32 – Episode 24, Derry

Another long journey for me to and from this northern county and a chance to cross the border into the UK. I know that political correctness demands that this county is referred to as Derry/Londonderry but I can’t be bothered typing that in all the time so Derry it is for the purposes of this post. County Derry stretches all the way from the border with Donegal and Lough Foyle in the west to the shores of Lough Neagh and the river Bann in the east. The hugely popular north coast is home to internationally famous golf courses and miles of beaches for the summer visitors. There is a lot going on in the county these days.

Once again this is a county with a troubled past which stretches back into the mists of time. Murder and mayhem were everyday occurrences in Derry over the centuries but thankfully these days it is a peaceful part of the world and long may that continue. The city of Derry has become a tourist destination and the county boasts some gorgeous countryside. The main fishery in the county is the mighty river Foyle which meets the sea at the walled city which carries the county name. The salmon fishing which the river was famous for is but a shadow of what it used to be so instead I searched for somewhere to do some trout fishing. That was when I happened upon an amazing wee lough called Binevenagh.

60 odd million years ago lava from volcanos flowed across what is now Antrim and Derry. The lava cooled and the western extent of that flow was here at the rocky outcrop which is now called Binevenagh. So the rocks I would be walking over were created by volcanic action around the same time that big rock hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. I find that amazing. The outcrop has been weathered over the years into the rugged shape it is today. This is now an Area of Special Scientific Interest as well as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

What first caught my attention when researching for this trip was the photo you see at the top of this post, a marvellous picture of a small lake perched atop a rocky crag. It seemed like something out of film, you could imagine Indiana Jones up there looking for treasure. Or is it the escarpment from the Tarzan movies. Binevenagh lough sits high on the top of the rocky hill with stunning views out over the northern coast. Not a natural body of water, this lough was created by damming a small stream before it plunged off the edge and into the valley below. With no naturally occurring fish in there it is stocked with a few rainbow trout each season and my plan was to try and catch at least one of them.

NI Direct helpfully publish the numbers of fish stocked in each of the loughs they control. In 2021 they put 2,000 rainbows into Binevenagh, 1,000 during February, another 250 in April, 250 in May and a final 500 in August. That may not strike you as a big number but bear in mind this is a small fishery and there can only be limited feeding for the trout so putting in any more is not a good idea. I was working on the assumption that a not dissimilar stock density and timetable would be planned for 2022. I checked at the beginning of May but it looks like the stocking policy has changed. Only 500 fish had been stocked in February 2022. I had hoped to see a much higher number and considering nearly three months had elapsed since the lough was stocked I was worried there would be no fish in it now. Maybe they did put a few rainbows in early this month, only time would tell. In the event I blanked on Binevenagh I had a back up plan to try a small commercial fishery at the foot of the hill called Duncrum. It too was stocked with rainbow trout.

Binevenagh is small and I wanted to be able to walk all around it in search of fish so I packed my gear accordingly. An old Hardy 11 footer and some no.6 lines on an even older Leeda LC80 reel would do and a couple of boxes of flies stuffed into my waistcoat. My trusty wading staff and a small net were all that I required. Some more gear could wait in the car if I had to go to ‘plan B’ and fish for the bigger trout swimming around in Duncrum.

Another early start for me saw me hit the road at 05.45 am. That clear early morning light as I put the last few bits into the back of the car, the familiar wheezing and clatter as the old engine burst into life and the cool, damp air smelling of groundbait and wet jackets which is so comforting in every fisherman’s car. Through the still slumbering town to the bypass and then the open road, sipping hot coffee from my small green flask, head full of anticipation of the day ahead. The very epitome of optimism is surely an angler heading to fish a new lough. A long road stretched before me but I held my speed in check to reduce fuel consumption.

I used to work in Donegal years ago so the road to Letterkenny was well known to me. From there I struck north and was soon across the border, through the outskirts of Derry city and on to the A2 for Limavady before turning up the narrow hill road and the climb up to a turn off on to a dirt track. The forestry track was more suited to a Land Rover than an old Renault but after a mile or so the lough suddenly came into view. A campervan (of course) sat in the car park but other than that I was alone up there. Parked up, I shut off the engine, now all of 260 km from home in Mayo.

The exposed nature of the lough meant that in all likelihood the wind was going to be a major factor on the day. The gale was blowing towards the dam wall and would make casting a challenge but that would be preferable to flat calm. Having said that I have found over the years that it is possible to catch rainbows when the surface of the lake is like a mirror, brownies are a different story though. For today the winds which had blown down our washing line yesterday remained and it would be a physical challenge just to get the flies out to the fish!

An ugly plantation of spruce blocked the views to the west of the dam. On an island so denuded of trees these plantations are an abomination, just tax breaks for the rich. A wild wood featuring some oaks would have been much more appropriate here in the oak leaf county. Only a short walk from the car park brings you to the edge of the escarpment. The views to the North are breath-taking, simply stunning! I wish my photographs did them justice but they do not. I can only implore you to make time and visit this spot, it will do your heart good. Sightseeing over, it was time to tackle up.

