(Note: June 2015. See also my short blog-post about proposed new salmon quotas, and a link to Mark talking on BBC's Open Country programme.)
Criffel has vanished, blotted out by the rain that is sweeping across the Firth into our faces. We are standing in a row facing the incoming tide; there's not much talking, just an occasional comment or joke amongst the men. Mark Messenger and I are at the seaward end of the row, and the fast-moving brown water is rising quickly, and is now well above my waist. The surge of the tide sucks the sand from beneath my feet, and my face is salty and wet from rain and spray.
The haaf-net streams out behind us in the current, and Mark and I each have our fingers looped in its upper mesh, waiting for the tug or tremor that says we've trapped a salmon. Mark suddenly upends the haaf, swinging the frame up and out of the water to make a pocket of the net - a small flounder, which he releases. I hadn't felt a thing, other than the tension of the tide. The water is chest-high now and the press of the water is strong, so we have to move; we wade slowly across the current to the landward end of the row. Mark is carrying the haaf and I wish I had the extra weight as I feel light enough to be knocked over and swept away with every step.
Earlier, my husband John and I had met Mark and his son Ben at The Highland Laddie, the inn at Glasson that Mark and his wife Karen have run for the past six years. Mark phones the Environment Agency to confirm that he is taking us out, "on the back of" his and Ben's licences, and we set off to Bowness-on-Solway, past the remains of the viaduct that once spanned the Firth, to fish the "West ground". I'm puzzled that we don't have any nets with us in the car, but when we park I see why: the haaf-nets, lying on the grass at the top of the saltmarsh, are enormous. I ask Mark if it's safe to leave the nets lying around, and he laughs: "Aye, though we've lost one or two to the cows - they're a pain in the backside." Tom Dias, who lives at Bowness and has been haaf-netting since the mid-1980s, told me later that he had had a net stolen in the early days: "Another time, four of the nets were stacked up together against the wall and somebody had taken a stanley knife or scissors, and cut right up through all four." Haaf-netting has always had its opponents.
Now, kitted up and feeling as round and fat as Michelin-man, I follow the others down the shore. The sand is surprisingly firm, and oystercatchers are scurrying and probing at the water's edge. Mark carries "our" haaf, but Ben - who has been muttering about the early start - kindly allows John to carry his; the large area of the net catches the wind like a sail and John is shown how to carry it horizontally. We keep on walking, straight out into the water. The tide is still on the ebb, and as we wade out Mark warns me, "You always need to keep an eye on where you are, look back at the shore," because on a big tide like this, the deep creeks in the marsh could well be hidden by the water when we head back. Mark says we'll fish a "hole" where the water is deeper, and John and Ben move further downstream - at this stage, haaf-netters work as individuals, seeking out the best currents and eddies. Some of the holes have names, Mark says, like Merry-go-round and Killing Hole, and as we talk I learn new terms like "drops", where the sand banks up and spills over the edge, and fine Nordic-sounding names like "briest" - bank, and "reestings" - standing waves. We stand waist-deep near the drop and the net drifts then tautens, as the current swirls around the hole: "Think of it like a goldfish in a bowl -," Mark explains, " - the fish swim around the edges."
Over on the Scottish side a group of netters are out in the water and a tractor is working on the shore, near the line of poles that support the stake-nets. Tom Dias tells me later that, "On the Scotch side there was a huge effort. There used to be a stake net each side of the viaduct, plus a two- or three-pocket net, and another three-pocket. And there were three rows of pike nets from the water up to the sands." The fixed net system has all but died out on the English side, and it's mainly on the Scottish "Liberty Ground", owned by the Buccleuch estates, that a few remain.
Haaf-netting was introduced by the Vikings: the haaf's beam is supposedly as long as a Viking oar, and has three uprights attached, with one end slightly shorter than the other. Most of the netters make their haafs, usually now of pine or "greenheart" rather than pitch-pine, and they usually buy their nets. "But there're not many knitters left," Tom says, "They're few and far between. I used to get nets from an old chap near Carlisle but he's retired. I made my own net once, and we mend our own. Mending's harder than knitting, though, it gets you on the side of your hand." The mesh-size is statutary, so also has to be carefully checked and maintained.
