Antrim occupies that far north eastern corner of the island of Ireland, an ancient kingdom with strong traditional links to my home country of Scotland. Indeed, I think I am right in saying there are but 12 scant miles of salt water at the closest point between the two countries. I recall being on holiday on the Scottish island of Islay many years ago, looking out from Port Ellen on a beautiful summer’s day and being amazed how clearly I could see Antrim on the horizon. A countryside of rugged coasts, hill farms and small towns, it has become famous as a result of it being some of the locations used in GoT. It was not dragons I would be searching for but a few much smaller and hopefully more obliging scaly creatures.
The northern part of Belfast city is in Antrim. The city sprawls across the lowlands on either side of the river Lagan with co. Down to the south and co. Antrim to the north. The river widens into a large bay and towns line both sides. Behind Carrickfergus on the Antrim side there are water supply reservoirs, some of which have been stocked with trout. Perhaps one of these could be a suitable venue? That was certainly my initial plan but I started reading up on trout fishing in Antrim and was surprised by just how much of it there is. Antrim’s rivers and loughs cater for a large and enthusiastic group of anglers who live in and around the county. I mulled the various options over but really found it hard to make a firm decision. In the end I hedged my bets in a quite unique way.
Up in the hills of northern Antrim there sits a lough called Dungonnell. It has been formed by a dam and holds some wild brown trout. This would be one of my target venues for the morning, up in the solitude of the glens with just the sheep and calling curlews for company. Hill lough trout are usually small creatures but fishing in lonely spots has a certain attraction for me. Having said that, I read that trout up to 5 pounds have been caught in this lough.
For me this was going to be one of the longest journeys in my 32 project. Being perfectly honest, I have been putting this one on ‘the long finger’ for most of this year, always finding an excuse not to tackle it. This was solely based on the distance I would have to drive there and back. It would entail a very long day with considerably more time spent driving than actually fishing. That in turn meant less time to find fish and figure out how to catch one or two. Tiredness was obviously going to be a factor on the day as well.
Initially planned for Tuesday, I felt ill that morning so postponed the trip 24 hours. The idea of a very long day behind the wheel when not feeling your best did not appeal so I drank plenty of fluids, got some rest and gathered my strength for the ‘morrow. Wednesday arrived, cloaked in grey and cool for the time of year. Feeling much improved, the bits and bobs required for the day were assembled and loaded in the half light. An early start was required as the trip to Dungonnell would take well over 4 hours behind the wheel. Through the never ending roadworks in Sligo just after 7 am, Enniskillen at 8 and then on to Dungannon. From there it was on to the long and winding road via flag bedecked Cookstown and Magherafelt to Toome. As I crossed the river Bann and an idea struck me, how about a few minutes fishing the Toome canal? This would only be a slight diversion and it was a piece of water I had heard of but never fished. I knew it was a famous pike fishery but I recalled reading somewhere it had roach, perch and bream in there too. I took an exit at the next roundabout and found a cark park right beside the canal. Quickly setting up a light spinning rod, I strolled along the path to a set of locks and was fishing a small jig within minutes. The water was very scummy further down but pretty clear at the locks. Some kids on paddleboards were having fun further up but they soon dropped down to close where I was fishing. Sure enough, the paddleboards were just the start and the jumping in to the water plus general mayhem quickly ensued. Changing to a float set up made not a whit of difference. I decamped to the canal above the locks for some peace and got plenty of it – not a bite did the float register. Loose feeding maggots failed to improve the situation and I finally admitted defeat. Returning to the car I was alarmed to find I had wasted two whole hours for no return. Tactically, my decision to try Toome had been a disaster. What would the rest of the day hold?
