Spear Fishing for Flatfish in Morfa Nefyn Bay
(Dal Lledod efo Tryfar yn Bae Morfa Nefyn)

June 1956

“Dyma fo – dal ddwr, dal ddwr, dal ddwr” (Here it is – hold water, hold water, hold water), said my father standing in the bow of the boat. I immediately held water with the oars, and gave them a light pull to get the boat to go slightly backwards. My father raised the pole from its horizontal position across the bow, and gently lowered the spear end into the water on the right side of the boat. And then slowly, without causing too much disturbance, he brought the pole to an upright vertical position right over the bow. “Mae wedi claddu – tyrbwd” (It’s buried – a turbot), he said. The tension in the boat immediately sky-rocketed, and the adrenalin started flowing, as we waited the few minutes for the boat to drift back and the ripples to clear. When they did, “Dyna fo – i’r chwith dipyn bach – gad o i mi rwan” (There it is - slightly left – leave it to me now), he added, as I pushed lightly on the right oar. I strained to try and see the fish from my standing position in the middle of the boat, but to no avail. I was too short. My father was stabilizing himself now with his legs bent at the knees and against the sides of the boat. The spear pole was resting on his shoulder and clasped with both hands. I could tell from his stance that he was touching the bottom and that the boat was moving in the correct direction. Then came the concentration, the slight lift of the forearms, the long pause, and the final downward jerk. “Na fo” (Got it), he said as he proceeded to lift the pole straight up a couple of feet. Then holding it more firmly now, because of the added weight, he angled the pole to begin raising the spear back to the surface. I could see the fish clearly now. It was indeed a nice turbot. It arched its body wildly at the end of the spear, and its extra weight was slightly bending the pole as it came out of the water. My father manipulated the other end of the pole way out so as to bring the turbot inboard for me to grab. It was a really nice flatfish. It was pierced in the right spot just behind the gills. I held it by the head and tail as I carefully eased it off the barbed spear, and dropped it on to the bottom-boards. “Fy swpar i ydi hwna” (That’s my supper), he said jokingly. “Chdi rwan i ddal un i Mam” (Your turn now to catch one for Mam), he added.

We were spear fishing for flatfish around the corner from Nefyn Point in the first little cove in Morfa Nefyn Bay. Spear fishing sounds like something you would do in the Caribbean or off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, but on rare occasions, a couple of times a year, we could do it even in the Irish Sea - albeit from a boat. The sea had to be dead calm with no ripples at all on the surface of the water. The best time of year for that was in May or June when the Bermuda Highs would sweep across the Atlantic, and provide calm stable weather around the Welsh coasts. The coastal waters around Nefyn have a nice sandy bottom and the stable weather allowed the sand to quickly settle after being churned by the early spring storms. The water then became crystal clear, and you could easily see the bottom to a depth of around fifteen feet. But to spear the fish, it had to be very calm. Even the slightest breeze would ripple the water surface and completely obscure the vision of the sea bottom.

Dad Fishing

The coves in Morfa Nefyn Bay where we did the spear fishing in June 1956. Photo was taken in June 2006 when the tide was in.

(Click photo to enlarge)

That day, in late June 1956, was one of those rare days. It was sunny and warm with hardly a cloud in the sky. After arriving home by bus from the Grammar School in Pwllheli, I had quickly finished my homework, and sprinted from home in Glan-y-Pwll along Ty’n Pwll Lane, across the field, and down the cliff path to the beach. My parents and my younger brother Terry were already there sitting on deck chairs outside the beach shed. It was around 5:00 o’clock in the afternoon and the tide was going out just around the tip of the creigiau bach breakwater. The water was like glass. The scenery towards the Rival Mountains and Bird Rock was fantastic. The sea was like a reflective mirror providing an additional inverted view of the same scene, just like a lake in the Canadian Rockies. It was a spectacular summer day. After we had eaten the sandwiches that Mam had prepared for tea, my Dad said “Tyd awn ni am ledod efo’r dryfar rownd y trwyn i’r Wig” (Come on, let’s go for flatfish with the spear around the point to the Wig). Wig is what we called in Welsh those little coves around the Point. I did not need any further encouragement. I put on my sea boots and lifted down ‘the tryfar’ the spear pole that my father kept just below the rafters in our beach shed. It was a very long spear, and it was made specifically for harpooning flatfish on the sea bottom. My father had bought it in the late 1930’s from an old time Nefyn fisherman called Bono who had no further use for it. The spear was in the form of a sixteen feet long, two-inch diameter wooden pole with a two feet long, half-inch diameter iron rod sticking out of its end. On the tip of the iron rod was a two-inch long spear tip with displaced barbs on either side. The spear was old, and extremely well constructed with the iron rod rigidly embedded into the end of the pole. I carefully maneuvered the spear pole out of the shed, planted a lump of cork over the tip of the spear as a safety precaution against someone walking into it, and proceeded down to the water’s edge where my father already had the old M155 rowing boat ready to go.

