Home What's On Projects Archive Resources Shop Contact Us

Causeway SalmonCauseway Salmon

An incredible creature.
An incredible prize.

Big, tasty, easy to catch (in the right place, at the right time). The salmon fishery was a key industry, a way of life and a public attraction for many centuries.

Now it is gone.


The salmon fishery of the Bann1 was a jackpot for the first explorers of Ireland; a foundation stone of Coleraine when a Medieval castle was built to ‘oversee the fishing’ and the King’s gift to the London Companies to persuade them to build a new town on the Bann. The salmon is a fish rich in mythology2, featuring in the stories of St Patrick and Finn MacCool.

Picture of Mountsandel

Mountsandel and the Cutts at the Salmon Leap by John Henry Campbell, 1815. Painting courtesy of Coleraine Museum

Mountsandel3, the oldest recorded human settlement in Ireland, situated beside the 'salmon leap' - a salmon fishery site from then until the end of the twentieth century.

Picture showing The Raven Map

Raven map of 1622 depicted the lands granted to the London Guilds. Crown copyright, courtesy of PRONI

At the time of the plantation King James offered the London companies the salmon fisheries of the Bann to persuade them to invest in the area.

Picture showing the mouth of the River Bush

Lissanduff and Bush foot strand. Courtesy of the centre for Maritime Archaeology, University of Ulster

An impressive Bronze Age structure lools over the mouth of the River Bush. It has been suggested that these enclosures were of some ritual significance connected with the arrival of the salmon.

The Prize

The fish were an asset to be squabbled over by earls and chieftains. Yet, Nature’s free bounty was a dangerous temptation for a common man. Federo O’Cahan’s head was sent to Dublin for being ‘a nuisance to the fishing’.

Picture of Dunluce

Dunluce Castle by Andrew Nichol. © Coleraine Museum

The MacDonnells of Dunluce were one of three clans competing for the lucrative Bann fishery.

Painting by Carey Thomson

The Salmon Leap and Cutts, painted by J.W.Carey. Courtesy of Coleraine Museum

While the MacDonnells retained the Antrim coastal fishery, The Honourable The Irish Society4, based at the Cutts, were given the lucrative fishing rights to the Bann in perpetuity.

Painting of Poachers by John Hamilton

Salmon poaching in the 19th Century. From The Illustrated London News

Poachers and bailiffs battled through the centuries. As late as the nineteenth century a bailiff was shot and killed.


The river nets produced the biggest catches, while all along the coast men, their brothers and sons worked nets in the Atlantic swells. Draft nets5, gill nets6 and the new technology of the bag net7, in the 1830s, worked from rocky promontories. For those without a station, it was the open sea. Drifting8 on the ocean with a thousand yards of net, in the night — the darker and stormier the better.

The summer grilse9 made the fishing worthwhile, made a living possible, balanced the dangerous winter long lining10.

Photograph at the Cranagh

The Cranagh nets photographed by Sam Henry. © The Craig Family

The draft net at the Cranagh and the traps at the Cutts were the most productive fisheries.

Photograph at The Berrins

Photographed at The Berrins, Portstewart, courtesy of Robert Anderson

Draft nets were also fished from rocky shores. Some, such as the Berrins, persisted into the 1960s.

Photograph at The Berrins

Photographed at The Berrins, Portstewart, in the 1970s by John Hamilton

In 1837 Samuel Lewis commented on the bag net: “Of late, great quantities of salmon have been taken along the whole coast, by means of a newly invented net”.

Photograph at Dunseverick

Photographed at Dunseverick, courtesy of the Gault Family

Drift nets were fished from Dronthiem11 on the open sea during the hours of darkness, and were laid out each day to dry.


For generations, locals and visitors alike sought the quay when the catch was coming in. The big silver fish. What a sight to see!

Photograph at Portballintrae

Photographed at Portballintrae, courtesy of the Bushmills Historical Society

The landing of the catch was a popular tourist attraction, though the crowds were not always so popular with the fishermen.

Photograph at Portballintrae

Photographed at Portballintrae, courtesy of the Bushmills Historical Society

Many locals would buy fish fresh from the nets, often as an annual treat for the week of the Twelfth of July.

Photograph at Dunseverick

Photographed at Dunseverick, courtesy of the Gault Family

Occasional rare catches like this huge basking shark12 at Dunseverick drew large crowds.


Now with declining stocks, the undeniable economic fact that anglers13 pay to catch one or nothing, competition from farmed fish, the licenses have been surrendered14 for cash. The nets were burned. This great industry is gone.

Photograph at Portbradden

Photographed at Portbradden in 2011 by John Hamilton

Redundant coble, gathering rubbish at Portbraddan. Cobles15 do not make fashionable pleasure boats.

