I come from generations of a fishing family. My father (Slogger) haaf netted as did Uncles and other relatives. Some also had poke nets. Slogger fished on the Scottish side of the Solway at Annan, Loch & Dornock and Gretna. Sometimes, when the fishing ground was favourable, he would also take out an English licence.
Before the Second World War the Warwick’s had a hut on the viaduct which was used as a base during fishing time. My father fished full-time during the summer months and in the spring and autumn he would work at putting in and taking out the stake nets. He rabbited with a ‘long net’ during the winter but after the introduction of myxomotosis rabbit numbers declined and he had to take a winter job on the roads or in a factory.
Most fishermen could knit and repair their own nets as could the womenfolk. My mother was told by Slogger’s mother never to learn how to ‘cast-on’ or ‘head-mash a net’. That way, if Slogger needed a net he had to start it and finish it rather than her ending up with the whole job to do. Slogger used to go through two or three hemp nets a season. Terylene, then nylon superseded hemp.
Nowadays there is no need to knit your own nets. It is easier and quicker to buy sheets of factory produced multifilament net, although you still have to sew up the sides and ‘head-mash’ them. Modern nets are lighter and last for years.
Slogger used canvas waders but when I started, American produced rubber waders called ‘Seal-dry’ were introduced. They were very lightweight and comfortable compared to canvas and were easily patched if they sprung a leak. The only drawback was they came without boots so you had to buy two or three pairs of cheap baseball boots per season to wear over them.
When I was six or seven I started going, during summer holidays, with Slogger when he went fishing. He would carry me over the ‘leads’ on his shoulders (too deep for my wellies). Initially I would just play and explore, enjoying the seaside environment. As I got older I was given jobs to do like helping carry the fish off. I also acted as a delivery boy for orders. Trout were wrapped in rhubarb leaves to help keep them fresh. Fish were carried in bass (straw) bags.
Once I was big enough to wear waders I would often carry the haaf net over the sand for my father and I would be given goes at fishing (though I wasn’t allowed to keep any fish that I caught). I would be instructed on what do and what to watch out for. I was always told to keep my mouth shut, to tell no-one anything, but at the same time, watch what was going on and keep my ears open for any fishing gossip. In those days there was intense rivalry between fishermen. Many fished as a summer job, salmon and trout were plentiful, there were no fish farms and prices were good. Stake nets, poke nets and haaf nets operated from Newbie right up to Gretna. Solway salmon were sent daily by train to Billingsgate fish market in London.
One season I remember, the fishing ground was very good and everyone was ‘drawing for position’ in the one place. Only some would get a decent haul but for those that didn’t, there was another good haul some way off. Whoever got there first was guaranteed to catch. My job was to make sure Slogger’s haaf net was positioned closest to the alternative spot. If he didn’t get a favourable draw, he would signal to me and I had to lift the beam and take off in order to get to the alternative haul first. I was fast and pocket money was good that year.
The Warwick’s lived at Watchhill as did other fishing families. The fishermen from this area mainly fished on the Gowkie in the ebb, whilst fishermen from The Back of the Hill mainly fished the ebb on the Sandrigg side of the viaduct. Sometimes they had to fish together and then there was some resentment between the groups but Annan fishing was always civilised. There is limited space to fish and there was tradition and rules to follow. Fishermen’s behaviour was accountable to the Council who issued the licences. Fishermen at Gretna and on the English side suffered damage to their beams and nets but that sort of thing was a rare occurrence at Annan.
I remember one tide just after I started at Annan. I was second in the draw and fishing just behind number one on a steep breest. He was a worthy from the Back of the Hill but was trying to ‘edge-in’ so that I would not be able to get into my haul. He was told none too politely that if he tried to edge-in again I would go and fish right in front of him. He never ever spoke to me again, but he did stop edging-in. The fishermen were sticklers for following the rules in those days. You had to stay in line when fishing in a back of men. Anyone that fell behind because of hard tide or left too much space was immediately barracked to get back into position. Every poke net and haaf net licence was taken out and there were waiting lists. You had to reside within the old Burgh boundary to be considered for a licence.
