Fishing in Ireland

32 update

A couple of people have asked me recently if I have given up on my attempt to catch a fish in all 32 counties on the island of Ireland. The answer is an unequivocal ‘NO’, my pet project is still very much alive. It has just on hold due to the current Covi-19 travel restrictions. To be honest, work has been hectic since the start of this year and left little room for fishing even if I had been allowed to. I tried to make good use of any free time though.

My spare time has been used to research possible venues and tackle shops, studying maps and making up flies and end tackle for when the shackles finally come off and I can travel around the country again. I have been haunting the backwaters of the internet, poking my nose into other anglers blogs and podcasts, downloading screen shots from Google Earth and figuring out the best roads to take me to different destinations. If I put half as much effort into the actual fishing as I have into the planning stage I should do OK.

I now have a spreadsheet (I do like a bit of Excel you know), filled with venues for each of the 24 counties I still have to visit. As much detail as I can muster has been added to this sheet, items like directions, where to buy a permit, back up venues close by in case I don’t catch, best baits, species to target and the even nearest tackle shops have all been meticulously logged by yours truly. This has taken me far longer than I thought it would but the sheet is now complete and so I have a detailed plan to follow.

While I accept that the fish care not a jot for all this feverish activity on my part it has still been a useful exercise for me. A lot of times I thought about fishing one spot only to change my mind once I had carried out the research. This is angling so there are no guarantees, but by looking at the options and making decisions on the best information available I hope to increase my chances of success.

I have been able move around my home county of Mayo since 12th April so it makes sense to target Mayo soon and tick that one of the list. Look out for that post very soon. I am hoping that by the end of June I will be allowed to travel between counties and at that point the full weight of my angling energies will be deployed. The only delay will be a trip to Scotland once travel there is given the all clear. A week in Alba should be about right. From then right through to the autumn will see me traversing the country, fishing, photographing and blogging as I go.

Investment in some permits and licences will be required but I will wait until I am sure that I can travel before doing that. I don’t want to shell out money for licences and then find myself locked down again and unable to make use of them. Talking about money, I have also made a rough guess at the total cost of the project. I won’t divulge the actual number (it is just too depressing), suffice to say that permits and bait are minor items but the cost fuel accounts for 85% of total. With so many long journeys it is hard to reduce this significantly but I will temper my driving style and see if I the old VW will return any better than my current average of 48mpg.

Of necessity, there will be a mix of different fishing methods and styles. Eleven fisheries on my list will be fly only, trying to catch salmon, brownies or rainbows. Then there are eight coarse fishing venues, mainly targeting roach and perch but with a couple of other species thrown in for good measure. Only five are salt water marks but I am really looking forward to them. I have not managed to get out sea fishing for many, many months and the idea of casting into the sea again holds a huge attraction. The saltwater angling around Ireland does not really begin until June when the water starts to warm properly and peaks in August/September so it will be later in the year before I tackle those 5 venues.

I have concerns about the availability of bait. With the tackle shops all being closed for so long during lockdown it is hard to know who will be opening up again and if they will be stocking worms and maggots. Some may never open again while others will not bother to order bait until they see anglers at their doors looking to fill their pint boxes. I can always scratch around in the compost heap at home to find a few worms but I rely heavily on maggots when chasing roach. I’ll need to make a few phone calls nearer the time to see who is open and selling the precious grubs. Other options such as bread for roach or prawns for perch may be required.

The recent rioting in the north is a bit of a worry. Brexit was always going to stir up trouble and we may yet face a summer lit up with petrol bombs. That the UK government made so little effort to work out answers to the complex issues around the border and trade between Ireland and Britain was, to say the least, a disappointment. The tinderbox that is Northern Ireland requires only the smallest spark to ignite the flames and Brexit was more akin to a blazing oil tanker than a spark!

I have yet to fish any of the 6 counties so I will be picking my time to stray north of the border very carefully. For me, the month of July is out of the question. That is marching season and I will be avoiding it like the plague. Don’t get me wrong, I am not on one side of the divide or the other, I have friends on both sides. I just don’t want to be anywhere near trouble, meaning the flashpoints of the marching bands during July will be a strong deterrent for me. So much depends on the date when travel begins; if possible I will hit the Northern Ireland venues by the end of June. If that does not work out it will be September/October before I hop across the border.

All my gear is ready to go now after a winter and lockdown of tinkering and repairing. When I visit Scotland I always nip in by the Glasgow Angling Centre and purchase more stuff that I don’t need! I will try really hard not to buy a new rod or reel but I can’t promise I will be successful with that endeavour. While I was working on ‘32’ spreadsheet I also logged all my rods and reels. Much of my old salmon fishing gear from my days casting on the Dee and Tweed is never used these days and I really should sell it off. Lovely Hardy reels are just sitting there gathering dust as they are too big for my fishing here in Ireland. I have more trout fly reels than I can ever use too, but I’ll hang on to them for now. None of this will prevent me from perusing the aisles of the GAC and no doubt parting with some hard earned cash for yet more expensive tackle. I cannot justify buying even a single hook, let alone a new reel, but we anglers are a marketing guru’s delight and I will surely be suckered into buying even more shiny winding mechanisms.

