Part 1, June 2021
‘And that auld triangle went jingle-jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal’
Dublin. The Irish sea to the east, the mountains of Wicklow to the south and the rich farmlands of the pale to west and north. The depressingly inevitable scatter of commuter belt towns encircling it. Capital of the republic and home to more than a quarter of the entire population, here was an angling challenge for me! I know parts of the city quite well having worked there for a brief period but most of it is outwith my ken. The sprawling housing estates and business parks are a mystery to me and will always remain so. Dubliners (‘Dubs’ to the rest of the population) are a mixed lot, some of the nicest people I have ever met hail from the fair city but it has a nasty side too but then again I expect you can say the same for every large conurbation. Tourists flock to Dublin and are well catered for by all manner of paddywhackery but the attractions and blandishments of the city centre were not for me. I had fish on my mind.
It was not too easy finding a spot to try and catch a fish in Dublin. The county boundaries basically just encompass the city itself with very little rural ground. I thought long and hard about sea fishing from the piers at the harbour of Dun Laorghaire, the transient home of the ferries to England, as I have read they get lots of mackerel there in the summer. The thing is, mackerel are either there in numbers or they are not, so there was a high risk of driving all the way to south county Dublin only to find there were no fish present. I needed somewhere a little less risky. That was when I started to think about the canals. Both the Royal and the Grand canals flow through the city and they both have reasonable stocks of coarse fish. Just knowing perch, bream and roach were definitely present gave me a bit of confidence. The internet is full of video footage of guys catching pike in the very heart of the city with traffic a few feet away and commuters watching as they haul out an essox. I am too private for that level of publicity so I settled on a stretch of the royal canal far from the madding crowd and right on the county border.
Better stretches of the royal canal are to be found further west but the whole point was to catch a fish in Dublin county so I nailed my colours to the mast and made my plans for this section of the Royal Canal to the east of Leixlip. The stretch between Collins and Cope bridges has seen some decent fishing over the last few years so I figured it was worth a try. Normally I bring everything possible with me when coarse fishing but this time it would be different. I needed to be able to roam the canal to find feeding fish and that meant travelling light. I’d bring the old 13 foot float rod and a reel full of 4 pound line then the rest of my tackle and bait would have to fit in the pockets of my waistcoat or the small rucksack on my back. The plan was to float fish but with some feeders and weights in the bag I could swap to bottom fishing if necessary. In the car I would have a spinning rod in case I failed to catch any bream or roach. I figured that small spinners might tempt a jack pike if all else failed. I must confess all this sounded decidedly sketchy and fairly major doubts cruised the backwaters of my mind. Lacking a better plan I decided to go with this one.
The Royal Canal stretches from the centre of Dublin to the Camlin River at Cloondara, just before it meets the Shannon near Tarmonbarry in county Longford. There is also a connecting stretch which runs all the way to Longford town but this has not been repaired (yet). Begun in the dying years of the 18th century, it took many decades to complete and like so many other canals was soon overtaken by the new-fangled railways. It fell into disuse and was only resurrected again in 2010. Now it is used for recreation instead of commerce and there are plans for the tow path to form part of the ambitious cycleway which links Moscow to Galway. I was not planning anything remotely as taxing!
Although I had read that the canal basically fished all year round I wanted to go there early in the season before the weeds became too overgrown. Once the water starts to warm up in late April and May the canals here in Ireland rapidly fill with all manner of vegetation. Good for the fish as this provides habitat for their food but a right royal pain in the derriere for us anglers. Lockdown and then family commitments knocked those plans on the head and instead it would be the tail end of June before I made the trip east. My weed rake was most definitely going to be required regardless of the time of year so it was checked and carefully packed in the small rucksack/stool I was taking along.
Work has taken me to the fair city many, many times so the journey there would hold few surprises. Setting off very early on a Sunday morning was deliberate for a couple of reasons. During the week traffic at peak times can be horrendous and I wanted to avoid the worst of the jams so planned to be there before it peaked. Parking near where I wanted to fish was going to be very limited so I wanted to find a safe spot before anyone else. A supplementary reason was the afore mentioned tench in the canal and early mornings are traditionally the prime time for those fish.
