Sturgeon – the Cot men’s nemesis

Living beside the meeting of the three sister rivers, and having fished it for over 15 years, I’ve been lucky to see quite a variety of fish over that time.  By far the largest and most incredible was a Minke whale, which beached but which my brother Robert, Pat Moran, and I managed to refloat in 1993.  But one fish has eluded my sight, another large fish, and a contemporary of the dinosaur; the Royal Sturgeon.
Royal is an appendage associated with the Sturgeon which dates to the reign of Edward II.  An act decreed that “…the King shall have the wreck of the sea throughout the realm, whales and great sturgeon.”[1]  As Ireland was part of the realm, the rules applied here too.  Essentially if you caught a fish you were expected to hand it over to the crown.  In fact one of Waterford’s Royal charters granted by Charles I “…granted to the mayor, sheriffs, and citizens of Waterford…the fishing of Salmon and other fish of every kind, (Whales and
Sturgeons excepted) [2]
The fish itself is an amazing creature.  It can live to a great age, a huge size, and is so old; it swam in the seas in the times of the dinosaurs.  It’s a bottom feeder and tends to swim in the seas.  But like salmon, these anadromous fish, migrate to freshwater to spawn and this has brought them into contact with fishermen.
But not by me, and I can never recall hearing of one being caught in the Cheekpoint area.  However, on a recent trip to the local dispensary, I fell to mention this to Dick Mason.  Dick who has lived here almost 30 years and fished all his life remembered his father catching one in a driftnet in the 1950s in Passage East.  The fish was taken away by the fishmonger Michael O’Neill, but Dick recalled that for all the hype about royal fish, the payment later received was poor enough.
A Royal Sturgeon was landed at Dunmore East 13 May 1952 by MFV Tulip
l-r Frank McDonald (skipper), Tommy McGrath (owner) Johnny Rooney, John Dando Whitty & Davy Muck Murphy
The fish was displayed for two days in the Dunmore East fisheries shop High St Waterford
before being sent as a gift to Eamon de Valera, then president of Ireland.
Photo via Michael Farrell, Barony of Gaultier Historical Society.  Supplied by John Burke
A trawl of the newspaper archives was most revealing about the fish, and in brief, there are accounts of them being caught from Baginbun to St Mullins, Dunmore East to Carrick On Suir. The largest I have found thus far was caught by snap net fishermen near Mount Congreve and was recorded as 9ft 3” and weighing 2¼ cwt. This fish was sold to Mr Crawford, fishmonger of Lombard St Waterford and it was said that the roe(fish eggs, or caviar as Sturgeon roe is more popularly known) in the fish was such that it would have filled the Suir with Sturgeon [3] Crawford comes up frequently as a purchaser.
A frequent sentiment expressed in the papers is that the cot men (on both the Suir and Barrow)who fish the snap net are often “terrorised” by the creature, apparently damage to their nets was common and there were fears expressed of their boats being upturned.  It appears it’s the power of the fish, rather than any malcontent that is the issue. Given the cot size of 14ft with little by way of freeboard[4], such concern is perhaps unsurprising.
The appendage of Royal fish seems to be oft repeated in the newspapers, and many but not all, seem to find their way to London.  Some appear to be sold locally and others end
up in Dublin.  “A very fine Sturgeon was taken in the river on Wednesday and was on view at Mr. Crawford’s next day.  The greater part of it has, according to ancient usage and custom, been sent to the Lord Lieutenant”[5]
Some purchasers were more entrepreneurial than others of course.   Three fishermen near Fiddown Bridge spent two hours wrestling with a sturgeon on a fine May morning in their cots.  The specimen was eventually tired out and dragged ashore where it was killed.  A “speculator” snapped it up for a pound, but headed straight for the Tipperary racecourse and “…exhibited the curiosity at 2d per head…”   The report states the fish was nine feet long and weighed 100 pounds. We don’t get any information on how much the speculator realised, however.[6]
Carrick on Suir is the scene of the most drawn-out encounter in the summer of 1848 which involved 12-14 cots, the majority of the town as onlookers, and “…an immense sturgeon…” which was later said to be 7½ feet long and weighing 169lbs.  From the article, it would appear the cot men went out with the specific intention of catching the fish, as they were “…armed with spears and boat hooks…” The onlookers on shore assisted by watching the Sturgeons progress and when it traveled under the arch of the old bridge they quickly alerted the cot men who formed a line to prevent it from moving back down.  A man named Healy managed to pierce the side of the fish with a spear, but it recoiled so heavily that the spear shattered off the side of the cot, and Healy was thrown from the boat.  The river became crimson with blood as the fish swam away, but was prevented from escaping downriver by the line of cots. 
Meanwhile, on shore, the spectators were shouting encouragement, directions, and advice.  The fish turned away again and was driven towards shallow water by “…Mr. Freemans Brewery…” where another cot man George Coghlan managed to harpoon the fish with a boat hook. The Carrick fishermen later exhibited the fish to the public in the town and afterward in Clonmel from which they realised £4 and later sold it to Mr. Pim of Clonmel for £2 10s.[7] Although a horrible end for the sturgeon, for the local fishermen in famine era Carrick it must have been a windfall.
There does not appear to be any regularity of capture, from the papers at least.  The fish appear to be occasional visitors or perhaps occasional catches.  A report from 1852 on the harbour is interesting in relation to this.  “On Thursday last a splendid Sturgeon, measuring eight feet in length, and other proportions corresponding…is the first of the kind which has been taken in this district for the past 14 years…”[8]  The capture was in a weir in the lower harbour.
Despite all my searching I cannot find any reference to a fish being caught at Cheekpoint.  But then again I should not be surprised.  My father never told me of any!  In recent
years attempts have been made to preserve and encourage Sturgeon back into European waters.  I’m not sure that even if successful we would ever see Sturgeon of such a scale as reported in those papers of the nineteenth century, but I for one would dearly love to see them make a return.
I’d like to thank Dick Mason, Denis O’Meara, Michael Farrell and Maurice Power for assistance with this piece.
[1]  Went.A.E.J. The Status of the Sturgeon, Acipenser Sturio L. in Irish Waters now and
in Former Days
.  The Irish
Naturalists Journal. Vol 9. No. 7 July 1948.
Pp 172-174
Waterford Mail. 14th June 1865. p.2
[4] Patrick
C Power. The Lower Suir – Boats and Boatmen long ago.  Tipperary Historical Journal. 1991.
Waterford Mail.  4th July 1857 p.4
[6] Waterford
Standard. 27th May 1876. p.2
[7] Wexford
independent. 17th June 1848. p.1.
Waterford mail. 19th June 1852. p.2

