From the book North Sea fishers and Fighters - by Walter Wood 1911
The beam trawl was an apparatus consisting of nine distinct parts. These were the beam, the trawl heads, the ground rope, the bosom, the cod or purse, the draw rope, the running pieces, the pockets, and the bridle. The beam was proportionate to the size of the net. The wood usually employed to make it was elm, experience proving that this was the best material. For the smaller beams, which had a length of about 36 feet, it was not difficult to find single pieces of wood which could be used with little or no trimming.
If, however, the trawl beam was very large, two or three pieces of elm had to be scarfed together and secured by iron bands. This was the form most commonly seen on the Dogger when the trawling had reached its height. To each end of the beam an iron trawl head was fixed into a socket. A pair of trawl heads stood in relation to the beam as the runners do to a sledge.
The lower part was quite flat, the front part being curved and the back and top practically straight. The object of the trawl heads was to keep the beam about three feet above the ground and so afford an uninterrupted entrance to the net itself. The upper part of the net was known as the back, the bottom portion was known as the "belly". The front edge of the back, technically called the "square", was fastened to the beam; but the "belly" part was extensively cut away so as to form a sort of semi-circle on the ground.
The middle of this curve or sweep, the "bosom", was thus at a considerable distance behind the beam and in front of the net, the distance, as a rule, being about equal to the length of the beam itself. The ground rope protected what might be called the lower lip of the net. Generally the ground rope was an old hawser "rounded" or covered with small rope, which served two purposes - to make it heavier and to prevent chafing.
But there was a greater object than that to be served, and this was to stir up the ground and so rouse the fish which, as a rule, would immediately make their way into the net, and having once done that, there was little chance of escape. It was essential that the material forming the ground rope should be old, so that in case as obstruction was met - and this frequently happened on rough ground - the rope would be destroyed and the net itself saved.
The net would sometimes have a length of 100 feet, the meshes being of four different sizes, varying from 4 inches square near the mouth to 1.5 inches at the cod end. The net with a length of 100 feet would have a width of 50 feet at the mouth, so that there was an immense triangular bag towing at the bottom of the sea, which, if it came across a shoal of fish, would scoop a tremendous haul.
It was a not uncommon for 3 tons of fish to be caught at a time, and on the Dogger I have seen one of the old beam trawls so crammed full with haddock that it could not be hauled; as a matter of fact, the net burst and the dead haddock were as thick on the surface of the water as an icefloe.
The most interesting part of the beam trawl net was in the old days, as it is now, the cod end, for here the fish are found when the net is hoisted inboard and the moment comes for the big bag knot to be unlashed and the catch released. The cod end is a narrow jail for the fish, and once in it and in the pockets there is about as little chance for the creatures to escape as there is for a convict to get out of prison.
It must be remembered that the fish are swimming against the tide and that the net is being towed with it, so that, the more they try to escape, the smaller is their chance of freedom. If, however, fish turn about and try to get away from the enveloping meshes, they seek to do so by keeping to the two edges or sides of the net. In this case they are doomed, because then they swim into the pockets.
These pockets, two in number, are placed near the cod end and are made by lacing the upper and lower parts of the net for about 16 feet. Each pocket is practically a reversal of the cod end, and is literally a trap, for the entrance consists of a valve or curtain of netting, called a flapper. This flapper is so constructed that, although it allows free admission to the fish, still, it prevents them from returning.
If they turn at all, they must go into the pockets, which are practically inverted cod ends, so that there is no chance whatever for them to escape, especially as fish are constantly entering the net and often enough forming a solid mass.
To the trawl heads, by means of shackles, the bridle was attached, and to this in turn was fastened that important part of the trawl's equipment - the warp. The warp had a length of 150 fathoms, consisting of two sections of 6 inch rope spliced together.
In the old smacks the trawl was invariably kept on the port side, and when the beam was not in use it formed, with its trawl heads, net and gear, a very prominent feature of the vessel. The great beam usually projected beyond the stern.
The shooting of the trawl, although a comparatively simple matter, required much skill so as to prevent the trawl from reaching the bottom upside down, and so making the work of towing useless, because the beam would drag on the bottom and the net would not be opened and consequently incapable of catching fish. The mere fact that heavy labour was involved in hauling the trawl was itself a sufficient reason why a skipper should be careful in seeing that the apparatus was properly shot.
