by a haaf netsman from the viaduct. This fisherman was due an operation on his hand the next day. Instead, he cancelled the operation and brought a squad of mates with him to haaf net at our spot!
The biggest salmon I have caught was 26 lbs. I caught that salmon in the Stennar fishing with Billy. The day before that, an even bigger fish escaped. It had a head like a bucket and must have been 40lbs plus. When I lifted, the salmon didn’t burst the net, it snapped the ground rope, which I have never seen a fish do since. Barry Turner witnessed me lifting the beam and can testify to the enormous size of that salmon. He says he often has ‘flashbacks’ to the drama of that event and still gets jitters thinking about the size and power of that fish. If he has that reaction to the ‘giant’ fish imagine how I feel about ‘the one that got away!’
Unusual catches include a dogfish, which had a big eye, squid, cod and eels.
I have haaf netted at Annan, at loch and Dornock, on Liberty and have sometimes held an English licence. I also fished a stake net ‘The March’ for three years. I have had some unusual incidents fishing the stakes. One dark night when I went to go into the pocket, suddenly a group of redshanks flew out scraping their claws through my hair. There were a number of confrontations with poachers, one of which led to fisticuffs. Another occasion when digging in the sand to set the stakes a human skull was unearthed. It was sent away for analysis and the conclusion was that it was probably an old monk’s skull washed down from Redkirk where there had been a monastery centuries ago.
One of the ‘closest calls’ I have had was when haaf netting ‘Seafield hole’ just above the ‘Brig feet’. The sand suddenly gave way beneath me. I was struggling and my fishing partners helped get me out, just in time, as the whole area we were standing on turned to jelly. We couldn’t go back into the water and had to abandon the hauls. I remember another time a group of us had been fishing the ebb at the Inby on a foggy night. The flood was due and the fog was so thick that we could not see the sand and there was no moon or stars. We had to walk up a bit on the shoal in order to cross a deepening. Because of the thick fog we decided to head off to the viaduct, a walk that should have taken ten minutes. After three quarters of an hour we ended up at Annan harbour. From there we found our way back to the viaduct. It was a good job we hadn’t stayed to fish the flood because we didn’t have a clue where we were. I also had a close call fishing a hem on the Gowkie. The flood was due and it was ‘making water’. To get off I had to cross a deepening. When I tried, it had filled up too much so I tried further up but it was still too deep. Eventually I had a long walk up the shoal with the flood tide in order to get off. I was so knackered I was coughing up blood.
I remember giving myself an injury on a shoal. I had a few fish in my bag and had a rope for a belly-band tied tightly round my body under my ribs. I spotted a fish breaking and turned to run after it but the heavy bag slipped and together with the tightness of the rope broke a rib. I now have a calcified hematoma as a permanent reminder.
A funny incident also happened to me on a shoal. The flood wake was coming in and I had some distance to go to get off so I started running over the shoal. During the summer when I fish a lot I always lose weight with all the exercise. I had lost quite a bit that year and my trousers were a bit on the slack side. Once I started to run they slipped down inside my waders stopping me running properly. I couldn’t stop until I got to the safety of the sand and had to duck waddle off the shoal.
Many years ago when fishing at Dornock a group of fishermen from Dumfries took out English licences and were coming on and competing with the English haafers. Unfortunately they couldn’t wade through the deep channel quickly enough to make the draw and therefore didn’t get the best hauls. One day though, we were fishing on the Scottish side when we saw what looked like black logs floating down the centre of the channel. When they came by it was the Dumfries men in wetsuits. They were on their backs, smoking away. They waved at us and shouted “We will make the draw today lads”. They continued to fish for the rest of the season in their wetsuits.
The weirdest thing I have experienced is what could only be described as an UFO. A group of us were fishing the ebb during the day at Annan when this thing flew across in front of us from the Scottish side before shooting straight up high then away and out of sight towards England. All the fishermen saw it but there were never any news reports of the incident.
My favourite form of fishing is ‘whammeling’ (holding the beam by the end) especially if I am on my own. I like late ebb fishing on the Gowkie.
The biggest change since I started to fish is the decline in fish numbers: Sea trout more so than salmon. It was a great shame when we lost fishing on a Saturday morning because in those days it was the best time for the working man to go fishing. Apart from the years I spent fishing a stake net my trade was a turner. I trained at Boyd’s and have worked at ICI and at an engineering company at Dumfries.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the time I have spent haaf netting. Lots of men used to make a living from the fishing but that has not been the case for a long time. Nowadays haaf netting is a hobby, it is a good way of keeping fit with plenty of fresh air, exercise and craic with the other fishermen.
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