A grey, damp day dawned. The gales force winds of yesterday had abated and all was still, just the constant drip, drip, drip of the water running off the roof as I threw some bits of gear into the car. It had taken me a few minutes to even find my old waders it has been so long since I needed them. The boat was on the trailer from yesterday when it was rudely awakened from its winter slumber at the back of the shed and hoisted onto the trailer. Today she was going back to the lake.
The roads were wet and pools of water, of indeterminate depth, blurred the edge of tarmac and grass. The world was painted in battleship grey. I chugged along, the car fresh from an oil change and a repair to mend a hole in the exhaust. It was nice not to sound like a Massey Ferguson anymore!
The boreen which had been levelled last spring was a mess of pot holes again and the lough had flooded it during the winter. A line of dead rushes and twigs showed how far the water had reached but now it was down a good foot on the high water mark. The bad dip in the track near where I launch was now a lethal hole filled with rank water so I did not chance driving through it. The launching itself went smoothly and I rowed the boat into my usual spot where I tied her up. Tyres forced under each side of her stern and a couple of extra lengths of twine to hold her straight until the level drops were all that remained to do. Then it was off with the boots and into the car for the quiet and reflective drive home.
The pandemic has changed so much already and no doubt there are more trials and tribulations to come. Vaccine roll out is painfully slow here in Ireland but it is happening and realistically, it is our only real hope. The guards are very busy fining people for breaking the 5km rule but more and more of the population are risking the financial penalty because they need some small glimmer of hope. The huge rise in suicide in the country is simply being ignored by the government but at some point there needs to be an easing of the lockdown for peoples mental health.
A number of other boats are on the lough already, fishers doing what I did this morning. Just get the boat in the water so nobody steals ‘your’ place. We are far from normality yet but just seeing that old, shabby grey boat in the water lifted my spirits. The fishing is not far away now lads!
The best thing about this assignment I am on just now is that I finish work for the week at 1pm on a Friday. It’s lovely to feel the morning flying by and suddenly it is time to leave and head off for what feels like a long weekend. Yesterday was no different and after a forenoon wrestling with PowerPoint and the aftermath of a particularly trying OH&S audit I departed the site amid a howling gale driving hail showers before it. I dropped the car off for a service and toddled around the local Tesco, picking up some bits for our weekend then walked home in the fresh wind. Only when I finally plonked myself down on the sofa with a coffee did I notice I was still wearing my ear plugs around my neck.
Such lapses in sartorial elegance are part and parcel of growing older. I never bother to look in a mirror these days, it is just too depressing to see the ravages of time writ large upon my face. So a length of string with a blob of foam on each end are not an unusual addition to my attire. These particular ones were orange and as I (belatedly) removed them from around my neck I had an idea……….
If you are new to fishing the mayfly hatch here in Ireland you will be forgiven for thinking we locals all have a colour vision problem. The natural fly ranges in colour from green, through yellow to pale cream. Virtually any inspection of a wet fly angler box of artificials will show we use reds, clarets and, yes, oranges in our mayfly patterns. The bit of ‘string’ on my ear plugs was a deep burnt orange hue which I felt could be used for a new fly.
I like burnt orange as a colour and have used it since I was a teenager in Aberdeen. Then I fished for sea trout in the brackish waters of the lower Dee and Ythan. My favourite fly was a bastardisation of the Dunkeld. I tied it with a wing made of teal instead of bronze mallard and the hackle was not the usual hot orange but a deep, burnt orange instead. My best day with that fly yielded 13 seatrout on the Pot & Ford water run by the ADAA. I have caught brownies here in Ireland on the same pattern too.
I messed around at the vice for a while and in the end I settled for the following tying.
Silk: Fire orange 8/0
Hook: a trusty Kamasan B175, size 10
Hackle 1: French Partridge dyed orange
Hackle 2: Badger cock dyed golden olive
Hackle 3: A large Brown Partridge hackle
Tails: Cock pheasant herls dyed yellow (they look pale olive) with a couple of strands of fine pearl flash
Rib: burnt orange ear plug string or something similar
Body: Pale olive, medium olive and dark olive dubbing either mixed or in three bands from light to dark
If you have read this blog before you will know the order I tie everything and this is a pretty simple fly to make despite all the materials. Leave plenty of space at the neck for all this hackles and don’t wind more than a couple of turns of each feather.
