Imagine it is a bright April day on an Irish lough, a few high, wispy clouds dot the sky. It is far from warm but there are the first hints of spring in the air and a few Lake Olives are hatching. What do you tie on to the middle of your wet fly leader? Here is an option for you to try in these conditions.
I call this the Opal Olive but I strongly suspect many west of Ireland fly dressers have their own name for it. It looks something like an olive coloured Wickhams fancy I suppose.
I use fl. chartreus tying silk. Starting at the head I catch in a brown olive cock hackle then continue towards the bend of the hook, tying in some tails made of olive cock hackle fibres, some thin silver wire and a piece of opal tinsel. Return the silk to where the hackle is waiting then wind a smooth body with the opal tinsel. Now palmer the brown olive hackle down to the bend in open turns and tie it in with the wire. Rib through the hackle back up to the neck where you tie down the wire. Remove all waste.
The wings can be made from paired slips of starling. I use a different, unobtainable feather for the wings but I doubt if it makes much difference. One day a few years ago one of the cats brought in a very dead mistle thrush. The poor bird did not have a mark on it so I remain to this day convinced the cat simply picked it up off the ground instead of actively catching it. Rather than waste such a beautiful bird I removed and cured the wings and it is slips from the secondary feathers I use on this fly.
Now for a head hackle and for this I use a grey partridge hackle dyed golden olive. Tie it in, make three turns and bind it down before removing the waste. Now form a head with the tying silk, whip finish and varnish.
A cold start to the day so I am in the spare room which is filled with my fishing gear, sorting out some tackle for pike fishing which I hope to indulge in next week. Hot mug of coffee steaming in my hand, loosely organised chaos around me. School run traffic snarls along outside, the big white buses bringing the children in from the countryside. A normal late autumn day, well what passes for normal during lockdown. I had been tying some flies earlier in the week so there are packets of feathers and fur to be tidied away before I can pack a bag with the smaller items for piking. That got me thinking about the ancillary items we all bring along on a day’s fishing and how much of that we really need. My wide ranging angling exploits mean I am worse than most when it comes to carting a selection of bits and bobs around, usually on the basis that I ‘might’ need them.
We all carry too much gear with us when we go fishing. It is just a hazard of the sport. Here are some of the small items I have secreted about my person when I head off with rod and line. As you may have read before in other posts, I wear 4 different waistcoats for various types of fishing. One is for river trouting, another for salmon fly fishing. Then there is one for coarse angling and yet another for shore fishing. The smaller items listed below lurk in one or other of these waistcoats. The bigger items are in the different bags or boxes which I bring along.
1. Tools. As someone who fished the big Irish loughs with old outboard engines I routinely set off with a tool kit in a bag just in case of a breakdown. Over the years this got me out of a few scrapes and also allowed me to help other anglers who had broken down. Now the proud owner of a decent engine, I still bring with me the small tool kit which came with the Honda. These basic tools all live in a small pocket in my lough fishing bag. I know where to put my hand on them in an emergency but I hope to never need them in anger. In the same pocket live a spare spark plug and a couple of spare shear pins.
A pair of heavy pliers lurk in the bottom of my bag too, handy for pulling out a stuck thole pin or other heavy jobs.
2. Knives. I carry around a small blue Swiss army type knife in my pocket all the time. Then there is a pocket knife in the bag. When I am sea fishing I bring a filleting knife too so I can deal with the catch at the water side.
3. Lighters. For obvious reasons. There is a wee metal tin with a couple of firelighters too for firing up the Kelly kettle.
4. Hook removal. All sorts of disgorgers depending on what I’m fishing for. Cheap plastic ones for removing tiny hooks from the mouths of roach and perch. Forceps for fetching flies from trout or salmon. A hefty ‘T’ bar for when I am out at sea and a proper disgorger for the pike.
5. Priests. It is rare for me to retain fresh water fish but I keep anything edible from salt water. An ancient chair leg with some lead in the business end lives in my sea fishing box. A small metal priest fashioned from a length of stainless bar by a papermill engineer 40 years ago comes with me when shore fishing.
6. First aid. When messing around with hooks and knives it is inevitable you are going to break the skin on your hands at some point so I carry a few plasters with me.
7. Towels. Discarded dish towels are handy to tuck away in the bag. Game angling is not too dirty but sea fishing is a filthy business and I am forever washing and wiping my hands after cutting up bait or handling slimy fish. Mixing ground bait when I am coarse fishing means I am constantly cleaning up afterwards too. Helen has commented on the impossible task of finding a dish cloth in the house, there may just be a correlation with my fishing!