There is a ‘B’ road which leads from Toome to Ballymena via some twists and turns. From there, the A43 led me to the hamlet of Cargan then on to lesser roads until finally the dam hove into view. A small car park at the dam provided a safe spot to leave the car. The weather had deteriorated as I headed north and a thick mist cloaked the hills as I pulled up. Hungry, I indulged in a sandwich washed down with some coffee as the world turned grey and damp outside. Just as I finished my lunch the mist cleared slightly, time to crack on! Waterproof jacket, waistcoat and boots were donned, then I set up the old rod and reel with a peach line. A small daddy on the top, a size 14 Claret Bumble in the middle and a green-tailed Kate on the end.
I like to fish close in on hill loughs. They often deepen quite quickly as so the trout can usually be found near the edges. A slow and quiet approach is necessary though so as not to spook them. Short casts, show it to them then whip it away. Starting near the dam, I worked my way along the western shoreline with the wind coming over my right shoulder. It was immediately obvious the peach line I had taken to be a floater was in fact a sinker. No matter, I would fish just as happily with the wet line. The bank was rough so a neat ‘one step per cast’ fishing was not really feasible and instead I hopped from one rock or tussock to another, casting as wind and stance allowed. This is a lovely way to fish for trout, you have to concentrate on so many different factors to get it right.
Soon there was a sharp tug and a swirl but that trout did not stick. I cursed, took another step and cast again. Not long after that another fish tweaked one of the flies but he too was too quick for me. The mist returned. Flicking the flies out beyond an underwater rock brought an immediate response but no firm hook hold. I worked my way along the bank for perhaps two hundred yards, rising a dozen or more trout and not one of them did I manage to hook. By now it was raining properly and so I returned to the car. Time to get the thinking cap on!
I had noticed that every rise to my flies had happened within the first couple of pulls of my retrieve, and after that the fish had shown no interest. The sinking line had to go, I was convinced the trout wanted a fly high in the water. A search in the reel case soon produced a yellow floater the right size and in a few minutes I had a new leader tied on too. Next the flies came under scrutiny. The rises I had been able to see all seemed to be at the middle or tail positions. Maybe the claret bumble was a bit too small? I put a size 12 version in the middle of the new leader. The green-tailed Kate made way for a Bibio on the tail. Perhaps the green tail was too gaudy? What about the bob fly though? Scanning the contents of the box my eyes fell on a row of my much loved deer hair caddis. Grey ones, green bodied ones, black ones with a wee silver tip – all were good patterns but somehow not quite what I wanted today. Then I spotted it, a fiery brown DH caddis on a size 14 hook – perfect! Experienced anglers reading this will know that feeling you get sometimes, a knowing this fly is going to work today. Carefully I tied the little caddis fly on to the top dropper. The rain had eased a little again so I ventured back to the waters edge.
Casting the old yellow line was a joy, it fairly sailed out across wind and wave. Working my way along the same stretch of rocky as before but the water felt lifeless and of trout there was no sign. I plugged away, timing my casts to coincide with lulls in the gusty wind. A splash and sharp tug broke the rhythm of the casts, this one was hooked. It fought with dash and verve for a small trout but he came to hand without any drama and I had my prize, an Antrim brownie. Of course the Fiery Brown DH caddis nestled in the corner of his mouth. Dark, as most hill lough fish are, he was soon back in his watery abode none the worse for his mistake. The fish was no sooner released when the heavens opened and I made a bolt for the car. Waiting for a while, in the end I decided to change venue again so I packed up, happy with my solitary success.
Now for a trek along the byroads of northern Ireland and a complete change of angling experiences again. I was headed for the short Movanagher canal near the village of Kilrea to do a bit of float fishing. Here the River Bann is blocked by a weir and to allow boats to navigate it a canal was dug along the right bank and fitted with a set of lock gates. The coarse fish greatly appreciated this section of quiet flowing water and promptly took up residence. Roach, pike, perch and bream allegedly inhabit the canal now and it is a popular venue for matches. I thought that some maggots might tempt one or two of them so I set off down narrow roads bereft of signposts. I had a vague idea of where I was going but to be honest there was a lot of guesswork involved as I crawled along narrow country roads hemmed in by hedges and lacking in signs. One junction completely flummoxed me but I found an alternative road. It took me an hour but I finally made it to my destination.