The acid test will of course come when the mayfly is hatching and I am drifting over the rocky shallows of Mask or Conn. There are stirrings that the government here may start to relax the ridiculous 5km travel limit next month and if that miracle does come to pass I will be able to fish Loughs Conn and Cullin.
This was a fly I dreamt up a couple of seasons ago but due to the pandemic it has not been tried. It should work but I am taking no responsibility if it is a lemon.
I wanted a black dabbler for early season work on lough Conn, something with a bit of bling in it to attract the trout who are notoriously hard to stir in cold water in the lough. Usually it is not until the water warms up in May before the fishing takes off there but the lough is quiet early on in March and April so I like to get out early if possible. This is the time for sinking lines and slow retrieves. Fiery Browns, Silver Dabblers and Bibios are my normal patterns for April but I wanted to ring the changes so I sat ant the vice and came up with this lad.
I used the original Sweeney Todd for rainbows back in Scotland after reading about it is a book by the inventor, the late Bob Church. All black apart from a dash of pink at the throat and a red hackle, it worked alright but I thought the ace of spades was a deadlier pattern. Fished deep for rainbows, it did enough to convince me that the combination of black and pink was a winner.
Like many anglers here I already use a pink-tailed black zulu for salmon. It was something of a cult fly on Carrowmore lake a few years ago and I still use it up there.
To make this fly 8/0 black tying silk is started at the eye of a size 10 heavy wet fly hook. Leave a bit of space at the head before tying in a short fibred black cock hackle and running the tying silk down to the bend. Catch in a tail made from some pheasant tail fibres dyed black, flanked with some pearl flash and a length of oval silver tinsel. Dub some black seals fur on to the silk and make a body to cover two thirds of the hook. Now tie in and wind a piece of fl. pink wool. You can chop and dub it if you prefer. Remove the waste and wind the cock hackle down to the bend in open turns. Bind the hackle in place with the oval silver tinsel, tie in and cut off the tag end. A cloak of bronze mallard finishes off the fly.
The dash of pink just might make the difference on a slow day. I will give it a try if/when we get to go fishing again.
As the winter gives way to springtime us fishermen turn our thoughts to the early season fisheries and prime amongst the Irish loughs is Beltra. There are more prolific loughs and rivers but for sheer beauty it is hard to beat lovely lough Beltra. Since it is one of my local waters and one which I fish regularly I thought I would share some information on the best drifts on the Glenisland side of the lough. It may just help a visiting angler to locate a springer. Opening day is 20th March and one or two locals who live on the shores of the lough will no doubt be out to try their luck on that day.
Beltra lies to the west of the town of Castlebar in the townland of Glenisland. This is marginal farming country of rough pastures and hill sheep. The lough collects water from the Crumpaun river which flows into the northern end of the lough and the Newport river discharges from the opposite southern end. The Newport river is a good salmon fishery in its own right but I have only rarely fished it and am no expert on that water. In addition there are a few small streams which drain the immediate area and find their way into the lough.
Roughly two miles long by a mile or so wide, the lough is set on a northeast – south west axis and this is very important to know when planning a day on the lake. The predominant wind direction here in Mayo is an Atlantic breeze from the south west. This is pretty much a perfect direction for Beltra as it allows you to set up a drift from the southern end of the lake and be blown up the full length of the lough to the north. In practice the wind is rarely spot on and the drifts need to be adjusted as you proceed down the lough but either a south west or a north east wind suits the Glenisland Coop side of the lough.