8. I mentioned thole pins earlier, I always have a couple of spares in the bottom of my bag. My own boat has fixed pins but I sometimes borrow a boat from friends and they may or may not have pins. To be at the side of the lough, the boat fully loaded and engine fixed on only to find you don’t have any pins is the very height of frustration. I know because it has happened to me not once but twice! Lesson learned the hard way.
9. The small boxes of ‘bits’. Spare hooks, swivels etc. live in a wee plastic box which in turn lives in my waistcoat. In fact, I have two of these wee boxes, one for game fishing (link and barrel swivels, treble hooks etc) and another one for coarse fishing (shot, pop up beads, float caps, leger links etc).
10. Clippers, nippers and scissors. I like those retracting zingers and they festoon my waistcoats. On them are various nippers and other implements for cutting line.
11. Hook sharpeners. A small stone comes with me when I am fly fishing in case a killing fly loses its sharpness. In other forms of fishing I simply change any hook which becomes dull or gets damaged but I am loathe to change a fly that is working. A few strikes with the stone soon returns the point to full use again.
12. A roll of electrical tape, a couple of safety pins, a needle or two, some cable ties. At different times and for different reasons all of these have proved useful and for the small amount of space they take up I always have them stowed away in a bag or waistcoat pocket. I once used a safety pin to replace a tip ring on a rod which I broke while fishing. It was not pretty but it allowed me to keep fishing for the rest of the day. Likewise, I cable-tied my reel on to a beachcaster when an old Fuji reel seat broke one night years ago. Just recently I used a cable tie to attach a thin rope to a winch on someone’s trailer. They take up very little space and weigh next to nothing so I will keep a few tucked away, ‘just in case’.
13. A bucket. Yep, a cheap and nasty plastic bucket which used to contain paint. Battered and bruised it has served me well for years and while it lacks in any atheistic beauty it performs numerous functions for me. Primarily it is for baling water out of the boat. Then I chuck any loose odds and ends into it while afloat. When coarse fishing I use it to hold water scooped from the lake or canal which in turn is used to wet ground bait and to wash my hands in. When shore fishing it is used to transport smelly bait to the mark and then take the catch home with me. Maybe I should invest in one of those branded buckets but I can’t bring myself to agree it would do these jobs any better than my old 10 litre job.
14. A spring balance. Here is where I have to hold my hand up and say this piece of kit is literally NEVER used. I hear you cynics out there saying that is because I never catch anything worth weighing and there is a modicum of truth in that observation. Be that as it may, even when I do land a good fish the exact weight is of absolutely no interest to me what-so-ever. Records, PB’s and all that stuff are for others. I am happy just to see a good fish then pop it back in the water with as little fuss as possible. It is a very nice brass spring balance mind you, a lovely thing to own even if it is redundant.
Written down, this is an extensive list and I am sure I have missed out other things. The big question is do I need all of this junk? There is no clear cut answer in my book. Some things, such as the tools for the outboard engine are really safety items and as such are a necessity for me. Others are less clear. ‘Needing’ an item is too general and to me it more a question of does the tool add to my angling pleasure? I can just about bite through lighter lines for example but a pair of clippers is much neater and easier for me. Do I need clippers and scissors – probably not but I find the scissors are better for dealing with heavier lines.
I am a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde I suppose. When fly fishing rivers I only take what I can carry in my waistcoat pockets. But when boat fishing I take the bloody kitchen sink with me!
The school run has eased off and it is quiet outside now. Chaffinches are squabbling in the garden. No sign yet of the winter visitors like redwings or fieldfares. Today is the say we learn if the lockdown restrictions will reduce to level 3 or not. Fingers crossed they will and that I can get out pike fishing next week. As you can see, I am all prepared!
A very simple fly. This is just a standard black pennel with just one difference. The body is made from blue floss instead of black. You can use fur instead of floss if you prefer.
A good fly for me for both browns and sea trout here in Ireland but I guess it will do the business back in the UK too. I fish it on the tail with a bushier pattern above it. Sizes ranges from 8 down to 14 and I use heavy gauge hooks in case a salmon takes a fancy to it. For me it is a fly for a dull day and I sometimes pair it with a Bruiser Bumble.
While I an on about Pennels, I remember years ago making up a variation of the standard fly by adding a hot orange cock hackle behind the black one. This made a great looking fly, a sure fire winner I thought. Wrong! Despite giving it a try a few times it failed to rise a single fish. Just goes to show how picky the trout can be.
