I once made friends with a pair of well known local poachers after several lackadaisical summer conversations on a stone pier in an old port in the west of Ireland.
The port was about three miles up river from a difficult enough bar and was, like most rivers in these islands, a less good salmon river than it had once been.
Derby and Happy Harry had netted the river successfully in good times and bad. They sold their reapings to local hotels. It kept them in pints.
Derby was a pensioner in his sixties and had been in the British army – not so common a past in that part of the world.
He was about twenty years older than Happy Harry, who took visiting German salmon fishermen out for charter days on the river. Wearing a smart, rather naval jersey, he’d pick them up at the old quay in his long, elegant wooden clinker-built boat. Together they were a reassuringly professional equipe.
In his downtime, in mufti and in his secret life, he was an equally amusing companion and an equally focused one.
Derby was the master and by the stage I knew them, Happy Harry was the highly skilled understudy and inheritor of his ancient wisdom.
They played me like a fish, in our chats on the quayside – no hurry to land me, let me run out for a day or two, chat again, reeling me further in each time.
I knew the game but had no idea where it was leading. I hung on in there to find out.
One afternoon, Derby threw an unusually generous fag end of his cigarette on the stony ground, screwed the life out of it under the sole of his shoe, exhaled in the sunshine and closed his eyes.
I waited. This felt like the moment.
After a few minutes, Derby opened his eyes lazily, looking to the sky and, not seeming to focus on me in any way, said: ‘We’re thinking of going down the river tonight’.
Ah. I hoped the quiver of excitement didn’t show. Important to be cool.
In came Happy Harry on cue: ‘How would you like to come along?’
‘When would you be going?’
‘Just short of midnight. There’s no moon tonight and the tide’s right’.
It was summer and the days were long.
‘Yeah. I’ll come.’
‘Good girl.’ (This was Derby. My protegee status was in the process of being confirmed.)
‘We’ll take your boat’, he went on without drawing breath – this being the real point of the invitation. ‘The waterguard know ours too well.’
‘Sure,’ Sounding casual – unknowing, But I did know – that there would be a price to pay for this at home and a big price maybe. Anyone caught poaching salmon had boat and gear confiscated by the waterguard. It wasn’t going to be Happy’s boat.
I was to be the stooge with the boat and I silently accepted that casting in exchange for a learning I would never get from anyone else.
‘We’ll come over to yours after half eleven. You be down at the water. We’ll leave our boat on your buoy.’
‘Wear dark clothes – and just old shoes’. This was Derby, looking hard at the bright yellow yachty wellies my jeans were tucked in to and that, on a summer’s night, might still catch the eye. Far too showy.
I was there and so were they. On the button. No chat. Quietly efficient. A gesture took me to my seat in my own boat which they simply appropriated – Harry at the oars on the bow side, with Derby behind me in the stern, shadowed even in the night by a flat cap.
Where Harry’s own boat was a slender river boat, ours had been built for sea-keeping on the east coast, a sturdy bellied clinker.
Harry rowed without even a splash – the first skills of the good poacher. White water is visible, even on the darkest night and the waterguard are sharp-eyed.
We slid noiselessly down the river with the falling tide – the second lesson of poaching. You want the most advantageous ratio of salmon to water so you aim to get to the netting place at slack water, just as the tide is starting to flow again, bringing the fish in with it.
The run down river was like Fantasia. With no moon, mythical stilt-legged creatures seen at water level, silhouetted against the stream, stalking on the sand banks exposed at low tide – turned out to be normal wading birds.
Derby might have been a pensioner but his eyes were quicker than a youngster’s. He could spot the flare of a match over a mile away on the shore. His survival as a poacher depended on such skills.
I’d wondered where exactly we’d be going and it was nowhere like I’d imagined.
We were in below the great sand dunes on the south side, at a spot where a handy little eddy brought the salmon close inshore.
The boat grounded with a grating kiss on the sand. I was given the end of a rope and gestured to get out. The only words spoken were from Derby, in a whisper.
‘Don’t walk in the water. They’ll see the splash. Walk on the wet sand. Hold the rope well in your hand. Keep an eye on us and when I give you the signal, you stop where you are. We’ll row in ahead and come in. Then we’ll all pull in the net.’
I nodded. They rowed out before turning west again to run parallel with the shore.
I smiled to myself in the dark. Still the stooge. If the waterguard spotted us, it was me they’d catch and the bold pair of poachers would be away in my boat.
The tranquillity of aloneness, strolling below those age old dunes, barely visible, with a silent boat gliding to the right of me in the estuary was broken by an unexpected thudding thump in the palm of my hand.
