‘Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’
This was to be one of the big ones, a long and arduous road trip clear across the country from the stormy Atlantic to the Irish Sea. For the uninitiated, county Down lies in Northern Ireland and stretches from the city of Belfast in the north to the border with the Republic in the south. The Irish Sea wraps itself around the rock girt eastern shore while county Armagh kisses its western flank. An area with a rich and often turbulent history, it encompasses just about every type of scenery from industrial wasteland through carefully tended productive farmlands to salty inlets and dramatic coasts. Country mansions, terraced houses and old farm steadings dot the landscape while the towns of Newry, Crossmaglen and Warrenpoint have their names etched deep on the tablet of the troubles of previous centuries. Of course there is also angling, indeed quite a wide range of it but it was the Newry canal that was tempting me with the prospect of big bags of roach a distinct possibility. There are various sections of the canal, some of which fish better at certain times of the year as the shoals of roach migrate. I studied the available information and decided the Newry Ship Canal might be my best bet, but I’ll confess I could be wildly wrong in my assumptions.
There have been times when I have questioned the sanity of trying to catch a fish in each Irish county. This introspection usually occurs when I am in the throws of planning the longer trips and the reasons are not hard to find. Driving an old car across the country to try and catch (usually small) fish which I return to the water does smack of a certain low level of insanity. For me, a degree of sheer bloody-mindedness plays its part but beyond that I enjoy the challenge and new experiences. I already have a wealth of fond memories of the places I have fished on this journey which makes all the effort and expense seem worthwhile. I know it is not everyone’s cup of tea but fishing somewhere new to me is such an interesting experience what with the different venue, meeting new people and trying to figure out what will work in a short session.
For the North I required a DAERA rod licence (£5) and a DAERA permit (£17.50 because I am over 60 years old). When I purchased the licence and permit back in January I also bought the Loughs Agency Extension for the princely sum of £1. That final £1 was very important as the ship canal lies in one of the Loughs Agency areas. The canals around Newry are very popular and as such closely policed so I was fully expecting to be asked to produce my licence and permit by the powers that be.
The Newry Canal was opened ‘way back in 1742 and closed to commercial traffic only in 1976. The idea was it would link Newry and the hinterland of southern Ulster to the sea, thus boosting trade and in particular the shipping of coal from the Portadown pits. I am guessing it must have worked before it stayed open for so long. The Newry Ship Canal is the stretch which runs south from Newry town centre to the Victoria locks at Omeath where it reaches the sea. Much wider than most other Irish canals, the Ship Canal must have been quite a sight in its heyday with masted ships bustling to and fro. Only about 3 miles long, there is an impressive set of locks at the sea end but the rest is pretty straight, wide and level. Roach, rudd, bream and perch thrive in this canal as well as some excellent pike, so many fish indeed that the canal has been the venue for international competitions before now.
The well worn road to Newry was traveled once more with a stop off in Carrickmacross for some bait. I had timed my journey to coincide with the tackle shop opening and that calculation worked out pretty accurately with me pulling up outside the front door of Anglers Choice a scant 10 minutes after they began business for the day at 9am.
Back behind the wheel there was some jinking around small roads then a short section of motorway before picking up the straight road to Omeath and the canal. Then it was just a case of finding somewhere to park. Nothing in this world is every perfect (except for Debbie Harry circa 1978 of course) and the issue when fishing the Newry ship canal is where to leave the car. A couple of small parking bays on the side of the exceptionally busy main road soon fill up with anglers cars and after that it is difficult to find a safe place to park. Once you have parked up you find there are a number of fishing stands and these provide lovely pegs for your session. Fishing here is not quiet, the road is only a few feet behind you so there is a constant roar of cars, lorries and buses in your ears. Would there be fish to keep me busy and forgot about the noise?
A lovely soft day of warmth and light winds meant I could dispense with my waterproof coat for a change. My randomly chosen wooden peg complete with stone seat was spacious and comfortable, the only downside being a fine metal wire mesh which had been nailed on to the timber was in terrible condition and snagged anything that came close to it. Unfortunately we seem to have anglers who are litter louts fishing here as there were piles of empty beer tins and packaging strewn around. I picked up a few bits and took them home with me in a poly bag but there was far too much for me to clear it all.
As I am only allowed to use one rod here in the north I set up with my old 13 foot ABU float rod to start with. The smooth little Okuma fixed spool I put on it was filled with 4 pound nylon which hoped would be sufficiently robust for the silvers. Another reel filled with 6 pound line was buried in the box somewhere if required and in case of desperation the 12 feeder rod had come along for the ride too. Plumbing up I found there was of water in front of me fairly level from a rod length out and about 13 feet deep. Keeping it simple I rigged a medium sized crystal waggler with a fine insert tip. Red maggot was my bait for today and the painful business of hooking them on the small hook was as frustrating as ever. Specsavers could make a brilliant ad featuring me trying to impale a wriggling maggot.
Despite having groundbait with me I felt loose feeding might be a better option so I began to trickle in some maggots, feeding a couple of rod lengths out. Early on I missed a tentative bite when the float very slowly slid under but apart from that it was quiet. I didn’t really mind, after the long drive it takes me time to adjust and unwind so I was happy to faff about getting everything to hand and taking in my surroundings on this fine spring morning. The traffic on the far side on the canal could be seen snaking along that road and a heron perched just a few yards away. I even forgot about the traffic behind me, isn’t it funny how adaptable we humans are?
An hour or so had passed and I decided to feed and fish a little further out. Only the third cast at three rod lengths resulted in a nervous tremor of the float and the strike brought me a small roach. Another roach of similar proportions and a minuscule perch quickly followed then it went quiet again.
The bites when they came were all of the same ilk, nervous, mousy little affairs with the float trembling more than diving. I had started out impaling two maggots on the size 16 hook but dropped to a single maggot and thought this was more successful. Could it be that the fish here were more selective given the pressure they are under from the competitions?
Maybe twenty quiet minutes passed before the float bobbed a little and I had another roach on the end. The roach/perch mix continued for a few minutes then stopped. My thoughts were the fish were moving and I had the option of ground baiting or switching to the feeder. As I was mulling this over the float disappeared and a trout jumped a couple of yards away. It turned out these events were connected – by my line! It was not a big trout but it was a handsome fish once in my hand.
Another quiet spell then the roach appeared again but the bites were incredibly hard to spot. Sometimes I struck and there was nothing there while other identical vibrations on the float yielded a small fish. A better angler than I would no doubt have figured out a way to improve their ratio of hook ups but I was enjoying myself as it was so persevered with my rig as it was for a while longer. In the end I opted to try the feeder just for a change.
Breaking down the float rod and setting up a feeder only took a few minutes and I fished a maggot feeder at thirty yards for the last hour but failed to register even a single bite. Faced with the long journey home I decided to pack up early to beat the horrendous traffic around Newry/Dundalk/Ardee, the purpose of my visit fulfilled. Ten small roach, three very, very small perch and that single brown trout made up the total of my catch. In truth it was not much to show for such a long day but I was happy enough. The weather had been kind and I learned a bit more, fished somewhere new and passed another day on this earth in peace and safety (unlike so many others these days).
With 21 counties now completed it feels like I need a good ‘push’ to make it to the finishing line. Louth earlier this week and now Down have been long days and that is going to be the same for all the remaining counties to be fished. Firm plans in terms of where to fish have been made it now a case of finding the time to fit them in.