I used to virtually live on Lough Mask. Renting a small house in Ballinrobe, I kept my boat in Cushlough and when not at work I would be out on the water chasing the gorgeous brown trout that lived there. Slowly, and with numerous scrapes to hull and propeller, I learned a little about this amazing fishery. Day after day I fished around the islands or along the rocky shore, learned how to navigate to the mouth of the canal or took the long run down to Ram’s Island, the Kilbride shore or Spiders bay. When I moved to Castlebar my focus switched to Conn and my outings on Mask are infrequent these days, which is a pity as I dearly love the lough. Today I was on Measca once again though, this time acting as ghille.
Unless you have fished on Mask it is hard to describe it adequately. Over 80 square kilometres of water, ranging in depth from a few inches to nearly two hundred feet, dotted with islands and littered with jagged rocks to punch a hole in the hull of the unwary. This is a lake which presents a challenge to even the most experienced of fishers. It can be moody and leave you with the impression not a single fish swims in it or there can be bountiful days when the fish are reckless and obliging. An accurate guide to the lough would run to many hundreds of pages if it was to attempt to cover the whole lake at different times of the year and in various conditions. Even then I doubt if anyone could capture every facet of the lough, it is constantly changing.
What makes lough Mask such a wonderful fishery is the geology, below the waves most of the bottom is carboniferous limestone meaning the slowly dissolving rocks raise the pH creating perfect conditions for aquatic invertebrates. These in turn are food for fish and the lake is home to trout, char and various coarse species. Roach were introduced at some point in the ’60’s and the most populace species in the lake by a long way is the humble perch. One of the main limiting factors on the trout population is a shortage of spawning streams. The Cloone and Robe rivers are fairly substantial but most of the other feeders are small, so access to good gravel in flowing water is at a premium.
A 10am meet up was followed by a quick set up of rods and run through the gear we would be using then we were off across the deeps and heading for the Shintillas. Paddy was keen to learn a bit about the western shoreline but I persuaded him to take a spin out to the islands and the spectacular fishing waters out there first. The Honda purred and the light wind faintly rippled the surface as we closed in on Shintilla Mhor. The north wind would be ideal for drifting down the shores of both the big and the little ‘Shin’ so we went about our business, casting teams of three wet flies in front of the boat. It was Paddy’s first time lough fishing but he took to it like a pro, so with little need for instruction we chatted as we fished.
The first week of May should see the lough buzzing with life. The olives which had been hatching since last month, the fag end of the duckfly and the first mays as well as early sedges should all be on the surface or in the air. I began to fret there was something amiss when, after two long drifts we had seen no flies at all bar a few tiny buzzers. I changed all the flies on our casts, putting up octopus, cock robin and other attractors but nothing would work. Finally, close in to the outer shallow I turned a fish to my bob fly but it failed to make contact. Paddy had a similar half-hearted offer soon after. The sun came out briefly and it got very warm. When I suggested we stop for a bit of lunch Paddy enthusiastically agreed so he headed ashore with the kettle filled with lough water.
Another boat was preparing to depart the island as we pulled in, their lunch over the lads were ready to give it another lash. Like us, they had had a couple of offers but nothing in the boat so far. We talked about mayflies and outboard engines, who was doing what in the area and the prospects for the afternoon. These chance meetings with fellow anglers are another part of the joys of lough fishing. I boiled the kettle and we relaxed over our tea and sandwiches. What little wind there was eased off to a mere zephyr. Olive spinners rose and fell in the still air and some big black duckfly crawled on the rounded stones but of mayflies there was no sign. Looking across the shimmering surface we saw a handful of fish rise in the far distance but nothing to suggest any great movement of fish.
With no wind on the main body of the lough it seemed to be a good idea to head off for Maumtrasna bay. Loaded up again, one final check to make sure we had not left anything on the island (it would not be the first time a mobile phone had been forgotten), then we were off down the lake. Clouds filled the sky again but the fitful wind could not make up its mind which direction it would come from. Faced with flat calm conditions I changed both rods to dry fly and we started the afternoon inside the Lusteen islands, me pulling on the oar to keep us moving slowly so as to cover the water. Gradually, I edged us further and further into the bay, searching for some wind or, even better, some rising fish. Of the former we finally found a ripple about half way along the south shore so a hasty change back to wets and we were fishing with a bit of confidence again. One drift completed I drove us back up-wind but almost as soon as we started to drift again the breeze died completely.
We took in the spectacular scenery, talked for a while and tried to figure out a plan for the last hour of the day. I had suggested we head for Churchfield to seek out some wind but as we exited Maumtrasna I spotted a some small waves over by the big Lusteen. Making a beeline for the ruffled surface I set us upon a lovely drift in too and then across the northern tip of the island. Soon, I rose one but felt no contact. Paddy then has a pull but unfortunately that one did not stick either. Nearly scraping the bow against the rocks, I worked the oars to hug the shoreline in one final effort to locate a trout but it was not to be. We had blanked on Lough Mask in May.
We both enjoyed out day out on the water but it was a pity about the lack of sport. I later heard that the Castlebar Anglers club had held a competition the previous day and 18 of the best anglers in the county only accounted for four small trout. When a lough is not fishing it can terribly hard work to catch something. One answer can be to vary the times you are fishing. Starting very early of fishing into the darkness can make all the difference.
The day was not just about fish though, the sights and sounds of a spring day on the lough are priceless, a tonic for the soul. In a world which seems to have gone mad the peace of the Irish countryside and the company of a fellow fisher are rare gems to be valued. Yes, we blanked but what a glorious day to be alive!