While there are islands and bays on the Newport side of the lough there is an open shoreline on the Coop side. Fishing is carried out close to the shore, if you are more than 50 yards from the bank you are too far out in most places (I will come to exceptions to that rule later on). The reason for this is the depth falls away rapidly and the salmon (and sea trout) much prefer to lie in shallow water when they get into the lough. So keep close to the bank and adjust your drift with strokes on an oar out the back of the boat. Unlike most of the big loughs, there are no rocks or reefs to worry about on this side of Beltra. There are a few well marked rocks on the Newport House side but none on Glenisland. For some anglers this is a blessing. I know not a few very good anglers who hate dodging in around rocks and reefs for fear of grounding of smashing a hole in the boat. Others, myself included, find that where there are reefs or rocks there will often be fish so put up with the occasional scratch on the keel from barely visible obstructions.
Let’s take a look at some of the well known drifts on the Glenisland side. We will presume there is a good force 4 or 5 south-westerly blowing. The mouth of the river where the stream at the harbour enters the lough is a good spot. Silt from the river has built up over the years and the water is shallow (mind your propeller!). Start your drift well to the south so you have time to get your line lengthened and everything in the boat settled. It will depend on the height of water in the lough but roughly 20 – 40 yards out is about right. Drift past the mouth of the river then guide the boat towards the shore. Fish on down the length of the shoreline, keeping inside the 50 yard line. This a good drift for sea trout too.
Moving down the lough, Morrisons is a grand lie for a salmon. Drifting up to it from the south you come to a small point of gravel; fish can take you either before or immediately after this point. After this there are sometimes a fish or two sitting 50-100 yards further down.
Next as we drift along the shore we come to the Wall. The reason for the name is obvious as there is a wall practically on the edge of the water where the road runs close by. No major features here bar a small stream which enters the lough via a culvert under the road.
The red shed is now a bit of a misnomer after the owner painted it grey a few years ago! We still refer to it as the red shed though. Another good salmon lie, they can come to you from right along this piece of shoreline. There is a tiny little bay where a small stream comes in and fish lie all around here. The slightly featureless shore stretching northwards from the small bay is all good salmon water. This leads you down to the northern harbour which is known as ‘the dock’.
So what do you do if the wind is not blowing conveniently from the south west. Your best bet is going to be the northern end of the lough where the shallows at the mouth of the Crumpaun river can be tackled in just about any wind direction. You are sort of trapped in a small area but it is always a good spot for a salmon and I have seen many fish caught there in winds which meant the rest of the lough was almost unfishable. The bottom here is sandy and the fish seem to like lying in the shallow water. By late spring there will be some weed growth on the bottom here, especially as you get closer to the shore so watch out for vegetation fouling your flies. The shallows outside the dock are one of the prime drifts for sea trout on the lough. It is worth noting that when the Crumpaun river is in flood this end of the lough can become very dirty with sediment from the river, making it unfishable at times. The limit of the beat is marked by a buoy so you often here locals referring to catching a fish ‘at the buoy’. It is good fishing water right across from the buoy to the dock. Keep a careful eye on the depth of water when drifting into the mouth of the river, it shallows up and you can ground the boat which could be tricky to re-float in a good wind.
I am not saying it is impossible to fish the main lies along the east shore in any wind except a south westerly, it is just much harder work. A westerly pushes the boat fast on to the shore and drifts consist of a few hasty casts before starting the engine and going back out a hundred yards or so. This is tiring work for little return. An easterly wind is blocked by the hills meaning calm water on the Glenisland shore (who likes an east wind anyway!)
In a North Easterly wind Walsh’s Bay at the south of the lough is a good lie. Here the fish lie very close to the shore so cast your flies as close as you dare to the rocks and rushes and be ready for a pull within inches of dry land. This is a lovely wee bay to fish, very intimate and calming.
Fishing on your own can be hard work as casting a heavy line and pulling on an oar to keep on the drift demands a degree of physicality. The services of a ghillie can really be a boon and there are some excellent ones on the lough, including some real characters (you know who you are!). If you are not used to handling a boat in big waves and high winds then I strongly recommend you hire a ghillie for the day. He will take care of the hard work on the oar and let you concentrate on your casting in the challenging conditions. The ghillie will also have the advantage of intimate knowledge and experience which can be crucial, especially on marginal days.