After parking up I surveyed the canal and decided on one of the old concrete pegs as my swim for the remainder of the afternoon. Not that there is much to pick between them all but this one, number 4 as it turns out, would do for me. This being Northern Ireland I was only allowed to use one rod when coarse fishing so I had brought along the 12 foot rod and a small amount of coarse gear. Plumbing up I found the water was about ten feet deep in the middle. Different venues have different rules about the use of groundbait here in the north but you are allowed to use it on this wee canal. I mixed some up and tossed in three balls to try and attract in some fish then cast out my crystal waggler float with a pair of red maggots on a size 14 hook. The maggots which were left over from my last coarse fishing outing the previous week and had come from the bait fridge at home were turning to casters so I added them to the ground bait. I waited. In fact, I waited for the better part of an hour before anything happened.
Trickling in a steady stream of loose fed maggots is a favorite tactic of mine and today was no different. 6 or 8 maggots chucked in every second cast feels about right to me and I feel sure this helped to pull a few perch into the swim. My surroundings were lovely and the old concrete fishing pegs provided comfortable lodgings. After the rough terrain and soggy conditions of Dungonnell it felt like pure luxury to have a seat and a firm, level footing. The contrasts between the two angling genres can be stark sometimes but both fly and float exert a huge appeal on me. What is it they say? ‘A change is as good as a rest’. I’ll drink to that. Finally, the crystal gave a wobble then dived and I was in. A smallish perch was quickly reeled in, unhooked and released. More followed in a steady procession. The first one was small but the were some 8 ounce ones too. Bites varied between subtle little dips of the float to instant disappearances or sideways pulls. A tally of seven was reached before the sky darkened in the east and the rain came back again. It was half-past-four in the afternoon. Of roach and bream there was no sign and pulling out small perch had lost something of its appeal. It was time to head home again so I packed up and began the long journey west. Traffic was much lighter but but there were still a few late summer tractors on the road and it was nearly nine pm before I turned into the driveway at home in Mayo.
When I got home I mulled over the logistics of the day. I had been driving for a total of ten hours and had fished three venues for a total of five-and-a-half hours. I had driven a total of 675 kilometres, by far the longest journey of the 32 project to date. All for seven small perch and a solitary half pound brownie. BUT (and this is important), I had landed fish in county Antrim. Trying the canal at Toome had proved to be a mistake but that’s fishing and there no guarantees so I accept the blank and move on. Similarly, the trek across country to try and catch fish at Kilrea was a lot of effort for not much return in terms of fish caught but I saw a bit of the countryside and enjoyed fishing that venue. I recall reading somewhere that these canals fish better in high water conditions when the coarse species seek shelter from heavy flows in the main river. On another day I feel sure both canals would fish well. If Dungonnell lough was close to me I would have it haunted! It is a beautiful upland fishery and if the trout are all around the size of the one I landed it would be a great place for someone like me. Instead, it is literally at the other end of the country and as such I will probably never fish it again.
Seventeen down, fifteen to go. Realistically I am not going to complete all 32 counties by the end of this year. I could push it but trying to cram them all in over the next few weeks feels like too much. Many of the remaining ones will involve long distance trips much like Antrim and these are very time consuming. As of now I am thinking of tackling the last three northern counties next, Derry, Tyrone and Down. It was lovely to fish the fly again after a summer of coarse fishing so I think more fluff chucking could be on the cards. That could change as well of course but for now I will take a look at my options in those three counties.
I will buy some little stickers and mark the different lines on my reel spools. Although I have rationalised them into some sort of order I am still guessing when it comes to densities and profiles. That will be a nice little job for me one winter’s evening. Hard to believe we only have 6 weeks of the game angling season left. Where did 2021 go?