George Chamier’s ‘With Net and Coble: A Salmon Fisher on the Cromarty Firth’ documents a dying art, writes Rob St. John.
Net and coble fishing is a traditional method of catching salmon, practiced until recently on river estuaries around the Scottish coast. In a new book, With Net and Coble, George Chamier recounts his years spent as a net and coble fisherman on fishing stations on the Cromarty Firth in the north of Scotland.
Between 1975 and 2018, Chamier and a cast of characters worked the Firth’s tides to catch salmon migrating up river from the sea. Their techniques were skilled and labour intensive. Long periods of time were spent watching the water for signs of fish. When the time was deemed right, a net was rowed out and back in a semi-circle shape from the shore and hauled back with their catch.
With Net and Coble is a document of a dying art, which was stopped when the Firth was declared a mandatory catch and release zone in 2018, as a means of protecting depleted salmon stocks. It pictures an era before Scottish salmon populations were as threatened as today, as a result of over-harvesting at sea, water pollution, aquaculture, and the ongoing effects of climate change.
The book depicts the idiosyncratic people and wildlife that circle the Firth’s salmon runs. Chamier’s fellow fishers (the “Estate pirates”) drift in a haze of booze, joints and impromptu parties across the long hours spent in estuary bothys. The stillness of the net and coble technique offers Chamier ample time to observe the sea birds and seals which inhabit the Firth. He writes, ‘When you stand in a little boat or on a cairn for an hour, two hours, three hours, without moving much the other fishers in the firth begin to accept you as part of the scenery.’
As a result, the book offers a record of a patient and skilled way of seeing the subtle shifts of the Firth’s waters. Chamier writes, ‘Water-watching is one of the great joys of our fishing… Where we fish, the combination of fresh and salt means the water is nearly always patterned, the fresh lying in calmer glossy streaks among the ripples of the salt.’ The book is richly illustrated with photographs from Chamier’s time on the Firth: an archive of former ecological plenty, and the people and practices that formed around it.
‘With Net and Coble’ is out now and available here (£23.25), published by Pen & Sword Books.