The fishermen wore oilskins acquired second hand so you would see lots of references to the likes of Tarmac, Wimpey and McAlpine on their backs. Most men wore flat caps as was the fashion of the time. Many also smoked and kept their cigarettes and matches dry under their cap. If you went to fish a night tide you could easily spot where men were fishing in the dark because you could see a line of tiny red glows from the ends of the lit cigarettes. Nearly everyone had a nickname, mine was ‘Young Slogger’, others included ‘Cookie’, ‘Tradge’, ‘Snooze’, Whirly, ‘Chiefy Jock’, ‘Tulip’, ‘Pussy’ and ‘Hash’.
I started fishing with my own licence when I was eighteen at Loch and Dornock. This was in return for helping put in the stake nets. It was a few years later that I got a haaf net licence at Annan. I remember my first tide at Annan. Slogger had introduced me to Brian Nicholson who was looking for someone to divide with. We agreed to team up but went to fish at different places. I caught the only two salmon that day and we have divided ever since. Brian’s sons Terry and Ian have fished with us as, more recently has Brian Povall. We are sometimes affectionately known as the ‘Nicholson Gang’. Other teams of fishermen are the ‘Dalton Gang’, the ‘Turners’ and the ‘Slaughterhouse Gang’.
Career wise, I went to Art School then into teaching. I was therefore only able to fish during school summer holidays. Now retired, I have greater flexibility of when I could go fishing but conservation measures and reduced numbers of fish mean that I just fish occasionally. Despite this, I still enjoy haaf netting just as much as I did when I started. There is the pride in carrying on a local tradition and using a form of fishing that has existed since at least Viking times. Licence monies from the stake, poke and haaf nets have, over the years, been the main source of income for the ‘Annan Common Good Fund’ which in turn has helped the wider community. Sadly, now it is only the haaf nets which continue to fish and the Common good Fund has had to restrict its support for local good causes.
When you haaf net you have to follow the tides which means you fish at different times of the day and see sunrises and sunsets and fish in all sorts of weather conditions. Haaf netsmen used to regularly fish night tides but rarely do so now.
The Solway has a beauty and light which constantly changes as do the reflections and patterns of waves and sand. You are close to nature and apart from all the sea birds, you see seals and porpoises regularly. I have also seen foxes, deer and otters. It is not uncommon for bumble bees to take a rest on your beam when they cross from one side of the Solway to the other.
From the middle of the Solway you have a 360 degree vista. Criffel in the west, Skiddaw to the south, east to the Pennines and north to the Southern Uplands. When fishing you can be on your own meditating and at other times catch up on the craic with other fishermen. Haaf netting is a good form of exercise. Apart from plenty of walking, the haaf beam has to be carried out over the sands often against the wind and then held firm against the currents. You always feel hungry and tired but satisfied after a long fishing session even if nothing has been caught. Each fishing trip is a wee adventure. Experience teaches you to read the conditions and try to work out where the fish are likely to be. Unfortunately the fish don’t always use human logic and there is always an element of luck. When you do get a ‘pull’ from a fish there is an immediate adrenaline rush because you have to react quickly in order to capture it before it escapes out of the net.
My favourite form of fishing is shoaling. A ‘Shoal’ is a shallow area of water where sometimes you can see swimming fish ‘beaming’ (marking the surface of the water a bit like a torpedo does) or ‘stouring’ (spraying water off it’s back fin). If you spot a fish you have to run to be in front of the fish and then shovel your net down through it in order to trap it. You have to be quick before the fish senses your presence and swims off, and if others are also on the shoal you have to try to get in front of the fish before any competitors. You get a thrill with the sighting, chase and capture but you need all-round awareness, quick reactions and fast feet. I have been on a shoal with over thirty other fishermen, when a fish showed it was like flies descending on a jammy piece.
