Catching the Fish
Very briefly and very simply: Scottish “Atlantic” salmon are born in the upper reaches of rivers. As they mature they come down the river and into the sea. They then swim off into the North Atlantic and stay there for a number of years. The fish then returns to the Scotland where it swims up or down the coast until it finds the river of its birth. The fish enters the river and makes its way back to the upper reaches where a female fish will lay eggs and a male fish will try to fertilise them. The fish will then return to the sea and the whole cycle will be repeated.
A salmon returning from the sea for the first time is referred to as a “grilse”: those that return more than once are called “salmon”
When the fish return to Scotland they will swim very close to the coast and very close to the surface and it is there, close to the coast and close to the surface that the salmon netsmen tried to catch them.
The nets mainly used in Ardnamurchan were called bagnets. These nets were in two parts, the leader and the head. See diagram 1 below
The leader was a curtain of net, tied as close to the shore as possible, about 4 metres deep, with its top edge floating on the surface and pointing out at right angles for about 100 metres where it was attached to the head. See diagram 2 below
The belief was that the salmon, swimming close to the shore and near the surface would be interrupted in their journey by the leader, a visible barrier. Hopefully they would not swim round the landward end of the leader: it was tied very close to the shore often in breaking water: the net was deep enough that they would not swim under it and they would not jump over it. Again hopefully, the fish would turn outwards to try to get round the seaward end of the obstruction, the leader. And if they did that, tried to swim round the leader then they would be led into the head of the net. See diagram 1
The head operated on the same principle as a lobster pot: the creature could get it but then not be able to find its way out The head of a salmon net was a complicated box like structure of netting and wooden poles. The netting was arranged at angles that drew the fish deeper into the trap but the same angles also made it very difficult for the same fish to turn out of the trap. See diagram 3 below
When the boat and crew arrived at the net then the fish would be swimming in the inner most chamber of the net, the fish court. See diagrams 4A and 4B
The nets, quaintly referred to in law as “fixed engines” but were always known as bagnets. They were put out at the start of the season (late spring) and fished until the close on 26th August.
The nets went in the same position (link) every year and great care was taken to make sure they were set at the right angle to the coast. These net positions were “Handed Down” and were usually just behind a headland where there was a tidal eddy, a place it was thought the fish might lie.