Fishing in Ireland

Carrowmore, May ’21

Yesterday I opted for a day chasing silvery salmon; I was off to North Mayo and the holy grail of lough salmon fly fishers – Carrowmore Lake. Carrowmore sits to the north of the village of Bangor in the old Earldom of Erris. Wild lands of hill and bog, this is a sparsely populated part of the country where scratching a living from rough pasture or the stormy Atlantic has been the lot of generations. The famine decimated the area and many more left to try and build a new life across the oceans. Here, on the very edge of Europe, there used to be few opportunities for the locals but that has at least partly changed as technology has allowed people to work from home.

The village of Bangor consists of little more than two streets. A few pubs, a couple of shops and some small businesses make up the buildings and the place has a sleepy quality about it. The angling plays a big part in the local community and many of the locals fish the river and lake. The Bangor Erris Angling Club has the rights to the lower section of the Owenmore river and Carrowmore lake (the upper river is in private hands). Permits are freely available and are a reasonable cost. Any visitors who want to come and fish in the area will find excellent B&B accommodation in and around Bangor itself so it is well worth considering if you are thinking about an angling holiday once we are all free to travel again.

What can I say about Carrowmore that has not already been said? Anglers have been waxing lyrical about this piece of water since sport fishing started here in Ireland hundreds of years ago. It is very much a ‘one off’, I know of no other lake which has such unique characteristics. Over the years it sounds like it has changed from being predominately a sea trout fishery to a spring salmon lake and that alone is very unusual. Beltra has followed that route to a degree I suppose but those two lakes are completely different in almost every other way. Beltra is deep and the fishing is confined largely to the narrow shallow margins while Carrowmore is universally shallow with some areas even being too shallow for boats to drive through.

Then there is the question of the bottom of the lake. We salmon fishers normally appreciate a high wind. It seems to stir up the salmon and gets them chasing the flies. That is not the case on Carrowmore where the bottom is composed of fine peat silt which has washed off the land. A high wind whips up the shallow water, causing the peat silt to ‘churn’ turning the lake a filthy brown colour. This is useless for fishing. I don’t know is it the fish are blinded in the oxtail soup consistency of the churned water or if they find the taste of the silt unpleasant or if the silt chokes their gills and makes breathing hard. Anyway, a churned lake is the nemesis of Carrowmore angler’s and many days are lost each season to the phenomenon. It is worth noting that Carrowmore is a spring fishery, April and May are the prime months and the salmon fishing tails off after that. Sea trout are numerous during the summer months but realistically the fishing is over by August.

For me, a day on Carrowmore was always one of rituals. We have followed the same procedures for many years now and to break any of our self-imposed rules would feel like sacrilege. The drive up to Bangor, the first glimpse of the Owenmore river at Bellacorrick, parking up on the main street and the breakfast before chatting with Seamus and picking up our permits. From there we head off to the lake, usually to find other fishers tackling up and loading boats.

There are some boats moored on the west side of the lake but there is a fine harbour on the south eastern shore with ample parking spaces, a hut and toilets and floating pontoons. More tales of fish landed and lost are told and the conditions for the day examined in microscopic detail. But that was all pre-covid and now we are social distancing and the pub is shut.

Anyway, the day had arrived for Vincent and myself to chance a day on Carrowmore. Careful scrutiny of the weather, past, present and future, had led us to think today would be a good and we had heard recent stories of fresh salmon in the lake to boot. The previous night’s sleep had been punctuated with dreams of bent rods and large silver fish leaping on the end of my line. Were they a precursor to success?

Waking early I fed the cats and made myself a strong coffee. The sky is cloudless and the air is still. Dressed and packed, a last minute check I had everything then into the car. The engine wheezes into life and I hit the road. Motoring north along the shores of Lough Beltra, noting water levels Dead low) and the wind (none, flat calm). Snake past the foot of Nephin then across the flat boglands of Keenagh with the impressive Nephin Beg range off to the left. Across the infant river Deel and on to Bellacorick, the site of the old peat fired power station. White painted houses, small green fields amid the bog, old stone walls crumbling back into the turf, hawks and buzzards quartering the dun-coloured ground in the search of small furry prey. The wildness of the vistas is breathtakingly beautiful. Ever north by west l until I pass the statue by the river and rumble into Bangor pretty much on time.

Vincent rolls into town a few minutes later and we meet Seamus. The serious matters of the day are broached. A key on a large fob, the necessary paperwork and the exchange of coin. ‘How are ye all up here?’, Not so bad, and ye down there in Castlebar?’ ‘Any fish being caught?’ ‘A few’. The Irish way of saying a lot yet nothing at the same time. ‘Toby Gibbons had another fish’ and a photo on his phone of a smiling Toby is passed around. ‘Two fish caught yesterday’, not much for a Saturday. ‘Boat five lads’.

Back into our respective cars and off on the final leg of the journey and that first glimpse of the lake. There is the dreaded flat calm now but a wind is forecast to pick up later today. It is likely to be a challenging day with so little wind but we will give it a try anyway.

