A Met. Office Blunder – And What Followed by Donovan Kelley
It looked like another lost week-end. After a week of calm, Saturday brought a stiff south-west wind, and surf to match: the beaches were unfishable. It was bad luck for the two Menai Bridge students. They had joined me for the evening at our base in the estate cottage, hoping for some netting experience. We could do nothing except talk about what they were missing. On the next day their Deputy Director, Ivor Rees, was due to join me on a similar exercise. But the shipping forecast was quite definite that the wind would continue, even strengthen. After the students had left I walked to the village phone box and cancelled his visit: rod-fishing might just be possible, but he was not interested in that.
The morning dawned rough and windy. Down at the bar, 3 miles away, I could see the white line of surf that confirmed I had been right to cancel. As the day advanced however the wind, so far from strengthening, seemed to be easing. I put my rod and tackle in the dinghy and dug a few lugworms. I had to decide by four o’clock whether to take it out: after that the tide would be too low to launch. At a quarter to four the wind had swung round to north west and was still falling. It was too late to ring Ivor, and in any case the residual swell would rule out netting. But it now seemed well worth a try with the rod. I was just in time to launch and with a pull on the outboard was on my way down the estuary.
Half an hour later, arrived at the mouth, I was astonished to find a dead calm sea. The surf had ended as suddenly as it had started. It was a heaven-sent chance to try something long in mind: single-handed netting. The net was on its tray in the stern of the dinghy and all I needed in addition was a stake to take the place of a helper. One was quickly found among the tideline detritus. As soon as it was dark enough I waded out a short way, drove the stake into the sand, and strapped a lamp to the top, angling it so as to be visible while I laid the net. Then it was into the dinghy, tie the hauling rope to the stake, switch on the lamp and start rowing.
Although I had never tried it I knew that this method could not be as effective as conventional hauling by two netters spaced well apart. Alone, I would have to haul both ropes, one in each hand as I walked backwards up the beach. The two wings of the net would quickly come together – materially reducing the area swept; and the haul would be much slower, increasing the risk of escapes. Much depended on how far out the bass were lying. They were usually in 4 or 5 feet of water, which on most beaches was at the full length of the 100-yard ropes. Here it was rather closer. When about 80 yards of rope had paid off I threw the rest overboard and swung sharply to the left to start paying off the net. Another 75 yards and the net had all gone: I swung left again and rowed fast for the shore, aiming at the light. The dinghy grounded right beside it. I jumped out, seized both ropes and commenced hauling.
This was the hard bit, twice as hard as hauling on one rope only, when there were two of us. As I backed slowly up the beach however the wings of the net gradually came together, and pulling became easier. Through the ropes there came a subdued but distinct thumping. Almost certainly bass, on this beach: sea trout, the only other thumpers, were scarce here. I switched on my chest-light, and when the wings reached the shore I dropped my ropes and dashed down to get the whole net in. As hoped, it was all bass, nine of them about 2 to 3 lbs each. I filled the inflatable and got them quickly into it; then set the net back onto its tray in readiness for another haul. Tagging could wait: they would stay lively in the inflatable. Fortunately there was no weed in the net, and no crabs – which clench the meshes and spoil the clean hang of the net.
It was still dead calm and the second haul went as smoothly as the first. It produced another 13 bass (mostly small) and a mixed bag of coalfish, pollack and whiting. The bass were put with the others, a couple of whiting put aside for the pot, and the remainder returned to the sea. Then came the serious business of tagging. It was slow working alone, and by the time I had finished the tide was too far in for another haul. However it had been an excellent result, thanks to the complete calm. I reflected how lucky I had been not to be put off by the Met. Office forecast.
I tried the method again whenever I was short of a helper, with some success but also with problems not experienced on that first, very calm, night. If (as often happened) there was a slight surf coming in on an onshore wind the wavelets tended to pull the rope off the tray as I rowed out – and it was difficult to get the net out far enough. Often it got laid in only 2 or 3 feet of water instead of the usual 4 or 5 feet.
Once, netting on a very wide beach, I tried hauling the net with the Landrover. Good in theory, but in practice very difficult in the darkness to judge when to stop. Once I was too soon, leaving the net still in the water and letting all the fish escape. Another time I dragged it too far up the beach and had the exhausting task of dragging it back by hand through strongly resisting wet sand.
Despite the problems single-handed netting earned its keep. It got a few fish when conditions or tide were unsuitable for the alternative of rod fishing. In all it got 65 fish for the project which would not otherwise have been caught; and from them came 6 useful recaptures, later.
The let-down by the Met. Office had been turned to advantage.
From ‘Life with Bass’ by Donovan Kelley