Some people are inveterate hoarders and I very definitely fall into that category. I seem to view items which are commonly regarded as rubbish as if they are imbued with some sort of magical properties. In my head I can hear the little voice trotting out the well-worn phrase ‘this will be really useful one day’. That alone is bad enough when it is simply left overs or freely available bits of tat but I even buy bits and pieces which I imagine will meet some yet to be defined requirement. Cupboards and drawers overflow with cogs/gears/switches rescued from long defunked machines. Empty coffee jars filled to the brim with rusty screws line shelves in the shed, jostling for room with the half-empty tins of paint. It is all very disorganised and probably says a lot about my state of mind. And yet there are occasional victories in this war against waste, as my rotary lure drier testifies!
I wanted to make a small device which would keep lures turning when newly coated with two-part epoxy until the coating had set. YouTube provided me with videos of some examples of similar wonderful homemade machines. Some were too big for my requirements, others were far beyond my skills (like the guy who made his own wooden gear wheels). I gleaned a sufficient understanding of the principles involved to give me the confidence to try to create my own version, so parting with the pricely sum of £8 I invested in the main item – the disco ball motor. I suspect that few, if any of us, have spent time contemplating the finer points of revolving glitter balls, so beloved of the 1970’s disco scene. Fewer still are probably aware that for such a small sum you can purchase a tiny motor built specifically for that role. Somewhere, in the vastness of the Peoples Republic of China, there is a factory churning out these things to meet the insatiable global demand for slowly revolving mirrored balls. Anyway, I bought one.
Resplendent with a three pin plug – the disco ball motor in all its glory
The basic concept of these lure drying contraptions is simple enough. The freshly coated lures are attached to a revolving frame of some sort which is driven by the motor. Various options for holding the lures on the carrier frame exist such as small crocodile clips, springs and elastic bands. It was the stand for holding the frame which was giving me a headache – what should that be made from and how big should it be. I rummaged around in my hoard of treasures and was rewarded with a find which justified my addiction (well in my mind anyway). Tucked away at the back of a shelf in a cupboard in the spare room I unearthed some bits of polycarbonate sheet. Exactly where or when these came into my possession is beyond my rapidly receding memory, but judging by the thick layer of dust on them it looks like they have been in there for a very long time indeed. Odd shapes with scratched surfaces, they were clearly off-cuts which had been binned. Among the various flat pieces there were lurking two which had been folded on one end to make an ‘L’ shape. Eureka! These might do for mounting my wee disco ball motor. (It has just occurred to me that I need to explain why the specific disco ball motor is so necessary. You see it has to do with the speed of rotation, too fast or too slow and the epoxy will run. Like a lure making Goldilocks, disco ball motors are neither too fast nor too slow – they revolve at exactly the right speed. Now, where was I……?)
Using the pair of L pieces also solved another issue for me – how big should the whole machine be. I only want to occasionally paint up a few lures so this dryer only needs to hold a handful of them at any one time. The epoxy I will use is 5 minute, meaning that is how long it remains workable, again, roughly enough time to coat a handful of lures. I decided I wanted the frame to be sized to accommodate 4 lures at a time. The two ‘L’ pieces would meet that requirement for the end stands perfectly. Along with the bent pieces I had found a heavy rectangular slab of the same material which would serve as a base. Once I dusted that down it looked to be about the right size too.
The motor had to be attached to the carrier frame somehow and this looked a bit tricky. A split ring with a length of chain had been fitted to the motor when it arrived, obviously to make life easier for any budding John Travolta’s so they could maximise their time on the illuminated dance floor. I removed the chain but was left with a short, smooth 7mm diameter spigot with a small hole in it. Various drilling/tapping options floated through my mind but in the end I settled for a pin arrangement to link the motor to a central wooden bar.
Timber ‘arms’ then had to be cut and screwed to the central bar. These would sport small hooks for the elastic bands and wires which hold the lures while curing.
Putting the whole shebang together was done using various small nuts and bolts (remember the contents those glass jars?). Holes were drilled, nuts and bolts tightened and fittings screwed into place. Rubber ‘feet’ stuck on to the underside of the base to give a degree of grip seemed like a useful addition.
Eventually I had the contraption assembled and I gave it a test spin. It rotated just fine and did exactly what I wanted of it. It lacks a switch to turn it on and off but considering how often I will use this thing I am not going to bother with one, I’ll just turn it on or off at the mains. It sticks a little bit sometimes but as I will only be using this tool for a few minutes at a time I will not get overly stressed about it.