In summary, the ‘32’ project is ready to be resumed this summer. At work, I am between contracts after this week and barring any sudden requirement for me to rush off on an assignment, I will be fishing hard on the rivers and loughs of Mayo soon and then right across the island from late June onwards.

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Fishing in Ireland, trout fishing, wetfly

Typical day on the Robe

River Robe, April 2021

The signs went up three years ago. Ugly, threatening signs plastered on gates and fences, warnings in red letters. Details of how you would be arrested if you dared to walk by this stretch of the river as it was now under new ownership. Of course, this was the prime stretch of the river and now it was out of bounds to me. I let it be and fished elsewhere but it rankled me that my harmless pursuit was now illegal. It appeared that the old building in the field and its grounds had been purchased and the new owners did not want anyone on their land.

Then, when driving past the gates and fences last summer (during the break in lockdown), I noticed the signs were no longer there. I took a mental note and promised myself I would return in 2021. I drove down there this morning only to find new warning signs have been erected along with miles of barbed wire! I toyed with the idea of hopping the fences anyway but decided against it. I would hate trying to fish while looking over my shoulder all the time. I drove on down to a nice looking stretch which I have fished a couple of times before but without any success.

Access is not easy. There used to be a stile at the bottom of the stretch, plus a very large and steep set of steps leading from the stile on the edge of the lane down to the riverbank 3 metres below. This wooden structure has rotted away and a set of ropes or the agility of a mountain goat are now prerequisites if you want to enter the river there. I walked upstream for a bit and found a place where I could slither down the steep bank between some trees. I commenced operations there amid budding branches, the air thick with bird song.

A pair of spiders on dropper and a weighted PT tied to a 3 pound leader fished off a floating line were my starting point. Changes to dry fly or nymph were all possibilities for the future but for now I would swing the wee soft hackles through the shallow runs. Short roll casts to start with, just flicking out the leader and a foot or two of fly line, searching the water at my feet. It always surprises me how many trout you can catch like this. The pools in this stretch are about 15 yards wide and a few inches deep. In high water it is too fast to fish and at summer levels it is too shallow for anything big, but today the height was just right. To get the flies to fish on the far side of the current I had to throw big mends in the line. Trees on my bank made for challenging castings, judging the right length and allowing for the mend were tricky and kept me on my toes. I worked my way downstream, rolling out the line as best I could but of a trout there was no sign. A few olives were hatching out but the fish showed absolutely no interest in them. Fishing as far down as the old bridge I climbed out to the path and had a think about things.

This stretch looks to be perfect trout water but it does not seem to fish at all. Rather than waste any more time here I decided to try another stretch at Hollymount. Off I went, winding along the narrow roads until I came to where I park for near an old 5 bar gate. What would this piece of water yield?

I fished the bridge pool diligently but without an offer. Olives and some stoneflies were in the air which was encouraging but a nasty, gusting wind was blowing directly upstream, making placing the flies close to the far bank a bit of a challenge. Half way down the next pool I rose a fish but failed to connect. A few paces further on I had a solid take and a 6 incher came to hand. A few casts later a gust of wind whipped my flies into a bush and I snapped off. A new leader and flies were soon tied up and I was back in action, only for the same thing to happen again! I re-tied the leader once more.

The next trout shook the hook but soon I had a second, then a third and a fourth. All the same stamp of trout, between 6 and 9 inches long and in great condition. The size 16 Iron Blue Dun on the top dropper was doing most of the damage and I saw one or two natural Iron Blues on the water. My guess is the trout are feeding on the nymphs as they ascend because I see no natural rises.

More trout are caught, a few threw the hook and some simply pluck at the flies as they swing in the current. I work my way downstream. Part of the reason for going to fish the river today was to test my dodgy right knee. It has never been right since a motorbike accident when I was 20 and since January I have been in a lot of pain with it. I suspect it is a damaged tendon and I have been resting it for months and now I am slowly trying to build up the surrounding muscles. I manage to cover about a mile or so before the pain returns but a bit of massaging works wonders and I carry on.

I have landed 9 trout by now and am working my way slowly down a good run. The line tightens and I bend into a better fish which fights hard before I slip the net under it. A quick photo and back it goes, about 13 inches and a pound or so in weight. The tail of this pool is now partially blocked with a tree which has been felled. There seems to have been a lot of branch trimming, presumably by the IFI. I am not a fan of this kind of thing, I prefer the banks to be left to grow wild.

