‘Oh my mama told me there’ll be days like this’ (Van Morrison)
Not the most noted of Irish counties for angling but I still found a venue to try. This would be another coarse fishing trip for me and one that would be slightly different to my usual canal shenanigans.
Armagh is one of the northern counties, sandwiched in between Tyrone, Down and Antrim as well as Monaghan and Louth in the Republic. The vast expanse of Lough Neagh forms the northern boundary. I have only ever zoomed across this county on the motorway, often in the dark, so know little or nothing about it. When I worked in Belfast this was a weekly occurrence and trips over to Scotland to visit family and friends took me along the same route. Armagh was just another few miles of green lands beyond the tarmac to me. I did start to read up on Armagh prior to this trip but gave up after a few pages, it was just a litany of murder, religious war and plantation. I found it all too depressing when I was supposed to be planning a fishing trip so I abandoned the blood-soaked pages and instead read up on the finer points of stillwater float fishing, an altogether more relaxing pastime.
I had opted to try the lake at Loughgall. Set in a country park, it looked to be a nice spot surrounded by trees and with good access via a pathway all the way around it. Stocked with roach and carp, there were some tench, pike and perch also present according to the blurb on the ‘net. There seemed to be an abundance of stands to fish from too and it all sounded like the ingredients for a relaxing day were there. The only cloud on the horizon was a report that the fishing was now terrible after a zebra mussel infestation had caused the water to clear. This kind of mixed messages are a constant problem for me when planning trips and it adds to the uncertainty and worry. Fishing is never an exact science and blanks are part and parcel of the game but when you are travelling long distances to fish you want to give yourself the best of chances. The saving grace for me was the presence of perch, these little warriors are usually obliging and I was banking on tempting at least one of them. I had no intention of bothering the carp. In the north you are only allowed to use one rod (unless you buy another rod licence and permit) so there was no way I would be hunkering down with the heavy gear and boilies or any of that malarkey. No, I planned on keeping it simple and trying for the smaller stuff either on the float or maybe with a leger.
I figured I needed a ‘plan B’ so I looked at the river Bann which flows through the county. The upper Bann around Portadown has a good reputation for bream and roach so I decided it would be my back up water in the event of a blank at Loughgall. Some stretches of the river have been developed for angling and other pursuits so I looked it up on the internet and there were some glowing reports of good bags of bream and roach. As far as ‘plan B’s’ go this one was most definitely on shaky ground. I am useless at catching bream, have no experience of coarse fishing on rivers and the river looked to be devoid of any features to focus on. I was anticipating a difficult day………………….
Getting there seemed to be easy, just follow the usual road to the north via Sligo and Enniskillen. A fair chunk of my life has been spent travelling that road and I have seen it slowly improve over the years. The fine piece of duel carriageway between Dungannon and Ballygawley replaced a boring and badly worn road a few years ago and the twisting, winding, narrow stretch that links Enniskillen to Sligo is gradually being upgraded to remove the worst of the bends. Lord only knows how often I have chugged along this ribbon of tarmacadam, at least I was going fishing this time. Just add to the day I was bringing my outboard engine up to be services at Sands Marine on the shores of Lough Neagh. This involved a slight detour but it was worth doing while I was in the area.
One of the very few good things about growing old is the cheap angling permits in Northern Ireland. If you are a young pup aged 18 – 60 this costs you a whopping £77 for a season permit but oldies like me aged over 60 only pay £17.50 for the season. You need a rod licence on top of this but that only sets us ‘mature’ anglers back a fiver. I had bought mine on line and now I double checked that the printed copies were in my jacket pocket.
I timed my journey to coincide with the tackle shops in Enniskillen opening so I could procure some bait. Digging in the compost heap produced some worms to bring with me but I really wanted my preferred maggots. My deep and abiding love of maggots is founded on the fact they work. OK, it gets a bit self-fulfilling when I use maggots all the time but they are an astonishingly consistent bait. A new venue with some mixed reviews, limited time to fish and rustiness due to lack of any coarse angling for six months made it feel like I needed every possible aid on my side. The old familiar jumble of tackle was in the back of the car of course so I would be able to switch methods if I felt the need.