Carrick Beg, Carrick On Suir

Jerry McCarthy

I got my first glimpse of Carrick Beg in Nov 1974 when my then girlfriend invited me up for the weekend. It didn’t take me long to get to know the neighbours as I began to spend more and more time up here after that.

Straight away it became very apparent how important the river was to so many locals with salmon fishing being a great provider of a few bob when the season was in. Families by the names of Norris, Power, Doherty, Fitzgerald, Brett, Tobin and many more fished the Suir in what became known to me as their Cots.

Each family would have their own distinctive way of making their own boat as I found out when I was told who owned such a cot by a man named Tom Brett. His fishing days were all but a memory as he was a retired man when I got to know him. In his day the cots he built were sought by many as they were so well made. What a storyteller he was too. You’d always meet him on one of the bridges with all his butties reminiscing of the days and nights they fished and with every story those salmon grew bigger.

The three rogues on the Old Bridge at Carrick On Suir; Jeff Wells, Tom Brett and Mansell Ryan

Sadly all of these men are gone now and the fishing traditions that have lasted centuries are but a shadow of the past with very few from these families using the river now except to walk what is called The Blueway. Those that still fish the river are mainly confined to Treacy Park with the Power family continuing the tradition of casting their rods from their Carrick Cots.

The Power family with their late dad Bob, before the River Rescue this family retrieved many lost souls from the river from Clonmel to Waterford
A man and his cot. Paddy Doherty RIP, who only passed away recently

Submitted by Jerry for ourThree Sisters Placenames project – Heritage Week 2020