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Dredged up: Magnet fishers who have uncovered crimes

A digital reconstruction of magnet fishing
Image: / Crime + Investigation | Above: A digital reconstruction of magnet fishing

Magnet fishing has taken the world by storm in recent years, with remarkable discoveries making headlines and numerous YouTube videos on the subject racking up millions of views. So just what is this unlikely phenomenon all about, and what’s the longstanding connection to the world of crime?

What is magnet fishing?

Magnet fishing is like regular fishing, except that instead of reeling in mackerel and bass, you’re on the hunt for discarded man-made objects. It can be thought of as the watery cousin of metal detecting, and the method is as simple as it is effective.

You simply attach a powerful magnet to a synthetic rope, toss it into a canal, river or lake, and then haul it back up to see what random things happen to be clinging onto it. Often, it’ll just be junk from the silty floor of the waterway. But a whole host of other things may turn up, from old laptops and sex toys to hand grenades, motorcycles and centuries-old cannons.

It’s the unpredictable nature of magnet fishing that makes it so addictive for aficionados. And the hobby has become so popular that you can now buy complete magnet fishing kits from specialist suppliers. These contain magnets, ropes, gloves, hooks, and other bits and pieces that can allow you to bring in a ‘catch’.

Is magnet fishing legal?

Over in the United States, magnet fishing isn’t affected by any federal laws, though there are some state-specific regulations such as Indiana’s requirement that you must apply for a (free) permit.

Scotland, meanwhile, has embraced the phenomenon and implemented legal provisions for magnet fishing. Hobbyists are technically required to apply to Scottish Canals for permission and to get ‘Scheduled Monument Consent’ from Historic Environment Scotland.

In England and Wales, the waterways are overseen by the Canal and River Trust, which says it doesn’t ‘allow magnet fishing as it can be extremely dangerous. Items dragged out by magnets could be sharp or heavy and cause you to be dragged into the water.’ There’s also a long-standing byelaw forbidding unauthorised persons from dredging or removing materials from canals overseen by the Trust.

This hasn’t deterred hobbyists who largely view this as a mere technicality and feel that, as long as magnet fishing is carried out in a careful, considered way, with respect for the environment and without leaving excavated objects lying around waterways, there’s little risk of getting into trouble with the authorities.

Indeed, Northamptonshire Police has even published a statement on its website which openly encourages people to ‘enjoy their hobby safely’ and only emphasises the importance of alerting them to the discovery of knives, guns, bombs, and other dangerous objects. For more information about canal safety tips, check out the Canal and River Trust's 'Safety on our Waterways' page.

What’s the connection with crime?

Magnet fishing has often made the news because of the startling, even sinister discoveries that are presumably linked to criminal activity. These include pump-action shotguns, machine guns, machetes, and stolen safes that have been chucked into canals and rivers.

According to a report into magnet fishing by Vice, when one avid hobbyist reeled in a MAC-10 submachine gun, he was explicitly warned not to post a video of his catch on YouTube for fear of notifying whoever disposed of the weapon. There have also been reports of death threats made to magnet fishing enthusiasts by shadowy gangland figures who object to their favourite dumping grounds being ‘discovered’.

One magnet fisherman, Karl Ball, got into trouble with the law himself after failing to notify the police when he pulled a loaded shotgun out of a Birmingham canal. Ball posted images of his find on a magnet fishing Facebook page, boasting that ‘it still works’.

After Ball repeatedly confirmed to another group member that he still had the weapon in his possession, that other member reported him to the police. During an ensuing raid of Ball’s house, officers found a veritable arsenal of weapons including dozens of airsoft guns, a samurai sword, a machete, and ammo.

Ball was given a two-year suspended sentence for failing to report and hand in the shotgun, with the judge remarking that, ‘It is a lethal weapon and if your home had been burgled and fallen into the wrong hands there could have been serious consequences.’

The body in the river

One of the most macabre finds in the history of this hobby came in March 2019, when a magnet fisherman pulled up a handcuffed human body from the River Itchen, just outside Southampton.

The drowned man was identified as 22-year-old Reece Hillier, and how he’d ended up in the river proved to be a strange and tragic story. An inquest revealed that, months before, a police officer had stopped Hillier’s car when he ran a red light. Upon opening the car door, the officer detected the smell of cannabis, and Hillier agreed to be handcuffed pending a search.

However, as they awaited the arrival of more police, Hillier suddenly made a break for it, running across the road, jumping over a wall and disappearing into the undergrowth. The man ended up in the river – perhaps a deliberate attempt to throw off any pursuing police dogs.

Sadly, he did not emerge alive and may have remained missing forever were it not for the sheer luck of a magnet fisherman picking that exact spot for exploring the Itchen.

With magnet fishing showing no signs of being a passing fad, we can undoubtedly expect to hear many more stories, perhaps even odder than this, in the years to come.