While we've been standing in the hole, Mark has been watching for signs that the tide is on the turn and now we can feel the current lessening; the net is drifting again, but we can also begin to feel the "stem" of the tide - as the flood-tide meets the outgoing water, the level and pressure increases. It's time to get out of the water, and as we wade back to the sand we see that other netters are arriving. The Scottish netters too are back onshore.
I become aware of a distant roaring sound that isn't just the wind, and see a line of black tipped with white out in the channel. The tidal bore is racing in; it isn't high but it is loud, and soon there are reestings in the Firth, and the sea is creeping very fast across the sand towards us, rapidly filling depressions that I had scarcely noticed. The silent rise of this brown-frothed edge is slightly menacing.
There's a saying, "If your net's in the water you're in with a chance." There are now eight of us, and it is time to draw for positions in the "boak", the line of nets. "We're very democratic," Mark says, and I hear this stress on democracy several times. One of the netters is nominated "baggie" - dating from the time when lots were drawn from a bag - and he will do the draw: he moves away and stands with his back to us. The others bring out their "priests" or felling-sticks - the small truncheons that are used to hit a fish on the head to kill it - and push them upright into the sand, then (because the baggie would likely recognise whose stick is whose) each man chooses a different stick as his lot. The baggie comes back, and pushes over the sticks, giving each a number. Whoever is "number 1" can pick his position in the boak. The men sling their bags over their shoulders, take up the haafs, and we wade out into the stream.
Tom Dias told me that, "Up to about 10 years ago, there might be 15 fellas out every day. You knew that you had to draw lots, so you had to go down at a certain time. You had to be down there four hours before High Water. If you were late for the draw you had to go behind the boak. But then people got greedy, and wanted to go where they wanted. People started tagging on the end - it went to pure anarchy. It was out-and-out greed, they were going down every day and would know roughly where the fish would come." The spirit of camaraderie and co-operation had gone. But today, with the smaller numbers of netters, it seems to have been restored.
Initially, Mark and I are at the landward end of the boak, for which I am glad because suddenly the current is very strong, the bore is roaring, and everyone very rapidly upends their nets and hurries back to the sand. There's laughter and joking, "Whose bright idea was that, then?" and we wait a while, watching the reestings and the rushing tide.
But then we're back into the water, where the level is rising quickly; each netter peels off from the seaward side one by one as the water reaches his chest, back towards the land. There is a flurry as someone nets a salmon; he upends his haaf, and after killing the fish with his felling-stick, pushes it into his bag. Clumps of weed trapped in the net are shaken free in a shower of sandy fronds. We alternate between standing with the haaf pressed against us by the tide, then pushing across to new positions, the line re-forming constantly, rain and spray in our faces.
But I'm dry, inside my waders and waterproofs; I'm warm, in my thermals and layers of fleeces - and I'm exhilarated to be in the Solway, not observing from the margins. I'm part of the three-dimensional complexity of the flowing tide and what it bears, and I'm practising (rather unsuccessfully) the ancient technique of haaf-netting.
The name of Tom Dias' house, The Reestings, gives a clue to his enthusiasm. Tom started haaf-netting in the 1980s, and shows me his records and books of photos dating from that time. "When I started, it was with the best. Big Frank, he'd been netting since he was a boy. Ernest Percival - he knew what he was doing, his word was law. They taught me a helluva lot. And I fished with young Frankie, Big Frankie's son." Soon Tom reverts to the topic that all the netters talk about, the enforced reduction in the season and the permitted hours. Previously, they could fish the six months from mid-February to September 9th with no restriction on the hours, so everyone who wanted to net could find a time and a tide to suit. There were about 230-250 licences issued each year, he tells me; "When I first started it was normal working-class fellas, ambulance men, railwaymen, fellas who worked shifts, young lads." But the Environment Agency introduced new rules a couple of years ago, reducing the season to June 1st to early September, and the hours from 10am to 10pm. "Now it's too difficult for people to get the time. There're only about 50 licences taken out, we can only work three months of the year and now only half of that, the 12-hour day. In other words, one-fifth of the men, working only a quarter of the time, just scratching a living."
Another worry the netters have is that the tradition is dying out. Mark Messenger has been haaf-netting for about ten years and he's very pleased that his son Ben is now learning the techniques and how to "read the water". This is the second season that Mark has run haaf-netting outings, and he has taken about 30 people out this year, who have come from as far away as France, Holland and even South Africa. Local chef Annette Gibbons has also been out with him and has publicly enthused about the experience and the taste of the wild salmon; this is all good for helping restore awareness of the ancient tradition.