I felt uncommonly excited about the upcoming trip to Dublin. This new found enthusiasm for a day on the water has been pent up due to the covid. Looking back, for a number of years I have been very jaded and at times even not enjoyed my fishing. I suspect I had fallen victim to a self-inflicted malaise. We all fish for different reasons, some want to win competitions, others to test their skill. For some it is the social interaction with fellow anglers and others it is catching the biggest/most fish. I most enjoy the mental conundrums faced when starting out a day, solving the problems which end in a bite/rise/take. Where are the fish, what are they eating, how can I attract them? These and a thousand other challenges are what I love about fishing and it was a dereliction of my mental approach to the questions which sucked the enjoyment out of my angling. It had all become very similar and to a degree predictable for me. The small amount of fishing I was able to do during 2020 changed all of that mainly due to the coarse fishing I began to learn about. Turning up at a new venue, using gear I was unfamiliar with and trying to catch species I’d not captured previously proved to be invigorating and mentally challenging. This also had an unexpected side benefit in that I appreciated my game fishing so much more, possibly because my fishing consciousness had been reawakened. Now the idea of a day on the canal trying to catch a roach or skimmer has me genuinely excited.
So off down the long road I went. Leaving the motorway just as it enters the city I found my way to a spot near the canal and parked up. I had been ruthless when packing the rucksack the night before and only the bare essentials had made the final cut. For bait I had some worms and maggots and there was some sweetcorn hiding in the bottom of the rucksack too. My plan was simple, if necessary I would clear a swim with the rake and then fish single maggot below a small waggler. Loose feed a few maggots to try and attract and then hold some fish. If that didn’t work then move along and try another swim. Repeat this until I found some fish. Other than a gentle bend there were no obvious features on this part of the canal to attract fish, they could be anywhere.
Stringing up the old float rod with the Daiwa reel and 4 pound line I took in my surroundings. The railway track on the other side of the canal follows it closely for many miles. The rumble of traffic on the motorways could still be heard too. While not exactly urban fishing it was still much more noisy than I am used to. No harm, the whole point of the ’32’ project was to sample as many different angling experiences as possible while catching fish in each county. Canal fishing in an urban environment was every bit as valid as fly fishing for trout in the wilds of Connemara.
I found a likely looking swim and gave it a rake to clear some of the weeds and stir up the bottom a bit. Plumbing the depth I found only 3 feet of water in the middle. A small crystal waggler was my first choice. Setting the float so the hook would be on the bottom I tied on a two pound hook length with a size 20 attached. Bait would be a single red maggot and I tossed in a few others as loose feed. I was fishing at last! The reason for fishing so light was the clarity of the water, it really was gin clear. I figured my usual 3/4 maggots on a size 12 was going to be too much.
Sunday morning joggers and dog walkers were out in numbers and among them that most heinous of the great unwashed – the passer-by who thinks they know all about fishing. What starts off as a casual ‘caught anything yet?’ quickly degenerates into a full blown instructional lecture, based on this person’s encyclopedic angling knowledge gleaned from that one time they went fishing on holiday.
I fished hard, raking out swims, baiting them up, fixing the float in an icy glaze for hours. I tried different spots, went down to one pound hook length, used chopped worm then tried worm and maggot. Floats were changed for ever lighter ones, shotting patterns adjusted to change the rate of fall and I loose fed maggots into swims all day. All of this failed to produce even a nibble. The hot sun beat down on me as the insects buzzed around in the heat. Nothing at all stirred though until a tiny perch fell for a single red maggot. Only slightly longer than my thumb, this fish was barely out of the cradle. I am sure it is the smallest perch I have every caught in my long angling career. That was it, that was the total for a whole day fishing the Royal Canal in Dublin. At 5pm I packed up and headed for the car and the long road back to Mayo. I was gutted.
I drove home crest fallen, not even I could count the tiny perch as being an acceptable fish. I would have to try again at a later date. I knew when I started this odyssey I was bound to blank sometimes but failing so spectacularly in Dublin was hard to swallow. The long road west seemed to take an age to negotiate and all the while I was asking myself what I could have done differently. I saw no signs of a good fish all day, bar a few minnows in the margins the place looked dead. No tiny bubbles rising to indicate fish grubbing about on the bottom or dark shapes drifting slowly through the weeds. I had fished fine all day and I really didn’t think I was scaring fish off. I need to learn lessons on days like this but I don’t know where to start with this one. The fact I saw no other anglers is perhaps an indication that the fishing was poor.
