Get to the point
David Profumo has many ways to spear a fish
‘Salmon were pursued from pool to pool in the manner of otter-hunting
IN the beginning was the stick and that begat the simple lance—an extension of the primitive hunter’s arm, just as the club was a magnification of his fist. Dating back to at least 4,000BC, the ubiquitous spear is surely one of man’s more simple and elegant inventions—an instrument of teleologic beauty, with many specialised versions for the catching of fish.
The spectrum of impaling devices is huge, encompassing tongs, rakes, combs, clamps, jigs, grains, cross-hooks and gaffs. Ancient Egyptian bas reliefs show nobles spearfishing in the Nile; Esquimaux ice-fished using barbs of ivory or obsidian; Amerindian tribes lured sturgeon to their spears with carved decoys; in Tahiti, the water javelins were pronged with stingray bones; and, in China, they utilised a cock’s spur on a bamboo shaft.
In Europe (where these objects are much studied by ethnologists), we have the Bulgarian
arpuni, the Latvian zeberklaj and the Magyar szigony. Crossbows, blowpipes and slingingsticks have all been pressed into service to skewer aquatic quarry and Dutch whalers began shooting harpoons out of blunderbusses as early as 1601.
As a means of survival, the spear became totemic. The barbed heraldic ‘pheon’ denoted fishtaking rights on several coats of arms, and the trident—as depicted in many classical mosaics— was originally a Mediterranean tuna spear and may have been the model for that widespread badge of sovereignty, the sceptre. On our coinage, Britannia herself proclaimed our maritime supremacy with her trident from 1797 until she disappeared in 2008.
In fact, although it’s not angling, fish-spearing can be diverting. I’ve spiked Mexican lobsters and Hebridean ‘flatties’ and there’s plenty of skill required, especially when dealing with refraction. Underwater spear- gun fishing is another branch of the pastime altogether, nor will I sully this column with my experiences of such fish-snatching techniques as the strokehaul, Walkerburn Angel or Blacksmith’s Flee—‘poaching of the most flagitious (i.e. wicked) description’, in the opinion of that sublime Victorian author William Scrope.
My own collection of fish ‘irons’ (as they are generally known) comprises some 32 examples, including a wonderfully slender long-handled version for use in waterfalls, a brace of fearsome spring-loaded poaching devices, several eel ‘glaives’ with their distinctive, leaf-bladed tines, a number of 18th-century multident heads that have lost their shafts, assorted harpoons with hinged points and the warhead from a modern, explosive-tipped whaling weapon.
Most of these have been acquired from auctioneer Neil Freeman, who once dropped off a prize item at the hotel where I was fishing in Kelso—toting a 10ft big-game tuna flying gaff down the street drew knowing glances from certain locals.
The locus classicus of salmonspearing in its heyday was surely the Scottish Borders, where the five-pronged ‘leister‘ (originally the ‘waster’) was once much favoured by poachers and sportsmen alike, particularly on the Tweed and its tributaries. There were two branches of this activity—‘burning’ and ‘sunning’ the water. The former was practised by night, often surreptitiously, using a lantern or tarred torch to dazzle the fish—frequently ‘unclean’ salmon that were kelts or on the redds.
In Victorian times, turf wars raged between rival gangs and penalties included transportation down under. Scrope records how one miscreant, caught with a salmon in his inner pocket, explained: ‘It must hae jumped in there when I waded across the river.’
‘Sunning’ took place in low water and bright daylight and was also once a legitimate method—a noted expert was Rob O’ the Trows, the legendary Makerstoun boatman, who drank whisky ‘like water’ and wielded a 20ft ash pole. Unfortunate salmon were pursued from pool to pool in the manner of otter-hunting (which used a similar baton fourchie) and it was considered a spectator sport.
The Empress herself witnessed a Deeside sunning session at Balmoral in September 1850. ‘About one hundred men wading through the river, some in kilts with poles and spears, all very much excited,’ she records, perhaps a little breathlessly. Albert joined in, but ‘he caught nothing’.
The laureate of the leister was Sir Walter Scott, who enthusiastically describes burning the water in both prose and verse. He enjoyed nocturnal sessions up at the Pavilion beat with his chum Lord Somerville, although there was much mayhem ‘being penetrated with cold and wet, having your shins broken against the stones in the dark, and perhaps mastering one fish out of every 20 you take aim at’.
Sadly, those days are gone: however flagitious, it all sounds great fun.
Open wide: the author with his prized collection of impaling devices