Thirty one done, only one to go. Donegal was in my crosshairs as for the last time I would take to Eire’s highways and byways on my wee project. The rugged lands of the far north west of Ireland have captured the hearts and minds of many who have traveled there. This is picture postcard Ireland, white washed thatched cottages set amid forty shades of green, deserted golden beaches backed by purple cloaked mountains. For those who enjoy the great outdoors Donegal has an awful lot to offer. The geography is a bit complicated with salt water inlets biting deep into the coast, shallow tidal lagoons and even new lakes created by storms but it begs to be explored and enjoyed. The people are wonderfully friendly and hospitable. They are all stone mad of course but in a likable kind of way. I always felt very much at home in this county and cherish any time spent there.
Donegal was another of those counties where the only problem was deciding which one of hundreds of venues to visit. It is hard to get your head around the seemingly endless options this county presents to an angler. There is some great trout fishing on numerous loughs, large and small. Being one of the few places in Ireland where sea trout are still relatively common it is worth a trip just to fish for these enigmatic wanderers. Salmon fishing on the river Finn can be very good after a spate and permits are easily available. There are lots of productive spate rivers too where grilse and sea trout run during the summer if there is a bit of rain. I could go on and on but there is a lot of information out there on the angling in Donegal to help you find some memorable fishing.
In truth, I have caught many, many fish in Donegal over the years as I used to work up there. After a day’s work I often wandered off to chuck a fly in a small stream or hill lough for an hour. This almost always yielded a few small trout before the midges drove me back to the pub for a swift pint before bed. For the purposes of this project though I would assume a clean slate and try my luck on a lough I have not fished before. I made a list of potential venues but that burgeoned to a point where it became unmanageable. Some clarity of thought was required so I decided I wanted to fish from a boat for the day, thus ruling out the vast majority of the loughs. Once I had narrowed my options down things became a lot clearer and I decided to try Lough Anure, somewhere I read about, driven past scores of times, but never fished.
I feel very ‘comfortable’ fishing from small boats on Irish loughs, like it is my natural habitat. No doubt the fact I have spent a huge chunk of my adult life messing about on them is the main reason but for me there is a spiritual side to being out on the vastness of the loughs, a oneness with the elemental forces if you will. The ways of the wind, waves, weather and fauna endlessly fascinate me. Out there I feel like a child full of innocent wonder instead of an old, world weary man. Handling the boat in all weathers, be that purring along on the engine or straining on the oars just adds to the enjoyment and all of this is before I even cast a line for those beautiful evasive fish. It was fitting that the thirty second county should feature a day spent in a boat on a lough. It felt ‘right’ somehow.
Sitting to the north of the famous Rosses fisheries, Lough Anure is a medium sized, shallow lake on the river Crolly system. The rugged shoreline and numerous islands should make for an interesting day I figured. The largest of the islands, Trairagh, is inhabited and a causeway links it to the eastern shore. A few salmon still make it into the lake along with some sea trout but this is mainly a brown trout fishery. An active club has boats for hire on the lough and so I brought along my engine and all the rest of my fly gear to try a few drifts.
The internet provided me with lots of photos and even videos of the presentation ceremonies the local club held after various competitions on the lough. This was all well and good but I really wanted a bit more in the way of technical information such as what are the flies which catch most of the trout or where are the shallow reefs where said trout might be lurking. The little I was able to glean about the fishing on this lake suggested most of it was very shallow, there were lots of rocks to be wary of and it held a good stock of small, free rising trout. At this time of the year I might be lucky enough to contact a sea trout or even a salmon. As for what flies to try it seemed to be a case of ‘the usual’ so I almost certainly had a few in the box that would work.
Petrol tank filled (a traumatic experience these days) and engine tucked in the boot, I hit the road at 8 am on a dull mid-August morning. There was hardly a breath of wind to stir the trees in the garden, not the best of conditions for lough style fishing but I hoped there would be a breeze up in Donegal. Sligo was busy of course as I passed through just after nine but the roads were fairly quiet after that. On to the Donegal Town bypass but after that the day began to take a turn for the worse. The turn off up the R262 was blocked and a sign proclaimed the road to be shut to traffic. OK, I could carry on the N56 instead so adding a few extra miles I made for the village of Glenties. What I did not know was the road beyond Glenties is under major reconstruction and I spent a frustrating 20 minutes stuck at traffic lights there.
Donegal is in every respect the forgotten county when it comes to transport. The government in far off Dublin could not care less about this part of Ireland. There is no rail connection nor direct main road to links the county with the capital. The English seriously considered taking Donegal as part of Northern Ireland when they partitioned the island and you have to wonder how that would have worked out.
