What is it like to be a Fisherman on Lough Neagh?
Eamonn Moore, a most interesting fisherman, met me at his house…well, once I eventually found it nestling by the shores of the Lough, that is.
All his life, eel fishing has been his livelihood, and indeed, the livelihood of his parents and grandparents before him. As he told me, his ancestors actually lived on a little island (Ram’s island) out in the Lough itself while he himself has been fishing there since the end of the Second World War.
As we walked down to the shore from his cottage which overlooks it, flies literally swarmed around our faces; I found it very uncomfortable because I could literally barely see where I was going but Eamonn was entirely unfazed as you’d expect, as this is a walk he does and has done every week- day morning for somewhere in the region of 7 decades.
Most of his life then, Eamonn and his fishermen colleagues rise at 4am every single week-day morning; he heads down to his boat, him and two other fisherman from two other families similarly steeped in the fisherman tradition. Their first job of the day is to lift the fishing lines laid by them on the Lake at approximately 12pm the day before.
The fishing lines that I speak of are the mechanism through which the eels are caught; hundreds of yards of fishing line, with hooks from one end to the other, are retrieved yard by yard from the water and the catch that comes with it is removed and sorted.
Sounds simple enough but the thing is, not any old eel will do; at Toomebridge, the local Co-op (of which most local fishermen are members ), will only accept eels of 16 inches (40cms) and bigger, simply because strict regulation of minimum size is a key element of the conservation of stocks to which the Co-op is deeply committed. As a result, anything that literally doesn’t measure up is simply thrown back in, still alive and well.
In total, the fisherman can expect to catch between 20 and 80 eels on any one line, with 4 lines laid in total. Thus, somewhere between 200-300 eels are caught every day, with a quota in place with the Co-Op to ensure that this is pretty much the maximum amount that can be caught in a single day by one boat.
The marketable fish (i.e. those for which consumers in countries including GB, Holland and Germany are willing to pay good money), are collected by truck once the eels have been sorted at the shore., The eels are then transported to Toomebridge in tanks of aerated water on board the truck, each fishing boat having its own designated tank on the truck. At the Co-op’s facility at Toomethe eels are weighed, bagged (put in bags of water and ice) and shipped, while still alive.
I must say I was surprised initially at the level of care and attention which goes into ensuring that these fish arrive at their final destination alive and in perfect health; until, that is, Eamonn informed me that these famous Lough Neagh eels are such a sought-after luxury food product that they now command a price of £8 per kilo. Is it any wonder then that they are so well looked after in transit?!
And what about the cooking, I asked? Well, not surprisingly, given that these fish are a delicacy, Eamonn and his wife don’t eat them on a daily basis but when they do, pan frying them with a little bit of water (they are an oily fish and don’t need any additional oil on the pan!), is the best way to enjoy these delights. Years ago boiling them was the most common cooking method but as cuisine styles and tastes change, pan frying is the most common cooking method nowadays.
The eel fishing season, fortunately for the fishermen given the 4am starts, begins in May and ends in October, approximately. With no fishing during the closed season, it not only gives the lake the opportunity to replenish its stocks, it also gives the fishermen a very well deserved rest from the arduous daily 4am start.
Eamonn was a true gent to meet with, a passionate fisherman, a most genial man and the sort of fascinating character it is always a privilege to talk to.
Upon leaving his house (after taking far too much of his time!), I marvelled at how someone who has had to endure 4am starts throughout his life could be so youthful, so spritely, so healthy looking and so cheerful and chatty.
Leaves me thinking….there’s surely something to be said for fresh air, early starts and fish straight from the shores of Lough Neagh!
To find out more about Eels visit River to Lough Festival on 2nd July 2016 at Antrim Castle Gardens #EelsAreTasty www.rivertolough.co.uk