We lodged the pole end under the stern seat with the spear hanging way out over the bow of the boat, and jumped in. We rowed quickly out towards the Point. By this time the tide was nearly at full ebb. These were the very large spring tides that occur in June, and the water was very shallow over the rocks as we rowed around the headland. Large schools of sand eels of various sizes were clearly visible everywhere in the water, and they quickly scattered as the boat passed by. There was an occasional jellyfish near the surface, and pollocks were also visible darting in and out of the seaweed-covered rocks near the sea bottom. Pollocks are very good to eat. We used to catch them around that area on a fishing line with feathered hooks or a spinner. The pollocks were too fast to spear from a boat. We passed over one of my father’s lobster pots placed right in the center of a small sandy opening in the middle of the rocks. He had checked that pot, along with about sixty others, with his motorboat earlier in the day. We paused for a minute over the pot for a quick look, and we could clearly see that there was no lobster or crab inside it. We reached the edge of the first cove in Morfa Nefyn Bay just as the tide was beginning to turn. This was the best time to catch flatfish. On the turn of the tide, they come racing inshore to feed in the shallows, and the sand banks in these coves were very rich in lugworms, shrimp, and sand eels. The shoals of small sand eels, which we saw earlier, bury themselves in the surface of these sand banks at night. People used to fish for sand eels to eat as well. They were called ‘llymriad’ in Welsh. They could be caught by the bucketful at dawn just by turning over the surface of the sand with a shovel at the waters edge at low tide. Since they were small, my grandmother in the Fron used to fry them whole, and they were very good to eat. No one gets up early in the morning to catch sand eels in Nefyn nowadays.

The flatfish we were after that day were flounder, large dab, plaice, turbot, or sole. These fish, as their generic name implies, have bodies that are flat. They are round or oval in shape with their mouth, eyes, and gills all on the upper side of their bodies. This side is also gray brown in color to provide camouflage against the sand. The lower side is much lighter in color. They have wide fins along the edges of their bodies. They undulate these fins to provide for movement along the sea bottom, and they can move at very high speed. When feeding, they also often use these fins to bury themselves just under the surface of the sand so as to surprise their prey. When buried, they are less reluctant to move, but they are extremely difficult to spot. The only visible parts of their body are the two eyes, and the very outermost edges of their fins. You need very clear water, and absolutely no vision impediments such as a ripple on the surface to see them at a depth of twelve feet. But you do get better at spotting them with experience. The two small eyes rising out of the sand was always the giveaway. And just about an inch behind the eyes near the gills was the key point to target with the spear.

The spear fishing was done from a rowing boat with one person on the spear in the bow, and a second rowing in the center. Both persons would be standing up. The person with the spear would be scanning the sea bottom for flatfish to the front and sides of the boat. The rower would also be facing the front, and would be getting both verbal and visual instructions from the person in front. The rower would ensure the boat is moving sufficiently slow to allow for a quick back up or change in direction, but also sufficiently fast to cover as much area as possible. The window of opportunity for spear fishing was limited to about two hours after the turn of the tide. Beyond that, the water got too deep in the fishing area. The preference was to row the boat into the sun to avoid casting a shadow to perturb the fish, but always at a slight angle to the sun to avoid glare. The three boys in our family had the flatfish spearing techniques pretty well perfected as they grew up.

Now, with that invite to catch one for Mam, it was my turn at the bow of the M155. I scrambled up front to take over the spear while my father took up the oars. We moved quickly away from the spot where the turbot was caught. Standing in the bow, the view of the sea bottom on such a day was always breathtaking. It wasn’t a view you would see from a boat under any normal circumstances. It was a completely different panorama. As the boat moved around, the contour of the sand on the bottom changed depending on our position in the cove. In deep water the sand had a long undulating standing-wave pattern, while closer in-shore the undulations in the pattern became much shorter. A function I assumed of the tide, the waves and the backwash on the surface. Near the rocks the sand was somewhat coarser, and this was always a more favorable area for the flounder and turbot. The plaice and sole preferred the open areas away from the rocks and especially on top of the banks where the sand was finer and easier to bury in. Then I spotted one, a small plaice with red spots. It was on the surface of the sand and moving slowly towards the boat. I was getting excited. My father held the boat steady as I brought the spear around, but as soon as I touched bottom, the plaice took off like a rocket. I was disappointed right away, but as my Dad said in consolation, the one on the surface moving is almost impossible to spear. He said that, even though he used to be able to spear a flatfish on the surface successfully nearly every time.

