'Poaching salmon's not thieving - rustling sheep is thieving: you can't put them on the same scale'

COUNTRY The poacher's story. By Daniel Butler. Photograph by Stephen Peake
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The Independent Travel
"See under that overhang? If it was dark we'd have them both - easy - but it's too dangerous now." Bob is lying full length on the grass next to a Welsh waterfall. Six feet below, a tributary of the Wye charges between huge rocks. There in a hollow, resting before their final effort to reach the spawning beds beyond the falls, are two salmon. The smaller probably weighs just four or five pounds, but although the other is no more than a shadow, Bob reckons it's twice the size.

This trip is merely reconnaissance. When "Bob" (not his real name) judges the fish have arrived in numbers, he will dust off his torch and gaff - the latter a six-inch hook with which he harpoons the fish at night.

"Poaching's not thieving - rustling sheep is thieving: you can't put them on the same scale," he protests. "I believe everything has been put on this earth for everybody. I caught my first rabbit when I was eight and I've been at it ever since." The rabbit was welcome: Bob's father abandoned the family after the birth of his 13th child, so the animal went straight in the pot: "Mum positively encouraged us from then on," says the 38-year-old.

"There's always someone who'll show you a trick, like how to shoot roosting pheasants, snaring them - even knocking them out with a squirt of lighter gas! You've got to study to be a good poacher, see? Take deer, there aren't many here and they're difficult to track for the sheep." The trick is to check conifer plantations: "Deer love larch shoots and nothing else nibbles at that height." The rest is simple: "They're just little muntjac, but they hang in a snare like anything else," he says.

"Fish are really my thing, though. I started with trout. It's funny, but they always seem to be bigger where you're not supposed to go ... Whoa!" He points suddenly to the foaming water between the black rocks. There is a flicker of pink and green and a glimpse of the hooked beak of a cock salmon.

Bob dismisses him as one which has been in fresh water for several weeks. The best fish are the "reds" - larger, fitter and ocean-fresh: "Farmed salmon taste like shit, but they're the right colour because of the feed. A wild red is the real thing - whether it's a Hereford steer or a Wye salmon, you can't beat a thoroughbred.

"We never use nets," he continues. "Too indiscriminate: you kill everything. There's enough fish and no need to take hens. Once I watched a 5lb cock trying to mate with a 201b hen - and all the while he was fighting off three bigger cocks. He was so game we pulled out the others and left them to it.

"You always leave your gaff hidden by the river," he continues. "Getting there's the danger. If there are bailiffs around, chances are they're over-keen and grab you before you start.

"Many people blame poachers for the drop in salmon, but most of the decline is since we cut back." He is convinced his activities make no difference to stocks because salmon bed in the same gravel and each digs out the eggs laid before: "All that effort is wasted for the first lot - and the second ... and third ... and the fourth, too, if it's a good year."

Instead he blames improved drainage. This means more pollution from forestry and farms not to mention rapid fluctuations in the water flow: "The eggs are washed out of the gravel before they've had a chance to hatch; that or the beds dry out," he says.

"But there are still salmon," he continues, waving at the fish below. These are fish which hatched in the same stream and have returned to breed, after spending four years at sea: "Last year I counted 60 in daylight; at night you'd triple that, no trouble," He is warming to his subject: "They start in October, but it depends on the rain. A couple of years back we waited and waited and nothing came. Then it rained and we were out: the river rose a couple of inches, but it was enough to put fish in the pool and we had 16 that night. According to the bailiffs there were none that year."

Geography is the biggest threat: "The decent streams have just one way in. It's easy to get cornered - and they can confiscate your car now." The trick is to use the weather: "You want a good rough night: plenty of rain, plenty of wind - keeps your noise down and everyone else indoors.

"One night there were 16 bailiffs and police waiting for us. We had a new sergeant in town and he was bit too eager. He tried to sneak in on his side lights a minute too soon. It was seven o'clock next morning before we rounded everyone up! Poor old Ted ran them all the way up the mountain." He finally lost them in a primary school five miles away.

"Salmon make people do funny things," continues Bob, his eyes scouring the black water. "Like a friend who spotted a huge salmon and used too much dynamite. When he eventually found the fish it was 50 yards away in the middle of a field!

"Explosives are easy to get hold of. Most farms have a bit of black powder in an old tin somewhere, or you nick sodium from the factory - that's good. You whack it in a weighted bottle with a hole in the cork. You want it to hold to the bottom." But it is not without its risks: "Another pal used too much and set the alarms off on a dam. The guards had dogs. They caught him up a tree.

"You always sell the fish first: it's bloody stupid to take the risk without a buyer. The biggest I ever had was almost six foot long. Normally it would be daft to catch something that size, but it was too tempting: we sold him to a banquet at a hotel.

"In fact, most fish went to hotels. We'd do three runs a week, 80 salmon each time, and were making serious money: it was so good I'd knock off work for three weeks every autumn. That's changed now though: today it's a job to sell them when farmed salmon is pounds 1.25 a pound."

Another recent development is the use of microchips. These are used to track the migrating fish and are invisible. They also allow bailiffs to check for poached salmon: "Now they can ask where every fish comes from. If the hotel hasn't got the paperwork, it can be prosecuted for every salmon.

"We poach because landowners and river owners have made the rules to suit themselves. They love fishing, so they make it illegal for anyone else. There would be less poaching if they opened it up twice a year and allowed local people in, but they want it all. Last time I was prosecuted there was a full bench of JPs - they'd all turned up specially and all but one owned fishing rights. We pleaded not guilty to everything." The fine was pounds 125.

"After that they went up to pounds 1,000 and it got heavy. Three bailiffs were beaten up one night. I don't mind a poaching charge, but when they throw in GBH, it's time to cut back."

The battle spilt into the media: "They found two tagged salmon in a poacher's net. Said they'd stayed together for four years, side by side, only to die at the hand of a poacher," he says. "It was bollocks, but it bloody worked! People were shopping neighbours they'd known for years."

Bob watches the fish leap for an hour. Then, as dusk begins to settle, he clambers the slippery turf to the car. As he reaches the road he pauses to grunt: "No one makes money out of the game now - farmed fish are too cheap and the penalties too high - but we still go at it. See, poaching is like a drug, it's a job to stop."

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