Compass Net Fishing

Article Number Fourteen in Hook History Society’s Lockdown Series.


The famous.....indeed world famous ............compass net fishing of Hook has been placed low in the order in this Lockdown series as there are few issues in our county which have ever had more publicity.

Apart from prominent display in the annals and literature of Hook History Society the Cleddau based occupation has featured in literally dozens of articles in newspapers and magazines, television programmes and film both amateur and professional. Writers have travelled from as far as New Zealand and Belgium to study and publish material on this ancient art.

However, it would be wrong to portray the life of the village without reference to those hardy men who spent hours patiently waiting for fish......with luck salmon..... to become trapped in the trawling compass net.

There was a time when there were many fishermen, some say literally dozens, vying for pole position but today draconian licensing restrictions and severely diminished fish stock means that only a mere handful of licences are functioning.

As I have said writers and film makers from literally all over the world have descended on the village of Hook to study and write about an ancient form of fishing which has been carried out on the waterway for generation after generation. The method is Compass net fishing…………… one time, it is said, up to 100 men from Hook and neighbouring Llangwm fished in this ancient manner but now, it is understood, there are only six fishermen licensed to fish as their fathers and grandfathers did before them.

It is recorded that this form of fishing was introduced to the Cleddau well over 200 years ago by two Gloucester men…Messrs Ormond and Edwards…..who came to the area to work in the then thriving Hook colliery. Some years ago independent television produced a widely acclaimed documentary about this ancient form of fishing….a copy of which is held by the village History Society.

The producer of the film was John Mead, who at that time had a holiday cottage at Guildford. When the Llangwm Rugby Club was raising money to build a new clubhouse John Mead showed the film in the club to a standing room only crowd of supporters.

Compass net fishing may look like a tranquil pastime, but it is not without its dangers and over the years lives have been lost to the unforgiving mud flats and tide.

The fishing boats are held stationary in mid-stream by ropes fore and aft secured to stakes driven deep into the mud on the shoreline. A bag shaped net is fastened to a V shaped frame of two poles …….rather like the points of a compass; hence the name.

These poles are kept apart by a securing cross piece. The cross piece rests below the boats keel and keeps the net wide in the hope the ripping tide will sweep a fish into the waiting net.

Compass Net Fishing

The long poles which make up the frame are often spruce or larch and usually up to 20 feet long and the net ranges from ten to 25 feet. In days gone by the poles would have been buried in the mud for often two years or more to season and be regarded as ideal for the task ahead.  

Fishing is only possible three hours after the beginning of the ebb tide. The stakes, or poles as they were known, are placed at the narrowest places on the river. When there were literally dozens of men fishing commercially on the river they would leave home six hours in advance of fishing to get into “pole” position.

Compass Net Fishing

Casting the net or launching the poles from the boat calls for considerable skill as the secured boat can take quite a buffeting from the ebbing tide which can produce some alarming and dangerously strong currents. The fisherman unfolds the net and with the poles fastened at one end by the cross piece they open out like a draughtsman’s compass. A huge stone or concrete block is fastened to the apex of the frame to serve as a counterbalance.

This structure is positioned across the boat with the fisherman sitting between the poles and the net pointing up stream. The boat is rocked to and fro until the points of the poles touch the riverbed and the heavily weighted apex is raised into the air.

Great care has to be taken during this part of the operation as with a sharp ebb tide a submerged gunwhale could lead to a disastrous situation particularly during night-time fishing.

The fisherman sits with one hand on the pole and the other on a feeler line attached to the mouth of the net. When a fish…..hopefully a salmon ……is swept into the net the fisherman feels the reaction and he immediately throws his weight against the weighted apex and the poles are lifted out of the water. The cross piece removed the two poles are brought together and the catch brought on board. There was a time when all fishermen had favoured fishmongers in Haverfordwest who displayed and sold the catches as did the more upmarket hotels and restaurants.

Positions for each station on the river would be allocated by drawing numbers out of a hat.................first out got pole position. The men met in a rough shelter on the shore below the New Road in Hook.

Compass net fishermen sit in their riverside shelter about to make the draw for positions on the river. Prime spot is
Above: Compass net fishermen sit in their riverside shelter about to make the draw for positions on the river. Prime spot is "pole" position.

The original television documentary programme on the village fishermen was entitled “The Gift of Ormond and Edwards” and in the 1990’s well-known journalist and author Trevor Fishlock spent some time in Hook and also featured compass fishing in one of his Wales orientated documentaries. Compass net fishing is prominently featured in the recently completed Lottery funded dvd produced by the Hook History Society and entitled the BLACK DIAMOND VILLAGE, a reference to the time when Hook colliery exported top quality anthracite literally all over the world.

As the hoped for catch of the compass men seriously declined so did the herring fishing off Black Tar shore. Up until the early seventies men would man the boats to harvest the vast shoals of herring that would assemble in the lower reaches of the Cleddau. Laden or two came to grief because that were over laden!......would be met at the beach by fish merchants from Milford Haven. They had a ready and lucrative market for the Llangwm Herring. A major contributory factor for the absence of herring was said to be the “hoovering” of the shoals by foreign factory ships.


Chatting to friend and former colleague, Trevor Fishlock the other day I was reminded that eleven or so years ago he spent some time in Hook filming the Compass net fisherman. His guide for the occasion was Jim Richards, who has been associated with the skill since as a seven to eight year old he assisted his father, the late Garfield Richards.

The film can be viewed on Youtube as video Fishlock’s Wales. In the film, shown in 2009, there are flashbacks to the John Mead production...The Gift of Ormond and Edwards.

(Richard Howells 2020)