First of all, the cod end was thrown overboard, then the rest of the net followed until it was all hanging over from the beam and towing alongside as the smack went through the water. At this stage the fore end of the beam was slacked away until it was completely clear of the vessel and turned by the action of the water at nearly a right angle from the stern.
Then the other end was lowered until the whole beam was level with the water, and the trawl being in its proper position, the vessel was forced along a little faster and the bridle and warp carefully paid out, so as to allow the trawl to sink to the level of the sea. Immediately on touching the bottom, the fishing began, for the trawl heads ran on the ground, the ground rope stirred up the fish, and the creatures were captured in greater or lesser numbers and the nature of the locality.
It was while the smack was towing her gear that the crew would snatch some rest and be ready for the heavy work of hauling the trawl and cleaning, sorting, and packing the fish and getting it ready for conveyance to the carrier. Once the gear was shot, the skipper and his crew were in the hands of fortune. Not even the most experienced fishermen could tell, except occasionally, what the luck of the sea would bring him.
His net might be full to bursting, or the catch might be so meagre as not to be worth the trouble of sending to market. It might happen, too, that the net would foul a submerged wreck, or an old anchor, or, being on rough ground, might become entangled with stones or rocks and torn to tatters. Frequently a net would be hauled in a state of wreckage, and it was then necessary to set to work at once to repair the damage.
Some astonishing hauls have been made in the North Sea, not only of fish, but also of undesirable debris, to say nothing of those ghastly catches which are inevitable in such a calling as this - the bodies of fishermen. Sometimes a single body would be caught up, occasionally a couple would be recovered, and at least three were found in one trawl. This was in December 1887, when three men were lost out of the boat of the smack Spark.
The beam trawl, in the early days of trawling, was entirely man handled. Shooting the ponderous, clumsy apparatus was easy and simple, for it simply meant that the crew had to get the contrivance overboard without fouling the vessel, and then leave her comfortably to do her work of fishing.
But hauling the trawl was a vastly more difficult and laborious undertaking. The whole of the work had to be done by hand, and often the crew, working in the blackness of a winter night on the piercing Dogger, would toil incessantly for three hours before the cod end could be hoisted on deck and the fish released. Then, when even the powerful frames of North Sea smacksmen were exhausted by their labours, the men would have to set to work to clean, gut, and box fish which froze while it was being handled.
A great and welcome relief came when steam was introduced to work the capstan. Donkey boilers were installed in many of the smacks, especially the fine new craft which were built just before steam trawling became universal. Steam proved an enormous help and a welcome blessing, for it abolished the weary tramping hour after hour round a capstan and the incessant struggling with the handspike.
But, even with the help of steam, the working of the beam trawl was, and is excessively laborious, because there is still much manual labour involved in the management of the primitive apparatus. No one who has not actually shared in it can understand what that labour meant. The Aurania, in which I made my first trip to the Dogger, was one of the finest smacks ever built, and one of the most thoroughly well equipped in every way.
She was practically new, and was put into commission just before the almost incredible revolution of the North Sea fishing as an industry; yet, even with the help of steam and in good spring weather, the work of getting the trawl on board, in which I shared on several occasions, was a heavy and disheartening undertaking, especially when, as sometimes happened, the catch was so meagre as to be scarcely worth the trouble of ferrying to the carrier. The Aurania long since vanished from the unequal fight with steam, and for anything I know, she may still afloat as a little coaster or broken up for firewood.
The beam trawl was fitted to the earliest steamboats, the old paddle craft from the Tyne and the north east coast generally, which were the pioneers of steam trawling, and these old trawls were the link between the original gear and the skilful scientific apparatus which is now universally employed in deep sea fishing.
The first great change that was made in the method of trawling was the abolition of the beam. Today there is little difference between the net which is used and that which was originally employed, but there has been a vast alteration in the complete apparatus and the system of shooting, hauling, and trawling. The change has been so great that it is essential to go into some detail with regard to it.
