"Shaking" the Herring nets

Over the last few weeks I've occasionally covered my exploits fishing herring in Waterford harbor. The first week looked at getting prepared, and the second installment looked at the finding of the shoal and the catch.  This week I look at the really hard part of the work, what we termed "shaking the herring", the tried and trusted method traditionally used to clear the fish from the nets.

Every other fish I ever pursued was a joy to take from the nets.  Salmon may need to be extricated, sometimes at the cutting of a mesh, eels could be spilled from a pot, bait or bottom fish poured from the cod end of a weir net or trawl, but herring were a different matter entirely.

Although the phrase gill netting is used to describe how fish are caught with a drifting net, the truth is that many fish thus caught, very often don’t actually get meshed by the gills, or if they do, its relatively slight.  Salmon for example in Cheekpoint were usually trapped in the bag of the net, only the younger, smaller peal, as we called them tended to be meshed,  But herring, truly lived up to the description.

The nets were set on shoals of swimming fish, and the vast majority came into to the boat firmly meshed.  Therefore, they needed to be freed from the mesh in order to be sold.   Whereas a few salmon might make for easy handling, at least thousands, if not tens of thousands of herring was a totally different matter. 

Once the nets were aboard, we usually took a break, waiting to get either into port, if we were heading to Dunmore, or into calm water if we were heading back to Cheekpoint.  The nets had to be stretched between the head and the foot rope, the greater the spread the easier the job.  Some boats rigged a pole or an oar from gunwale to gunwale, but aboard the Reaper I would take both ropes up and over a beam running from the wheelhouse astern to the gantry.  Denis and myself would haul the nets over the beam and towards the stern, shaking the herring as we went along.  Once we were tied up, Jim would start be freeing the net from the pile on the deck, considerably lightning our workload. 

An old photo from UK, our method was no different
This was always an easier job with “full herring” but spents were a different matter. Spents were herring that had spawned already and spents tended to be narrow fish that when they met the wall of netting pushed through the mesh to their back fin.  Spent fish often had to be removed by hand, and in the worst of cases had to be twisted in half to be removed.  As we shook, you had to take care to have a good grip.  Shaking herrings was a difficult job with gloves, it was easy to loose your grip, but if you tried to do it with your bare hands, the meshes of the net cut into your fingers and your blood mixed with the herring scales, guts and blood of the herring made the stinging and throbbing unbearable.

Many was the night I would be practically crying with the pain, my father standing over me, plunging my hands into scalding hot water with a quarter bottle of dettol for disinfectant.  Each cut had to be cleaned, the hangnails thoroughly washed, and all the while the skinned hands redder than if they had been burned in a fire and roasting hot to the touch.


A modern image of Stephen and Tommy Perham, Devon
accessed from
http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/content/articles/2008/11/04/clovelly_herring_feature.shtml
As bad as shaking herrings was on the night of the catch, it was twice as bad the following morning.  On occasions we would stop, whether it was too late, or the weather too bad, or maybe it was a Friday night and people had better places to be.  The following morning it was pure misery.

Everything was cold and wet, oilskins, boots and worst of all the gloves.  The gloves because they were damp with the previous nights sweat, going over the stingily painful fingers.  Some mornings the frost was thick on the ground, and those mornings seemed the ad an extra level of pain to those fingers, that is un-describable.   In time things warmed up and you'd be fine.  However in all the features of the herring fishing I think it was the scales of the herrings that were the worst. 
Typically enmeshed Herring, accessed via
http://www.ifish.net/board/showthread.php?t=343319
Herring scales are small in size, huge in quantity, and they got everywhere.  How many times I had pulled on the oilskins over my head only to feel the piercing dampness of scales going down my back I can’t say.  Scales got everywhere, the oilskins were covered, the gloves, your hat, or hair if you weren’t wearing one, the boat was covered, the deck, anything within 2 meter radius of the boat.  Worst I guess was when you got one in the eye.  Impossible to see and thus remove, you would endure the agony of it, until you could get to Ardkeen, and then wait in a queue to see a doctor who hadn’t an iota of an idea what you meant be shaking out herrings.  The patch over the eye was a common occurrence for me, never lasting more than to the time it was to go fishing again.

Once shook the herring laid on the deck of the boat and it was then time for them to be boxed and sold.  A topic I will return to soon.

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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