my first season of Eel fishing at Cheekpoint

I first began fishing eels commercially in the spring of 1984.  Pat Moran asked me to join himself and Gerry Boland as the previous year had been so hectic.  I jumped at the chance and in the next few days there was a lot of hustle and bustle in preparing for the season.  But there was something in the way Gerry talked about the work that made me wary.  Not sure if it was the glint in his eye or the throwaway remark about the season ahead, but either way it began to dawn on me that maybe the job was not as simple as I imagined.

The initial trip was to secure a few places on the river that were considered prime fishing spots.  That first morning there was a wind from the north west that stung like a nettle, t’was so cold.  We battled up against the outgoing tide, while aboard the we had coils of rope, bricks in fishboxes which would act as sinkers, and 5ft stakes.  We were travelling in an open 18ft punt with a 8 hp kerosene outboard engine that made a fearsome racket, smelled horrible but had some power.

eel net of Ffyke net which we used

At various locations, starting at Little Island,  we slid up onto a mud bank or grassy patch, took turns to hop put with a stake and a sledgehammer and then drive the stake securely into the bank.  One end of the rope coil had been tied to the stake end and once secure we then played out the rope and drifted off the bank.  A separate piece of rope was tied on which was long enough to float at high water mark and which had a buoy attached.  This allowed us to retrieve the string of pots at any time of tide.  We then steamed across to the other bank, playing out the coil of rope as we went, and once we reached it another stake was driven to make the rope secure.  Where the banks were too wide, an anchor was deployed.

Next stage was to haul back on the coil, and tie on the bricks.  The bricks were tied on at probably ten fathom distances and allowed the rope to sink to the bottom of the river.  That particular day we played out about 8 different trains of rope,  Starting in the Kings Channel, on up as far as the Cove and on returning the last around the Ford.  
The weather would have to warm up before we would start to fish the eels as when the weather was cold they slept in the river mud or hid away in the fields and streams.  While we waited for the heat to come, we returned to Salmon fishing and in any spare time went off to gather hazel branches which we used to stretch the eel pots.  These would have to be straight and strong and they were sunk in the river so that they would be heavy enough to sink to the bottom once finally set in the river.
Pots were deployed when the heat came into the days, and to set them we loaded up the punt and headed back up the river.  Again we would haul up on the marker buoy covering the coil of rope.  Then the rope was placed over the bow of the boat and you would haul out towards the centre of the river.  As the bricks approached the gunwale they had to be lifted over.  If you were lucky the rope would not be fouled in the bottom.  Weed’s, litter and sometimes worse came up.  It was always in my mind that when the rope got stuck and finally came away that a body might float out of the water.  As we went out along the rope that eel pots were tied on in certain places, generally where Pat knew from experience where the deep water was, whether a channel or a hole.
Initially the pots were  left barren, it was a phase of just getting them ready for fishing.  Over time they would get heavy and would settle perfectly on the river bed.  Only then would it be time to bait the pots.  The bait was with sprat taken from the river weirs.  The weir was an ebb weir which would be hauled at low water.  Two of us went to haul the pots while the other hauled the weir.  Each pot was opened off the train, the neck opened, and the bait placed inside, spilled out of a measure, usually the boats bailer, an old plastic oil can or such reused for the purpose.

pot breaking the surface with Eels inside
photo via Sean Doherty

You never knew what to expect when hauling up on the pots.  River crabs were a given.  They would crawl all over the boat as the pots were taken aboard.  Some pots were barren, meaning it had to be inspected for a hole initially and repaired, if there wasn’t a hole in the pot then it meant it was probably best to be moved.  In some cases there might be a handful of eels, the next pot might be choc-a-bloc and difficult to get aboard.

Each pot was hauled aboard, opened, emptied re-baited re-tied and re-set.  Then you hauled onto the next pot.  One person hauled the rope and looked after the pot.  The other person looked after the bait, and also graded the catch.  Only eels of an acceptable size could be kept for sale.  You might be inclined to keep a few small eels as the sale of them went on the collective weight.  But t’wud be a fools errand,  Eels wouldn’t take that long to grow and de-stocking small eels would mean less in the future in any case.  Generally I would imagine 9/10ths of the catch would be thrown back in the water, only the best would be kept, kept alive in a holding bag, and eventually sold to an eel buyer who would export them directly to the continent.
I hated having to grade the eels.  Not because it was hard to get the size right.  After a few times it became second nature.  No it was trying to catch them, covered in slime, driving around the box like a demon, maybe a hundred of them coiling around each other.  That and my fear of snakes!
There again hauling the rope was no picnic either.  Effectively you were hauling up to a half mile of rope per fishing trip I would imagine, Coarse rope, all manner of dirt, sometimes up to several stone of eels coming up in pots, sometimes the rope caught under some foul under water such as a tree stump or perhaps buried in mud.  Your back was sore almost from the start, but it was your hands that really knew the pain.  Skinned almost to the bone from the constant hauling, burned from friction, you got no relief,   If you put them in water there was a moment of ease followed by stinging, when you took them out the sun and the wind scalded them with the salt and if you put them in your pockets they burned in the heat. Gloves were for wimps!
Initially we would fish them one tide in the twenty four hours, but as more and more eels emerged to feed in the summer heat, we would ramp it up to two tides and finally to all four.  So every six hours we would haul them.  High water and low water, and the travelling in between.  It wouldn’t have been so bad if the weekends were off like at Salmon.  But there was no close for the eels.  Once you started you kept at it, because the reality was that come July the eels would suddenly and mysteriously slacken off again and with weeks have completely disappeared.

In the weeks that followed I would look forward to the pillow like it was heavenly cloud.  I’d be asleep as soon as I hit it, and slapping the alarm off in what felt like minutes.  Dragging myself over to the Mount Quay we would either go out to empty the weir or depart to empty the pots.  And over the next few weeks I would begin to loose all track of what day I had and what time I had except to know the time of tide; High Water or Low Water.  It finally dawned on my why Gerry was so amused at my initial enthusiasm for the work.

Eel fishing was suspended in Europe in 2007 including Ireland.  Combined with the Salmon fishing ban in 2006, effectively fishermen in Cheekpoint have no summer work since then, apart from going downriver and operating in deeper water off Dunmore East.   No State supports were put in place and no alternative options were offered to fishermen.