Conservation of salmon stocks: that's where the roots of the controversy lie, of course. These Atlantic Salmon spawn in rivers that flow into the Solway, like the Eden; the young fish feed in the rivers for a couple of years, then - as "smolts" - migrate out to sea. They feed in the rich seas off Greenland and some - "grilse" - return after one year, others return as larger salmon after two to three years. If returning fish are trapped in the Firth before they can reach the rivers, they are not available to the rod-fishermen upstream. If the number of salmon upstream is low, this could be due to a decline in their numbers due to natural causes, which often occurs cyclically, or could be due to overfishing by the haaf- and fixed-netters in the Firth. "I'm not knocking the rod-men," Tom says. "They're perfectly entitled to what they want. But if they don't catch a fish, they're not going to say 'It's my fault', are they? It must be somebody else's fault, it must be 'them lot' ie the haaf-netters." Fingers were pointed at some of the haaf-netters, rumours spread. In 2004, Tom was working mainly on a f arm further up the coast. "I'd see these fellas sitting in the bushes with their cameras and glasses, and I warned the lads, 'They're watching you, they can see what you're catching!'." Before long the press reported that nineteen of the netters had been taken up for false tax returns, for incorrect reporting of large numbers of fish caught and sold. "They turned up in court in bomber jackets and woolly hats, sniggering - and they got banned and fined. I could have told them they needed to wear suits and act polite, but they didn't show any respect in court - and as a result the limitations came in."
Land-owners with fishing-rights, magistrates, maverick "working class fellas", highly-desirable and expensive fish: the mix was and is potent, and whatever the reasons, whatever the stories, the returning salmon now have a better chance of at least entering fresh water!
And the numbers of fish caught by netting are carefully monitored by the Environment Agency, partly to give an indication of the general state of the salmon stocks. The salmon that was caught in our boak weighed about 12 pounds, and was tagged through its mouth and gills; that tag should remain there until just before the fish is cooked. When a netter applies and pays £140 for his annual licence, he subsequently also receives a certain quota of plastic tags from the Environment Agency. The tags have numbers, recorded by the EA; unused tags must be returned with the completed records. At the end of a day's haaf-netting, the licence-holder must fill in his record sheet: the date, how many tides and the number of hours he has fished, the number and weight of each fish caught - and the number of the tag with which each fish has been marked. "It's the first thing you do when you get home," Tom says, "even before you've had a cup of tea to warm yourself."
John and I sit in the bar of The Highland Laddie with warming mugs of tea and glasses of Jennings ales: we'll leave the record-keeping to Mark and Ben. The bar is warm and welcoming, its walls decorated with water-colours and oils of haaf-netters and dogs, and the shelves in the pool-room are bright with books. The board says 'Specials: freshly-caught haafnet Solway salmon'. Some locals are already seated around a table, a few sodden lycra-clad cyclists are piling their helmets in a corner and Mark, calm and smiling, tells three dripping girls to drape their wet clothes and rucksacs in the pool room. They pad around on the carpet in their wet socks and without hesitation order "specials". They've chosen well: Mark brings John and me plates laden with large chunks of hot cooked salmon, crisp golden chips and salad, and soon we can vouch for its "specialness", for the wild salmon has a taste and texture better than any we have eaten before.
I had held the salmon that was caught in our boak, and wondered how I would feel if I had caught it myself. Would I be thrilled or sad to have caught a big fish that had travelled all this way to spawn?
Yet the greatest thrill I have felt today has been in discovering the skills and knowledge that the haaf-netters need, their knowledge of the shape of the shore and ever-changing channels, the signals that let them read the tide and currents, and their awareness of the potential dangers. Earlier, one of the netters had told me he came down every day: "You worry that you might be missing something!" he had said. Haaf-netting is addictive: I know that I'll certainly be going back to stand chest-deep in the Solway. And Mark says, "Next year should be good - we know a lot of fish went up the river this year. It should be a good breeding year if we don't get big floods."
Copyright: Ann Lingard, November 2011
Thanks: to Tom Dias for letting me scan and use several of his photos.
A 30-minute documentary, filmed and directed by Jim McMichael, which follows the haaf-netters on the Scottish side of the Solway, is available on YouTube.
And there's a good audio account on Philip Williams' blog of his haaf-netting trip with Mark Messenger in 2013.