Experience proved that the beam was unwieldy and unnecessary, and there came into being the ingenious contrivance which is known as the otter gear. It was not until 1894 that the new method superseded the old plan of fishing. Like all other improvements, the Otter was at first ridiculed and condemned; but the opposition died very quickly, for even the most conservative smacksman saw in it a welcome change from needless labour, a vast improvement in fishing, and a means of greater profit.
In place of the beam, two boards, about 4.5 feet square, were attached to the mouth of the net, where the trawl heads had been, and so arranged that on being dragged through the water they kept the mouth open in the same manner as the rigid beam and irons. An enormous advantage, too, was the lightness of the contrivance compared with the weight of the old apparatus, and the possibility of shooting and hauling in weather which would make the employment of the beam impossible.
With a lessening of weight and the further use of steam, the labour of handling the net has been very much reduced. Powerful steam winches have succeeded the hand and donkey capstans; yet even today the final work of getting the net on board is hard enough to satisfy even the most robust of toilers.
At the outset a modified form of the Otter apparatus was used, and I remember photographing one of the earliest types of "gallows" - a square invention which was unpleasantly suggestive of the real thing which is stealthily concealed in unassuming sheds in goals. Today the "gallows" consist of arched girders fitted to the trawler's side, and they form a prominent feature of her equipment.
At the outset many patents were secured for the Otter apparatus, and it was necessary to pay a fee of Â£25 yearly before it could be used; but, as improvements were put on the market and the demand for the modern appliance grew, the charge was abolished, and today the principle is employed, free, in all modern steamboats engaged in trawling.
The Otter trawl had been in use, and its value fully proved, many years before it became universal in steamboats. So long ago as the middle Sixties the beam had been superseded by two boards and a number of corks, the corks replacing the great spar, and the boards serving the purpose of the irons.
A number of amateur fishermen regularly used the otter apparatus because of its portability, for the boards were detachable and were easily stowed away in small craft. A beam was considered a very ugly thing on board a yacht, and the otter trawl was proved to be not only more compact, but also superior to the beam trawl for fishing. Amateurs were enthusiastic in praising the new invention, but in speaking of it even an experienced sea fisherman like Wilcocks, of Guernsey, said, "the regular beam trawl is too firmly established ever to be superseded amongst fishermen."
Appropriately enough, it was a correspondent in the eastern counties who gave Wilcocks details of the practical employment of one of the earliest of the otter trawls, which was procured through Lapthorne, a well known sailmaker of Gosport. "The use of the otter trawl is very simple," the writer stated. "
There is only one thing to be cautious about, which is that you must weight the foot rope exactly right, neither too heavy nor too light; if it is too heavy you get such a quantity of mud, weed, and stones that you require powerful tackle besides all hands to get the net on board, but you at the same time catch plenty of fish. If you do not weight it sufficiently your net does not drag the bottom nor open properly, so you catch no fish, as the cork head rope ad the leading foot rope come together.
I found my net, after altering the lead twice, go quite right, and catch double the quantity of fish that the professional trawlers here catch with the beam trawl. My head rope is 42 feet long, foot rope the same; at every half fathom of foot rope I wrap a piece of sheet lead round once and a half; when all is on, I serve the whole foot ropeover with one strand of an old Manilla hawser, which makes it very thick and prevents it cutting into the mud too much; I think if I did not it would pick up a fourpenny bit."
A primitive form of the otter trawl is recognised in many places on the east coast of Scotland as the most deadly of all forms of trout fishing.
A Scotchman who explained the method to me, with the warning that the practice of the plan involved hard labour, if discovered, said that the principal apparatus needful is half a barrel head. To the centre of this a weight is attached - lead, iron, or other metal - and to each end of the barrel head is fastened a line, the two lines forming a bridle.
A line, corresponding to a trawl warp, is attached to the bridle, and to this warp is fastened hooks bearing flies. My informant, who had often seen the device in operation by other people - under his own direction - spoke enthusiastically of the results. The system, he declared, succeeds when all other plans fail. He swore by it just as earnestly as he declared that all men who boast of triumphant trout fishing with flies do not speak truthfully; and that their success is due to the use of worms as bait.
On that point I am not competent to give an opinion. I merely quote what my companion said, and refer to this primitive engine as a curiosity. Its effects certainly seem to be as deadly as the operations of the otter trawl in a powerful modern steamboat.