It was very much a case of back to the drawing board for me. I spent a significant amount of time searching for another venue. I didn’t fancy returning to the Royal canal after the abject failure in June so I had to find somewhere else, but where?
Part two, the end of July 2021
‘In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty……………….’
The wounds of my last foray to the capital have healed so it is time to return to the scene of the crime. In the end I decided to try the other canal in the city, the Grand Canal. It too has stocks of pike, perch and roach, is of a similar depth and construction as the Royal but links Dublin harbour with the Shannon in Offaly via a more southerly route. My idea was to fish it with jigs, looking for perch and jacks around the lock gates where there should be less weeds. I’d bring some maggots with me too so I had options if the jigs failed to produce. This would be ‘urban’ fishing, a backpack with some small bits and a rod, not much else. The section of the canal I was targeting passes through a landscape of industrial and commercial sites with some housing mixed in. Busy roads and even a motorway crossed the waterway and the towpath is heavily used by everyone from friendly dog walkers to drug addicts and criminals. It would be far removed from my usual gentle days of solitude in a small boat on a western lough!
I don’t own any specific jigging or drop shotting rods or reels so I would just make do with an old spinning rod and a small fixed spool filled with light fluorocarbon line. I was not anticipating hooking anything large so I did not bother with a net. The whole idea was that I could quickly move between different spots until I found a few fish. The majority of the canal would be shallow and weedy but I hoped to find deeper, clearer water at the locks which were strung out along my chosen stretch.
I eschewed another early start, to beat the rush hour traffic on a weekday I would need to be on the road at 3am so instead I opted for a more leisurely mid-morning start and departed Castlebar at 9 o’clock on a slightly misty summers day. The M50 was not too busy when I got there and I turned off at the Red Cow then found a parking spot near to the canal. Would this be another disaster or could I wangle out a few decent fish today? I admit to being nervous about leaving the car parked in such a dodgy area but I figured nobody would want to steal such an old wreck and made sure not to leave anything of any value inside. From my research I figured I could reach a total of six locks if I pushed it and my hope was they would be less weedy than the open stretches of canal.
My chosen rod for the day was a light 7 foot ABU spinning rod of great vintage. I had bought it in Aberdeen in the 1970’s but to be honest it had hardly been used since then. The brown fibreglass is still in great condition. Rated for 2 – 10 grams it should be OK for what I demanded of it. I matched it with my elderly Daiwa Harrier fixed spool reel, a cheap and cheerful set up which should see me through the day. In my small rucksack I had stowed some soft baits, a few small spinners and plugs, a plastic box of hooks/weights/swivels/floats and a couple of small bait boxes containing the live bait. No net, weed rake or other essentials. I set off for the closest lock, feeling full of trepidation. With one failure already under my belt I was under pressure to do much better this time. Beyond watching some very entertaining videos on dropshotting I know nothing about this method, adding considerably to the challenge. The guys on YouTube made all look so easy, just jiggle the wee lure up and down and perch or pike magically appear on the hook. I treated the videos with a healthy dose of Scottish skepticism.
I started off with a basic drop shot set up of a 3.5 gram weight and one of those swivel/hook thingys which I stuck a small plastic grub on (you can tell already that I am out of my depth here). The maggots in my bucket were the back up but I needed to feel I was ‘doing something’ this time rather than waiting for a float to dip. I manfully strode up to the nearest lock, a steely glint in my eye. ‘Make my day suckers’ I muttered in my best Clint Eastwood voice as I dropped the grub into the dirty water by the lock gate. I jiggled it up and just like I had seen in the videos. Nothing. I must have the wrong colour – I changed to a yellowish one and tried again. Nope, no good. I moved the weight a bit closer to the lure so it would fish closer to the bottom. Nothing. I tried casting and then bumping the weight along the bottom. That didn’t work either. I tried both sides of the lock gates but with a similar lack of success.
‘Yer’s not goin’ ta catch any bleedin’ fish there mister’. The broad Dublin accent from a child’s mouth is always a shock to me and here were a pair of ankle-biters behind me. ‘Ders fishes up der’ said the other one pointing to nowhere in particular. ‘We seen a fella fishin’ der before’. I thanked them for their advice and walked off up the path. An hour had gone and I was still to see a fish let alone hook one. The next lock was further away than I thought but I sauntered up there under the grey clouds, trying to figure out what to try next. I settled on sticking with the drop shot for now.
