With time on my hands I have been thinking a lot about my fishing. Of course I am missing getting out with rod and line something terrible. I snuck out once in December but apart from that I have not fished for 3 months now. With lockdown set to continue well into the spring this year I am brooding over what I am missing. Which led me to contemplate, what exactly am I longing for so much? Today I thought I would write down what Irish angling is all about, hopefully to give you visitors, and potential visitors, an insight into what makes Ireland such a great place for us anglers. Being non-Irish and having fished here initially as a tourist before pitching up in a full time capacity I kinda have two very different perspectives on the subject.
Anglers have written whole books about fishing here so my paltry few words will not add greatly to the subject but one day this pandemic will ease and we will regain the ability to travel and I hope this post generates some interest in coming to Ireland.
Let’s get the downsides out of the way first. Ireland should be the premier angling destination in the world. I honestly believe that! 100 years ago the rivers and loughs were full of fish and the seas teemed with everything from sprats to tuna. Destruction of habitat, pollution, over fishing and neglect have destroyed vast swathes of the aquatic habitat and fauna. Thousands of miles of rivers were dammed, dredged and straightened in the name of hydro-electric power, flood prevention and land reclamation.
I understand the need for electricity, huge parts of the country did not have mains electricity well into the 1960’s so there was some justification at that time but those days are long gone and the mighty dams like Ardnacrusha on the Shannon and the Erne barrage have outlived their usefulness and could be removed. Ardnacrusha was completed in 1929 so it is nearly 100 years old. The last Model T Ford rolled off the production line when this dam was being built. Would we be happy running about in a Model T these days? I think not and these dams on Irish rivers are similarly out dated. For comparison, could you imagine the River Tay in Scotland being dammed at Perth? Both rivers are of a similar size but the Tay has a healthy run of Atlantic salmon, whereas only a handful of fish evade the turbines on the Shannon and the once prolific upstream beats are now devoid of life.
Fish have never really been very high on the list of considerations in this country. Unlike many European countries there has never been a tradition of eating seafood and most of what is caught commercially goes for export to mainland Europe. Fish were just a resource to generate some money but beyond that nobody cared much about them. Poaching was always a part of rural life here. A salmon netted out of the local river was a welcome addition to meagre diets for the poor farmers back in the day and who could blame them when you lived close to starvation all the time. These days poaching is a much more sinister business involving organised gangs, sometimes armed, netting and poisoning rivers at night. Some river systems are notorious for the poaching effort and are not worth fishing as a result.
Apart from the dams, the huge expanses of bog across the country were destroyed by state agencies in the name of progress. Peat has a very low calorific value but in a country where there was no coal, apart from a very small coalfield in the north, the decision to build peat burning power stations seemed to make sense. A huge industry grew up around the collection, drying and burning of the peat which is only winding down now. Narrow gauge railways snaked across the bog for miles and huge machines ripped the sodden ground apart to remove the ancient turf. Rivers were damaged or re-directed and the spawning beds became unusable for the fish as the fine particles of peat clogged the gravel. It was environmental vandalism on a grand scale. No attempts were made to mitigate all this destruction. It was just bog and seen as little more than useless.
Arterial drainage. Those two words strike terror into the hearts of anyone who cares about the environment. Here in Ireland the government has a department called the Office of Public Works or OPW. Let me be very clear here – these people operate above the law. It doesn’t matter what EU legislation says, the OPW will just do what it wants with impunity, and what the OPW likes more than anything is to dig. Oh how they love digging things up! Show them a winding, natural watercourse and they will have that dredged, straightened and even encased in concrete at the drop of a hat. They have been at this for years and the level of wanton destruction is almost beyond belief.
I will end this litany of woes with fish farming. A disgusting, nasty business which has made a handful of Norwegians extremely rich and damaged the fauna of the west of Ireland beyond repair. A tiny number of poorly paid jobs was the bait and the government fell for it. The tortured and malformed creatures in the cages often escape and add further pressure on the already struggling rivers of the west. Sea lice in their billions ravage the native trout, eating them alive. We are stuck with the farms as nobody in government has any interest in closing them down.
On the bright side
OK, that is enough doom and gloom. I wanted you to see both the good and the bad to see that there are two sides to fishing here. Now we move on to the good stuff! Let’s start with brown trout fishing on the great loughs.
I don’t have any figures but I would suspect that the majority of anglers who come here do so to fish the great lakes. Corrib and Mask are the obvious ones with some anglers trying their luck on Sheelin, Conn, Cullin or Carra. Maybe some venture to Ennel or Owel in the midlands or the huge Erne system which straddles the border. What is all the fuss about then?
