Haaf netting on the Lune: ‘Fighting a big fish really gets the adrenaline going’

Even as Margaret Owen pulled on her fishing “yallers”, we knew there was little chance of a salmon. I had been waiting for weeks to see Margaret in action, but the salmon simply haven’t returned to the river Lune this year, and the season was about to end.

The tide was turning and at the river’s edge retinues of curlew, lapwing, redshankand starling assembled and lifted again, landing in each other’s wake, the incoming water moving them on, inundating their prints on the riverbank.

Margaret hoisted her wood-framed haaf net (from the Norse for “open sea”) on to her shoulders – all six metres of it, and waded to waist-height in the river. For the best chance, the tide needs to be higher. On some tides, the water is higher.

She lowered the frame into the water, unwound the nets and pushed a cosh into her belt. “Salmon run upstream on the filling tide,” she said, “and turn back when they meet the cold flow of the river – so you stand in the run to catch them. A big salmon makes a wake in the water. Fighting a big fish really gets the adrenaline going; you lift and twist the net to trap it.” She’s a slim woman, and has been haaf netting here for 26 years.

Her husband, Trevor, and his mate had been out whammeling, another traditional fishing method, using drift nets from small, wide-bottomed boats.

“Still no salmon,” Trevor said. “Even five miles out in the Irish Sea.” Natural cycles might be at play. “There’s a fisherman in his 90s who remembers cycles of years without any salmon,” Margaret told me. The closed season allows mature fish to get upstream to spawn, but there’s no saying when they actually pass through. And seals can be a problem – they’ve ruined Trevor’s nets more than once.

Down the coast at Blackpool zoo, the sea lions are kept in whitebait and sprats from the trawl-nets that the Owens have anchored to the riverbank, close to their house. They will be emptied as soon as the tide falls back – as long as the redshanks, curlews and herons don’t get there first.