Eel weirs were sited on rivers to catch migrating eels swimming downstream. They traditionally consisted of a series of woven sections of willow branches in the shape of a ‘V’ that are fixed to stakes driven into the bed of the river. As the eels passed they are forced to swim into the ‘Vees’ and become caught in the coghill nets behind. Weirs extend from the bank at right angles to the river but to ensure that not all eels get caught a gap, 1/10th of the river’s breadth is left open at its deepest part. This is known as the Queen’s Gap and was passed in Acts of 1842 and 1863. It is not known exactly how long weirs have been in use on the Lower Bann but their practice in the British Isles and Europe goes back to medieval times at least. A row of wooden stakes was excavated near Newferry on the Lower Bann dates to 1000BC whilst recent excavations on the River Liffey in Dublin revealed rows of stakes with associated woven baskets similar to modern weirs and but dating to the Mesolithic. It is a tantalising possibility that use of weirs on the River Bann is a tradition dating back some 9,000years. Two weirs still exist to this day at Toome and at the Cutts on the Lower Bann.
The traditional method for catching fish differed depending on the type of fish caught. Draft nets are the most common, used to catch eels, pollan, trout, perch and previously salmon. The draft net is between 80and 90m in length and has a bag or ‘bunt’ at the end were the fish are caught. The trammel net (which was originally made from linen but now from nylon) is an anchored hang net c. 2m deep and 40m long used to catch trout if floated on top of the water or perch if sunk to the bottom. The trawl or Dutch net was introduced in the 1960’s from the Netherlands but banned in 1971 as it was found to be too efficient and caught everything including fry, small eels and other men’s nets. Also as the net trawled or dragged the bottom of the Lough, it destroyed the feeding ground of many fish. Another type of net that was banned was the Fyke net, again introduced from the Netherlands. This net consisted of a long narrow curtain leader attached to two long tapering nets into which the eels would swim and become caught. It was introduced in the 1972 but banned in 1976 because of misuse.
Line fishing for eels and more recently for trout is a labour intensive form of fishing but still common on the Lough today and tradition has it that it was practiced by the monks at Ardboe. The lines are up to 2.25km in length and contain between 1000 and 2000 hooks each of which needs baiting. The bait includes live worms, small perch and pollan and pieces of fish known as ‘plugs’.