The next set of locks were much more promising. A deep, clear pool below the gates was fishable but try as hard as I might I could see no fish swimming in it. The flow from over the top of the gates created a fast flow immediately below and it screamed ‘perch’ to me. I checked the terminal tackle was in order and lowered it into the water. With the clarity of the water I could watch the jig as it descended into the depths and didn’t a pair of good sized perch rush out of nowhere and try to grab the plastic grub. They missed it and I wound in to try to repeat the exercise. A solitary perch came to investigate this time but he too declined to bite. To cut a long story short I drop-shotted this spot for the next 20 minutes and most drops I had a follow but not one fish actually swallowed the lure. Time for a re-think.
I only had the spinning rod with me but it would have to do. I rigged a small crystal waggler float, plumbed up and added a 2.5 pound tail with a size 16 hook. A pair of red maggots where sent wriggling into the water. After only the second or third drop (it was not even a cast) the float bobbed and I struck into a roach which promptly fell off the hook as I was swinging it in. Damn! I couldn’t count that one. A few minutes later the float disappeared and I lifted into a modestly proportioned perch which made it safely to my sweaty paw.
I fished on and landed one more perch and a roach. The fast current and back eddy was making bite detection tricky. The float slowly sank and I lifted to free the hook from the weeds only to see a huge perch surface with my hook in his mouth. He gave a slow roll and was gone. He hadn’t been far of a couple of pounds in weight that lad! I could see what was happening here, the currents were strong and very variable so I was losing contact with the hook as it was washed in different directions deep below (there was about 10-12 feet of water). I took off the crystal float and in its place went a hefty pellet waggler, rated for 3 grams. I then put my bulk shot just above the hook and changed up to a size 12 holding a bunch of maggots. Some loose feed then I dropped in the new set up. It took a while but eventually the float dipped and I lifted into a nice perch. It wasn’t the big lad I had lost but it was still an OK fish. I caught another roach, no great size but very pretty. For some reason I decided to take another look at the pool below the run I was fishing. Laying the rod down I watched intently for a while, my eyes slowly adjusting to the water. Sure enough, I could make out a dark shape on the bottom, then another and many more. There were perch in there and what was probably roach too. I slung the big blue float out and the maggots settled on the bottom. Minutes passed but then the float trembled and I struck into a nice perch.
Some kids, under the supervision of 3 adults stopped at the lock above me. I paid then no heed as I was considering another change of tackle to fish lighter in the gin-clear pool. There was the usual noise you associate with a gang of kids then a resounding splash as one of them jumped in to the water above the lock. The others soon followed and they were having great fun. I was concentrating very hard on my float when out of the blue a wet-suited child hurled herself directly into the swim, not 2 yards from my float! Letting out a howl of delight as she surfaced, a broad grin on her face. She next extolled the virtues of the water and encouraged her pals to join her. But now every self-respecting fish was in the next parish so I wound in. One of the accompanying adults came over to me and said the kids would not be there long and they would be out of the water in a hour or so. I thought about it for a while but decided to head back to the car. On the way I dropped the float into the dark water under a bridge and in three casts pulled out a small roach and two small perch.
Back at the car I took down the rod and slung all the gear in the back. Some random lad tried to cadge a cigarette from me and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I slammed the car door shut and locked them before speeding off, leaving him shouting something unprintable towards me.
So, what to make of all that? I had landed 6 perch and 3 roach so I was reasonably happy with the result. Only that I had found the fish below the lock I fear I would have returned to Mayo with another blank. It was very irritating that the kids showed up just as I had found a shoal of fish but that is life and we just need to move on when stuff like that happens. The little spinning rod was a poor tool for fishing the float but the alternative of dragging more than one rod with me today was just not an option for me. Drop-shotting still needs further investigation. It certainly got a response from the perch but they would not actually take the plastic. I will do some more research and maybe even invest in some of those dinky little ‘creature’ baits.
Dublin has been very firmly crossed off my ‘to do’ list. Two trips across the full width of Ireland it had taken but I had done what I had set out to achieve. It looked to me as if the stretch I was fishing used to be good. There were concrete pegs all along the towpath but they were all badly overgrown and had not been used for years. I’ll be honest, I won’t be in a rush to fish there again but it was an experience and I learned a bit more about fishing.