Drifting for Herring, Winter 1983

It was about this time of year in 1983 that I got my first taste of fishing in the deeper waters of the harbour around Dunmore East and the Hook.  It was a strange and confusing place that was more dangerous and unpredictable than the fishing I had known heretofore.  Some nights were threatening, with dangerous seas and unpredictable conditions, others were magical, still, calm, star reflected seas and a gentle breeze.  Deep water also meant the dreaded seasickness, something I'd never known up to that point, and something I would never want to meet again.  But it was the fishing itself that was so different, boats, nets, fish, conditions and practices.

I've mentioned before how part of our entertainment in Cheekpoint was hanging around the quays helping out the fishermen.  In the autumn of 1983, the first since leaving secondary school, Jim (Dypse) Doherty approached me on the quay and asked would I like to come with him and Denis (Harvey) Doherty to drift for Herring.  I jumped at the chance.

That afternoon I was aboard the Reaper, a fully decked motor boat with an enclosed cabin.  She was the only one of her type in Cheekpoint at the time.  (Most of the boats were half deckers, with open decks and if you were lucky a small weather deck and cuddy)  When waves broke across the Reaper they swished round the deck, prior to escaping via the scuppers.  She still required bailing, but not at regularly.
The Reaper off Cheekpoint
Photo taken by Anthony Rogers
Jim and Denis were as different as chalk and cheese, but the one thing they shared was that you would never see either of them without a fag in their mouths,  Jim smoked away, lighting one after the other.  But occasionally he would remove the fag as he paused to consider a response to a question.  Denis on the other hand, never seemed to be without the fag in his mouth.  It hung from his lip, whatever the job, and I often marveled at his ability to chat away, with the fag hanging off his bottom lip, until it burned right down till there was almost nothing left, and yet he never seemed to notice.

All was different on the Herring boat.  Growing up with Salmon, I knew my way round nets and the boats.  But the Herring nets were deeper and the meshes smaller.  They still had a lead rope and a head rope, but the head rope had much smaller corks.  This was to allow the nets to sink down to the level the Herring were swimming at, and this depth could be moderated via gallon can's on a few fathom of rope which could be lengthened or shortened as required, stationed at regular intervals along the head rope..

Instead of a bouy, a dan was used on either end of the nets.  A dan was a homemade marker.  It was usually a straight stick of hazel (although broom handles were coming into fashion then).  In the middle of the stick was either a buoy or a slab of builders aeroboard for flotation.  The dan was weighed down with bricks or lead.  At the other end, each boat had a set of colour flags atop made out of fertiliser bags or fabric, each boat had their own colour to distinguish each other.  At the top t
was a flashing winkie (light), so that you could see your nets in the dark.  One of my jobs was to go up to my Aunt Ellen's shop in the village and get some batteries. The winkie only came on in the dark, to save batteries, so to see if it was working I had to cup my hands over it at see if the light came on.

The nets were ranged over and another difference was that each net was tied at the head and the lead rope, but the actual net meshes were not joined.  The herring drifted in shoals you see, and nets may need to be separated and left to other boats to haul if the catch was too big.

Instead of hauling the nets by hand, the Spenser Carter net and rope hauler was operated via hydraulic pipes and once the net was heaved over it and the motor engaged, you put your energy into hauling the ropes and dragging the catch to the deck to be stowed.  Another difference was that as you hauled the boat was kept on the nets via the engine and the mizen mast astern.  The last most significant difference was that you used a fish finder to identify the swimming shoals.  Of all the equipment aboard the Reaper, this was the one I found the most amazing.  I guess that up to then all the knowledge I had acquired about salmon was handed down and learned the hard way.  It was about the natural elements and a sense of how the salmon thought and swam.  It had been thus with Herring before, watching the surface for oil, looking at the actions of the diving birds, spotting foraging seals and what they emerged on the surface with. 

I felt like a real man, that first evening going down onto the quay with my grub bag, and stowing it on the Reaper.  Jim started the engine and I let go the ropes forward and aft and Denis took them aboard. Jim took her away from the quay while we bustled around with the last minute jobs. It was 3 O'clock in the afternoon and we needed to be on the herring grounds to set as dusk fell.

All around us the other Cheekpoint boats were leaving too.  My father was in the Boy Alan with Robert Ferguson (skipper) and Eamon Power.  The St Agnes was skipperd by Dick Mason and had Edward Ferguson aboard and I think Brendan Foley.  The Collen II was also there, Ned Power, John Joe and Matt (spogey) Doherty and the Maid of the West was also there, a much older and smaller boat, with the brothers; Mickey, Paddy and Jack Duffin.  I think it was the next year that Sean (hops) Doherty joined with a new boat with his father John and Jimmy O'Dea. John Ferguson would join later, I remember Tom Sullivan and Seamus Barry also crewing, when on their month off on the Bell boats.  At some point Michael Elliott joined in with a fine boat, the Glendine.

I was following in the footsteps of generations of Cheekpoint fishermen, who had departed to fish in the lower harbour.  I'd heard many stories, and knew that boats like the Maid of the West had been rowed down, nets set by oar, hauled by sheer strength and then rowed home again.  I knew that men had lost their lives at it, and that even with the modern conveniences it was no cake walk.  I would know the fear of watching a following sea breaking over the stern and washing over the decks, be totally lost in a clinging fog only to narrowly avoid the cliffs at Dunmore, and know how humbling and humiliating seasickness could be.  All that was to come, but that evening, standing on the forward deck of the Reaper I only knew excitement, and that I was starting a new journey on my relentless road towards adulthood.


In the coming weeks, I will try  to give a sense of the actual fishing methods, the clearing and selling of the fish and some of the historical evidence highlighting how ancient a practice it was.  

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.

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