There were some lures lying around which required epoxy so I mixed some up and gave the new dryer its first trial. I had to fiddle about to get the hooks and wires just right but once I had that sorted the new contraption worked just dandy. It was quite satisfying to see it in action. I know it will only be used very occasionally and it was a lot of fuss and bother to go to but hey, what else would I be doing on a wet November day during lockdown?
I’m not going to suggest this is the most professional lure dryer out there, nor is it likely to induce any sort of a fever of a Saturday night but it does the job for me and there is great satisfaction in making something useful from my stash of junk. Now, where did I put my white suit with the high-waisted flared trousers?
All this hanging around at home during lockdown leaves a man with too much time to think. Not being able to fish just means I spend hours dreaming up new methods to try, new rigs to make up, new venues to research and, of course, new gear to purchase.
I wanted to scale down the sheer volume of gear I bring coarse fishing, specifically when I tackle canals here in Ireland. I know that in England most of the canal fishing is done with poles and all the gear that requires but I have no wish to go down the path of pole fishing. Instead, I am planning on using a single float rod and the minimum of gear so I can move around as required to find the fish. I also wanted to bring something to sit on too. It sounded like I was wanting my fishing cake and eating it but there are solutions out there for the roving angler.
I found a combined rucksack/stool for twenty quid in Argos and it looked like it should do the job so I bought one. Don’t ask me how Argos are still open when most other shops are closed, it is yet another of the lockdown mysteries. Green coloured, it weighs in at about a couple of kilos and is pretty sturdy with steel frames. The rucksack appears to be water resistant if not waterproof (what do you expect for twenty Euro) and a front pocket in addition to the main sack. It could improved with the addition of a couple of ‘D’ rings but we won’t lose any sleep over that omission. I’d love to be heading out soon to try it out but it will be next spring at the earliest before I am free to go canal fishing.
So what will this new bag hold? Some food and a small flask for sustenance are at the top of the list. A small tin of sweetcorn in case of emergencies. A float tube containing a small selection of canal floats. Weed rake. My camera. A small towel. Maybe a small hooklength wallet. A one pint bait box fits neatly in the front pocket for easy access. That’s about it really. The small items like hooks, spools of line, shot etc. all live in my waistcoat anyway. By limiting my fishing to very basic float set ups there is no requirement for feeders, leads or any other bottom fishing gear.
I may have got this wildly wrong and end up lugging all my gear with me, but for now the idea of travelling light really appeals to me. With a rod in one hand and the net in the other I can try one spot and if that does not produce fish I simply sling the rucksack on to my back a saunter off down the towpath until I find another likely spot. Being able to sit down is a big benefit for me as it will ease the pressure on my arthritic ankles. I harbour images of warm summer days spent on the towpath, watching the float slide gently under as I sit on my new stool. I will ignore the potential harsh reality of horizontal rain on a biting wind drenching me as I curse that I didn’t bring this-that-or-the-other.
Since there is no fishing now I thought some of you might like a quick look around my adopted home town of Castlebar here in county Mayo. How I came to end up here would require a large book on its own but suffice to say it involved a potent mix of fishing, pretty Irish girls, a disaffection with my then circumstances and the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Anyway, I moved to Castlebar initially in November 1997. I left again in late 2004, went to university in England and ended up in London only to return to Ireland again in 2008 and I have been here ever since. It is home to me and I have no wish to leave this small Irish conurbation.
Castlebar is one of the main towns in county Mayo the others being Westport, Claremorris and Ballina. Westport is a very attractive town and its economy is based on the huge numbers of tourist who flock there every year. Ballina was always a popular town for anglers as the river Moy flows through the middle of it. Castlebar on the other hand had a reputation as the business heart of the county but sadly this has changed over the last couple of decades with the loss of many employers. It it the administrative centre for the county and the headquarters of the county council is situated in the town. Both Castlebar and Ballina have populations of around 10,000 people, Westport and Claremorris are a bit smaller.
From an angling perspective, Castlebar is ideally placed in the middle of the great western lakes. The northern end of the Corrib, loughs Mask and Carra are all within 40 minutes drive to the south of the town, while roughly the same distance to the north lie loughs Conn and Cullin and the river Moy. My beloved River Robe flows quietly to the south of me within easy striking distance. Lough Beltra is near at hand to the west and Carrowmore Lake and the Owenmore river are about 45 minutes away by car to the north-west. Add to that a large number of small lakes and rivers, most of which I have yet to explore. There is even some coarse fishing around Claremorris. For sea angling the delights of Clew Bay and Achill Island are nearby. I am pretty sure I could fish a different place every day of the year if I wanted. I really am very, very lucky to live here.
