Saturday, 2 August 2014
A Fishy Tale
Late 1970's and early autumn and my friend and I were at the Kingsferry Bridge at dusk, about to launch our boat down the ramp and into the fast ebbing Swale. It was the latest of our twice weekly forays down the Swale to check and empty our eel fyke nets, set in the fleets on Chetney marsh, directly opposite Rushenden on Sheppey. We had asked permission from the landowner to net the fleets and been refused, so nothing for it but to go after dark and it had been a productive couple of weeks with good catches of eels.
"Looks a bit misty" I said to my friend as we pushed the boat out into the tide and started the small outboard motor, "it'll be alright" he replied - famous last words!
The boat was little more than a large dingy with a tiny wheelhouse but it served the purpose of our short, after dark forays just right, just enough room for us and our large keep net and an old bread basket to carry the catch back in. A mile or so down the Swale we turned the boat towards the Chetney shore and run it on to the now exposed mud banks, securing it with a rope and anchor. Startled Redshanks and Oystercatchers noisily took off and disappeared into the increasing darkness as we disturbed their feeding place and only the distant lights of the Grain oil refinery across the estuary gave us a bit of help to see, although they were worryingly becoming less obvious as the mist increased. It was then, chest waders on and over the side into the gloopy mud and dark, carrying the bread basket and net between us. It was only about fifty yards to the base of the seawall but the deep and clinging mud made it very hard work but we soon got there and looked back at our footprint trail to the boat, how we'd be glad of that later on.
We swiftly waddled over the sea wall, because that's what you do in chest waders, you waddle with your legs apart, rather than actually walk properly, and then the fleet that we were netting was directly in front of us. There are two ways of fyke netting a fleet or ditch, you can row down it in a dingy, laying out the nets in a continuous line down the middle, or stake them across the fleet from bank to bank - we were obviously doing the latter. The nets themselves are about 15-20ft long and two thirds consists of a length of two foot high net attached to a series of ringed holding compartments, as you can see above. It would be stretched across a fleet or ditch, resting on the bottom and staked at each end to keep it taunt. As we were basically poaching the eels the stakes had to be pushed out of sight under the water and discreet markers left on the bank side to indicate to us where they were. Generally we would mark the first net and then set the rest at paced out thirty yard intervals. As eels travel down the ditch the lead nets would hold them up and guide them towards the trapping end where non-return netting would prevent them from escaping again.
The only problem with that method sometimes was the fact that it needed one of us on either side of the fleet/ditch and sometimes you had to walk long distances before finding a crossing point to enable you to get on the other bank. So there we were, in the middle of a dark evening with just a torch to help us and with the mist rapidly rushing across the marsh towards us, sleeves rolled up and feeling under the water for those first two stakes. I had the keep net and the trap end of the nets that night and so having finally located the stake and net, lifted it out of the water, terrific, several pound of wriggling eels in there. My friend on the other side tied a rope to his end and I pulled the net part of the way towards me in order to untie and empty the trapping end into the keep net. It was then a simple matter of pulling the fyke net back taunt across the fleet and re-staking it at each end, one wet arm and shoulder of my sweater, the first lot of eels and several nets yet to empty. An hour or so later and ten o'clock at night, we were finally back on the top of the sea wall, wet and rather smelly from ditch mud and eel slime but carrying a good poundage of live eels between us in the bread basket. There was just one major problem, while we had been busy the mist had become thick fog and we could see no further than a few yards in front of us and definitely not the boat out on the edge of the tide somewhere. However we managed to find the end of the footprint trail we'd left in the mud and with much effort, carrying a heavy basket between us, re-traced our footsteps until the boat re-appeared in the gloom. Finally sitting back aboard, out of breath and sweating, it was decision time - how the hell do we find our way back to the Kingsferry Bridge in fog that thick!
Easy we thought, if we're standing with our backs to Chetney, Sheppey is opposite and therefore the Bridge is right of us down channel, let's push off and head in that direction, stupidity indeed! Within minutes of pushing out into the fog and drifting round as we started the outboard motor, we had lost sight of the Chetney mudflat and therefore all sense of direction, we were sitting in the middle of the Swale in a really dense fog and lost, great, it could be a long and scary night. We switched off the motor and drifted for a little while and then got the oars out and rowed in no particular direction, slight panic setting in, being lost in fog can be so dis-orientating. But then I suddenly smelt sewerage, yes definitely sewerage - it was one of those eureka moments such as Mole and Ratty had in the Wind in the Willows, when lost in the Wild Wood in thick snow they suddenly stumbled on the foot scraper outside the entrance to the Badger's home.
" Yes, so what's so special about smelling sewerage", my friend said. "Think about it" I said, "where's the only sewerage outfall along here, the Rushenden one on the Sheppey side, head towards it". So we did, rowing slowly with much sniffing of the air, and eventually came against mudflats with the smell in front of us. "Well at least we know where we are" my friend said, "and safe from harm". "Yes" said I, "and I'm not going to sit here all night with my wife panicking when I don't return by midnight", (we had no mobile phones in those days), " so here's what I suggest, " clearly if we face the shore then the Bridge is a mile or so away to our right. If we head in that direction, making sure that we don't lose sight of the mudflats, then we should eventually end up at the bridge and the slipway." A great idea but with visibility down to a few yards we couldn't get in to water deep enough to use the outboard motor and with only one oar usable due to the mud being on one side, there was only one option becoming unfavourably clear, we would have to get and pull the bloody boat by it's anchor rope and that's what we did. I can still feel the pain and sweat now of pulling the boat along the water's edge while walking in soft and clinging mud in chest waders, it was excruciating and very few gym work-outs could compete with it.
Some time later, as our lungs felt like they were going to burst and legs were like jelly, we suddenly heard the sound of traffic passing across the invisible Bridge, we were almost there! Eventually when almost under the Bridge it's lights shone enough to guide us across the Swale and locate the slipway, it was past midnight but we'd made it, joy. A little later, after tipping the eels in to the holding tank in my garden, I fell in to bed, no doubt stinking of tidal mud and eel slime, mumbled "don't ask" to my wife and slept the few hours left before I was due to be at work.
We carried out those eel trapping expeditions for around ten years through the summer months, normally on Sheppey and often after dark where we shouldn't be, but that was easily the most scary of our trips.