by the Rambler 12/10/2001
LOUGH Neagh eels are famous worldwide, even the TV people have featured a Bartin's Bay fisherman cooking a fish, al fresco.
That was some months ago, and according to local wags a heck of a lot of fish and a heck of a lot of 'takes' were involved - I could believe it.
Eels were also in world news about the same time. Some theory about global warming effecting the course of the Gulf Stream and that having affected the flow of eels to UK shores.
When I overheard some professional eel fishermen moaning about their catch at the opening of the present season (June 2001) not being as good as usual, I promised to publish an account given by the late John McAlinden (son of 'Cully') which I have on tape.
Here is the story of fishing in an open boat: no engine, no cabin, no lifebelts - nothing but oars, a net, and live bait.
John lived to a ripe old age, hale and hearty to the end, and immune to bad weather or lack of home heating.
' My father was a fisherman and his father before him. I was on a fishing boat from 1 was nine years old, that would have been in 1917. Mostly after school, but sometimes I didn't bother going to school at all. My grandfather shipped his own fish. He took them to the railway station, with a pony and van. They all went to Billingsgate market. Latterly, James Edward was the main man. He setup a kind of a depot and collected in the eels from all of us and took them to the railway. He bought at so much and got what he could for them. He became the important one then.
"In my day, they made about fifteen or sixteen shillings a stone. There was talk of some getting £l; some of the Tyrone men claimed they got £l, but we never got that much on this side of the Lough. It was trout in the springtime and then it wore on to the setting of the lines far eels later on in the summertime. At first all I did was keep the live bait alive. They were kept in a tank in the boat and they needed fresh water to keep them living. At one time it came in that it all had to be live bait. It hadn't always been like that. I don't know who started that carry-on, or how it started. The fish just wouldn't take dead bait. Small live perch were used. You had to watch how you put the hook in them so as not to kill them. They had to stay alive on the hook so you put it in near the tail.
"We used eel lines. A line would have had maybe 300 hooks. Some of them had 400. It was a tricky job hitching the hooks on the lines and then layering the lines in the boxes, so that they didn't get snarled up when they were being laid. They were always laid in the evening and lifted early in the morning. We never had anything but an open boat, no cabin, no engine - nothing but the oars. If the weather was too bad you just didn't go out. For a long time we had no oilskins or anything like that, and Wellington boots hadn't been heard tell of - no lifebelts, no shelter, no nothing.
"We had no licence. Any licence you could have got just said for fresh water: It didn't mention Lough Neagh and they maintained that that was no good when you went to court. That's where they had us. They wanted us to take out licences for the lough, but we would have had to sell any eels we caught to them at their price. I mean the people who claimed they owned the lough.
'They had patrol boats and if they caught us they lifted our lines and maybe sometimes summoned us as well. That is, if they were able to prove who laid the lines. They had to see us at it. We weren't so easy seen. When the patrol boat was first sighted somebody on the look-out would have put up a smokescreen. The smokescreen for this side was nearly always put up on Derryclone Point. It could be seen all over the shore. Usually they set fire to whins. Nothing burns as well as a whip bush and if it is green there's plenty of smoke.
"TheArdboe boys could see our smokescreen and lift their lines before Gibson got near them. That was what you called the man on the patrol boat. If the Ardboe boys spotted the patrol before our smokescreen went up, they put up a smokescreen first. Very often we just had time to get off the lough and lose our lines.
The patrol boat put out a grab and pulled in the lines, moving at a slow speed. Any fish on them were thrown back. They didn't take the eels, just the lines. If they cut across your line when they were pulling in mine, they just tied floats to yours and came back and lifted it when they had finished with mine. They gathered up all the lines. That was what was going on all summer. Duff of Coagh was the main man. He gave out the licences and Gibson was one of his men. When you were summoned you had to go to Court, pay the fine and costs, and lose your line as well.
"There were pollan and other fish too. It was only the eels that they were after. The pollan weren't a good shipper. They were too soft and were mostly sold around the doors. There was one woman from Derryclone and she hawked fish far and wide on a bicycle, mostly in winter. 'Travelling Mary' or 'the traveller' they called her. The open season was from February 1 until October 31 - but there were some fish caught in the close season and hawked around after dark to safe houses.
"The bailifs didn't come on until the 1920s. I think that the Stormont Government was responsible. They were making changes. The patrol boat harboured down at Antrim all the time and they would have been up here before we got the lines lifted in the morning. There was some mornings they were early but some mornings they weren't so early. If they seen where you were - well, you had to go. If they got you they took your name and all. They got a hold of your line and took it forby. Sometimes when tempers were riz the police had to be sent for. They lifted our lines for thirty or forty years till they got the thing settled. A priest from Toomebridge got a Co-operative set up.
"There's very little fish or fishing on the lough now. Maybe it is because the water is so bad."