So what is it like living in a small Irish town? I am sure for many of you this sound like an idyllic existence and to a large extent it is. Having said that, life here does not suit everyone and there are some limitations which need to be considered. The main one is work. There are limited opportunities unless you work in the hospitality or medical devices manufacturing industries. There are a few factories in the area but they are almost all involved in pharma or life sciences. Construction has its peaks and troughs but it is a big local employer. Being a largely rural county many people work the land with beef and sheep farming being by far the most common use of the land. Working from home is growing here just like everywhere else but high speed broadband coverage is poor. Personally, I have at different times worked in local factories, run my own business and (most often) worked away from home.
You also need to get to know what it takes to fit in to a society which is quite insular and self-aware. People here want to know who you are, who you are related to, where you work, who your friends are etc. It can come across as being nosy but in truth this is just the most obvious facet of the ‘glue’ which binds this society together. Up until relatively recently this part of the world suffered from war, hunger, foreign ownership and all the panoply of hardships these things bring. The potato famine, the black and tans, emigration, you name it the chances are the Irish were on the wrong end of it. It all combined to leave its mark on the people and while they themselves don’t see it I can, as an outsider, traces the hurt in them all. The need to know who you are is born of this background. My guess is that the younger generation, who have known much more affluent times, will be more open to new experiences. Ireland has changed enormously even in the twenty years I have lived here, some of it for the better but in some ways for the worse.
Ireland as a country is a very expensive place to live. Taxes are high and basics such as housing and transport are eye-wateringly pricey. After a while you sort of get used to it but visitors are frequently shocked by huge price tags. Again, living in the rural west has some benefits and the cost of living is cheaper here than in Dublin. My biggest gripe is the cost of running a car here. You pay VRT (a tax on every imported car) and an annual motor vehicle tax (commonly referred to as road tax). My ancient and basically worthless VW is taxed at €760/annum! Healthcare is another area where the bills soon rack up and most people have health insurance but this too is very expensive.
What about the weather, doesn’t it rain all the time? No it does not, but we do see a a fair bit of rain compared to lots of other places. Today for example is very wet and windy but dry weather is promised for the end of this week. We tend not to get extremes of any weather in Ireland because it benefits from being on the edge of the Atlantic and the warming effects of the gulf stream. Temperatures are generally between 10 and 20 degrees with a mixture of sunshine and rain. We do get prolonged periods of precipitation, usually in autumn and again in the spring but to be honest we just get on with it here. You can buy good waterproof clothes now to keep you dry. Winters are variable, some being open and mild while some are very cold if high pressure from the continent gets ‘stuck’ over the country. I have seen -20 degrees a couple of times but that is rare.
Let’s take a look around, here are a few photos from around the town.
The main street has the same mix of banks, small shops and businesses as any other similar sized town in the country. Sadly, we have more than our fair share of derelict buildings even here on the busiest street. I can remember when the main street was bustling and vibrant but these days things are different. The big nationwide supermarkets are largely grouped around a redeveloped part of town off of Market Square. Tesco, Aldi, Argos, Boots etc. are all here.
Socialising is a big part of life in Ireland and Castlebar has its fair share of pubs and restaurants to pick from. There are not as many pubs as there used to be and those that are left have often changed to include serving food as well as drink. Being of a certain age(!) Helen and I enjoy a meal out and maybe a couple of drinks in one or two of the pubs in town of a Friday night but that is about our limit. Big drinking sessions are a thing of the past for us! Here in the west we speak about going ‘out’ for a night which means a few drinks then home at a reasonable hour, or going ‘out out’ when all bets are off and you have no plans to return home until the early hours (if at all). Younger people must find small town Ireland difficult and many move away for employment but also to enjoy greater freedom and entertainment in the cities. Galway city has always had a huge draw for Mayo people and many leave to work there and never return.
The big sport in Mayo is football. GAA football that is! The county team evoke huge passion and the supporters are known across the country for their fierce loyalty and willingness to travel anywhere to watch their heroes in action. McHale park is where the big games takes place and although I take only a passing interest in the game the town is always buzzing when Mayo are playing at home. Unlike soccer in the UK football fans here revel in the bonhomie when rival teams meet.
A popular walk is around Lough Lannagh on the outskirts of the town. It was developed a few years ago and has proved to be exceedingly popular with walkers, joggers and cyclists. You often see fishermen trying their luck for the small pike which infest this shallow lake. There are shoals of tiny roach in there too. The best part for me is the view out west to the reek, it is magical as the sun is setting.