Three more trout are landed as I reach the limit of where I will fish this afternoon. There is more water further down but I have had a good few hours and there is no need to push on any further. I about-turn and slowly plod across the fields back to where the car is parked. I am tired now, the winter of sitting on a couch watching Netflix followed by 4 months at work sitting at a computer screen/giving PowerPoint presentations have taken their toll on me. Today was about getting some fresh air and catching a few fish so I can head home well satisfied. The little Iron Blue was the star today, taking most of the fish I landed.

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Fishing in Ireland

Breathe

A couple of weeks ago the government announcement that some small easing of restrictions will commence on 12th April coincided with a spell of fine weather and the Easter bank holiday weekend. Ministers stressed the need to wait until the 12th before meeting in small groups or travelling outside 5km of your home. Being Ireland, this was roundly ignored and like children in a playground the population is currently running around in gay abandon defying the lockdown rules. Who can blame them? This lockdown has been the hardest for many and people need to have some small freedoms. The disease is still circulating strongly and we are looking at a third wave in the near future as vaccination levels are very low so far.

I had had enough of being cooped up at home and so decided to have a few hours on the water this morning. The gear was dusted down and with growing excitement I stowed it all in the car. At the filling station I bought some petrol, the smell of it filling the car as I drove slowly down the road to lough Conn. It had been a fine, bright spring morning but it was bitterly cold so I was in no great hurry. The troubles of the world seemed far away as the greening countryside slipped by. I played a CD (the Cowboy Junkies actually) instead of listening to the radio as I drove; I wanted a rest from bad news for once. Margo Timmins syrupy voice was the perfect backdrop to the day. I sang along to ‘Sweet Jane’, my flat Scottish brogue murdering the modern classic. Ah well, we can’t all be good singers (on the plus side, I have been playing this tune on my CBG and it sounds good).

With little in the way of wind I was armed mainly with a solitary trolling rod. That was fine, all I wanted to do was get out on the water, feel the boat slipping through the wavelets and seeing the lough once again. A fly rod was also along for the ride but I doubted it would be used in such poor conditions. There was only the slimmest of chances I would meet a fish but that really didn’t matter to me. The wind, although gentle, was blowing from the north, arctic air spilling over this part of Europe bringing us near winter temperatures at a time when we expect more pleasant conditions. April is always changeable here; normally we expect wet and relatively warm weather as spring picks up pace but this year it has been different.

The water level had dropped back only a little since I launched the boat two weekends ago and she was stuck fast by the stern when I got there. I bailed a few inches of water from her first then a bit of pushing and shoving was called for before I had her floating again. I didn’t park in my usual spot next to the boat, the boreen is in poor condition and I feared I would get stuck so I parked on the sandy space near the small beach. Seven months had passed since the Honda engine had been started so I was expecting she would need a few pulls on the cord to coax her into life again. As it was she burst into life at the second tug on the cord.

A silver and copper Toby, probably 50 years old now, was attached to the rod. As usual, I dropped the lure over the side so I could check it would swim correctly. The Toby flickered enticingly in the coloured water, flashes of silver in the murk. Eighteen grams of Swedish steel was sent off 30 yards behind the slowly moving boat and I relaxed into that meditative state all trollers know. Out of the bay and down the shoreline I slowly motored, breathing in the cold, fresh air.

My fly fishing mates find my liking for trolling strange. Uncouth, boring, lacking in any finesse, they fail to see the attraction in slowly dragging bits of metal through the water for hours on end. I harboured the same prejudices for most of my life and it has only been the last few years that I have grown to enjoy a bit of trolling. For me, it is perfect for a day like today. Too cold/bright/early for fly fishing, I would not bother venturing out if not for the trolling gear. I lack the determination to troll relentlessly for hours/days/weeks on end as some fishers do. For me it is a ‘fill in’, way of fishing marginal conditions or to take a rest from the fly. I find that wielding the heavy 11 foot salmon rod all day is too much, so an hour’s rest trolling over the lies gives my aching arm a chance to recover. As you have possibly read elsewhere on this blog, I love using the old ABU spoons. There is some connection with the past for me that I really get a kick out of. So the Toby and Tilly spoons get a regular swim and they still catch me fish.

One turn around the pin at the mouth of the bay then off down Massbrook with the sky full of hail showers. I dodged them on the way down but in Victoria bay the heavens opened and a rough squall hit me full in the face. Hunkering down, I headed back up the lough with water finding its way into every nook and cranny. These showers are cold and nasty but rarely last too long and by the time I had covered a mile or so the hail had eased off. Sand Martins, the first of the swallow tribe, were hawking flies over the surface as I regained the bay and called it a day.

