Autumn is usually a good time of the year for sea fishing off the Irish coast so when I was offered a place on a small boat fishing out of Cleggan I jumped at the chance. It has been a couple of years since I did any saltwater fishing and this would be a nice change from all the coarse angling I have been doing this year. Looking out my gear it soon became clear it was in need of some TLC before fishing so I spent some time sorting it all out the previous day. Mackerel which had been in the freezer for far too long was defrosted along with a few sandeels so I had some bait to get started. The usual plan when fishing around the coast here is to target mackerel for use as bait at the start of the day but I heard these are in chronically short supply this season so I brought my own along.
It’s a bit of a trek down to the small village of Cleggan across the border in county Galway. I decided to bypass Westport and instead cut over by Aughagower. This is a narrow road and progress was slowed by oncoming traffic, including a surprising number of heavy tipper lorries which were presumably heading for the construction sites of the new N5 road. Along the gorgeous road to Leenaun, past Kylemore with the amazing abbey across the lake and through a busy Letterfrack until I reached Cleggan harbour with time to spare. Wellies and waterproofs donned, I met up with the other guys and we loaded all our gear on to John Brittain’s boat ‘Bluewater’. I knew some but not all of the lads so it was nice to meet some new faces. Casting off, we headed out into the choppy waters of the Atlantic the salty wind in our faces.
I set up a string of tinsel feathers on my old white rod, the one I use for mackerel fishing. With time to spare I then rigged my other rod with a flying collar about eight feet long. The other lads all preferred to use baited feathers so it would be interesting to see which rig would fish best. Some times the flying collar is deadly but on other occasions a simple string of feathers will out-fish it.
John knows the rough waters off Connemara like the back of his hand and the Bluewater is a fine boat. He offers a range of angling experiences including shark and tuna trips but today we wanted to fish the reefs and banks on the drift. We anglers like to think any fish caught are due to our own knowledge but the truth is the skipper is the star of the show. Finding the mark, setting up on the drift and calculating how the drift alters as wind and tide change are all hard won skills. Today there was a stiff wind coming out of the south west so John set a course for the reefs in the lee of the islands.
Inisbofin is served by a small ferry based in Cleggan and it is a popular tourist centre with a lively traditional music scene. Its neighbour, Inishark, was abandoned in the 1960’s and is now home to seabirds only. We would spend the day trying our luck close to the rocky headlands of these two islands. The first couple of drifts proved to be barren save for a couple of wrasse at the other end of the boat. The skipper moved again, this time a little closer to ‘bofin. Here the ground was very rough and I lost three sets of gear in quick succession. Fishing over reefs is always going to claim some end tackle and today was going to be a hard one for me as over the the few hours we were fishing I lost numerous leads and feathers. I picked up my first fish though, a brightly coloured Cuckoo Wrasse. We moved again, this time to a reef between Inishbofin and Inishark. The rods started to bend and some small pollock and a few wrasse came into the boat. Repeating this drift a few times we slowly began to fill the fish boxes and a tiny cod plus a couple of ling also came into the boat. I was catching a few but you could not say the fishing was hectic. It didn’t really matter as we were all enjoying just being out in the fresh air. I managed a couple of better pollock of around five pounds before we stopped for lunch. John pulled in closer to shore where the sea was calm and the rest of the lads cooked up sausages and burgers on a small gas stove while the skipper brewed a big pot of tea. Being a veggie I contented myself with my salad sandwiches.
Off again, we started drifting close to the stags of bofin, roughly hewn rocks which rise from the sea off the west of the island. Here we had the best fishing of the day with a constant stream of pollock to six pounds, mackerel, wrasse and coalies. I had a lovely female ballan wrasse of about four pounds, my best one for many years. The coalies were vociferous as usual and since they were around three pounds each and we were hooking them two or three at a time they put a good bend in the rods. All too soon it was time to pack up and head back to shore, the gory ritual and gutting and filleting being carried out on the bucking deck as we drove east around the headland and back to the harbour. We had filled two boxes with quality fish, enough to ensure we all went home with a supply of fillets for the freezer. It is a small harbour and the ferry was tied up against the quay so all our gear and fish had to be manhandled into the ferry and down the gangplank on the other side. Another day over.
Loading our slimy, smelly and sodden gear into our respective vehicles, we said our goodbyes and turned for home. The drive was one to appreciate as the sun set on the hills of Connemara. Coming into Letterfrack three roe deer ran across the road in front of me, two hinds followed by the buck. Beautiful creatures, it was lovely to see them. It was only when driving I felt the tiredness come upon me, a day afloat is hard work for me now. My dodgy knees and ankles had been at me during the day but now as I sat in the car the arthritis really hit and the pain ratcheted up with each passing mile. Fellow sufferers will know that you just grit your teeth and get through it. The lights of Castlebar shone in the dark as I reached home. All he fish were stowed in my fridge overnight, I’d sort them out in the morning, cutting them up into individual portions and popping them into bags for the freezer. The rest of the gear was pulled out of the car and into the shower where a good dousing takes only a few minutes but is vital to reduce rusting.
And so concluded my only sea fishing trip for 2021. The most worrying part of the day was the lack of mackerel. At this time of year there should be shoals of fat, hard fighting mackerel off the west coast. The intensive commercial fishing has decimated the stocks and we caught barely a handful today. Until mackerel are given some protection this slaughter will continue until they are gone completely.