The town river flows from Lough Lannagh and winds its way to a confluence with the Manulla river east of the town. Both rivers have healthy stocks of brown trout. Salmon run the Moy and up the system as far as the meetings of both rivers but don’t make it to the town. A path was created recently which stretches from the town to the National Museum of Ireland out at Turlough, most of it hugging the river. It is a lovely walk on a nice day.
The mall is situated at the end of the main street. It was originally laid out as Lord Lucan’s cricket pitch. The Lucan family owned large tracts of western Ireland and made their money from the rents paid by the crofters. Nowadays the mall is a pleasant open space for a stroll and in the winter an ice rink is erected here.
The courthouse is on the Mall, scene of much drama over the years. I was only ever in it once, to get divorced (another long story). Just along from the courthouse is the Garda barracks. An Garda Siochana are the Irish police force.
Mayo University Hospital is always busy and even more so during the pandemic. Those whom are too ill to be treated here are moved to Galway or to specialist hospitals in Dublin.
The rebellion of 1798 was partially played out in and around Castlebar. French troops disembarked at Killala and they marched to confront the English garrison in Castlebar. Here they fought a running battle with the redcoats who were driven from the town. The English departed in such haste and with the French on their heels it became known as the Castlebar races. Much of the fighting took place on this small hill called Knockthomas. There are monuments all across the area to the rebellion which was really just an extension of the wider European wars of that time. The French had no real interest in Ireland breaking away from the British Empire, they simply saw an opportunity to tie up significant numbers of English troops in Ireland. As is the way in all wars, many innocent people lost their lives while the leaders played out their games.
When I fancy a pint of porter I usually head here, to Johnnie McHale’s pub. A lot of work has gone into expanding this fine old establishment and the back of the pub is now a popular spot for the younger set. The front of the pub though remains unchanged and you could say the same for the ‘mature’ clientele who frequent it. If you ever find yourself in Castlebar you simply must visit Johnnies for a pint of Guinness, it is as good as any I have tried in Ireland (and I have tried a few let me tell you).
The biggest pub in town is Rocky’s, owned by that great fisherman Rocky Moran. A larger than life character, Rocky owns a few businesses in the town including a Funeral Director’s. This was a very common combination in rural Ireland for many years and Rocky is carrying on the tradition set by his father. Rocky’s is hugely popular and always busy what with sports on the telly or live music in the evenings. When he is not making lots of money in the pub you can usually find him on the banks of a river or out on a lough.
As I said earlier, we do enjoy an occasional meal out and out favourite restaurant is Al Muretto. Great food, lovely staff and a relaxed atmosphere add up to a lovely spot for a night out. Café Rua do some lovely food and they have two outlets in the town. Of course there are plenty of cafes and coffee shops scattered around too so there is always somewhere to stop for a coffee.
While a number of different faiths have places of worship in the town the catholic congregation are served by the impressive church.
I am no expert but I am told that Castlebar has the best shopping in the county. The usual suspects have shops here for those who enjoy that sort of thing.
The only shops I have any real interest in are tackle shops. Pat Quin on the main street has some tackle downstairs and this is where you can buy the salmon licence. Frank Baynes presides over the most eclectic tackle shop I know of there on New Antrim Street. It always looks as if he has three times as much gear as the shop can hold with stacks or rods, piles of boots and shelves overflowing with reels, hooks and lures. Frank himself is a mine of local angling knowledge, always helpful to visiting anglers.
Transport to and from Castlebar is hugely reliant on roads. The N5 stretches from Longford to Westport and it passes the edge of town. There is a railway connection on the line between Dublin and Westport but as with the rest of the country many of the old railway lines were ripped up many years ago.
Of course, St. Patrick’s Day (17th March) is an excuse for a parade and some serious revelry. It is all very professional in the cities like Dublin and Galway but it is a wee bit more homespun in Castlebar. The parade consists largely of a few tractors, some floats put together by local businesses and a couple of young marching bands from the schools and youth clubs in town. here are a few snaps from the parade a few years ago.
So there you are, a wee look at the place I call home. It has its faults but then you can say that about anywhere. It is largely peaceful and quiet here, the people are friendly and the weather is mild. I have lived in so many places over the years and I could have settled down in any of them but somehow I gravitated to this small county town on the edge of Europe and don’t regret that decision. I recall popping over to Mayo while I was living in London, I was just taking a short break away from the city and the west was calling. It had been three years since I set foot in Castlebar. I parked the hire car and set off down the main street but every 20 or 30 yards I was stopped by someone for a chat or just to say hello. Coming from London where nobody makes eye contact let alone talks to you, this felt like an assault on the senses. But that is the west of Ireland for you, one of the nicest places I have been and the place I call home.