Tacking up, I make up a new leader out of ten pound nylon straight through. I don’t feel the need for anything fancy for this type of fishing. Casts will be 15 to 20 yards with the wind behind me so rolling out the flies is not really a problem. A Clan Chief catches my eye so he has the honour of filling the tail position. A Green Peter is next in the middle then a Muddler Claret Bumble on the bob. That will do to start with.

We fill the boat with all the gear and tug on the cord until the Honda bursts into life, and then we are off. We now needed to negotiate the narrow harbour to exit into the lake. Even for experienced anglers this is tricky in anything of a wind in the wrong direction. Once out in the lake you still face dangers as there is an extensive shallow just outside the harbour where many a propeller has come to grief. There are some marker poles but in low water the shallows extend beyond those poles so take great care. I personally would not use a long shaft engine on Carrowmore but a lot of angler do but they are very careful where they motor. There are also shallows which are unmarked in the middle of the lake. You have been warned!

The bay on your right is called Bog Bay, a spot that has been good to me over the years. A hooked fish can easily stick you on the dead tree roots which litter the bottom here so try to keep the pressure on and his head up if possible. I recall hooking a small springer in this bay and he led me a merry dance including attaching my dropper fly on a sunken stump for a while. In the end, just as I thought he was tiring, he dived to the bottom then launched himself into the air not a yard from the gunnel of the boat. My fly lost its hold and the fish gained his well-earned freedom. We laughed like lunatics at his escape, who could grudge such a doughty fighter? On another day, a fish in the same bay rose to Ben’s fly but didn’t take it. Instead, he swam on a couple of yards and engulfed my fly (a Goat’s Toe as I recall) and was duly landed. A fine fish of over ten pounds weight. I like Bog Bay!

Next bay on the right side is Paradise Bay. I have found this to be a moody spot but many fishers swear by it and every season there are some fine fish caught in here. It is a large bay and most of the fish lie close to the shores.

I tend to fish a lot around the mouth of the Glenicullen River, as do a lot of other anglers. This is probably the hotspot on the lake for salmon (for sea trout the Barney Shore is possibly a better bet). There are extensive shallows here and the salmon can congregate in large numbers. Don’t expect to see many fish showing. Unlike loughs like Furnace, the fish in Carrowmore tend to keep their heads down and it is unusual to see a fish show other than to rise to a fly.

We bypass the other spots and head straight for Glencullin. The merest ripple begins to form providing a little encouragement for us. I set up on the first drift but judge the light breeze badly and have to double back and start over again. The drifts are slow with so little wind and I have to work the oar to keep us moving. I saw a couple of salmon jump in the distance and Vincent saw a very large fish show far out.

The day would be punctuated with bands of cloud coming in from the west and when that happened the wind would pick up giving us good conditions. It was during one of these spells that Vincent turned a fish. The rise looked good but as the fish turned down he seemed to turn and thrash the water. Vincent felt nothing and I suspect the fish turned away before actually taking the fly. We fished on.

After a calm period the wind picked up and I suggested a change of drift. As I rounded the corner I thought the wind had changed direction slightly and it should favour the gravel bank I know as the spit. It turned out I was wrong and the boat headed straight for the shore in a reasonable chop. I was pulling hard on the oar to give us some sea room when Vincent shouted. ‘Another fish’! I turned just in time to see a large boil not 5 yards from the gunnel and the rod pulled hard over.

Vincent is an experienced angler but new to this fly fishing craik so I kept up a stream of advice while working the oar to keep us out of danger of grounding. The fish showed a few times so we could see it was your average sized springer. It tended to stay close to the boat, only making one run which took ten yards or of line. Vincent played him like he had been doing this all his life and after about ten minutes the fish had tired sufficiently for the net. I dipped my venerable old gye below the surface and the salmon slid into the meshes in text book style. The fish was swiftly dispatched, hand were shaken and the details of the take and fight discussed in minute detail. Weighting the fish later and he tipped the scales and exactly 8 pounds. A small Beltra Badger was the killing pattern.

The wind dropped to a zephyr again and we fished hard but for no further return. A late lunch was called for so we pulled in to the shallow, sandy bay at the mouth of the river and hungrily ate our sandwiches amid the glorious Mayo scenery. Bladders relieved, we set off again amid variable conditions and now joined by at least 4 other boats. We flogged hard, Vincent raising another two fish which were most likely trout. Late on I had a pull accompanied by a boil on the surface, my only chance of the day but the fish did not take properly.

On our way back to the harbour we tried Bog Bay but it was lifeless so we called it a day around 7pm. By then I was very tired and emptying the boat/packing the car seemed to take me an age. We rendezvoused with Seamus to hand over the brown tag I didn’t use and to update him on our day. He knew of one other fish caught and another lost.

Driving home slowly I reflected on the day. Obviously, the salmon was the highlight and for Vincent to be the successful angler was important. I am old and have caught plenty of fish, it really doesn’t matter if I get one. Vincent on the other hand is represents the future of game fishing here. Today the angling gods smiled on him and he took his opportunity with alacrity. I don’t think I could be any more happy if I had been the lucky one in the boat.

Dark rain clouds piled up on the western hills as I drove south, harbingers of a storm due to break overnight. Hopefully it will bring lots of rain as the rivers are all bone dry now. With my work assignment now completed, I have time to do a bit of fishing. Yesterday just whetted my appetite!

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