I could go on and on about this lough but the best thing is for you to come and experience it for yourself. The fishing is not easy and blank days are common but few places finer for spending a day.
I know I have written about salmon fishing on spate rivers before but with this season already slipping away I am planning on fishing a couple of small local rivers this summer. I have avoided them recently as the stocks were being hammered by poachers in small boats at the mouth of the rivers and I felt my fishing them was only adding to the difficulties of the poor salmon. But after last year I am hopeful the fish numbers might have increased a little so I will chance trying for some grilse come the summer months. With my early spring fishing already lost due to travel restrictions I want to maximise my summer angling so that means grilse fishing on spate streams for me.
The small spate rivers of the west of Ireland are very similar to their counterparts on the west coast of Scotland so pretty much all of what I am going to talk about applies to both countries. These are small, intimate fisheries, far removed from the classic ‘big four’ of Tweed, Tay, Dee and Spey. Each has its own character and a large part of the enjoyment is getting to know the moods and signals the water will give you if you look and learn. I confess it took me a while to key into small rivers, I was so used to fishing the big Scottish rivers that tiny streams seemed a huge challenge. No more 200 yard long pools where I could get into a rhythm casting or fishing over lies where I knew fish would hold for days on end. I learned slowly and now appreciate the beauty and excitement of the spate rivers.
In my previous posts I dealt with the basics but here I want to go into more detail of the methods I personally have found successful. I’ll start with tackle. Although the average width of the rivers I am taking about is from about 5 – 20 yards I prefer a rod of around 11 feet in length. Many local anglers go longer than that and 12 or 13 footers can often be seen in use around here. Partly this is simply using the same rod for boat fishing as for the river but the longer rod gives a couple of advantages over its shorter brethren. Anything which reduces the need for false casting is good, the banks of the river are wild and unkempt so keeping the fly in the water and not in the air too much is a good idea. I find a longer rod is an aid when landing fish too. Often you have to reach over bankside obstructions so that extra foot or two of rod length can be a godsend.
For me personally, chest waders are a must. I see other very successful anglers rocking up to the river wearing only a pair of wellies but I want the freedom of crossing the river as required and bridges are at a premium usually. The price I pay is being lathered in sweat but there you go.
For fishing big rivers I own a range of different line densities to cope with varying conditions but for spate rivers I just use a floater. If I want to get down a bit or combat a very heavy current I use a small brass tube fly rather than mess about with sinking lines. Keep your tackle simple, there is no need for anything fancy.
Some pools on small rivers look just like miniature ‘classic’ pools in shape and depth profile, a fast run into the pool at the neck then the deeper main body before the water shallows and smooths out at the tail. For an experienced angler this is easy to read and fish. A lot of ‘pools’ on the small rivers are not that obvious though. Winkling grilse out of odd corners is one of the great charms of this type of fishing and I have caught them in all sorts of places. Every sunken rock, surface disturbance, drop off or gravel bar should be fished diligently. Only experience will tell you when a particular lie will hold fish at any given height. And this is where the question of height becomes paramount.
Beginners are often caught out by the speed a river rises or drops. In these times of intensive farming, hill sheep, Sitka plantations and drainage systems our spate rivers swell with flood water and then empty at astonishing rates. Knowing the river you are fishing is a vital component of your armoury. The visiting angler who decides to fish on a certain day, starting at a given time will always be at a huge disadvantage compared to a local who can be flexible. For example, imagine a small spate river in July. A visiting angler books a days fishing for the Wednesday to fit in with other family commitments. The weather forecast is for rain on Tuesday so he is pretty confident of sport. Sure enough, it rains early on Tuesday morning and the river is a roaring flood by midday. It falls rapidly though and the locals are out in numbers by 3pm and fresh grilse are landed in prime conditions of falling and clearing water. By 9am on Tuesday the river is low and clear once again and our visitor is forced to fish either the sea pool or one or two deeper holes in the river. During the summer here in the west there is a constant flow of calls and texts between us salmon fishers. Every snippet of information regarding weather and water levels is passed on. ‘I was driving over the Party mountains an hour ago and the heavens opened, the Erriff will be up soon’, or ‘I was talking to a lad who said it’s lashing in Bangor, the grilse will be in the Owenmore’. Such juicy titbits are the lifeblood of summer fishing here and are the reason you see locals appear as if by magic when the rivers are in ply.
