Catching prawns is rather innocuous when you explain to someone that it is something you love doing and when you compare it to other hobbies it surely is pretty insipid.
Kit Cardew had a series of nets made when he first bought the hut at Saunton; I remember there were small ones and large ones all with the same familiar shape; a point at the end then opening up into a 2 dimensional pear shape, a strong metal rim and a thick hardwood handle about 5 feet long. The net bag was about 18 inches deep made of natural fibre and net holes about the size of a pea.
These nets were made for one purpose to catch prawns in a particular type of rock pool, a pool with a ledge along one side of it such that the pointy end of the net could sit nicely into the back of the ledge as it was moved from one end of the ledge to the other in a smooth motion so that any prawns under the ledge would drift into the net bag without taking fright.
You will catch prawns using any net and in most rock pools on any low tide that uncovers a rockpool. However, there are several distinctions between catching a prawn in a pool that is uncovered on every tide and catching one in a pool that is uncovered only half a dozen times a year.
The prawns that you catch in the pool that is uncovered on every low tide is small and although translucent is yellowy brown in colour and you can catch many if you spend time doing it. I haven’t spent a great deal of time fishing for these prawns, but I suspect that they are small because they are young and live there for the protection that it offers. If I emptied a pool of its prawns I would not expect it to be replenished for some time. The prawns you catch in the pools that are uncovered only a few times a year can be much bigger and tend to be atlantic blue in colour, but colour can vary. These larger prawns are only around the rocks in the warm summer months, in colder times they move to deeper water, but not that far away.
Fishermen with lobster pots also have prawns pots and they catch prawns all year round in deeper water. In June and July many prawns are carrying eggs and I think this is one main reason why they come into shallower water. They also come into shallower water because it is abundant with food.
Lobsters also come into shallower water for more protection as they shed their external shell. I would say that about half of the lobsters caught have a soft shell and these are not worth taking for the pot as they have no meat in them.
Prawns are scavengers eating anything dead which means that they will hang around other sea creatures that do the same or that kill and eat other creatures, so you will find more prawns in pools that also have a larger predator e.g. crabs, lobster, conger eel.
In the higher pools the predators tend to be small shore crabs, in the lower pools the predators can be the ones mentioned. With the tide out the predator is not always present, but invariably they are there somewhere as well as the prawns. So an added bonus of catching prawns in pools that are only uncovered at very low tides is that you might also come across one or more of these predators.
At Saunton the low tide pools tend to have ledges that lend themselves to being fished with the type of net described above. It takes time to adapt to using the net and the full reason for its shape and finding the back of the ledge is often not as easy as it might sound. Over time you become very familiar with pools to the extent that you name them for future reference and to explain to others when talking about your experiences and when you catch something of interest. There are pools that will yield more when using a two net approach, or indeed a small net. With further experience this becomes more apparent.
When I was in my early teens I started prawning on my own and found that some tides were much better than others. I had undoubtedly been told that not every tide was worth fishing, but there’s nothing like finding out for yourself by doing it. Most low tides didn’t uncover many pools that yielded any larger prawns, there were plenty of smaller ones, but I preferred to be catching large ones. Why was it that the pools that I wanted to fish didn’t get uncovered? The tidetable when studied closely showed that there were a few days each month when the tide was very low compared to the rest of the low tides in that month. Looking closely these low tides occurred a day or two after either a full moon or a new moon and I also noticed that over the year some of these lowest tides in one month were even lower in another month. Later I learnt that these very low tides each month were called Spring tides (nothing to do with the season of Spring). It became clear that there was a cycle that followed the moon’s phase and that when there was a half-moon the tide seemed to hardly go out at all, well of course it did go out quite a way but nothing like as far as a Spring tide.
So I had found the secret of the very low tides. But so what, surely 20-30cm doesn’t make such a big difference to which pools get uncovered so why worry about looking out for that very low tide, I could fish the low tides a few days either side of the low tide and then I thought that if the tide goes out that much further I would have more time to fish those ‘rare’ pools, why worry about the exact time the tide is low?
I soon found that within a week of a very low tide the moon phase was half again and the low tide was poor, called a neap tide, so I really had to pick the very low day and fish one day before at the earliest. And of course on a Spring tide the tide may go out much further, but it still takes the same time to come back in again as it does on a neap tide, so my timing has to be pretty tight and better to go early to make sure that I catch the full low tide right at the place where those pools are uncovered, because once it starts to come back in again it moves that much quicker on a Spring than a neap, so I don’t want to miss the opportunity to fish the pools and I also don’t want to get caught out by the incoming tide.
I also realised over a short time that as Saunton beach has such a shallow gradient the difference in 20-30cm in the level of the tide can be as much as 40-50m that tide goes out further, so when you see an extra 20-30cm on the Spring tide this makes a really big difference to the potential quality of the prawn fishing. You look very closely to see if a tide might be slightly lower than usual as this can uncover pools not seen in many years.
It is interesting to go fishing with people who don’t know this intricate detail and they don’t quite believe it when I say I will be going at 12.22 precisely, no hanging around, I leave at 12.21!. Walk quickly, then clamber over jagged rocks to get to the good pools. It is also worth noting that at Saunton on a really low tide the rock clambering is easier as the tide is out further and there are flatter rocks just past the water line.