We kept moving on. This end of Morfa Nefyn Bay was always deserted. There was no beach activity here at all, even in the peak of the summer. It was not an attractive place for beachgoers since above the high water mark the beach was covered with large pebbles and stones. But it was an ideal place to fish. This is where we used the draw-net for fish in the late summer, and board-fish in the spring. My older brother Mike had perfected a wooden float board so you could walk along the beach with a baited fishing line looped through this board and have the board navigate out to sea as you walked along. Then when the board was sufficiently far out, he would have the fishing line drop to the bottom. It was what we called “morio o’r lan” (ground fishing from shore). The board took the fishing line way farther out than we could possibly cast it, and to a depth where the fishing was much better.

The clarity of the water around Nefyn Point. The photo was taken in June 2006.

(Click photo to enlarge)

We were approaching the westward end of the cove. And just before we hit the first seaweed-covered outcrop of rocks on the bank, I spotted one buried. A big plaice with large red spots, and the spots were visible even through the sand on its back. And then, unbelievably, I spotted another one, also buried about twelve feet away on the seaward side of the first. “Dwy ledan spotiau coch” (Two plaice), I shouted. My father brought the boat to an immediate standstill. And peering over my shoulder, he calmly said “Cael yr un i’r chwith gynta, codi’r dryfar yn syth ac i’r chwith, a cael llall wedyn” (Get the one on the left first, lift the spear up right away and to the left, and get the other after), he said. I was trying to remain cool, calm, and collected, but I really wasn’t. I lifted the pole up and lowered the spear gently into the water, and touched the tip on the bottom about six feet away from the first plaice. I then lifted the spear tip up about eight inches off the bottom. Having seen where the first fish was located, my father was now lining up the boat nicely and moving it forward at just the right speed. I could hear my heart thumping loudly as focused on the tip of the spear and watched as the plaice came into my field of view. The spear tip moved slowly over its tail and up its body. And then I drove the pole down. Got it !! I could feel the stress and strain in the pole. I immediately lifted the speared fish off the bottom to avoid a sandy commotion from disturbing the other plaice. I also, as instructed, moved the spear and fish to the left away from the other one. I strained to lift it to the surface carefully keeping the end of the pole out of the water. I swung the spear inboard for my father to pull the fish off. And as soon as he did, I swung the spear back into the water and to a vertical position, while my Dad turned the boat seaward and pulled it back a few feet at the same time. “Uffar o ledan dda – cael llall rwan” (Hell of a nice flatfish – get the other one now), he said as we both waited for the surface disturbance to clear. The second one was there, undisturbed, still buried, and even bigger in size than the first. Thump, thump, thump went my heartbeat. I had to be careful now because we were approaching this plaice head-on. I touched bottom and lifted the spear higher than normal. Steady now, cool head, and take it easy. The spear tip was now slowly moving over its head - hold it, hold it, and then I drove down. Perhaps I drove down a little late, but the fish was solidly on the spear no doubt about it. The pole twanged somewhat from the fish’s wild gyrations as I lifted it to the surface. “Dyna chdi – dwy are unwaith, pwy’sa yn cyweilio” (There you are – two at a time, who would believe it), he said. I brought it inboard for removal, and when it dropped on the bottom boards, it was indeed much larger than the first. It was speared in the lower back, and although that was not the best position, we couldn’t complain. As a fourteen year old, having speared two large plaice, I was ecstatic and thrilled out of my mind. “Mam sy’n cael yr un ora’ i swpar” (Mam is getting the best one for supper), I joked back.

We headed home for Nefyn Bay shortly after. We had three very nice flatfish, and it was pointless to spear anymore. We had a great fry for supper that evening. Everyone in the family loved to eat a flatfish. Unlike most other fish, it has no loose bones. You can eat the meat off one side completely down to the skeletal backbone with attached bones, and then turn the fish over to eat the other side. And it’s a delicious white meat.

Yes, Nefyn was an idyllic and terrific place to grow up. Although those days are now long gone, its important to remember the local fishermen and the techniques they used to make a living or put food on the table. They built boats, built lobster pots, hired rowing boats, ran fishing trips, ran pleasure trips to Bird Rock, as well as catching all kinds of fish with nets, lines and even spears. Those techniques are now highly regulated, and the fishing methods probably illegal. They were probably illegal even then, but the fishermen of Nefyn had to do what they had to do to survive. The deceased local Nefyn fishermen that I remember were Richard Hughes and his son Meirion, Dick Jones, John Robert Hughes, Dick Pant, Osborne, Will Evans Jones his son Glyn, John Gongl, Captain Lloyd, Captain Baum, Gwilym Evans Shop Newydd, and my father Lawrence Owen. And a fine group of proud Nefyn men they were too.

Dr. Brian Owen
Emmaus, PA, USA

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