Within the window of a falling spate the experienced angler will have his or her own preferred pools at any given height. I could recount so many tales of catching a salmon from a lie which two hours later was bone dry. Each river system has it’s own character and seems to fish best under certain conditions. Take the Carrownisky river in west Mayo for example. I have fished this small river for many years and know excellent anglers who have done so since they were kids. None of us would bother fishing the lower stretches on a bright day. Cloudy, windy and damp are what you need there. On the other hand I have seen some good fishing on the Owenmore though on bright days though and even caught them in blazing sunshine on the Bunowen. Again, it comes back to knowing your water.
Have I caught salmon from a rising river? Yes I have. Have I caught many? No, only a handful over my lifetime. The ability to wait it out and allow the river to begin to drop is a huge plus. Often I have looked at the river at 9am to find it rising, filthy and unfishable. I’ll go off and do something else for a while then come back later in the day, the exact timing depending on the rain. If it rains all day I’ll pass on the fishing but if it stops the river will stop rising then start to drop, the exact timing depending on each system and where the rain fell. It is then that you want to be tackled up and on the bank. It can be a period of frustration or intense excitement when waiting for the river to come into ply. Here in the west the weather systems can sometimes roll in one after the other so just when you think it is time to get the rods out another belt of rain dumps yet more water into the river and up she goes again. Then again sometimes the the river drops during the night and that roaring flood at 10pm has subsided to a trickle by 5am the next morning.
The actual fishing itself is a hotch-potch of different casts trying to present the flies to fish in a wide range of lies. Long casts are rarely required but the ability to read a piece of water and fish it well are a necessity. I find myself roll casting frequently to avoid trees and bushes, wading deep to get the right angle to drift a fly into position or throwing outrageous mends in the line to hang the fly just right. I am sometimes out fished by the spinner and worming lads but in general over a season I regard the fly as the most effective method of tempting spate river salmon.
I’ve gone into fly design and patterns in other posts so I won’t re-hash that here, suffice to say that I find the smaller the better when it comes to summer fishing. Confidence in your fly is much more important that the particular pattern. I change flies often but that is simply because I am a fly tyer and like giving my new creations a swim. A Black Pennel, a Cascade or an Allys Shrimp will all catch you a fish or two so don’t sweat fly choice.
In summary, being on the water at the right time during the very short period of falling water is 90% of the battle. After that you need to read the water to figure out where a salmon could be lying then present smallish flies on a floating line. The real joy of this type of fishing is getting to know the river and its ways. Just being out on a small Irish river as a summer flood recedes is a wonderful experience. Swallows swooping as they hunt flies, the odd splash of a running salmon, the stunning green foliage on the banks or the smell of the new cut fields all combine to assault your senses. It is a very different experience to fishing the big, well tended rivers of Scotland. You should try it sometime!
I hold up my hands here and confess I am no expert when it comes to tossing streamers for wild brownies on rivers. I have used them a few times and caught fish but compared to some of the masters of the method my knowledge is very limited. I wanted to touch on them today as I was making up a few to top up the streamer box and realised I had not talked about them before. Take the advice which follows as simply as starting point for anyone who comes to Ireland to fish the rivers for trout and wants to try streamers. So here we go.
I associate streamers with high/coloured water but they will catch fish in most conditions bar dead low/crystal clear. That means using them mainly early season around here. I find that some days the fish hit them really well but on others they are totally ignored, so if you find yourself trying the streamer and they are not biting give it a rest and try another method rather than wasting too much time on them. I look for structures such as deep holes, undercut banks, rocks, tree roots or sunken logs to fish. Anywhere that a good fish might have taken up station to ambush fry or crayfish. The usual cast is at 90 degrees to the current but sometimes you need to be more creative so cast as best you can to present the fly deeply. I know places where I have to cast directly upstream just to get the fly over the lies. So be prepared to mix it up and do what you have to to present the streamer at the right depth and speed.
