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Traditional Irish fishing methods

Fishing for bream off a cliff

Discover the methods used by traditional Irish anglers and freshwater fishermen.

Sea Fishing

The Irish fishing industry in the past was very undeveloped. Much fishing was done from small boats. The tarred and canvas currachs, which originated from hide boats, were a distinctive feature of parts of the west coast of Ireland. In recent times they are increasingly made from fibreglass. Most small-scale sea fishing took place in the summer when the fish were more plentiful and the weather was less dangerous for small boats.

Fishing was done by line as well as with a net. In deep water, fishermen would use a spillet line: a weighted line with many hooks. The fishermen would set the line and leave it overnight strung across the sea bottom. 

Fishermen often made their lines themselves, twisting pieces of thread into longer lengths using a line twister. Hand lines were also used to catch mackerel, pollack and bass from a boat or even from a cliff.

Drift nets were used to net salmon and left out overnight. Another netting technique for herring and mackerel was seine netting, where two boats formed a purse of the net around the fish. A technique called draft netting was used in estuaries, the net played out from the shore by a boat.

Fishermen used pots to trap lobster and crab, usually for commercial sale, much as they do today. In the past, pots were made from willow rods or even heather. 

Some shellfish could be collected from a boat using a rake or dredge, while others were gathered by hand or prised off rocks.

Freshwater Fishing

Freshwater fishing was generally a supplementary activity. Some of the most prized rivers were in private ownership, which led to poaching. 

Some ancient techniques such as spearing survived. Spears of differing types were used to catch eel and salmon. Eel fishing was generally legal but spearing salmon was illegal and often took place at night using a light.

Traps made of wicker or netting were set in rivers to catch fish. Snares and large hooks called stroke-hauls were also used to catch salmon or trout.

On certain rivers net and rod fishing for salmon took place under licence. However, poachers used illegal nets which might be set in weirs or pulled through the water. A leather coracle, called a currach locally, was used to set salmon nets on the River Boyne into the 1940s. On the flood-lands of the River Suck, a raft of bulrushes was used for fishing and fowling – a unique craft in northern Europe in modern times.

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