‘I should think about retiring from the salmon, but I won’t’

Berwick-upon-Tweed - slamon netting
Berwick-upon-Tweed - slamon netting
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Net fishing is an old system; it goes back until the 11th century. It’s really a gift that’s been handed down through the years. My father, grandfather and great grandfather were fishermen, and I’ve been a fisherman most of my life. I started in ’53, and left in ’69 because the fishing industry got in such a state where there wasn’t enough fish to keep a family. I kept my hand in it, but when the chance came to be a skipper here at Paxton House 21-22 years ago, I accepted the job.”

When I started in ’53 there were 34 fishing stations from Coldstream to Berwick, and now we’ve only two left: there’s Gardo at Berwick and myself at Paxton. So you see the deterioration in fishing. There was disease, but very heavy industry at sea, the purse nets – they would wipe out 30,000 spring salmon in one shot – that would have served the Tweed and all its fisheries for one spring, but they wiped it out in two hours. Connected with the fishing there were probably 500 to 600 men, including the men that drove the fish, handled the fish, the sales side of the fish down at Berwick.

Then it dwindled away: now I think it’s thirteen men and a woman. I have a six-man crew, well, five men and a lady.

First of all we’d be laying the correct net: we’ve got ten different kinds of nets, different lengths and different weights. Every net’s different at each fishery because you have to set them all differently. The sole rope sinks to the bottom and they try to keep the fish in – try, they don’t always.

If you set them too sharp they “loft” – they come off the bottom – so you have to set them slacker so the leads will sink. If it’s catchin’ fish, you know it’s doing quite well, and if it’s missin’ them and missin’ them, you have to cut them all away and start again. I’ve been very fortunate, I have got the gift of the old ones: you know when a net’s fishing right and when it’s not fishing.

The sweep net has probably been in 300-400 years. It was twine in them days. We had to knit them. When we were at the fishing in 1953, I used to have to knit a yard of net a day while we were still fishing, and I got a shilling for knitting a yard, so at the end of the week I got six shillings.

We worked six days then. We would use a net out in six to eight weeks when it was knit with twine, but the modern nets made out of nylon, we’ll get a full season out of them now. We get a lot of rocks on the bottom and trees, and they rip our nets terribly, so we have to replace them every year. There’s always knitting to do: when we’re not fishing I’m sitting with a needle clicking away, and a shuttle.

“We can fish from a four-man crew up to seven, which is what it normally is. Now the job consists of a sweep-net, which you row off about 100 yards, and then it comes down current and you pull it in on your landing. We probably do three shots to the hour. We’re actually in the river, actually netting, probably about twelve minutes to every hour that we’re actually taking fish in.

So you can see why there were 34 fisheries all the way up the river because there’s plenty time for salmon to get all the way up.

If we catch one salmon it’s good fishing. I mean some days we’ll row 25-30 shots, and if we get 25-30 fish, that’s quite a good morning. On the average over the year, we’d probably end up with 30 fish per day: some days you could have 60, some days you could have two. Today the river’s in spate so we’re getting nothing.

This season, I started taking salmon on July 1, and I’ve got till September 14, which is the equivalent of probably eleven weeks. That’s the sad bit now. When we did fish in February, March and April you could catch up a little bit for your bad conditions, but now if it’s lost, it’s gone. I was allowed to take the sea trout in May-June, but the sea trout has been very, very poor compared to last year. But after September we just have to look for something else.

Where we’re standing now we can see one, two, three, four, there’s five stations you can actually see from Paxton House, and when I worked at North Bells with my father and grandfather, we could actually see Heugh Shiel, Low Bells, South Bells, Broad and Yardford all working.

If a salmon came in at Heugh Shiel and they missed him, they came to Low Bells, and if he missed him we used to think, well, we’ve got a 50-50 chance it comes to us. I’ve seen a salmon leave Heugh Shiel, and come through every fishery and every fishery miss him. That was six fisheries he cheated going under the net. And that was the old saying: he was an old fisherman come back as a salmon. That was always stated in the fishing book: he knew how to dodge a net.

The future could be quite rosy if the authority would let you get on and fish. They’ve already taken 15 weeks off me for the conservation of the salmon, with very little compensation, only two figures. They say that we kill everything, well, I don’t think so because netsmen wouldn’t have been there from the eleventh century through the twentieth century if the salmon couldn’t out-manoeuvre a net.

It’s not the river fishermen who are doing all the harm: it’s the seamen who are doing all the harm. There’s any amount of smolts that go down every year to the sea to come back in a year, two year, three year cycle, and they’re definitely getting wiped out at sea.

The river’s in perfect condition: the commissioners do a good job. There’s plenty smolts that go to the sea and the bulk of the fish never comes back. The nets will never ever kill the salmon out.

This patch certainly can’t sponsor a man full-time, a man making a living out of it now. Nine weeks out of 52, you just canna make enough to justify. Prices are really ridiculous now: down from £12 a kilo to £8 a kilo.

It’s just hobby. I’m fortunate: I’m now well past my retirement age, and I should be thinking about retiring from this job but I won’t. I’ll die on the landing I reckon. And I’ll be buried on the landing. It’s just I love it.