I guess that streamers would possibly catch fish on a dead drift but I like to give them as much action as possible, varying the retrieve until I find which provokes a strike. Short, sharp pulls often works but at other times long draws are better. You need to experiment to find the killing retrieve on any given day. Don’t be afraid to try fast strips too, they can provide some hair-raising takes. The Marabou or rabbit fur or flowing hackles of streamers mean they respond well to plenty of movement and remember these patterns are suggestive and don’t stand up to close scrutiny by the trout. Keep it moving in jerks and you won’t go far wrong.
One other thing, watch out for pike as they take a streamer with gusto too. I got bitten off on the Robe once by a good pike which nabbed a streamer in a deep pool. Where there are a lot of pike it is worthwhile adding a short section of wire to the end of the leader. Even a 6 inch length of 10 pound breaking strain wire will give you some security from the green fellas teeth but it may reduce the number of strikes from trout.
Serious streamer anglers have a dedicated set up with a more powerful rod and heavier lines. I don’t fancy lugging around a second rod with me as my wild brown trout river fishing is a highly mobile affair. Instead I put up with the limitations of my 5 weight Orvis which, although far from ideal manages to cast the heavy fly the relatively short distances I require. I also stick to my faithful floating line as well. I know that many streamer anglers use sink tip or even full sinkers to get down a bit more. I doubt if a sinker is going to make a huge difference to me on such a narrow river as the Robe so dragging around one or two spare spools hardly seems worth it for a method which gets used infrequently. I like to use a leader of 6 pound breaking strain nylon as it is tough and can stand the abuse of being pulled through rough patches of weeds or the bottom. It also gives a degree of hope if you run into a big fish. Double figure brown trout live in some Irish rivers and meeting one of these on light leaders is only going to end in disaster.
For me, the hardest part of fishing streamers is the strike. Forget lifting into a fish as you normally do, you need to learn to strip-strike. That entails sharp pull with the hand retrieving the line. Sounds very simple I know but it takes practice as your instinct is to lift into the take. I must have missed dozens and dozens of trout by not strip-striking over the years. I guess if I was to do more streamer fishing it would become second nature but for now I will just accept I need to work harder and pay more attention to the strike.
I have one pattern I use almost to the exclusion of all others, all be it in different colours. Buggers. I love buggers in all sorts of sizes and shades. They imitate everything and nothing at the same time, being simple suggestive patterns. I tie them in all colours from brilliant white through olives and browns to jet black. Some sport bead heads, some have lead wire under the body and few even have no weight at all. Dark olive grizzle and black ones have probably been my two most successful to date. I tie them on size 6, 8 or 10 long shank hooks. A marabou tail maybe with a hint of flash, a fur or chenille body and palmered hackle are all that is required. I have some crawdad patterns in the box too just to give me something for a change.
So why am I tying up more streamers? With time on my hands I have been thinking about the places I am fishing on the Robe and there are some spots which could be home to better fish which I have not dedicated enough time to get to know. Searching with a streamer may produce a trout of considerable size from these spots and I want to fish them more diligently when lockdown ends. I know the river has been heavily fished by the bait and spinner fishmongers lately but maybe they missed a few of the big lads. There is one particular pool which I want to try out again this season. I had some success on it a few years ago with an olive bugger but I did not fish it all as there was a big, deep drain on my side of the river which I could not cross, meaning I only covered about half of the pool. This place is also full of pike so there may be some action with them too on the streamer. I plan to attack the pool from the opposite bank where access is a bit better, all be it from a high bank.
Streamer fishing will never replace my love of swinging spiders or flicking dry flies but it is an alternative on days when you just want to change things up a bit or look for a big fish. My wee fly box holds enough to see me through a season and only fills a small pocket on my waistcoat so I think they earn their keep. For me, that is good enough and I can’t see me investing in another set up anytime soon. I would urge those of you coming to fish the rivers here for trout to bring along a few streamers, they might just catch you the biggest fish of the season.