The Origin of Compass Net Fishing

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 practiced is Compass net fishing……………..at one time up to 100 men from Hook and neighbouring Llangwm fished in this ancient manner but now there are only six fishermen licensed to fish as their fathers and grandfathers did before them.

It is said 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.

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.

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.

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 counter balance.

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 river bed 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. 

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.