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The Fourth Statistical Account of East Lothian

Poaching in and around Dunbar

[This contributor wishes to retain his anonymity]

When I was about eleven, my brother used to take me to the river (the Biel Water) for a walk. One summer he noticed some large fish (salmon) in the water. He asked me to climb up the tree beside us, and look down the river; I was able to tell him how many fish were in the water and how close they were. He used a small landing net and we chased the fish into the side of the banking and then scared the fish down stream and into the net.

One year, my brother was checking the same river just after a large spate and he came across a large salmon; he and two others chased it up river and then it disappeared. He couldn't understand how you could lose a large fish in such a small river, and decided to go down to the mouth of the river and start from there, eventually finding the fish about a half-mile up river. He guddled the fish on the approach to some rapids; his hands fitted into both sides of its gills, and it turned out to be a 32lb salmon, the largest I have ever seen in this river.

As I grew up, I got to know all the pools and rapids where fish would hide, and I understood how the fish lived in this river.

Catching fish

Of all the ways I have caught salmon, guddling is the most delicate. I have tried to grab a fish by its tail because I couldn't reach its gills. This works because a salmon has a bone at the end of its body giving you a good grip. Sea trout do not have this bone so you have to grab the fish by the gills. One of the cleverest ways to catch fish in deep water is by using negative and positive poles. Basically one guy stands with the net attached to a positive charge and the other guy has a pole sending out a negative charge. The fish are attracted to the net using this device.

There is a fish trap that can be used, shaped like a cone. Placed in fast water with the pointed end facing up stream, the fish settle in this at night time and you check it in the morning before light. This was a hit or a miss, but the largest fish I caught in one of these weighed about 10lbs.

Spring salmon are among the best for looks, size and firmness. They are silver or even deep blue in colour, and are very easy to spot in the water. They tend to be very firm and in general longer rather than thicker in girth. In one day I caught 23 fish on a stretch of river no longer than a hundred yards. I put most back but at the time I guddled them, snared them, even netted them. I didn't really do it for money, I enjoyed the thrill of catching the fish.

The legal position

Sometimes others would come to the river to catch anything and everything. This was not good news because the police got to hear about it and I had to leave the river until things quietened down. I was chased twice from this river but unlike some I could mention I have never been caught. Always have a way out of the river and never panic even if they are close by. One time I was in some high reeds, guddling a sea trout and the police walked above me. I settled in the water still holding on to the fish. They never saw me and carried on up river. I got a fright but was pleased to see them move on. I caught a further three fish that day despite the police floating around. Police, water bailiffs and farmers could give you problems on a river, so the less they see the better. I found if you visited a river before first light then there was less chance of getting caught in the act. This proved to be successful for me. Others tended to be too open about what they did; they couldn't care about being seen which was rather stupid considering the fines could be considerable.

I had a couple of battles on the river with rivals but this never stopped me going back. It did, however, make me point the police in their direction if it was to my advantage. I caught several fish over the years but I am happy to say that most of them were put back into the river.

Deer

Catching deer was a different kettle of fish. Once I had the stomach to gut them, I would on occasion go out at night and visit where I knew they would pass through. Like rabbits and hares, deer use the same runs from forest to forest. Shooting a buck gives no pleasure to me but I did do it for the money - between £50 to £100 pounds - so I knew it was worth collecting two or three deer in one morning. You can follow deer to a suitable spot where you could shoot them but over the years I found it was easier and more successful finding out where the deer hid and then where they moved on to. Waiting for a deer to reach you may take hours so a routine of cover and two guns ensured at least a kill. The problem with using guns is the noise. Landowners knew someone was in the area so the alarm was already set by you. A large net became the answer to this problem. Basically you would set the net up along a run usually in a wooded area. A dense wood always slowed down the deer and kept them low. This proved vital if you were to guide the deer towards the net. It didn't always work but it had numerous successes and so long as you were prepared to cut the deer's throat while holding it down meant this method was very quiet compared to any guns.

Game

Hare became one of the most difficult types of game to catch. Remember, you are trying to catch any of these birds or animals without being seen or caught. Hares liked open spaces but not all the time as I found out. I was walking through a cornfield that had just been cut and baled when several hares got up in front of me and headed for the open field. They were safe but I realised this is where they were hiding for the night. I set up a rifle behind the cover and waited for the hares to arrive. They did just as it got very dark. Hares didn't know what direction to run in which gave you long enough to bag several before your position was obvious. Hares' field of vision is directly to the side of them, which means they cannot see straight ahead. If you position a dog down wind of the hare and you go behind the hare you can train a dog to walk towards the hare. All goes well until the last few yards where the dog is so keen to run after the hare that you lose the element of surprise. This is where you let the hare see you coming and it responds by running towards the dog. This method does work but it is very time consuming.

Rabbits were never a challenge to me but partridge and pheasants were, in particular the pheasant. Out of all the ways to catch a pheasant shooting them off treetops was easy, fast and very productive. Pheasants roost up the trees at night for safety and all you have to do is carefully walk through the wood looking up and shooting the pheasants down. A 4/10 was ideal for this but if you were good with an air rifle it was the way to go. Very quiet, the air rifle never gave you away so you could shoot all night if you so wished.

Years ago I was asked if I had used this method on a farm, which took stock of several hundred birds. This was not I, but it looked like some one had poached most of these new birds. The annoying part of this story was that the farmer still believed it was I so I decided to go and catch several of his pheasants that week. It was risky because I knew they were around a lot at night. At that time night vision lenses were not available so they relied on lamps to see you. No good in woodland and besides they didn't go far from the Land Rovers they were using. Looking back on it if I had been caught it would have given me a lot of hassle so I suppose it was careless of me at the time. To this day that farmer still doesn't know what happened to his pheasants. A trap similar to the method used to trap a salmon can be used on pheasants. It is made up to twigs and leaves and is funnelled so the pheasant walks up the funnel feeding off the grain you have laid. The aim is to encourage it to go all the way up so it cannot reverse out. It gets jammed in the funnel and then you come along and collect the catch.

There are many ways of catching game and I have described some of the ways that I used in the past when I was growing up in this area.

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