There are so many facets to fishing these hallowed waters it is difficult to know where to start. I suppose the biggest attraction is you are fishing for completely wild trout. The fish spawn in all the small rivers and streams which flow into these loughs and are direct descendants of the fish which colonised the loughs after the last ice age. They are truly beautiful creatures and it is a joy to catch even the smallest of them. Not that they are all small! Every season double figure trout are caught on the fly from the Corrib and Mask. A three pounder will not turn anyone’s head on those waters. Wet fly is the preferred method, a cast of three flies, flicked ten yards in front of a drifting boat. Some of the fishing is out in the deeps while at other times you can scrape the keel of the boat on the tops of jagged limestone rock as you search out fish in the shallows around the shore or the islands. Dry fly is good, especially during the mayfly season. Dapping is hugely popular on the Corrib, less so on Mask. Carra used to respond well to a dapped grasshopper in August. I rarely see a dapping rod on Conn or Cullin though.
So what is the big attraction? The fishing is technically simple after all. I think it is the ‘total package’ which makes trout fishing here so wonderful. The day starts at 9 or 10 o’clock typically. Visitors staying in a hotel or B&B will have no doubt availed of a huge breakfast (the full Irish) to ‘set you up for the day’. If you have hired the services of a ghillie there will be the usual chat about prospects as the boat is loaded to overflowing with all manner of angling gear and then you are off under wide skies and (hopefully) in the face of a good breeze. Depending on your ghillie, drifts will be in total silence or with a running commentary of every topic under the sun. Tales of great fish caught and lost, the latest gossip from around the village, world events – they are all covered from the unique perspective of an Irish boatman. Those of sensitive disposition need to know that here the use of curse words is an integral part of the language. Around 1 o’clock you will pull into an island or sheltered bay for the lunch. Out comes a Kelly kettle or similar device and some hot reviving tea or coffee is handed around. Time to stretch your legs after being cramped up in the boat all morning. More chat about the fishing and plans for the remainder of the day. Relieve your bladder behind some bushes. Tie up a new cast maybe. All of this at a leisurely, unhurried pace. Indeed, on a slow days fishing there is a tendency to linger on shore and just enjoy being outside in the fresh air. The afternoon may produce a few fish, then again it may not. Cast, retrieve, cast retrieve. The ghillie strokes the water with one oar out the back of the boat, correcting the drift as he sees fit. Tangles are sorted out, rainwater baler from the bottom of the boat, sudden excitement as a trout shows close to the boat, waving to other boats as they pass by. Any luck? A slow sweep of a hand indicates they have not met any fish. The glorious countryside provides a backdrop you will long recall. By the end of the day, usually between 5 and 6pm but it does vary, you motor back to the harbour and unload the gear. Back at your accommodation the tiredness sets in and a pint of Guinness in your hand feels heavy. Another huge dinner is greedily consumed. If you are in or close to a town or village there is always the option of heading to a local pub for some drinks and craik with the locals. It really is a fabulous way to spend your days.
How about salmon fishing on the loughs? The situation here is patchy and some of the best fisheries now struggle to provide good fishing. Others are still plugging away and a day on Inagh, Carrowmore or Beltra will live long in your memory. The format is very similar to the day outlined above but the fishing is harder. Don’t expect to see fish jumping. Most days you won’t see any showing at all. This is a game of stoic determination and workmanship. On some loughs the ideal conditions are summed up as ‘a good wave’. To anyone but an Irish salmon fisher a ‘good wave’ is a terrifying ride in a small boat being tossed around in huge waves. You get soaked, no matter how good your expensive rain gear is. Waves top the sides of the boat and the ghillie battles with the oar to keep you broadside to the weather. Turning into the waves at the end of a drift he opens the throttle and the boat rises and plunges as you forge your way through the white tops. Just to be out on the water in this kind of a day is invigorating. The day-to-day existence which most of us live, commuting, the office, sitting in front of a television, all pale as you are tossed around in this maelstrom. You feel alive! Then, out of nowhere and in slow motion, a great silver fish ploughs through the waves, arrowing towards your flies. It seems to take forever to turn down and it takes all your experience not to strike immediately. The fish sinks down and the line tightens, you are into one! Those minutes as the fish runs, jumps, bores deep or simply sulks are priceless. The Ghillie’s deft swipe with the cavernous net and the fish is aboard. You hold him up for the obligatory photographs before slipping him back into the water. There is no other feeling like this. The rain pours down and the wind howls like the banshee but you care not a jot. As angling experiences go, a springer on the fly from an Irish lough is high up there as one of the best.
I think it is true to say that few visiting anglers come here to fish the rivers for wild trout and this is a great pity. For years I have fished my local rivers and have yet to meet a solitary visitor. I would dearly love to see some of the fine anglers from across the globe fishing my local Irish rivers. These little fished streams have a charm, and the fish, to make even the most jaded angler very happy indeed.
