I started haaf netting in 1962 when I was eighteen. I had moved to Annan from Manchester when I was fifteen. I served my time as an electrician at Chapelcross. After attending university I then worked at the hospital in Dumfries as a chief electrical engineer.
People know me best as an Annan councillor, a role I enjoyed for many years. I followed my dad into haaf netting. We fished at Gretna. I can remember my first licence cost five pounds. I started haafing because I loved field sports, particularly fishing and shooting.
When I first came to Scotland and saw the Scottish side of the Solway I was astonished to see all the nets. There were stake nets, poke nets and of course the hand carried haaf nets. The poke net riggs reminded me of the fences and hedges of the Aintree steeplechase. Wammel boats used a type of drift net to fish; these nets were set to catch migratory salmon and sea trout. In the nineteen sixties, despite the best efforts of legitimate fishermen, the poke nets and the stake nets were often used to illegally poach the fish during close times.
I have seen many changes since I stared fishing. Haaf net fishing is now a lot less attractive because of the new rules and regulations. Fish stocks are poor and new species have appeared in the Solway.
When I first started haaf netting catches were cyclical. Good seasons were followed by poor seasons. I fished at Gretna, which was a trout fishery with comparatively few salmon being caught. However, when I obtained my Annan haaf net licence I caught many more salmon.
When I first obtained my Annan licence I was persuaded by an old Annan haaf netter to continue fishing after midday on a Saturday. He said no one could see us because of the high banks. Unfortunately, my friend had not factored in that the boat carrying all the local dignitaries and council officials to their annual visit to the Altar Stane passed by us at about quarter past twelve. We just had to bluff it out and gave them cheery waves.
I have really enjoyed my years as a haaf netter. I love the comradeship and banter with other fishermen. I find being out on the shore to be highly relaxing. It is also a good way to get fit. It’s important to practise an ancient, heritable method of fishing, which should be defended and promoted and handed down to future generations. It is sad to see that the ancient methods of fishing have been removed from the Solway. The problem of reducing salmon stocks should be solved. It is an accepted fact that estuary netting is not responsible for the decrease. Numerous ill educated non-haafnetters have always blamed netting for causing the reduction. But even with all the reduction in fishing effort, stocks have continued to fall. I do not think I can remember a year when there has not been pressure or further restrictions on haafnetting whether it is court cases, quotas or actual bans.
My favourite type of fishing is flood fishing. I prefer to stand at the end of the haaf beam rather than in the middle. By standing at the end I can watch the net as well as feel if any fish strikes the meshes. Flood fishing is more exciting to me because you have to be continuously moving as the tide rises.
I have caught several unusual species: hen fish, sea bass, mullet, sparling, and herring. I have seen a tiny yellow coloured butterfish. I have also struggled with very heavy jellyfish up to two feet in diameter. They can be difficult to get out of the net sometimes. I have seen many species of birds from birds of prey to many different species of duck. I have come across deer, foxes, otters, hares and rabbits on the sands of the Solway. Porpoises, dolphins and seals can regularly be seen in the Solway.
If you are interested in taking up haaf netting you must respect the Solway. Use the tide book as a guide not as a bible. Respect wildlife and practise conservation. Keep your eyes and ears open and watch what others do. Enjoy haafnetting and be proud that you are continuing a heritable fishing method handed from past generations.
Haaf netting has important cultural significance not only to the people of Annan but also to the people of Scotland. I believe sensible quotas should be set allowing a small number of salmon and sea trout to be kept. At the moment the amount of fishing effort because of quotas is minimal. Therefore fishing returns cannot be accurate because of the lack of fishing effort. Salmon numbers are endangered but the present restrictions are making haafnetters an endangered species too. In the long term this will not be good for the salmon because the presence of legitimate haaf netters in the Solway deters illegal poaching by unscrupulous poachers who could decimate salmon numbers.
Decades ago the policing of the fishings at Gretna was very lax. Everybody was content with the numbers of fish they were catching- both angler and netsman. I must admit transgressions of the rules were fairly frequent. Usually it was the weekends when the rules were bent a little. On Sunday nights fishing was not supposed to start until midnight but once the dark nights set in most haafers would take advantage of the darkness to sneak into the water well before midnight. Technology nowadays includes night sights and super cameras plus there are many more bailiffs, so these practices have been eliminated. The Annan fishings have always been well regulated as the haaf netters themselves ensure all the rules are kept.
During recent years a very positive working relationship has developed between the council, the river board and haafnetters. Haafnetters have been at the forefront of voluntary conservation measures as we recognise it is only by adopting conservation measures that the fish stocks can improve.
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