I am in the middle of lockdown now and I needed a break from tying flies. The boxes are slowly filling up and some new patterns are under development (more on these in later posts) but I wanted a bit of time away from the vice so I went through all my coarse fishing gear to see if there was anything I needed. You bet there was! I needed floats – lots and lots of floats.
When I took up coarse fishing last year I bought a few bits and pieces to get me going. I already had stuff like split shot and some very old floats so I concentrated on swimfeeders, hook length line and bits like that. I was confident I had enough to commence operations and indeed that is how it worked out for me. I caught a few fish, learned by my mistakes and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I became particularly endeared to float fishing, the joy of concentrating on the float tip in anticipation of the merest tremble or sudden dive is addictive. I got through to the second lockdown using the small amount of gear I had bought nearly a year ago despite a few losses along the way.
Now though, I have to address a blatant hole in my armoury. You see the old floats I had were bought back in Scotland when I used floats while chasing Grayling on the Tay and other rivers. I loved trotting worms and maggots for grayling, it was a beautiful way to fish and I miss that sport very much (there are no Grayling in Ireland). Most of my old floats though are large Avons and these are not in any way suitable for my coarse fishing these days on canals and stillwaters here in Ireland. I did have a couple of Crystal Wagglers which I had picked up somewhere along the line but other than those I was pretty much bereft of good floats.
One of my precious two wagglers came a cropper in some reeds this summer, leaving a solitary float for everyday use. So I got on to the internet and started looking for some nice floats but got a terrible shock when I saw the prices. That pushed me on to ebay and there I found some good secondhand floats at much more agreeable prices. I bought a few. Actually I bought a lot!
So what did I need, as opposed to what I wanted? The Crystal Wagglers had served me well but I needed them in a range of sizes to cope with different conditions. That was easy to fix as these floats are readily available at very low cost. To be honest these will form my first line of attack. Next up I needed some middys in a range of sizes so I could cast a bit further. I bought some in both weighted an unweighted types.
In the ‘nice to have’ column I splashed out a small sum on a few Peacock floats just because I like the look of them. In one batch of mixed floats there were a few pellet zoomers and while it looks like these won’t be used as I don’t fish for carp I have a notion they could be used for tench. I also invested in some big weighted wagglers. Not too sure yet if they are going to be an advantage but I’ll give them a try. As I was buying job lots of floats there were inevitably some which I will never use. Pole floats spring to mind and while there were not many like this in my purchases there were a handful which are of no use to me. They will probably end up in a drawer where they will gather dust for years.
I bought floats with inserts, ones with different coloured tips and others just because I liked the look of them. I now have a couple of reed stem floats, just to keep it traditional you understand. Floats have become my new obsession. Most are in either new or very good condition but a few are a bit beat up. I’ll enjoy doing any small repairs to the damaged floats as I love tinkering about on small jobs like that. I have divided my new purchases up so that I have a small selection in a tube to take with me when roving the canals next year. I plan on travelling light on those days so all the gear I take with me needs to fit into a small rucksack. The rest of the floats will find a home in a float box tucked into my Daiwa seat box.
I know I could have got away with a handful of wagglers and been done with it but this small weakness for floats is not the crime of the century. It will allow me to try different approaches and cope with varying weather conditions much better than before. Just being able to see the float tip was a challenge sometimes this year, so different coloured tips should help to address that issue. And if messing about with some bits of cane and cork keeps me happy, where is the harm? There are worse obsessions out there!
The more I read about coarse fishing and the more I actually practice it, the more I realise that I need to alter not just how I fish but how I think about the fish themselves. Only by doing that will I become more successful. 2020 has seen me starting a journey to be a coarse angler and the differences from that and when I learned how to fly fish for trout and salmon are stark.
Like many game anglers, as a kid I started out spinning small lures and worming to catch trout on my local river. I got my first fly rod at 12 years of age and took to it immediately. I found casting pretty simple and aside from some hard to understand drawings in old books I was largely self taught. The only books I could afford were those ‘Uncle Bill Davies’ paperbacks. Sadly, they were almost all lost along with a huge collection of other books during a house move many years ago. I only have one on my bookshelf now (priced at 4 shillings!). These books hammered home the need to be silent, to sneak up on the trout. A heavy footfall would be enough to spook a fish. I got it, these were wild creatures and they survived on their wits. From a young age I practiced stealth when fishing and in turn I landed some terrific fish. I learned by spending time on the water in all conditions. I learned from the mistakes I made as well as the successes.
