Maldon & the River Blackwater
published by Edward Arthur Fitch between 1894 & 1899 (several versions)
E.A. Fitch (1854-1912), was elected Mayor of Maldon six times in the late 1800s. He was a farmer, ornithologist, historian, antiquarian, author and president of the Essex Field Club. He also had 13 children.
Extracts that refer to fishing in the Blackwater Estuary...
Death creek is opposite to Stansgate and is a good fishing station. Spruling or hand-line fishing is the method most in vogue, using the common log or lugworm for bait; this fine fellow lives in the sandy mud along the shore, but is not easily dug by the amateur, although in many spots it is abundant; their local price is generally half-a-crown per quart. The best time for fishing is autumn and spring, but it is only for about two hours before and after low tide that it is possible to hold ground, the tide running too strong before and after by spruling sufficient fish can often be caught, a party of four has caught as many as 400 good fish in about two hours. These are mostly dabs, plaice, whiting, codling, and the large-mouthed voracious little Father-lasher, locally called Bull-Rout, which often gives good sport but is otherwise very little use. Occasionally a Weaver, with its poisonous fin, or a Red Gurnard may be caught.
A more successful method of fishing is by hoop-netting, baiting with the small shore crab, but this is not permitted upon the ground of the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Fishery Co., which is well marked by the large beacons on each shor. the upper edge of the oyster ground is a very good spot for sport. Dabs, plaice and similar flatfish are known as “market fish”, scantlings and hoppers according to size, the latter being the smallest ; soles as soles, slips and tongues.
Spruling for codling and whiting is best by night, especially in September and October, and when lying quietly at anchor, possibly waiting for the tide to get slack enough to fish, we are sure to notice the tide leaving the mud, and then the drain heads, as they are called locally, make a noise like the tail of a mill when the wheel is in motion, or like the hum of a distant railway train. This is always especially noticeable just at dusk.
The variety of sport to be derived from sea-fishing is great, and its votaries will not need them to be particularised, while the amateur can learn best by following the instructions of their fellow sportsmen. Basse are frequently caught up to 10 Ibs. in weight, Mr. John Basham senior, caught one weighing 16 Ibs., and Wm. Handley caught a 19 Ib. one in Upper Blacklow creek, Bradwell, in about 1860. Grey Mullet are almost as big, but they are very agile and wary, jumping like hares over a peter-net when shooting the creeks.
Garfish are taken in plenty in early summer; they swim on the top of the water, and when present are sure to be seen in the sun jumping out and playing on the surface. When cooked, these little known long-nosed fish much resemble mackerel, but they are sweeter. A foolish prejudice exists against them because their bones are grass-green. It seems almost impossible to hook the wily and soft-mouthed Mullet, but Basse, Garfish, and other summer species may be taken by drift lines.
Eels, which are abundant, but not so large as they used to be, are taken in quantities, but generally by the professional by babbing. This is practised from a punt in shallow water, by threading a bunch of logworms on worsted and sinking this to the bottom on a short line with a six to eight-foot rod. Anchor or moor the punt so that it does not sheer about with the tide, a bite is quickly felt as the eels tug very strongly, but to catch them all requires practice. Flounders are often caught with the eels.
Eel shearing or spearing on the mud, either when walking on splotches (flat boards tied on to the soles of your boots), or from a punt or boat, is seldom profitable to the amateur. Eel trawling with a very fine-meshed net, a most destructive operation, was first discovered by John Heard, of Tollesbury, when trawling for prawns on Mersea shore. To catch the eels it is necessary to have a tunnel in the trawl to prevent them coming back and escaping; they travel backwards.
The various kinds of net fishing are too numerous to mention, but there are several of the Maldon fishermen who can be prevailed upon for a consideration to take a passenger or two for a day's trawling - if he be not too particular as to the luxury of his accommodation.
The known fish fauna of the Blackwater is a rich one, and the occurrence of almost any British species in this fine estuary is possible. Salmon and Salmon Trout are frequently taken. Mr. R H Eve has a Speckled Trout that weighed 7 Ibs., which was caught near Beeleigh Mill, and smaller ones have been taken on several occasions. Large Skates and Rays frequently occur, and a Sturgeon, varying greatly in size, is taken almost every year.
Coming to this "Royal Fish" reminds us to mention the whales, dolphins, porpoises, and other mammals that are recorded from this river, and of late years it has almost continuously been inhabited by one or more seals, that are frequently seen but fortunately not destroyed, although I cannot say this has not been attempted. We must not say more about the fishing, further than to remind our readers of how famous are the Essex rivers for their highly prized and now high priced native oysters. The Blackwater and Colne are noted breeding grounds, but their product is mostly in private hands until we get below Mersea, and the visitor is likely to have little further to do with them than to see the large fleet of Tollesbury, Mersea, and Brightlingsea boats at work on the common ground, or sailing hither or thither at tide times.
Oyster culture is an old and still famous industry. The elder Pliny tells us that it was Sergius Orata, who "first conceived the idea of planting oysters in beds" on the Lucrine Lake, on the shore of which he built a palace, so as to be able to consume his favourite bivalves with convivial friends at all times and seasons. Some of these oysters, we are not told how, were brought from England's shores.