There is a four fish limit for taking trout from this lough with a minimum size limit of 25.4cm (10 inches in old money). This suggested to me that the stockies were not going to be huge and given the exposed nature of the lough the chances were that not too many rainbows would over winter. I scaled my leader to match those expectations and had made up 3 fly leaders from five pound nylon. Although I didn’t carry a lot of gear with me I had a range of nylon of different thicknesses to cope with different conditions but the five pound was at least a starting point.

My choice of fly line was dictated by the wind too. Usually I would have started with a floater but in these gusty conditions I opted for a fast glass, the idea being to get down a little and at the same time have a fairly heavy line to combat the wind when casting. Over the course of the day I think that plan was a pretty good one.

When starting to fish a new water there is always that trepidation regarding what flies to use. Lacking even the merest shred of local knowledge I plumped for three proven rainbow trout patterns, a Montana on the tail, a Silver Invicta in the middle and a Wickhams Fancy on the bob. With the wind whipping up the surface I commenced operations from the stand in front of the dam.

It soon became apparent that the wind was stronger than I had anticipated and just getting a cast out was an achievement. On only the third or fourth cast a small rainbow slashed at the bob fly, missed it completely then made a second attempt and I pricked him without setting the hook. This was hardly surprising what with the huge bow in the fly line but it felt like a blow to rise a fish this early but not land it. Buoyed by the sight of a fish I pressed on, fanning casts out as far as I could, dropping the point of the rod into the water for the retrieve and roll casting when the gusts were too strong for conventional overhead casts. No more offers were forthcoming so I changed flies, trying a claret bumble, a deerhair sedge and a viva on the point. Still no joy. I kept casting…………..

I kept this up for the better part of an hour, changing patterns and trying different retrieves but the fish were not interested. Forsaking the solid footing of the stand I walked up the shore a ways, finding a sheep path through the heather and rushes to the edge above a reed bed. I was only about 150 yards away from the stand but there was a noticeable reduction in the ferocity of the wind, the gusts were much less powerful and this allowed me to cast a bit further out. Another change of flies, this time I put a gold-head daddy on the tail and started casting again, gradually moving to my left a few steps at a time.

Another cast, start the retrieve, keep that rod down low. A take! The fish swirled, ran a few yards then it all went sickeningly slack. Check the flies – all OK. Start casting again. You can’t let yourself be too disappointed when things are not going your way, just get back into the rhythm once again and concentrate. Some more steps along the rough and soggy bank, the line hissing as it shoots through the rings. The fast glass is a lovely line to fish with. Suddenly the line goes taught and I lift into a fish once again. Head shaking, the fish moves away from me as I wind the slack back on to the spool. I hate having line lying around when playing a fish, it is just asking for trouble. Off he goes at lightening speed. He dashes away to my left and leaps, then repeats the aerobatics. The hook holds and I play him out in a couple of minutes. Beaten, he slides into my waiting net on his side, a nice rainbow of a bit better than a pound in weight. The freezer is a bit empty right now so I had decided previously if I caught anything today I would bring some fish home. I quickly dispatch the trout and return to the my casting.

It goes quiet again so I change the flies on the droppers while making steady progress along the bank to the top of the lake. Here a reed bed stretches out in to the water and I fish hard around the green reeds, getting one pluck at the flies without making solid contact. Hunger pangs drive me back to the car where I devour a sandwich and drink some water. The calmness inside the car is lovely after the buffeting I am getting outside but I can’t sit there all day and so I make a few adjustments to the leader and tie a size 10 Claret Murrough on the dropper, one of those with a greenwell head hackle I like so much.

The second fish which I put back

The car door closes with a thud and I am back in the gusting wind. Returning to the far end of the lake I start working the line out, settling back into the rhythm of cast and retrieve. A handfull of casts later there is a tweak on the line and I lift into a small trout which is quickly subdued and netted. Another one for the goldhead daddy. Only about ten inches long I pop him back in the water. Rain starts to fall, not too heavy to begin with but enough to make it feel unpleasant. Starting to edge back towards the car and some respite from the elements I hook and lose a fish before another solid take results in a hard fight with a second takeable trout. This one had my Murrough in his scissors.

Another break in the car while the rain beat down then I spend a fruitless hour casting in the wind at the dam again. To me it looked like the spot where trout would gather in this wind but the fish prove me wrong (again). I break down the rod at 3pm and pack up, the long drive home curtailing the day somewhat early. When winding in the old fly reel was a bit tight and later on inspection at home showed the spindle looks a bit worn. I have greased it again and will try it out next time I am fishing but at well over 40 years old I suspect its days are numbered.

Perhaps on a less windy day I would have done better but I thoroughly enjoyed my day in co. Derry and am more than happy to have landed three rainbows. The views from the top of the hill, dashing little trout that responded to my flies, the fresh air and solitude made for a memorable day out north of the border. It is a lovely spot to spend an hour or two with a fly rod so if you ever find yourself in the area I can highly recommend you try it out.

This has been a good month for my pet project and only eight counties remain to be successfully fished. The coming weeks look very busy for me so I fear another hiatus is on the cards. Pity, I am really enjoying these trips!


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