River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Riverwatch - The Eel Catcher

November 2011

It was dark. The moon kept disappearing as volumes of black clouds came and went. A strong wind swept a bitter chill across the marshes and the tall reed beds bowed over in waves. It was between day and night. For sure very few people would be awake. However in the distance a lone figure of a hunched man was surveying all about. It looked as if he was standing in the middle of a field of sedge but in truth he was standing in his punt. The presence of water was not obvious but he was definitely afloat and pushing his way along with a single oar.

We have journeyed back in time between the wars when the lower reaches of the river Wissey joined endless acres of wet meadows and reed beds. There were numerous outlets and inlets. Each dyke led to another making up an intricate network of watery threads. Few knew the geography but our friend followed all the courses without problem. Since a young boy this had been his territory and he worked away with deftness and intuition. An owl floated low in front of him which he instantly recognised as the tenant of a neighbouring church tower. They crossed paths and carried on their separate ways.

The man was an eel catcher who every day of the year visited and reset his traps. Night time was when the eels were most active and at very first light of day the catch was collected.Five scoreand more long conical willow traps were laid out in the waters. There were no markers but our friend knew the position of every single one!

Before sunrise his job would be finished. A large wooden tank inside the punt was almost full with wriggling eels. They were a heaving mass with some as thick as a man's forearm. It had been a good catch and now there was great haste to get home. Home was alongside the river a mile or so upstream. The cottage left much to be desired but in winter time there was always smoke coming from the chimney and every night the cooking pot was on the black stove.

The next job was to get the eels to market. The punt was exchanged for trade bike of sorts and with lots of push and shove the journey was made to the Stoke Ferry railway station to catch the first train of the day. The station yard had its own ice house and the eels were transferred to travel boxes with a generous topping of ice. Thus they would remain fresh for the journey toLondon.

By lunchtime the eels would be at the capital where they were cooked and jellied for the night time trade on markets or for sale in the many pubs. Few people would realise that that very morning they were alive and swimming within our very own river.

When the eel catcher left the railway station his work was far from finished. He did not return to his cottage as his real day had only just begun! He also laboured in the fields for a local farmer. Only at tea time he returned home to a welcome meal but alas even then he was often out again. During the winter nights he would be wild fowling on the very same marsh land to catch the last flight. He was also the only person on the river Wissey to have a punt gun and with good fortune he could bag fifty or more ducks with a single shot! These would then also be sent on the train the following morning. Sleep was a luxury which he could ill afford but he survived keeping a wife and large family and he was always happy!

We have a lot to learn!

By Ivor Hook

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