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Mad dogs’ greedy men take fish from the midstream run

Outdoor Living

POACHERS IMPERIL PARADISE?‘Wherever there’s fish there’s men, and wherever there’s men there’s a villain or two’.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

James and I looked into the dark, swirling waters of the Moy downstream of Ballylahan Bridge, where salmon would be holed up and waiting for the final push to their spawning grounds. High water will help them. Not only will a good flood enable them to reach high into the smaller rivers and feeder streams which contribute to the bulk of the Moy, it will have prepared the shallow gravels in readiness, scrubbing them clean of sediment and turning the beds of small stones anew.
James mused: “Are there more fish now, than were there ten years ago?”
“There ought to be. Since the drift nets came off in 2007, although nobody can know how many fish are out there.”
We drove to Carrowkeel, where a few salmon were splashing at the falls, most of them small and dark, “Like eels,” said James. One, evidently not looking where it was going, pitched onto the rocks and lay on its side, gasping at air for a few moments, before righting itself and squirming back to plunge into the narrow torrent of water. Black backed, with an off-grey belly, it had probably been in the river since June, living off stored body fat since then.
Some early spring fish come into fresh water in January, and there they live for the best part of a year without eating so much as a morsel, just slowly making their way upstream until these late autumn floods, combined with shortening daylight hours and dropping temperatures, awaken the urge to find a mate and spawn.
“And after spawning they die, their bodies are washed away and wasted. And it’s woe for the man who takes just one for the cat.”
It wasn’t the cat James had in mind. He and I know well that even salmon in poor condition will find a ready market. Besides, among these fish that have spent months in the river will be a few that have run late, that get to the redds still wearing their silver coats. Some of these autumn fish are among the largest of the year and a poacher’s prize.
There is more to these late arrivals. The traditional belief has always been that salmon spawn and then die – and most of them do. In recent times we’ve learned that some, as many as 10 percent, actually survive and make their way back to the sea. Of these, a good portion will return to spawn again. It makes sense that these repeat spawning salmon will be those subject to less stress during their time fasting, between leaving the ocean and breeding.
“It’s probably best to leave them alone,” I told him. “There was a time we had so many salmon we never imagined they’d ever become scarce. But they have. In fact, they’ve disappeared from some of the smaller rivers altogether. How did that happen? What do you think?”
James knows well how they disappeared. It wasn’t just the drift nets at sea that accounted for these valuable runs of fish, each of which was unique to the river that hosted them. “Tell me how they did it years ago.”
He pursed his lips, looked at me doubtfully and paused for a few long moments. “I’ll tell you then, if you promise to tell again. After all, if we don’t do something there’ll be no fish at all.
“You couldn’t do this on a river like the Moy, there’s far too much water. But on the smaller streams… Whenever there’s a flood, from June until the end of the year, a few fish will come off the tide and head up the river as far as they feel like. Then, as the flood drops away, the fish will fall back into the deep holding pools close to the sea, where those that are interested will be watching. But suppose a man was to string a net across the river in a place not known for holding fish; they wouldn’t be able to drop back to safety and once they’re stuck in a small pool out of the way somewhere they’d be easy caught.”
“It’s that simple. Is that still done?”
“Wherever there’s fish there’s men, and wherever there’s men there’s a villain or two. A dog tied at a bridge where he’ll bark at a stranger, lights on the river at night, a peg driven into the ground by the river, even two men by the water at once, they’ll tell you something’s afoot.”
“You’d make a great gamekeeper, James.”
“Me?” He watched another fish fling itself at the tumbling falls. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

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