This was a pulse, strong and profound – but a pulse of death not life, connecting me physically and absolutely to what I was doing.
There was a salmon in the net between me and the boat, with Derby on the other end of the rope.
Then, suddenly these pulses came slamming into my hand, one after the other, sometimes in such confusion there were clearly several hits on the net at once.
It was thrilling, guilt-ridden and sick-making. There was no way of escaping the knowledge of the nature of the deed.
I walked further on along the wet sand, both hands on the rope, doubling the guilt, always watching the boat.
The signal came. I stopped. The boat came in to the shore west of me, with the rope just below the surface making a crescent of ripples in the killing lagoon it created.
We pulled the net in between us. Derby came to help me as I was the weakest link.
As we pulled, the water boiled and thrashed white, the danger time for being caught by the waterguard.
There were odd dark clusters in the net. Too dark to see what they were but Harry was cursing and wrenching at them. There were cracking noises and he would throw things away in the dark.
Eventually the realisation came. These were crabs we’d trawled off the bottom in the net, grabbing and grabbed by clumps of net and Harry was breaking them up.
There was something else that was strange. For a generally quiet if funny man, Happy Harry would suddenly break into vicious swearing, tearing at something, ripping it up and hurling it from him with an imprecation to help it on its way.
I discovered afterwards that these were red mullet caught in the net. Foodies love them these days, but then – and likely still, fishermen have a superstitious hatred of them. I never did find out why.
When we had the net in almost to the shore, Derby threw me a sack. ‘Just grab them and throw them into that.’
Ah. My imagination hadn’t quite carried me to this point, the sharp end of the experience.
I’m squeamish. I’d never touched a living fish. The prospect was unappealing. I must have hesitated.
‘Can you not do it?’ – Derby, incredulous, on the brink of contempt.
I summoned some steel. ‘Of course.’
Doing it was a different matter though. I picked one smaller than the rest, bent down and touched him tentatively, He leapt in the air – and so did I, with a screech. Unforgiveable.
I couldn’t flunk out twice. I tried a sudden hard grab round the middle, throwing them immediately into the sack. It worked, the hard grab seemed to still them and stop the wriggling. I could do this. I didn’t look. I just grabbed and threw. As fast as I could go.
As I reached for what I could see was my last fish, some odd reflected light caught his face as I grabbed him. He opened his mouth wide, eyes gleaming and – spoke. It was a voiced ‘Uh’. I threw up on the sand.
There was no way back from that, really.
We rowed back up river, still with the tide, still silent but this time without the unspoken camaraderie of the outward trip. I had been a failure – but they owed me the boat. It was all very uncomfortable.
They came in for coffee when we got back, honourably offering me half of the catch and clearly relieved when I left it to them. They went off in the dark with their fat sacks over their shoulders, down the hill to their own boat, vanishing towards the quay – still without a splash of oars. To be caught at the end of a night would be cruel luck and these two took care at every point.
I walked back up the hill to the house and the peat fire, my head full of images I couldn’t yet fit together and struggling with the curious way worlds come together and separate.
In the morning as I rowed over to the quay to do the shopping up the town, I met the best of the local rod and line salmon fishermen pulling his boat in from its mooring. The gentle, kind, good mannered man blanked me.
The word had got around this small place already – about what I’d been up to the night before and who’d I’d been up to it with.
He regarded me as having turned to the dark and he never spoke to me again.
I mourned his loss. I’d valued his casual friendliness. It had spelled acceptance. No longer.
But, while his skills were mysterious and wonderful, so were those of Derby and Happy Harry. They knew every eddy of the river, every curve of the current, every sandy promontory. In their different work they were every bit as skilled, as intuitive as the line angler – and as traditional. They were just on the wrong side of a law made for landowners.
I made my inner accommodations, am grateful to this day for the experience, paid the cost I had to pay – and kept my boat.
Happy Harry had been out early that morning, in his posh boatman’s kit, courteously escorting visiting German fishermen safely down the slippery steps on the quayside, into his boat and off for a day’s fishing.
They came back up river in the afternoon, the anglers empty handed and cross, one saying: ‘If there were fish in this river we would have caught them.’
I caught Harry’s eye and we both choked a grin. We knew there were no fish in the river and Harry knew exactly where they’d gone. He’d been up the rest of the night delivering them.
Lynda Henderson ©
The image at the top is cropped from a photograph by copyright holder, Paul Stokstad and is reproduced here under the Wikipedia Commons licence.