The whole purpose of today was not to catch fish but just to get out on the water again. To see the sunlight play on the waves and the ever changing colours on Nephin’s heathery flanks. Simply to breathe some fresh air instead of through a mask, at least for a little while. I was home again by 3pm, a mug of hot coffee to heat me up and I felt better. There is time enough for the hard fishing, the long days of May and June are close at hand now. At least the fishing has now started!

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Fishing in Ireland, salmon fishing, trolling, trout fishing

Boat partners

I know what you are thinking – he is opening a can of worms here! Be that as it may, I want to discuss boat partners as they as such a vital part of the lough fishing experience. Let me say at the outset that I have been very lucky and fished with some of the finest anglers over the years and an awful lot of my knowledge has been gleaned from those fine fishermen.

So what makes a good boat partner? Anglers, like the rest of society, are a diverse bunch. Some are gregarious and voluble while others are introverted and quiet. Some are skilful and others bumblers of the highest order (I fall into the latter group). There is no magic formula and I find that while pretty much all boat anglers get along just fine there are some combinations which work better than others.

When fishing I tend to be quiet. I don’t say much and certainly don’t indulge in idle chit-chat when afloat. I like my boat partners to be similarly silent when on the drift. While that works for me others will find my quietness irksome. I know some boats that you can often hear before you see them! Loud laughter and constant chatter mark them out at a distance and good luck to them. It works for both parties and they thoroughly enjoy their days of constant banter on the waves.

Then there is the question of the division of work. Drifting an Irish lough seems to some like perfect peace but trust me, there are days when the oar is in constant use or short drifts mean the engine is often purring as you shift back to the start of a drift or work your way down a shoreline. Some boats share the load by swapping positions in the boat, usually at lunchtime. This is a very fair way of doing things as it also changes casting positions giving both anglers a chance of fishing from each end of the boat. Other boats never swap positions, perhaps due to the engine being the property of one of the anglers and he/she may not want anyone else operating their expensive outboard. In my book that is fair enough. It is all too easy to strike a hidden rock and seriously damage an engine. I for one would feel terrible if that happened to me.

Ability and physicality need to be considered too. As I get older I appreciate that I am not as agile or strong as I was in my youth and am not too proud to ask for help. Young fellas can row all day or stand up in the stern facing the weather as we beat upwind in a force 5 much better than I can!

Time for a brew, Lough Beltra

Little things can make a difference, like what happens at lunchtime. For some boats this is a team effort where each party knows their job and indeed even who brings along what bit of grub. Some lads are deft with the frying pan while others are good at foraging for twigs to start a fire for example. Some enjoy a glass of wine while others a pioneers.

The vibrant competition scene here in Ireland fosters long-standing boat partnerships. At the same time, many competitions feature a draw at the start of the day when your name is in the hat with everyone else and whoever your are pulled out with is your partner for the day. I won’t get into that now as I am not a competition fisher but for many meeting other anglers is one of the joys of the competition scene.

Somehow all these variables shake down over time and anglers gravitate to each other and form strong bonds. Good boat partnerships last a lifetime and losing that partner can feel like a bereavement.

Heading out for a day on the Corrib with Micky and Ben

So where do I fit into this picture? I am afraid I am a bit of a tramp, I flit between boat partners. In my defence I have to say this is partly because I vary my fishing so much. Different venues, different species, different methods – they all play a part in this mosaic. Virtually all of my lough salmon fishing is with my mate Ben, a dyed-in-the-wool salmon fisher. Trout fishing on the other hand sees me partnered with a phalanx of other anglers depending on where and when I am fishing. Very often I fish alone, not because I am particularly anti-social but more that my outings are often unplanned. I see a window in the weather or have time on my hands and take advantage of those opportunities at short notice. I am also notorious for swapping between methods which some people don’t mind but others find a challenge. I may start the day fishing the fly but if the wind drops I will troll for a while until the breeze comes back up. Most of my acquaintances are fly-only men who would not be seen dead with a trolling rod in the boat. So you can frequently find me out on the water alone, trailing a lure behind the boat or doing that cast/pull the oar (repeat) thing.

There does not seem to be one magic rule which decides how a good partnership is formed, rather it is an amalgamation of a host of factors. The complexities of human interaction mean we will never fully understand it but sometimes you just ‘click’ with another angler and when that happens it adds enormously to the days afloat.

After 12th April we will be allowed to travel within our counties here in Ireland and I will be back out on the water, either alone or with a boat partner. The long wait is nearly over and I am hopeful of some good fishing this season. Part of the excitement of returning to the fishing is reaffirming those friendships forged over past seasons with like-minded fishers and I hope to meet and fish with many more of you this year.

Kevin and a sunny day on Mask.
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