Unlike the loughs, there is little in the way of infrastructure for the river fishers. Access is notoriously difficult, often resembling hacking your way through a jungle rather than actually fishing, but there is some really great fly fishing to be had for those who persevere. I wear chest waders on the river so I can get into the water and wade upstream as required instead of negotiating the wild banks. Do not bring your expensive waders with you. Use a cheap pair you don’t mind about as the thorns, barbed wire and other hazards will almost certainly result in a tear in the fabric sooner rather than later. A wading stick is a necessity in my book, for wading obviously but also to help cross electric fences and a host of other obstacles. The trout you encounter are of course completely wild, there is no stocking of the rivers here. A competent fly fisher will delight in the variety of water to fish, the range of tactics to be deployed and the number/size of the trout. Your typical day on a limestone river will throw up may be a dozen trout between 8 and 14 inches. Trout grow to 5 or 6 pounds and some even bigger! You will most likely have miles of river to yourself. I consider the limestone rivers of the west of Ireland to be a hidden gem and well worth the effort. Even for you dyed-in-the-wool lough lads and lasses, packing a set of river gear when you come over gives the option of a day on the streams if the loughs are ‘off’ or the weather is against you. Tackle wise, your favourite 4 or 5 weight set up will do just fine.
Sea anglers have been coming to Ireland for decades now. The surf beaches of Kerry drew them here as far back as the early ‘60’s. Sadly, our sea fishing is but a shadow of what it used to be. I don’t think I can in all honesty recommend you come here for a sea fishing holiday based solely on catches. By all means come for the experience. The craik after the day out, the hospitality and wonderful scenery are still the same as ever but there are less fish around than of old. I used to come to Ireland on holiday back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when catching 3 or 4 rays, dozens of wrasse, buckets full of mackerel and pollack were the norm. Now we rely on dogfish for most of our sport. The odd ray still puts in an appearance too. Until the overfishing off the west coast is addressed (don’t hold your breath) the situation is not going to change.
The English and European coarse anglers found Ireland to be a paradise many years ago and until the pandemic they made their way to the midlands every year. The small towns in the heart of Ireland rang with the voices of French, Italian and English visitors as they spent a couple of weeks in late spring or summer fishing the lakes for bream, roach, tench and pike. Please come back when you can! With only a handful of commercial coarse fisheries in the whole country this is primarily wild fishing and it can be exceptionally good. I am only a beginner at this branch of the sport but the experts make impressive catches. Regarding tackle, what you use at home will work here. Maggots and worms are by far the most popular baits. Once again though, it not just the fishing which makes it so attractive to come here. The soft Irish weather, the stunning greenery of the country, the friendliness of the locals. There is something unique about rural Ireland, something which endures despite the changes wrought by modern times.
So what is putting you off coming to Ireland on a fishing trip? You have probably heard it is expensive. Well it is! Yes, the cost of living is very high here, nothing is cheap. Living here you become used to it and don’t bat an eyelid at the ridiculous prices charged for everything. Hotel accommodation is very pricy. B&B’s offer slightly better value. Camping has never been a big thing in Ireland so there are only a few campsites around. Eating out is expensive too so you need to budget for that as well. I can’t gloss over it, you will have to pay a fair bit to holiday here but the experience is so unique I think you will find it worthwhile.
Bring good waterproofs with you. It does tend to rain a lot here so pack accordingly. Make sure your travel insurance is up to date as the cost of healthcare should anything go wrong while you are here is incredible expensive. This especially applies to UK visitors who are so used to the wonderful NHS they find it a terrible shock to be presented with a huge bill after an unplanned visit to an Irish hospital. The question of hiring a ghillie needs to be discussed. It is a considerable expense to hire a ghillie for a whole week. Normally a ghillie can be had for around €100/€120 per dayplus a tip. He/she will know the water you are fishing like the back of their hand, will help with setting up your tackle, control the boat on the drift and selecting the right flies. They handle the boat and help out at lunchtime. It does not sound like much maybe but as someone who ghillies from time to time I can assure you it is a hard days work. My personal recommendation is you hire a ghillie for one or maybe two days, you will learn a lot and be more confident if you go out on your after that. Over the years I have seen time and time again days when the boat with a competent ghillie catches fish while the other boats (with excellent anglers on board) come in dry. I think I need to add that the picture of old fashioned ghillies has receded into the mists of time. Gone are the days of a curmudgeonly old man in tweeds who tells you what to do and woe betide if you don’t do his bidding! All the ghillies I know are knowledgeable, friendly, helpful and, above all, expert anglers.
There are good tackle shops in most towns and cities so please avail of them. Spending a few Euro in them helps to keep them going (we have lost many over the last few years). Prices are maybe a tad higher then you are used to paying but it is nice to have a piece of tackle to take home from your trip here.
These days it is easy to do all the research necessary to find the right place to come. Blogs like this one, YouTube videos, endless publications all contain valuable information which will allow you to plan your trip. Take your time and plan so you have some alternatives if your chosen fishery(s) are not doing well. I used to make sure I had at least one day off from the fishing during a holiday, time to re-charge the batteries and have a look around the locality.
My apologies if I am sounding like I work for the tourist board! The lockdown has deprived us all of things we took for granted and it seemed to me that losing our annual influx of anglers from abroad has been a major loss. When travel restrictions are lifted, and they surely will be eventually, I urge you to consider a trip to Ireland. A warm welcome awaits you here.