My first season of herring fishing 1983

I’d imagine that for as long as humans have lived in the harbour of Waterford, men and women have gone to fish.  Perhaps one of the most common and dependable species was the Herring.  My first experience of the fishery was as a boy washing fish boxes and running errands for the men who salted and barreled at Cheekpoint quay.  But catching them was an altogether harder job, especially when using a driftnet, something I was first introduced to in the winter of 1983.

I set out on the Reaper that winter, with Jim and Denis Doherty.  The other boats in Cheekpoint village was Robert Fergusons Boy Alan, Dick Mason skippered the St Agnes, Ned Power had the Colleen II and Mickey Duffin skippered the Maid of the West

As the Reaper and the other Cheekpoint boats proceeded downriver, we were joined by the Passage and Ballyhack men.  I heard family names associated with the boats such as Whitty, Connors, Pepper and Bolger from Passage and from Ballyhack Foley, Roche and Myler.  Together we formed a convoy of decked and half decked motor boats of varying size and power and a multitude of colours. 
the Cheekpoint fleet from around this time
Photo courtesy of Anthony Rogers
Arriving in the lower harbour, the boats fanned out, hungrily searching the deep waters for signs of herring shoals.  Some boats were close in to the shore, beneath Loftus Hall and further down towards the Hook. Others stretched as far as Creaden Head.  Boats took various courses, and many zig zagged amongst each other, keen to “mark” a herring shoal on the fish finder and establish a pattern of where to “shoot” the nets.  Dunmore boats skippered by Paul Power, Napper Kelly and Mick Sheen would be sounding as they came across to meet us.
Herring barrels at Cheekpoint in the 1970s
Photo via Tomás Sullivan
As the gloom of the evening gathered and the sun set over the Commeraghs away to the west, the frenzy grew.  Boats were eager to set the nets in daylight, to better see where others were setting nets, and also because the herring tended to rise with the dusk and skippers felt they would miss their chance of a decent haul if they left it too late.

Many a night the shoals could not be found.  It was generally obvious from a lack of bird activity, the tell-tale signs of gulls wheeling overhead, or divers such as the majestic and gigantic gannets plunging from a hundred feet or more into the freezing seas and emerging with a beak full of silver meat.  On these nights the boats tended to be well spread out and the VHF radio was quiet. 

Other nights were different, thankfully.  The seas were alive with birds and seals.  A slick of oil, released from the herring on the sea bed, which Denis said you could smell and taste in your mouth, something I never manged to do.  The radio was buzzing with sightings and at times Jim would call us in to look at the fish finder marking a herring shoal, the extent of it mapped out on the grey blue paper as a stylus etched the fish below.

Once satisfied that the herring were abundant enough the winkie[1] was turned on and cast over, followed by the nets.  I looked after the lead rope initially, not trusted as yet with the head rope and ensuring that the cans were paid out clear of the nets and set to the correct depth[2].  Generally all the nets were set, but occasionally, Jim might heave too, concerned by the markings on the fish finder and the extent of the shoal.  When you hit the herring in large quantities a couple of nets could fill the boat, and the last thing you needed was extra work.  Once set, the nets were tied via a hauling rope to the bow of the boat we hung from them.  

This was a signal to get the tea on, and the grub bag out. The kettle was boiled on a gas stove and the tea bags were added as the kettle started to sing.  Hot and sweet, tea with a sandwich never tasted any better.  

Hauling was a tough affair when the nets were full.  Here's an interesting example from Northern Ireland.  But at least a net hauler made the work easier.  Generations of fishermen had used their bare hands.  Once ready to commence, the rope was hauled in to the gunwale and opened from the net.  Then the head and lead ropes were gathered up and placed over the hauler drum.  The hydraulics engaged and the nets were then pulled on and helped in over the side. 
Anthony Rogers photo of the Cheekpoint boats early 1980s
While Jim kept the boat up to the nets, Denis hauled the ropes and I gathered up the nets as they fell to the deck and dragged them to the stowing area.  When the catch was light this was easy enough, but on nights with a big catch, this was hard arduous work.  The netting coming in over the drum could be three feet wide and it was all I could do to help Denis and Jim at the hauler and then stagger away under the weight of the nets to stow them on the boats deck. 

Having hauled a big catch, there was always a sense of euphoria aboard. Once you had a market, it meant a decent wage that week, and in the weeks coming up to Christmas, or indeed after it, such a catch was always welcome.  As we headed home, you took a break for a time, but in truth the nights work was just beginning, the fish had to be cleared, and thereafter boxed and sold.  None of which was straightforward.

I wrote a series of accounts of the Herring fishing previously. These include

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[1] A flashing light that was used to mark the nets.  Battery operated it only worked in the dark, and when not in use it was unscrewed to break the connection and so keep the batteries.
[2] I was raised with drift nets, but although we used the same method for herring fishing, the nets were deeper, longer, with smaller mashes.  The other difference was that plastic cans with a fathom or two of rope was used to allow the nets sink to reach the herring.  The length required was altered as required.