It’s a strange game which lacks even a definitive name. Boatman, ghillie or guide, take your pick. All those titles are in common usage across Ireland. I do a bit of it, helping anglers here in the west of Ireland to try and catch a few fish, handling a boat for them on the big western lakes. As the years have rolled on I seem to be doing more and more ghillieing and less actual fishing myself!
Historically boatmen were recruited from the lower class, men who owned little and scraped a living from the land or by whatever opportunity came their way. When life is precarious, depending on the success of a few lines of spuds in the wet soil at the back of the ramshackle cabin, a few days pulling on the oars for the gentry was a very welcome addition to the household finances. Early in the history of sport fishing wealthy anglers realised Ireland presented bountiful opportunities and so the part time role of the boatman to assist them was born. On a few estates these jobs became semi-permanent with the boatman’s duties becoming part of a wider role in the wealthy family’s household staff. These arrangements lasted well into the 20th century and only changed when Ireland as a country became more affluent after joining the EU. As the economy grew and some people made a bit of money the idea of owning a boat and engine which could then be rented out to visitors along with the services on the owner took hold. Over time there was a graduation from Seagull engines to powerful Johnson’s and Yamaha’s while at the same time fibreglass boats superseded timber and took the business to a new level. The 1980’s to the 2010’s were the high water mark for Irish boatmen in my opinion.
You will have noticed I am referring to men only here, I don’t know of even a single woman who worked as a boatman in the past but I stand to be corrected if anyone knows of the fairer sex who pulled the oars. These days it is different of course and some of the best guides in Ireland are women. This is hugely important for our sport. Inclusiveness is the only future for angling, just us old grey hairs swishing rods is not going to go on for ever.
Speaking only for the Mayo area, it is becoming increasingly hard to find boatmen, we are a dying species. The older generation have attained an age where long days of physical work are not an option. Many of the great men from Ballinrobe or Tourmakeady have given it up or sadly passed away. Younger people have careers in banking, software or manufacturing these days so the odd day’s work here and there on the water is of no interest to them.
Each day afloat is different but generally consists of meeting the anglers, preparing the boat and tackle, then setting off with me on the engine. Experienced anglers sometimes prefer me to stay at the stern as they are happy to change flies, net fish etc themselves. With less experienced ones I hop into the middle of the boat when we start a drift so I can attend to them both as required. Of course if conditions demand the use of both oars I will be in the middle anyway. Lunchtime sees me pulling into a sheltered spot on the shore or on an island where I fire up a kettle, make tea and we enjoy a bite to eat and stretch our legs before another session in the afternoon. When the anglers have stopped fishing for the day I drive the boat back to where we set off from and help to unload all the gear. Within that simple framework there are a myriad of tasks to be carried out.
The month of May is of course the high point of each season for game fishing in the west and that in turn means the demand for boatmen goes from virtually zero in the early months of the year to frantic phone calls and emails as anglers seek out someone to bring them out. It was just like that this month, it was just a pity the fishing was not similarly hectic.
Great plans for Carrowmore came to naught as the winds blew and churned the lake for the whole month. Beltra saw only a light run of salmon and despite good conditions failed to provide the level of sport we would have anticipated. Mask and Corrib were poor by the standards we have come to expect and Conn only gave up a succession of small trout. Cullin fished well for a while but got dirty towards the end of the month and went off a bit. Through these tough days I strained on the oars, filled and brewed kettles on lunchtime islands and untangled innumerable leader knots. A daily soaking and multiple scrapes on the keel are all part of the game, you can’t baulk at inclement weather or rough ground when you wield oars. Focus has to be maintained on the clients and how to put them over fish. Note that I don’t mention actually catching fish, all the boatman can do is put the anglers in places where trout or salmon could possibly encountered. I think this is a very important point, no boatman can guarantee fish, they can only put you in the right spot and offer advice as they handle the boat. To expect any more from us guys is not really very fair in my opinion, anglers need to be able to cast, retrieve, understand the concepts of lough fly fishing (readily available online) and work with the boatman as part of a team. To look on ghillies as just hired muscle seems to be missing the point as far as I can see.
Typifying a day on the lough is very difficult, each day is different – unique if you will. Weather, the anglers, the lough, the time of year – they all play a part and differentiate the session. There are a few constants though. No matter their skill level anglers invariably learn something new every time they go out. It might just be where fish are found on a distant part of the shoreline or a fly pattern which they had not be aware of but anyone with even a passing interest in fishing will add to their knowledge during a day afloat.
So May is nearly over now and the madness is subsiding. There were some good days towards the end of the month with the fishing around Devenish and the Shintilla islands on Mask becoming lively as some sedges hatched out around there. There are more days planned for me on the oars, days I look forward to even if the angling is not great.