Photograph at Portstewart

Winch at Portbraddan. Copyright - J Hamilton

Boat winches and net winches can be found at stations along the coast. Most are slowly rusting to the point of being beyond use.

Photgraph of an ice-house

Photographed at Portstewart Harbour in 2009 by John Hamilton

Portstewart Ice-house being demolished. Many ice-houses are in locations attractive to developers, despite listed status they are being torn down.

Slipways, harbours, net-greens and ice-houses are still there, but under increasing threat. The fishermen are still there, but growing fewer in number. The stories are still there.

Now may be the last chance to see the skeleton of this once thriving creature, the Causeway Salmon Fishery.

Commercial salmon fishing has virtually disappeared from Ireland and seems unlikely to return…

If we don't observe and record the salmon story now, it will be lost forever.

Find Out More

  • 1The River Bann

    Much of the Lower Bann is slow flowing and not suitable for salmon angling. Natural features at the Cutts, Carnroe, Movanagher and Portna formed natural waterfalls creating faster flows of oxygenated water which attract the fish. These locations have been significantly altered over the centuries, but their attraction to salmon and salmon anglers remains. Carnroe has been described as, ‘the best hundred yards of grilse fishing in Europe.’

    The Lower Bann is managed by Bann Systems on behalf of the Honourable The Irish Society.

  • 2Mythology

    The salmon is a fish which features strongly in the mythology of Ireland. Saint Patrick gave it its famed ability to leap and without it Finn MacCool would not have gained his great wisdom.

    St Patrick’s Trail

    The Giant’s Causeway

  • 3Mountsandel
  • 4The Honourable The Irish Society
  • 5How does a draft net work?

    Draft netting is a form of seine netting. The object is to encircle a number of fish with a sheet of net and then draw the end of the net to the shore. The circle is then drawn tighter and tighter until the fish are brought ashore.

    A typical draft net coble has a very shallow draft, to enable it to land or launch from the shore.

    The net is then paid out of the boat as the boat rows out to the full extent of the net. This is called ‘shooting’ the net. The net is held in place, in a semi circle, by the push of the tide.

    To close the net the ‘land rope’, which is attached to the far end of the net is used to winch the end ashore creating a circle. The circle is closed further as the two ends of the net are drawn on to the shore

    Photgraph of a draft net

    The Cranagh in the 1970s. Copyright J Hamilton.

    The middle of the net is the last part to come ashore. This is called the ‘bosom’ of the net. The net here is baggier than the rest of the net, trapping the fish and allowing them to be pulled ashore.

  • 7What is a bag net?

    Bag nets are an effective method of fishing from rocky shores. They were introduced in the nineteenth century.

    A bag net is an elaborate trap constructed from panels of net. It is held in place by a series of anchors.

    Sketch of a bag net

    © John Hamilton

    The ‘bag’ consists of three chambers. The entrance to each chamber becomes progressively smaller.

    Fish are guided into the ‘bag’ by the ‘leader’, which is a simple barrier of net stretching from the shore.

    Once inside the ‘bag’ fish will circle in the chambers trying to find a way ahead. It is against their instincts to turn and retrace their path.

  • 8How does a drift net work?

    Drift nets were fished on the open sea from Drondhiems. The net were 1,000 yards long. They were shot in a long line, hanging like a curtain, hopefully across the path of the incoming fish.

    Hopefully, the fish, in their relentless push towards the river, push their heads through a mesh in the net. If they try to withdraw the twine of the net will catch in their gill slits (hence the term gill net) and leave the fish snared.

    The nets were traditionally made of tarred cotton and were all too easy for the fish to see and avoid. This forced the fishermen to work their drift nets during the hours of darkness. The stormier the sea, the more turbulent the water, the less easy the net was to sea and, hence, the better fishing.

    Photograph of a drift net

    Drift Nets drying at Dunseverick. Courtesy of the Gault family.

    The nets drying across two long poles were a familiar sight at each of the Harbours. Tourists watched the fishermen loading the nets into the boat each evening. Not so many were around to see them return at five o'clock in the morning.

  • 9What is a grilse?

    Most of the fish caught in the North Coast Salmon Fishery are not salmon! To any one in the industry they would simply be known as “Fish!” Other species had names. It would be perfectly reasonable to say, “I caught five trout, but not a single Fish.”

    Members of the species Salmo salar have a succession of names reflecting what point they are in their complicated life style. They hatch as yolk fry, become alevins, then parr. They remain a parr in fresh water for anything between one and five years. They undergo a series of physiological changes to prepare for life at sea and smolts.

    Photograph of grilse

    A catch of grilse and a salmon from the River Roe. Courtesy of Conly George.

