I probably got the bug for taking fish out of rivers when I was nine and learned how to guddle trout in the Braid Burn Park.
First you’d scare all the trout in the pool so they’d shoot under the bank. Then you’d lie on your belly and feel with both hands under the overhanging grass and mud till you felt a slippery body.
Once you had your fingers round it, you’d press it up against the earth then fling it behind you and kill it by knocking it on the head with a stick. Two or three trout fried in butter made a nice breakfast.
It wasn’t until I was 23 and living in the Borders that I was tempted to try for something bigger. Just married and out of work, we were skint and I was looking for ways to put food on the table – even if I had to break the law.
A pal of mine suggested that we went up the local burn looking for salmon. He told me he’d been out himself and seen plenty, often in pairs, a cock and a hen fish.
They were big and you could get them at night with a lamp and a cleek. A cleek is a 6in hook strapped to the end of a broomstick. Back then you could go into the local ironmonger and they’d make you one for a fiver.
Our first outing was a disaster. It was winter and there was snow on the ground.
We’d walked a mile up river in darkness shining our torches on the water and seen nothing. Suddenly car headlights swung towards us. My mate shouted “Run!”
I didn’t need told twice. My plan was to run across the burn, which was only a foot or so deep, and hide in the trees on the other side.
In the snow, I couldn’t see that there was a 5ft drop to the water. Thinking I was stepping just a foot down, I plunged headlong, face down into the freezing water.
The headlights passed harmlessly up the road. On the other side of the burn my pal was doubled up laughing.
My next mistake was to have come out without my keys. It was 2am when I chapped the door. My wife was less than amused to see me soaked in water, just back from an illegal poaching trip.
The second time was easier. It was a warmer night. The stream was smaller and it was full of fish. We had ten in no time. With a torch beam on them, the salmon don’t move and they’re easy to gaff.
We hid our equipment and fish under a pile of branches behind a dry stone dyke and walked back to the car. “Don’t move” said a loud voice “the polis are on the way.”
It was the gamekeeper and his deputy. The police arrived too, blue lights flashing. They spent a good 20 minutes taking our car apart looking for salmon. They even looked under the wheel arches. But without any evidence, they had to let us go. Once the coast was clear, we went back for our spoils.
Next afternoon found us standing in a top Edinburgh hotel with a black bin-liner dripping slime on to the nice carpet. The concierge said he was off to the kitchen to get the chef. We were sure he was calling the police. My legs were shaking and I felt ashamed of myself, killing all those bonny fish for a handful of grubby tenners.
We went off with our £50 and that was the end for me. I never poached another salmon again. Except in a fish steamer.
The reasons I’m not wild about farmed salmon
Salmon poaching is on the rise and the main reason is that farmed salmon tastes so bad when compared to the flavour of a wild fish.
So chefs in top restaurants will happily fork out good money for a wild fish without asking too many questions about where it came from or how it was caught. A determined team of poachers can net up to a 100 fish a night. If they’re big ones, they can earn £100-£150 a fish.
But the worst thing about farmed salmon is the damage they’re doing to Scotland’s once-famous runs of wild salmon.
Wild salmon are born in tiny streams. After three years they head for the oceans and grow fat on a rich natural diet of prawns. Miraculously, they find their way back to the streams they were born in to mate and spawn.
Farmed salmon are kept in 75 metre cages. Each cage contains around 60,000 salmon. Salmon farms have an average of 20 cages. This means over a million fish densely packed into a small coastal area. They are artificially reared on a diet of fat and oil-based pellets to make them grow fast. Trapped in their cages, they are attacked by billions of sea-lice that effectively eat them alive. They have to be treated with harmful chemicals just to keep them from dying. These vast concentrations of sea-lice then attack the wild salmon as they pass the fish farms which are nearly always situated at the river mouths and sea-lochs the wild fish have to enter to spawn. Rivers and lochs that were once brimming with wild fish are now barren.
The waste from these fish farms is toxic too: 11,000 tonnes of ammonia dumped into our coastal waters every year by the fish farmers. Marine experts estimate that the fishy sewage from West Highland and Island fish farms is equivalent to the untreated waste discharged from a human population of ten million people.
So next time you’re wheeling your trolley down the aisles, maybe choose mackerel or haddock instead. If you stick with farmed salmon (and that’s all they sell in our supermarkets these days) don’t be surprised if it leaves a rather nasty taste in your mouth.
It’s mum who’s got lost, not me
We were Skyping Zsuzsa’s mum and dad in Hungary yesterday when they told us a story about their three year-old grandson Davidka, Zsuzsa’s nephew.
He went to the supermarket with his mum. After they’d been there for a few minutes he couldn’t see her any more.
Instead of bursting into tears, he walked over to one of the checkout girls and said “My mother is lost. Please announce it immediately on your loudspeaker.”