Gentle, melodic tones awoke me at 5am. I consider the invention of the ring tones on mobile phones to be one of life’s greatest dichotomies, an assault on the ears in most cases but the calming tones of my alarm make the transition from sleep to groggy wakefulness quite pleasant. Coffee, strong and dark, drunk as I make up some sandwiches for the day, one last check I have most things packed then I am off on the road once again. The open road, not much traffic for the first leg as far as Sligo, just the rhythm of the tyres on tar. Roadworks slowed me down a bit but I drew up outside the tackle shop in Enniskillen just as they were opening up. One pint of their finest red maggots were soon wriggling in my bait box and I hit the road again amid rush hour traffic. Just after 10 I dropped off the engine and doubled back through Portadown and on to Loughgall. The last part of the journey was through orchards which give the county its nick name.
My licence checked, I parked up and had to decide what to take with me to the waters edge. I had read the lake was very deep so I was planning on using a swim feeder and based my choice of rod around that. It felt odd not taking my light leger rod or the float rod this time. With a ‘clunk’ the car doors locked and I was off down the path to the lake, bathed in warm summer sunshine. Walking around the lake, I plumped for a stand which looked out on a small weedy bay. No. 78 would be my spot for a few hours.
Setting up a small maggot swimfeeder, I lobbed it out into the greenish water and settled down to see what would happen. I fed the swim often to try and attract some fish and also dropped a few maggots close in. I missed using two rods (you are only allowed to use one in Northern Ireland) and really felt handicapped without the options two rods gives me. The first hour passed pleasantly enough, the warm day making it thoroughly enjoyable just to be out in the fresh air, but there were no fishy responses to the feeder. I reeled in a switched to a sliding float but this was completely ignored too. Back to the feeder and this time I fished it at very short range, loose feeding heavily with maggots. Still nothing so I ate a sandwich and thought about what was going on. Three other anglers were in sight and I had not seen any of them bend a rod into a fish so I was not alone in the ignominy of blanking. A pair of swans swam nonchalantly past me with their 6 cygnets in tow. As I watched them I became aware of some small fish in the weeds on the bottom at my feet. It was impossible to tell what they were or indeed exactly how big they might be but I guessed they were silvers of some description. Here was a possible target for me.
The feeder set up was removed and I set up a small float with bulk shot on either side of it and no other shotting. My idea was to see if the small lads would take a maggot on the drop so I tied on a size 20 hook on two pound hook length and baited it with a single red maggot. Small handfuls of maggots were then trickled into the swim just under the tip of the rod. When dropped in (it was so close I didn’t need to cast), I could watch the wriggling red maggot slowly drop down through the water column, slowly spiraling down until it disappeared in the weeds. I kept this up for maybe 20 minutes until the float gave a tremble and when I struck out came a small perch. Success had come in the spiny shape of a 6 incher but they all count and I had landed a fish in county Armagh. A few minutes later an even smaller perch came to hand by the same method.
I shall refrain from regaling you dear readers with rest of the afternoons catch, whipping out small fish is difficult to relate as a page-turner! Suffice to say I ended up with 4 perch, 2 roach, one skimmer and one unidentified ‘something’ which looked like a tiny silver bream (but different to a skimmer). Eight tiddlers after driving all the way from Mayo but in truth I was pretty happy.
I knew when I started this odyssey that there would be days like this, days when the big fish were not biting or I was just not fishing properly. Or conditions were against me or Lady Luck was sitting drinking gin in a bar instead of watching over me. Days when I would struggle and need to find ways of catching something (anything) to save the blank. Today I had to resort to fishing for small stuff but at least I had figured out a way of tempting them and trickling the loose maggots into the swim worked a treat at holding the little lads at my feet.
By 4pm I had had enough and packed away the gear. The air felt heavy, as if thunder was not far off, as I loaded up the car and heading back to the motorway. Picking up the now serviced engine, I turned for home, the road now clogged with commuter traffic. By Dungannon the heavens opened and I crossed back into the Republic at Blacklion in a downpour. It was a long day but an enjoyable one. Armagh had always bothered me and I suspected if I was going to blank anywhere it would be here. Instead, I landed eight small fish, lost about the same number and missed dozens of bites in that busy final hour. If you had offered me that at the start of the day I would have gladly taken it!