A CENTURIES-OLD tradition is still being plied in the waters of the River Severn near Chepstow. NATHAN BRIANT reports.
A FEW years ago, when people used to pass the lavenet fishermen as they drove on the Severn Bridge, they used to phone the emergency services regularly. There were some men struggling in the middle of the Severn Estuary who needed help, they said.
So as three of the fishermen - all of whom live close to the Black Rock Lavenet Heritage Fishery in Portskewett – got ready to go for an afternoon’s fishing, they called the Swansea coastguard, just to tell them it was them in the waters.
The fishery’s secretary, Martin Morgan, has been fishing on the river since he was young. He was taken out by his legendary grandfather, with his brother Richard, and they have helped continue the tradition, fishing for salmon with Y-shaped nets.
Regulations limit the number of salmon they can fish in a season – they can only pick out 15 in one year – but Martin said it’s enough to keep the tradition, which dates back to the 1600s, alive. As a result of the laws on the rivers, there is only nine people who are given licences to help preserve the salmon in the water.
And laws make things a bit more complicated for the fishermen.
Martin said: “Every time you go on the river, you have to take a logbook; every time you catch a salmon you have to put a tag through its mouth and gills and record all that in the book. They issue you with 15 tags and you have to use them every time or you get prosecuted.
“Whenever we have people fishing, you have to be able to trust them. Lots of people want licences but lots of people wouldn’t obey the rules that go with it.”
Similarly it can be easy to ignore the way the fishery is rooted in Monmouthshire. All the nets used are made by hand, all the materials sourced from close by.
The rock staff is made out of ash, requires a kick, and must be hard and cannot bend. That wood is found in Rogiet.
Pine is used because it’s easy to carve and makes up the headboard for the Y-shaped nets. For the arms of the net, rimes are made of willow, which is cut in the winter. Everything is easy to come by and is free. Helpfully, the net folds up and can be carried. It’s a design that has undergone significant innovation.
On making the nets, Martin said he wasn’t as good as his forebears. It takes him “a month of Sundays” to make one – but he said: “They reckon there was a guy in Sudbrook who could knit a net in a couple of days but I think it was probably a family effort. It used to be made out of hemp twine. It takes a few old while to knit a net.
“Every Black Rock net starts with 56 loops. Then the net is tied into an endless line and used as a headline. That holds the whole thing together. And the tension of the rime holds it into place.”
On a baking hot day earlier this month, the fishermen were soon out and searching for salmon.
Martin said it’s important to keep aware of what is around and how things could quickly change when they walk along the estuary’s base with the net. Watching on, the depth of the water changed very quickly in the mid-afternoon. One moment it was up to the men’s waist, the next it was as low as their shins.
But he said it’s important remain aware of what is going on along the bottom of the river: “You know roughly what’s in front of you but not exactly - you don’t want to break your ankle, so you keep that in front of you all the time.
“Also, the tide can be running at you at five or six knots so it could wash you away so you keep (the net) for balance as well.”
It might have been a problem on less pleasant days - but the men were hopeful of catching a salmon.
After trudging down an extremely muddy riverbank to their boat, travelling underneath the Severn Bridge and to one of their traditional fishing spots, an oar was dipped into the water to show confirm that they were fishing in the correct place, where it would be deep enough to fish. Then the tallest man, Richard, left the boat and clambered into the water to check that everything was safe.
From there – the weather was too good, too calm for anything not to be perfect for fishing – the men locked their foot in a rock or a tree stump in the river and placed the nets to its bed. And waited.
Martin said: “You just lean into the net. You can’t see down into the water because it’s coffee coloured so the only way you can tell if there’s something in the net is by putting your hand into the water and putting your fingers in the mesh.
“If you feel anything touch the net, like a spider’s web, you pull the rock staff down, and get your knocker (a thick wooden stick) - flip the salmon over - bang! on the nose - despatch it quickly, and for salmon fishing we don’t carry a bag, we carry a snouter. You put the tag through the mouth, out the gills and then you’ve got to put a hitch through its tail, front and back, and then carry on fishing.
“You want the wind and water as calm as possible - but you won’t see the fish itself, just the water through which it’s swimming through. It could swirl or could kick when he hits a rock.
“We do fall over on a regular basis and we haven’t seen a fish for a few weeks!”
(He said that before the fishing trip was up.) Unfortunately, it was one of the common days for the fishermen that salmon remained elusive after a couple of hours.
On a trip further down the estuary, a few flatfish were caught by the other fisherman, Chris Hourihane. Martin and Richard caught some too – but theirs were thrown back into the Severn because they were too small and not worth taking.
Lavenet fishing is rooted in history and things being passed from one generation to another – even if the Morgans’ grandfather’s record 50-plus pound salmon caught decades ago is unlikely to be beaten any time soon.
Different sites along the estuary have been given their own names which do not appear on maps and have been passed from century to century – The Gruggy and The Looby are two – and long, thin sticks are jammed into the river bed to help show the men exactly where they are and what they can expect to find.
And there are regularly more expected finds by the group. Just a few days before this fishing trip, a cannonball was found on a mudflat. Other things littering the base of the estuary are as a result of Spitfires undertaking routes over the waters during the Second World War, Martin said.
The fishermen will be opening up their visitors’ centre to the public at the Black Road Picnic Site on Saturday, August 30 from 1pm until 5pm. All are welcome. They will also be fishing regularly on the estuary throughout July and August – so there’s no need to panic if they’re seen on the water.
For more information visit blackrocklavenets.co.uk.