The sun is out and the wooden boats are ready. We have our waders on and kit in dry bags. Michael points to one of the two blue boats, “You chaps can go in that one.” Each boat or ‘cobble’ as they are known, has a large net sat on its stern, two wooden oars and not much else. Rob and I stand leaning against the net and Michael rows us out to the sand bank. The other boat, full of experienced fishermen, is already on there, setting up.
Michael Hindhaugh grew up in Berwick and he says, “The River Tweed used to have about 30 fisheries in its first four miles. There was literally a fishery every 300 yards.” Nowadays only one remains, Michael’s. He’d always loved seeing the fishing, it was part of the town’s history; so when the final fishing station closed through retirement in 2014, a way of life had been lost and Michael decided to do something about it. “Back in the ‘70s when I was a kid, I’d always go down to the fishing stations and try to lend a hand, so looking out a few years ago and seeing no-one seemed wrong.” He approached the Berwick Harbour Commission, which owns a number of netting stations and suggested re-introducing the netting back to the town. Thankfully they agreed and Michael set up the River Tweed Wild Salmon Company.
This type of fishing is called net and cobble. The net sits on the back of the cobble and it’s released into the water as the fisherman rows in a semicircle across the river. Each journey across the water is called a shot. The net then gets drawn in on a hand-powered winch and within that net you are hoping to catch the fish that have been swimming up the river at the time. Usually the net will spend about eight minutes in the water; it’s not allowed to go slack or stationary and the boat used has to be a wooden boat powered by oars. This type of fishing is heavily monitored. The season starts in April and finishes in September; you can fish from 6am Monday morning to 6pm Friday night. Every catch is recorded; every fish is tagged.
“I enjoy the activity and the camaraderie in the team, we always have a laugh. I also love seeing an audience on the banks of the river seeing the history of Berwick continue. I’m keen for people to witness it and to try it.”
The Scottish government has deemed the river a ‘grade one’, which means the river has a sustainable, harvestable surplus. This year the season started mid-April. Early in the season they tend to catch sea trout but as the months pass by salmon becomes the staple catch. Michael sells the salmon whole, to suppliers in Edinburgh, London and locally. He says, “While I will always sell to the cities I think it’s important to sell to local hotels and restaurants so that people can taste what has been caught right on their doorstep.” In one season, Michael will typically catch between 300–400 fish. When you consider the Tweed foundation estimated there are currently 100,000+ salmon that are swimming up the river each season, that isn’t many at all.
Records of salmon fishing on the River Tweed can be traced back as far as the ancient Romans and the days of the Scottish chief Calgacus around 85 AD. However, it’s unlikely to see many more fisheries popping up; catching just 300–400 fish each year isn’t the most economically viable business, but it’s important to Michael to give something back to the town he grew up in and continue the history and heritage. “We are three years in and the business is doing what I wanted it to do.”
Michael’s background is growing produce on land, not fishing on rivers, so he is still learning every day. What he has done is surround himself with fisherman who have decades of fishing experience between them. There are probably seven or eight regulars with five or six people working at any one time. Quite a few are retired and they will only do a few days each week. He says “I enjoy the activity and the camaraderie in the team, we always have a laugh. I also love seeing an audience on the banks of the river seeing the history of Berwick continue. I’m keen for people to witness it and to try it.”
Standing there in our waders on the sand bank, we pull in the net after our last shot for the day, hoping for that flick of a tail or noticeable ripple in the water. Our catch isn’t the most plentiful but that could have something to do with two cheeky seals diving down every time we start to winch the net in. We gather both nets, load the boats and head back to shore and although it may take some divine intervention to feed anyone with our catch, everyone is still in high spirits. It could be the fresh sea air, the exercise rowing and winching, the anticipation of the catch, the warm-hearted banter of the group or maybe a combination of all of those things that keep this traditional way of fishing going and why Michael has an ever-increasing team to call on.