The journey north gave me plenty time for reflection on what the last day of my project meant to me. What had started off as a vague notion that it would be nice to catch a fish in every county grew like Topsy and was about to culminate today (hopefully). Thousands of miles driven, fishing in all weathers for all kinds of fish and the highs as well as the lows had created a wonderful experience for me. As long as the trout played ball today it would come to an end, consigned to history. That felt sad, like something was going to be stolen away from me. I guess the more effort you put into something the greater the sense of loss will be when it is over. Would the project have felt the same if I had imposed a different criteria on myself and instead of catching a fish in each county I just had to go fishing there? Mulling this over I decided that the catching was important and added a massive challenge to each day out. Stretching myself to land at least one fish really got me thinking and made me focus much more than I usually do on a ‘normal’ fishing day.
My first stop was in the village of Dungloe and the centre for all things angling in the area, Charlie Bonner’s shop. Here I could buy a permit and sort out the hire of a boat for the day. Parked up, I strode to the door of the shop only to find it closed. A hand written sign on it declared ‘back at 10.30’ but as it was already 10.45 I assumed there had been a further delay in opening up. I went for a walk along the mean streets of Dungloe and returned just as the shop was opening. A permit was quickly secured and I was off on the last leg of my journey. The village of Dungloe is a great spot to base yourself if you come to the county for an angling holiday as it sits in the middle of the Rosses fisheries. If yours is an outdoorsie sort of family there is plenty for the non-angling members to enjoy too.
From there it was only a few more miles to the lough. Turning off on to the track next to the petrol station I found the car park by the water’s edge. There was no sign of the boat I had just hired! A phone call soon identified the problem – the boat I had hired was kept at the other end of the lough. Back in the car and off down narrow roads. I got lost once but finally found the boat at the bottom end of a field by a ruined cottage. I parked under a twisted mountain ash and took in the vista before me.
My hire boat for the day was a nice Burke’s Anglers Fancy, built across the road from where I used to live in Ballinrobe. It seemed to take me ages to get the engine and gear sorted out and push out through the thick bed of reeds into open water. One minute past midday said my phone as I pulled the cord and the Honda burst into life. I was fishing at last!
The old six weight rod and a floating line would do to start with and I tied on a five pound leader, more than strong enough for the small trout in here. The wild brown trout of the Donegal loughs tend not to grow too big. A half pounder is a decent fish and one reaching a full 16 ounces is an exceptional trout on most loughs. The peat makes the water acidic which in turn limits the food supply for the fish, hence their relatively small size. I am perfectly happy fishing for the small lads and so Lough Anure was the ideal spot for me. It is set amid wild bog land with peat hags on the shore in some places and large boulders scattered around both in the water and on the land around it. I love fishing wild places.
What flies to try? A size 12 Green Peter is always a good starting option for the bob and since I was here I tied on a size 10 Donegal Hopper in the middle. On the tail I tied a Silver Daddy. I suspect many of you will not be familiar with the Donegal Hopper so here is the dressing:
The Donegal Hopper
Hook: a size 10 or 12
Tying Silk: Black, red or blue, you pick! (I prefer blue)
Tag: I add a wee tag of holographic red tinsel, just 2 or 3 turns
Body: Medium blue seals fur. I pepper mine with some chopped Globrite no.14 floss
Rib: Medium flat silver tinsel, 3 or 4 turns
Legs: Paired pheasant tail fibers, knotted and dyed black. I use 4 pairs but you can add more or less as you desire
Hackle: Black hen, long in fibre
Today would be all about traditional style wet fly fishing from a drifting boat. Like so many anglers from across the world I absolutely love fishing in this style. Not knowing the lough meant I would spend the day crawling along at a snails pace constantly on the look out for shallows or sneaky rocks just below the surface which could wreak the engine. A few scrapes on the bottom of the boat are just part and parcel of lough fishing but trashing the bottom end of an outboard is an altogether more serious matter so I take great care when I don’t know a lake. When it looked like I was in very shallow territory I lifted the engine and resorted to using the oars. It was to be a day of bumps and scuffs as the lough showed me where her stones were. Some people get a bit spooked by these underwater reminders but the sudden stops followed by vigorous shoves with the oars are all part of the days fun for me.
It was evident right from the start I was in for a tough day. The surface of the lough was like a mirror and the sun beat down from on high. A couple of drifts near where I had launched were unproductive so I moved further up the lough and fished three more shortish drifts. These took a long time as there was no wind to move the boat, meaning I resorted to using the oars to give me some movement. The faintest of breezes got up from the west and I manged a drift into a small bay where a trout plucked at the flies but failed to stick. I changed all three flies and tried to fish that drift again but the faint wind had died and I was becalmed. I used the time to move again, this time into the largest piece of open water to the north of the big island. More drifts (if you could call them that) and more changes of fly. No good.