I remember the first salmon I ever caught on a shoal. There were only two of us, myself (a new start) and another more experienced (desperate) fisherman. I spotted a ‘mark’ first, got in front and went through the fish. Unfortunately, I slipped and ended up on my back but kept the fish in the net. The fast current was sliding me down towards an edge into deeper water but rather than help, the other haafer held his net at the ready, hoping the salmon would escape so that he could scoop it up. I managed to get back on my feet just before going over the edge and my first shoaled salmon weighed 16lbs.
Another time there was a shoal at Annan where part of it was in Scotland, part in England and part in the grey middle. Annan, Liberty and English Haaf netsman had been fishing it for weeks with a lot of rivalry. Whoever could get on first was almost certain to get a salmon. One Saturday morning when we could fish but the Englishmen couldn’t, Terry and I decided to go early in order to make sure we were first. From our side we had to wade through a deepening but despite our best efforts we couldn’t get through, it was too deep and running too hard. We inched our way back against the current to get back to the sand only to find a handful of other fishermen waiting with the English Bailiffs who had come on in a Jeep from the Scottish side. Jealous English haaf netters had asked them to check on the Scotsmen because their own licence didn’t allow them to fish Saturday mornings. After a cordial discussion the bailiffs returned towards the shore and, now that the tide had ebbed, we charged through onto the shoal to bag a couple of big salmon. Because of the meandering and changing nature of the Solway there are often fishing spots that are’ in the middle’ and disputed by opposing fishermen.
The most unusual catch I have had was also on a shoal. I saw the beam of what I thought was a large salmon. When I went through the mark and lifted the net, up popped a black head with two large rounded eyes; it was a seal pup. Even small seals are strong enough to wreck a net so I gently lowered the seal back into the water and it swam off completely unperturbed by its momentary capture. Haaf netsmen see seals daily during the summer. Although inquisitive, they rarely come too close when you are in the water.
A seal isn’t the most unusual catch I have heard of. Dead sheep, heavy and smelly to remove, a hand-gun, which was handed into the police, and when I was a young part of a human skull was caught. The human skull was old and respectfully put back into the water. In those days there was no forensics and genetic tracing. When I was a boy I found a dead flying fish washed up.
One of the best catches I have had was when fishing at Dornock. I had found a really good place to catch trout and so that others wouldn’t follow me I only fished this spot during the night. Rather than cycle I borrowed my father’s Lambretta scooter to help carry the fish. I had two bags full of trout, one tied to the back of the scooter and one on my back. Unfortunately the scooter did not have enough power to take us up the small hill from the fish-house and I had to get off and push the bike on full throttle up the hill until we came to the level. On entering Annan I was pulled in by the police. They claimed the bag tied onto the scooter at the back had hidden my rear light. After a short inquisition they left me with a warning to be more careful and with a trout each.
Once when fishing the last of the ebb at the Inby, just as the tails were dropping, I felt a small tug and was amazed to find six grilse in my net at the same time; especially as there had been nothing caught during the rest of the tide. This haul continued to be a ‘last gasp’ fishing spot for some time. It didn’t matter how many men fished or for how long, it was always only at the very end of the tide that anything was ever caught.
The biggest salmon I have seen was in the poke nets. It was about 38lbs in weight and the narrowest part before the tail was so thick I couldn’t close my hand around it. The biggest salmon caught locally that I have heard of weighed over 60lbs. This was caught many years ago and after the close of the season. Because of the circumstances the fish was cut up and divided amongst the small group of men who were fishing.