    Their journey to sea takes them to rich feeding their growth rate is phenomenal. If they return having spent one winter at sea they are called a grilse. The vast majority of fish caught on the Causeway Coast are grilse.

    Fish which stay at sea for two, three, four, even five years before returning finally earn the name salmon.

  • 10What is a long lining?

    Long lining was a method of catching species like cod and haddock. Long lines with a thousand hooks or more were baited with baits such as ‘buckies’ (whelks) and lowered to the sea bed.

    This fishery was carried out in the winter months by the same dronthiem fishermen who were engaged in the more lucrative drift netting for grilse in the summer months.

    Photographed at Dunseverick

    Cod at Dunseverick. Courtesy of the Gault family.

  • 11What is a Dronthiem?

    The traditional open sea fishing boat of the North Coast was the Dronthiem. This was developed from the Norway Yawl and definitely has a bit of Viking in its ancestry.

    It was doubled ended (pointy at both ends) and clinker built (made from overlapping wooden planks). Larger versions were powered by one or two sails. Smaller ones relied on oars.

    Photograph of a dronthiem

    Postcard of Portstewart Harbour. Courtesy of Coleraine Museum.

    In the mid twentieth century most dronthiems were equipped with in-board diesel engines. From the end of the sixties, they were gradually replaced with vessels in more modern materials.

  • 12What other fish were caught?

    The huge, though harmless, basking shark was a rare, accidental catch, unwelcome because it destroyed the net. The salmon nets also caught valuable sea trout and worthless mullet.

    In addition to winter long lining, the Causeway coast fishermen were also engaged in using creels to catch crab and lobster and inshore trawling for species like plaice.

    Photographed at Dunseverick

    Lobster creels at Dunseverick. Courtesy of the Gault family.

  • 13What is Angling?

    Catching salmon with rod and line has a long history and a rich heritage. It was a part of country life, providing a valuable treat for the table, while the best of it was preserved as a gentleman’s sport.

    Salmon angling continues to be a very popular enterprise, with visiting anglers spending considerable sums on accommodation, tackle and local guides. Declining numbers of fish have seen the growing spread of ‘catch and release’, whereby all the fish caught are returned alive to the water. Thus the angler has his sport, and pays for it, without affecting the number of fish available for spawning.

    Photograph at Clough River

    Tom Bellas and Jock Smylie on the Clough River by Sam Henry. Copyright the Craig Family.

  • 14Why did the fishery close?

    Salmon runs have always fluctuated wildly. The sixties and seventies saw some excellent years. Towards the end of the century there was a general perception that stocks were declining.

    Salmon angling has long been popular. A very strong argument was made that angling had a hugely greater economic benefit than netting; a visiting angler spends money on rentals, accommodation, guides and tackle. He pays whether or not he catches anything. Anglers increasingly carry out ‘catch and release’, which means they return their catch alive, creating maximum economic benefit for minimum impact on the fish stock.

    Photographed at River Bush

    Photo courtesy of Bushmills Historical Society.

    Dan Cochrane with a River Bush17 fish.

    In the 1990s The North Atlantic Salmon Fund, founded by Icelander, Orri Vigfusson, raised money to pay salmon fishermen to hand over their licences. Many Causeway Coast fisheries closed. Other fisheries such as the Foyle nets were closed for a fixed period as recently as 2010.

    The market for wild salmon was replaced by salmon from farms, which made the product cheaper and cheaper, making netting non-viable.

  • 15What is a coble?

    Cobles (pronounced like nobles not nobbles) were the vessels for fishing shore based nets.

    A typical draft net coble has a very shallow draft, to enable it to land or launch from the shore. A key feature of the coble is the net platform. This allows the full net to be loaded and shot from the boat.

    Photgraph of a coble

    Cranagh coble. Copyright- J Hamilton.

    A bag net requires a more sea worthy coble, with a broader beam to allow working the net in Atlantic swells.

    Photgraph of a coble

    Plan of Carrick-a-Rede coble. Courtesy of the Causeway Maritime Heritage Trust.

  • 16The River Bush

    The Bush has an excellent reputation as a salmon river, though the greatest majority of fish are caught in the lower reaches.

    The River Bush is under a unique management system under the auspices of the Department of Culture and Leisure Northern Ireland.

  • 17The River Roe

    The River Roe is managed the Roe Anglers. Day tickets can be obtained. A disabled anglers facility is available in the Roe Valley Country Park.

What's your story?

We're adding to the archive continually, and we'd love to hear from you.

Get in touch

Other Stories

  • European Regional Development Fund
  • Northern Ireland Tourist Board
  • Causeway Museum Service
  • Belfast City Council
  • Coleraine Borough Council
  • Limavady
  • Ballymoney Borough Council
  • Moyle District Council