1st July 2018
He was a fisherman born and bred. The last of generations, he said. He wore a check cloth cap that shaded his eyes; Deep, creased eyes, from squinting at the glare of sun on sea.
His arms were taut and tanned but not muscular.
His hands gave it away, almost too big for his body; wide and swollen from pulling on ropes and lines and nets and oars: Hands that knew manual work and nothing more.
He knew the end was coming but was too tired to fight on.
He had come to a resigned and weary acceptance of the facts: The final blow – the stroke of one foul pen, he said. He kept his sense of humour though; they couldn’t take that.
He was the last of generations, he said again.
At the turn of low tide he carefully set one end of the heavy net on the shore then climbed into the boat and began to heave on the oars, slowly paying it out in his wake. His effort at the oars and lack of progress testified to the weight of that net. But slowly the little boat pulled against net and tide along its wide arc.
The more net he let out, the harder and faster he pulled on the oars and the slower the little boat moved.
The hot sun beat down and a small crowd gathered to watch this ages-old fight to the death, between the narrow neck of land where the wide estuary meets open sea and the wild Atlantic salmon pass.
We felt the suspense and thrill of the catch. If he felt it too it didn’t show. It was his job. Seven days a week, he said. This is the last season.
It’s the strength in those shoulders and arms and and broad hands that catches the fish, and timing too, but that comes with experience: Years and generations and centuries of experience.
There was something romantic about the scene; the fisherman the net and the little boat.
I expected him to cover the gap but he turned leaving a large space beyond the net. A sporting chance for his quarry; a knowing nod to true conservation.
He heaved on the oars again and they creaked and groaned under the weight of the net, and the hot sun beat down.
Then he turned and pulled for shore about 30 yards from we spectators. He beached the boat and heaving the end of the net along the shore he drew the net together in a closing loop.
As one we fell silent. Holding our breath and saluting together, we peered into the dark water beyond the shallows as the net closed. And the hot sun beat down.
The fisherman pulled one end of the net steadily to shore and his mate did the same with the other.
“Careful, lift it!” he said.
“There’s a Salmon!” shouted a spectator. We leaned in, straining to see, open mouthed.
Then I saw his silvery prize, caught in the net and fighting a hopeless fight. Then I saw his plight.
The Salmon slapped his silvery belly as he neared the shore, then, when landed, lay still, resigned to his fate. He knew the end was coming but was too tired to fight on.
He gave up too easily, I thought.
The fisherman pulled net and fish to shore behind him and looked at once back towards the ever closing loop of net.
We waited again, still saluting in to the dark water beyond the shallows.
We had forgotten the silvery fish already and were only interested in what else would be revealed in that ever-closing net. How typical of us, I thought.
Then the silence of anticipation again as the net was drawn in.
“A big Salmon!” shouted another spectator excitedly.
We leaned in again, still saluting under the hot sun.
The last of the net seemed to take an age to gather in, but it was no more than a minute or two.
Then another Salmon came as slapping silver into view.
The fisherman pulled fish and net to shore again and relaxed for a moment.
The big fish gave up as easily as the first and lay still, accepting his fate.
A beautiful cuttlefish, almost purple with black stripes was carefully lifted to the other side of the net. He was not the prize today.
The fisherman showed no pleasure at his catch. Maintaining his workmanlike attitude, he selected a small stone from the shore and deftly struck each fish a blow to the head, killing it with an easy familiarity.
He fetched the small boat and gathered the net astern once more to repeat the exercise. And the hot sun beat down.
Once more he heaved on the oars, slowly paying out the net in his wake as generations had before him.
Once more the oars creaked and groaned under the weight of net and tide.
This time the net became tangled and didn’t pay out as easily. He had to stop, untangle, then pay it out again, slowing his progress further.
He heaved on the oars and the little boat moved steadily along its wide arc back to shore.
We waited again in anticipation as the fisherman and his mate drew in the net. Once more we leaned in, saluting under the hot sun.
This time there was nothing. We were disappointed. We expected more.
The fisherman gave nothing away as he pulled in the net.
Then he shared a joke and laughed to himself.
Work done he collected the pair of fish, holding them by the gills. Two beautiful, silver-bellied salmon. I studied their dark grey backs, spattered with black paint, and mouths open wide.
It was the last catch, and the hot sun beat down.
“That’s got to be the best job in the world isn’t it?” I said naively, looking at the fish in his hand and the still water and thinking only of the romance. The fisherman looked up with a withering look and then a quizzical eyebrow to see who had uttered the foolish statement.
“Not all day, seven days a week its not,” he fired back to his accuser. It was then that he told me he could no longer catch salmon in this timeless fashion. Draft fishing for salmon had been banned from 2019. It was thirty percent of his earnings and there was no compensation.
He argued that his method preserved the salmon and the same fish could be caught 100 times by 100 anglers at any time of the year. Surely no Salmon could survive that. And all at the stroke of ‘one foul pen.’ The Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries act 1975 now decrees that the fishing season be shortened and that all draft net fisheries on the river Teign, Dart, Fowey and and Poole Harbour release any Salmon caught from next year (2019).
I did some research of my own and the conclusion of most people in the know is that the Salmon have declined through overfishing as accidental by-catch at sea with 95 percent of Smolts (young salmon) failing to return as Grilse to our shores and rivers. The disappearance of this ‘natural barometer’ from our seas is truly worrying, not only for our marine life but for us too. We all have a part to play I think.
And isn’t it funny how we look at other occupations and see only the good side of things: only the romance.
I was recently given a book, written by an officer who fought and died in the First World War- Donald Hankey. It is full of wise words and brilliant observations.
He says, ‘Everyone can see something interesting in another fellow’s life. We all experience at times a curiosity to be something quite different from what we are. It is a relic of our childhood, when we used to play at being anything from the Pope of Rome to a tram-conductor. But it is nearly always the other fellow’s job that is interesting, and hardly ever our own. There is romance in dining at the Carlton, except to the habitués of the place. There is romance in dining for a shilling in Soho, unless you are one of the folk who can never afford to dine anywhere else. If you are rich there is romance in poverty, in wresting a living from a society that seems to grudge it you. If you are poor there is romance in opulence and luxury. There is romance in being grown up if you are a child, and there is romance in youth if you are old or middle aged.’
He urges us to see the romance in our own lives; to get outside ourselves and be our own critic and to try to live up to our ideals.
He urges us to have, what he calls ‘a sense of the dramatic’ and to combine it with a sense of humour.
‘He must not allow the the limelight to be centred on himself. He will see himself not as the hero of the story, but as one of the characters- the hero perhaps of one chapter, but equally a minor character in the others.
The greatest artist of all, probably, is the man who prays, and tries to see the story as the Author designed it. He will have the truest sense of proportion, the most adequate sense of humour of all’.
2nd Lieutenant Donald Hankey went bravely to his death at Le Transloy, the Somme, on 12th October 1916.