My scariest experience was in my first year fishing. It was a late summer morning with mist rolling in from the Cumberland side. I had a long walk then a wade through a deepening to get onto and cross an island. By the time I had got there the fog was so thick I couldn’t even see the end of the beam. It took three attempts to find the right fishing spot. Later, as I had hoped, the rising sun burnt the fog away. However I had lost track of time and wasn’t aware of the tide swelling behind me. By the time I did notice, the island I had walked over was under water. As a non swimmer all I could do was use the beam as a float and bounce through to the shore side of the deepening. I was fortunate because the deepening had a solid stone base and it was a small and slow running tide. I was a bit shocked and very wet but relieved that I had managed to get off safely, especially as I didn’t lose any of the fish I had caught. I learned some important lessons that day, always to keep an eye on the time, the tide and conditions and never take the Solway for granted.
Some years later Ian and I fished the flood at the Stennar. We walked on below the Snaab stake net and crossed the creek which we had been doing for weeks. Whilst fishing there was torrential rain and when we went to go off we were unable to do so. Rainwater had flooded down the creek cutting the sand away. Luckily experience told us to be careful. We tested the crossing point with the beam and couldn’t even touch the bottom. If we had waded through where we crossed previously we would have been swept away into the incoming tide. The currents and sands in the Solway are constantly changing even during one tide; you can never be too careful.
In 1984 I was involved in a rescue. I had not long bought my first camera and rather than go fishing I decided to take photographs instead. About a dozen men were fishing a drop-over one behind each other. Mel Anderson who had decided to take a haul at the very back was only in the water for minutes before a burst of tide came on and carried him over the edge into the deep. I was photographing the fishermen as it happened. Tony Turner threw his beam in so that Mel had extra buoyancy but a high fast running flood tide was due shortly. Tony, Barry and some others made for the Scottish side so that they could follow Mel as he floated away and I was sent running off to the nearest house to phone the emergency services. Luckily Mel drifted towards the Scottish side and the men managed to get out on a sandbar and pulled him out just before a helicopter and flood tide arrived.
I remember a bizarre fishing incident. Alec Thorburn and I had decided to go fishing, just for the hell of it, on the first day of the season, the 25th February. It was dry and calm but very cold so we planned to fish the Stennar flood for just an hour. However, after a short time fishing we noticed an area of water coming towards us, with the tide, that was bubbling, hissing and giving off vapour. Not knowing what was in the water causing this reaction we had no option but to get out fast and head for the shore. Glaxo chemical company had recently set up at Newbie with an effluent pipeline into the Solway. We suspected that something had been released into the incoming tide but who knows? The Stennar is a popular fishing spot and in all the years of fishing I have never heard of any other similar reports of bubbling, fizzing water.
The Solway has, over time, slowly silted up. When I fished at Loch and Dornock the channel twisted and turned creating shoals, deep holes, edges, drop overs and headings. There would always be somewhere good to fish. The channel is now straighter, shallower and running fast. At Annan there was a lead, close to the shore, which ran down from Dornock into Seafield Hole and out into the channel on the Sandrigg. This lead was always deep enough to hold fish. Similarly the Stennar had a deepening and a good breest. Fishing the flood at the Inby you would have to leave in good time in order to get over the sand and onto the Stennar breest before the tide came in to cut you off. Currently the lead and the Stennar have completely flattened and sanded up. I have never seen as much sand on both Annan Riggs as there is now. Over the past decade the channel at Annan has steadily been moving nearer England. This position is not conducive to creating good fishing ground and many of the traditional ‘hauls’ that existed have disappeared. This change in channel and sanding up is partly due to the demise of the stake and poke nets. The fixed engines created a ‘drag’ effect on the tide keeping the lead deep and the channel closer to Scotland. Some fishermen also claim that the erection of windmills further down the Solway near Maryport has affected the channel and altered the sandbanks.
Erosion along the Solway coast is rapidly increasing, for example, when I started fishing you could walk around Redkirk point on merse but now there is only bare rock and mud. On the west side of the Annan viaduct there used to be a substantial area of grassy merse where in the sixties/seventies families used to enjoy summer picnics. Today, there is increasingly more stones and boulders than grass. For a number of years some fishermen have used wooden supports built high up on the shore to store their haaf beams during the season. Last winter’s storms not only washed these constructions away but it removed the merse one was standing on as well.