The aim at Saunton is to reach a place called the island about half an hour or so before ‘bottom’ tide to maximise fishing time at these pools and with experience you get to judge exactly when the tide turns. A few minutes of dead calm as if the sea had died, and then the sound of the tide starting to come in again tells you it has turned. These very big Spring tides occur only a few times a year and these pools are only uncovered for 30-40 minutes at most, so the occupants of the pool don’t usually have anything to worry about something predating them from above, so they don’t need to move out of the pool as much as they might a pool higher up.
Conger eels can be seen out of the water on these tides tucked up under an exposed ledge in these low pools and it is very interesting to see that they can survive out of water for over an hour. My experience of theses eels is that they will leave you alone if you leave them alone. You really have to hassle them a great deal before they make a move out of their ‘dry’ lair. Although there are stories of congers snapping at passing fishermen.
Over the years of fishing at Saunton you get very used to the terrain and notice when pools change over time filling with silt so that the ledge isn’t so deep anymore, you find out where the predators hide and how they hide and how to entice them out of hiding. You encounter wonderful creatures and fish that are trapped for a short time in the pools e.g. jellyfish, cuttlefish, octopus, shoals of small pollack, conger, lobster, spider, velvet and edible crab and there is a pool with a resident flatfish that you see hovering close to the rock surface and every now and again it gets itself caught, but I can never bring myself to take it home to eat…it’s a bit small, but chunky.
As time goes on you get to know the tide, the terrain, in quite minute detail to the point that you can put every effort onto fishing the elusive pool for the elusive net full of six inchers or the massive lobster; your subconscious watches out for your footing, keeps an eye on the tide and when eventually the tide decides that it’s time to go you can walk along the cliff top picking mushrooms taking in the view and then eat a large chunk of chocolate to regain the energy expended that 10 times the amount of prawns that you just caught would not replenish.
I have got to know the coastline near Porthcawl and some parts of the Gower very well, but it takes 4-5 years fishing each place to get to know it well enough to be effective. I went to Worms Head on the Gower once as it has a mass of rocks exposed at low tide. The pools were all deep and I caught nothing, but I spent 10 minutes watching a little man with a sack on his back as he worked his way up and down the pools catching lobsters with only a small hook. He would put the lobster in the sack and go to the next spot that he clearly knew very well. The years of experience of the hunter gatherer…and maybe that’s why this little fisherman didn’t know when to give up even though the sack was clearly getting uncomfortably heavy.
And so if the low tides don’t seem as low as you expected over the course of a few years to the point where the fishing isn’t at a premium you think ah well maybe next year, and then again maybe the year after that, but then why? Why do they seem to be getting worse very gradually, yes the moon is of course getting further from the earth, but is that really the reason?
I started to have a closer look at the tides and found that the moon is responsible for 68.5% of the movement of the tide, the sun for most of the rest. The Bristol Channel because of the shape of the Severn estuary has the second or third largest tidal range in the world. The moon’s cycle isn’t flat as it goes around the earth it varies very slightly with each cycle and the cycle of the variation is 9 years. What this means is that it’s effect on the tide also varies over this 9 year period. The earth’s cycle around the sun also varies which affects the tidal range a little bit over a period of 18.6 years. This means that we get very good tides every 9 and 18.6 years, but also every 4.5 years as well because of the new/full moon effect.
BUT there is a gradual degradation in the tidal range of the past 80 years or so such that when Kit Cardew was prawning were the tides 70 or 80cm better than they are today? (I looked closely at the tide tables over the past 15 years and found that on average the tides are getting worse by 1-2cm a year.) Is that why he could talk about the inner and outer gulleys as being great places to fish when today the outer gulley is always too full of water? If this is true what is the cause? Dredging in the channel, the moon moving away from the earth? Who else would care other than the mad prawn fisherman….
Prawning at this extreme can be a metaphor for life. Gladwell talks about becoming an expert in what you do after about 3000 hours of doing a particular thing. Of course we are all different as one person will spend more time on improving what they do than someone else based on what more they want to achieve and improve upon. The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi talks about being in ‘flow’ when we do something we are very familiar with and this reminds me of how I get used to the rocks and the movement of the tide as if by second nature. Pink talks about mastery being an asymptote, something we strive to achieve but never quite reach e.g. the golfer who strives to improve.
How many things have I spent over 3000 hours doing?
Fishing for trout, sea fish and prawns (35 years at about 10 hours a year), photography, designing circuits, managing and leading teams, growing edible plants…sleeping, dreaming, talking, thinking, teaching, eating, cooking, listening to music, driving, playing rugby and cricket, watching rugby, reading various subjects; anthropology, psychology, engineering, sociology, technology…and a few more I am sure.
How many things do I feel I am in a state of ‘flow’; watching rugby, fishing for trout and sea fish, growing vegetables, taking photographs, (cricket, rugby), eating, reading, managing, electronics. These are things that I naturally want to improve what I know, do and achieve within myself.
Beekeeping isn’t there yet!
Prawning is one of those things that I can only do when the timing is right, so I have plenty of time to reflect on the last time before the next and plan in my mind anything I might do differently…other example are not so precise, although gardening and beekeeping are restricted by season.