With the lack of wind I decided to try the dry fly, so making up a new leader I tied on a daddy and a small sedge. The better part of an hour later and nothing had even had a sniff of the dries so took off the floater and went on to a slow sinking line and another three new flies. Still the lack of wind was my concern, wild brownies hate a flat calm and today was providing me with ample proof. Different parts of the bay were explored but without any signs of fish. The day was slipping by quickly and I was making a very poor show of it so far. By now it was after 4pm, time for something else, but what? I changed back to the floater and put on a Claret Hopper, a Connemara Black Dabbler and a Butcher before motoring back up to just outside the harbour. As I reached my destination the wind miraculously began to blow. It wasn’t much but there was enough to ruffle the surface a bit.
Casts were flying out in all directions as I frantically searched for a trout before the wind died again. The boat was being slowly pushed to the north and I kept her within casting distance of the western shore with strokes from one oar. Maybe 100 yards past the harbour I heard a trout rise behind me but when I turned around there was no sign of where the fish had broken the surface. I was sure I had not imagined it, so taking three swift pulls on the oars I switched the line from my left to my right, depositing it off the bow of the boat. Feeling sure that rise was still further to my right I recast, landing the flies another 3 or 4 yards further away. A few pulls of the line then splash, he was on. I won’t attempt to detail the struggles of a half pounder, suffice to say it was quickly in the boat with me, a handsome little chap who had fallen for the charms of my Connemara in the middle.
A small island ahead of me looked interesting and as I drifted past it I rose four small fish in quick succession but none of them felt the hook. Even as I turned the boat to go back over that drift again that paltry wind died on me and I was back to a flat calm. Three new flies on the leader, I headed back up the lough’s eastern shore, hunting for a ripple. A fitful wind blew, then died, then blew a little more, making for a frustrating evening. On the verge of packing up, the breeze appeared again and as if by magic a small trout grabbed my leggy Bibio on the bob only feet from the shoreline of a small island. I had number two for the day. Rowing (because the water was very shallow) I made my way along the other side of the big island and found some wind which allowed me to drift once again. Three more fish rose to the flies but I failed to hook any of them. I moved again.
By now I am sure you are getting as frustrated as I was! When the wind blew the fish responded but as soon as the lough became calm the trout vanished, it was as simple as that. At the end of a drift, just as the water became shallow a fish rose and this time I set the hook. It was another typical hill lough trout of less than half-a-pound but on a day like today it was very welcome. I fished on some more but in the end I grew tired and turned the boat back towards where I had found her. At 7pm the keel ground on to the gravel and I disembarked. Not only was today over but the whole 32 project had now come to a conclusion. Exhausted, unloading the boat and tying her up took me far longer than usual, but finally I was back on the road home to Mayo.
And so it was over, I had achieved my goal and caught a fish in every one of the thirty two counties on the island of Ireland. I suppose not many anglers can claim to have done the same thing but that was never the point, it was not some sort of competition. If not, then what was it? For me it was trying something new, be that new venues, new methods or even seeing new places on the road. Instead of one big goal it became a collection of tiny events, sights and feelings which lifted me out of my angling lethargy which I had been gradually sinking into.
As much as the project was about new things it was equally a celebration of endings. Most of these I grant you were in my head but are real to me. I had just turned 60 years old when I fished the first county, Sligo, back in 2019, today I am 63 and a third (to use a Harry Potter-ism). In that space of time the world has degenerated significantly and we all feel less secure and more uncertain about the future. I know I have changed so much over the time of the 32 and now lead a very different life having retired from full time employment. In many ways trotting across the country has helped me to transition into retirement. It gave me space to think about what I was doing and what I really wanted for the future. Long hours behind the wheel, a normal feature of my working life, now assumed a different feel.
We get so set in our ways, don’t we? Take things for granted, believe we know it all and are in charge of our lives when in fact the opposite is true. The world spins in space, loved one pass away and our wrinkles deepen. The careless optimism of youth dissipates and we realise what we thought we knew was just smoke and mirrors. Only a lucky few like me have family and friends, enjoy reasonable health and live in peace. The 32 project was an extension of my good fortune. Not many people have been able to visit every Irish county with a rod and line and to stretch themselves outside their comfort zone amid the greenery of the Irish countryside.
I doubt if many will follow in my footsteps and undertake a similar journey, simply because the use of a car for motoring long distances purely for pleasure is about to come to a shuddering halt. My old cars were frugal and my driving style meant I was almost always returning more than 60 miles to the gallon on the open road. Compared to the super-rich who use personal jets to hop from one city to the next I did little damage to the environment but even that will become unacceptable in the very near future. My own feelings are mixed about cars and personal driving. We motorists are being blamed for an awful lot when in fact governments and large companies could have done so much more to develop new technologies and transport infrastructure. It is always easy to blame the little guy!
Much as I enjoyed Lough Anure, the day’s angling was veiled in melancholy as my project wound down to the last cast on the final day. It had been a stop-start sort of affair with long periods of inactivity interspersed with frantic bursts of rushing across rural Ireland. I will summarise the whole experience in another post but for now county Donegal had given me a wonderful day out and even if the fish were scarce. In the end I had indeed caught a fish in every single Irish county.