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

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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[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.

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