Fast forward to 2019 when the first stirrings of an interest in coarse angling began to stir. The world has changed and now, with a few clicks or swipes, anyone can access tons of information. It is almost too easy, there is very little effort required. Over the winter of 2019/2020 I read books and blogs, watched videos and listened to podcasts about coarse fishing. I was taking in information all right but I’m not sure I was actually ‘learning’ in the true sense of the word. To me, there is an important distinction between information gathering and learning and while the internet can provide a basic level of knowledge it cannot teach as such. Regardless, this information gathering was the best I could do and when the lockdown came it just intensified my thirst for all things ciprid.
July 2020 saw me venturing forth with floats, feeders et al. I immediately felt out of my depth and that some of my deeply ingrained game fishing knowledge apparently did not apply. It all seemed incongruous fishing tiny size 18 hooks while at the same time lobbing in great lumps of groundbait which hit the water like Napoleonic cannonballs. Was stealth in or out? I was confused.
It is often the case that you only understand something by actually participating in it. I had read and listened to advice but some important aspects had not penetrated my dense thinking processes. Some coarse fish congregate in shoals – I got that. They graze on the bottom, consuming large quantities of food – yep, I could understand that bit too. They can be attracted and held in a spot by effective groundbaiting – OK with that concept as well. The groundbait will attract them, usually regardless of the noise caused by introducing it to the swim. That is the bit I struggled with. Surely wild fish will scatter when foreign objects splash down into the water close to them? I know any self respecting trout would bolt if I hurled a ball of groundbait close to it.
Only through time on the water and learning how coarse fish respond was I able to make any sense of this new sport. Only when I actually did throw in balls of ground bait and catch fish was I able to accept the fact that coarse fish do not scare as easily as trout. I am fishing ‘wild’ waters not commercial fisheries but I read that fish in commercials are attracted by the commotion when groundbait is tossed in. They have learned that the noise is a sign that food is coming, like a dinner gong sounding!
The analogy of cyprids being like sheep is a good one. A shoal moves around, grazing on the bottom. They hoover up the small creatures and quickly denude the area of such organisms so they keep moving on. Sheep move in herds and grazed the grass but need to keep moving as they quickly eat all the herbage. The aim of the anglers groundbait is both to attract the shoal and then keep them occupied in front of you. I try to keep this thought in my mind when coarse fishing but judging how much groundbait and how often it should be introduced is the bit I am still learning. It feels like I over feed but maybe not, I’m really not too sure and have no idea how you can verify if your groundbiat is there in sufficient amounts.
The next step for me really is crossing the Rubicon, I have bought a rake. When I first read about raking a swim it seemed like utter madness, the fish must high-tail it to the next parish when someone lugs a dirty great lump of metal into their water and then drags it back covered in weeds. In case that was not enough tom-foolery the whole process is repeated until a clear space is formed on the bottom so the angler can cast into.
It was only when reflecting on the ‘grazing’ aspect of my quarry that raking a swim made any sense at all. If they didn’t mind the cannonballs of groundbait them they probably would not be too put out by the rake. The idea of the fish then entering the cleared swim to look for food also became less far fetched.
It will be spring 2021 before the new rake gets a chance to show its metal (sic) but I have high hopes it will be another arrow in my quiver, especially on the canals. Irish canals are notoriously weedy and my small experience of them leads me to think the rake might be at least part of the answer when seeking bream, tench and roach.
I am not an expert but from what I can gather you can cast the rake out with a rod and reel loaded with 30 pound breaking strain braid and slowly wind it back in again. Rather than mess about with a reel just to do that task I will try simply attaching a length of cord to the rake and lob it in by hand. A much bigger swivel needs to be fitted to handle the cord I plan on using. The rake itself is of very simple construction and looks like it is too small to be effective but I have read they are more than up to the job and are easier to lug around with you than the homemade efforts constructed out of a pair of garden rakes lashed back-to-back. My one won’t be able to stir up the bottom like the garden rakes do though so I might be missing out out that benefit.
My plan for the canals is to rake out a few swims as I walk along the towpath then fish my way back. This should allow time for the swim to settle down and for the fish to find their way there. I could also throw in some ground bait too I suppose. If this all sounds a bit vague that is because I need to experiment and learn as I go along.
If I am perfectly honest with myself the learning process is at least as much, if not more enjoyable than actually catching the roach and perch. It’s like being that wee boy again on the banks of the Don in Aberdeenshire learning the art of angling. The failures and occasional successes marking my slow progress. This lockdown is only increasing my passion for getting back out there to wield the old coarse gear again.