There is no doubt that fish numbers have steadily declined during my lifetime. As a child it was not uncommon to get up in the morning to find the bath full of fish or come home after school to see the double sink in the kitchen full. There was plenty of fish in the Solway and the local rivers in the sixties. The sea trout run used to be the last week of May and the first two in June. After that there would be small later runs of ‘Sandyback’ and ‘Humpback’ trout. These type of trout died out and haven’t been seen for forty years. Presumably they populated a small part of a river system and the habitat changed. After the trout went up the rivers there was a gap of a couple of weeks before the grilse arrived to replace the trout. Salmon were constant all through the summer and there were large runs of herling. It wasn’t a matter of ‘will I catch anything this tide?’ rather ‘how many will I catch’. It was the same for local anglers.
Some haaf netsmen also fished on the river. They regularly caught more on the river than they did in the haaf, especially in the back-end, long after our season had finished. A vitriolic angling press always blamed netting for the decline of stocks but scientists have shown that to be wrong. Many factors have contributed to the decline of salmon and trout. An outbreak of Columnaris devastated spring run salmon in the 1960’s and they have still not recovered. About seven years ago the ‘back-end’ run (especially grilse) suddenly collapsed not only on the Solway but all over Scotland. It is now only during the summer that there are reasonable numbers of salmon. Trout numbers have declined in a similar way. Intense farming practice since the 1960’s led to many small spawning burns being piped, blocked or filled in. Pollution from farm chemicals and slurry has increased greatly as has predation from seals in the Solway and attacks from birds on smolts in the river. There can be no doubt that sea lice infestations from fish farming on Scotland’s west coast has damaged the wild salmon population especially smolts as they migrate. Global warming is another major factor with food supplies moving north into cooler waters and grilse not returning as they once did.
I have been Chairman of the Annan Royal Burgh Fisherman’s Association for many years and I am the netsman representative on the Annan Salmon Fishery Board. I enjoy the roles because I am passionate about protecting the heritage of haaf netting in Annan and there have been many pressures on the Burgh nets over the years which needed defending. Conservation legislation has now stopped the Stake and Poke nets from fishing and only thirty Haaf net licences are currently taken out. Haaf netting is the only form of fishing under the Royal Charter which can fish catch and release. Not only can we fish catch and release but we can do so with practically zero mortality compared with the recognised 10% angling mortality. The river Annan and fishing district is deemed to be a grade three area under the Marine Scotland conservation formula resulting in compulsory catch and release for salmon. However, for the past three seasons we have had special dispensation from Marine Scotland to catch three salmon per man for scientific sampling. This scheme has now ended. Over many years the haaf netsmen have been pro-active in conserving fish stocks. We stopped fishing for spring salmon long before anglers and Scottish legislation put restrictions in place. We also restrict the number of trout that can be caught to two per man per tide. A number of years back when trout numbers seemed in crisis we even stopped taking trout for two seasons. We appreciate the need for fish conservation but haaf netting also needs conserving.
Fishing effort has fallen greatly over the years and haaf netting is no longer commercial. Most of the current fishermen are sixty plus. Unless we can attract the next generation there is a grave danger that the skills and local knowledge needed to haaf will not be passed on and this historic method of fishing will die out. We are doing what we can to promote our fishery but unless the government grant us a minimal kill, as an incentive to keep fishing, it will be difficult for haaf netting to continue as a living tradition. It would be ironic indeed, if under a Scottish government which promotes the special character of Scotland and wants independence, the nation was to lose one of its oldest, historic and most unique forms of fishing.
Are you interested in taking up a Haaf Net Licence? Find out more and APPLY HERE
Project funded by: