I know I have written about salmon fishing on spate rivers before but with this season already slipping away I am planning on fishing a couple of small local rivers this summer. I have avoided them recently as the stocks were being hammered by poachers in small boats at the mouth of the rivers and I felt my fishing them was only adding to the difficulties of the poor salmon. But after last year I am hopeful the fish numbers might have increased a little so I will chance trying for some grilse come the summer months. With my early spring fishing already lost due to travel restrictions I want to maximise my summer angling so that means grilse fishing on spate streams for me.
The small spate rivers of the west of Ireland are very similar to their counterparts on the west coast of Scotland so pretty much all of what I am going to talk about applies to both countries. These are small, intimate fisheries, far removed from the classic ‘big four’ of Tweed, Tay, Dee and Spey. Each has its own character and a large part of the enjoyment is getting to know the moods and signals the water will give you if you look and learn. I confess it took me a while to key into small rivers, I was so used to fishing the big Scottish rivers that tiny streams seemed a huge challenge. No more 200 yard long pools where I could get into a rhythm casting or fishing over lies where I knew fish would hold for days on end. I learned slowly and now appreciate the beauty and excitement of the spate rivers.
In my previous posts I dealt with the basics but here I want to go into more detail of the methods I personally have found successful. I’ll start with tackle. Although the average width of the rivers I am taking about is from about 5 – 20 yards I prefer a rod of around 11 feet in length. Many local anglers go longer than that and 12 or 13 footers can often be seen in use around here. Partly this is simply using the same rod for boat fishing as for the river but the longer rod gives a couple of advantages over its shorter brethren. Anything which reduces the need for false casting is good, the banks of the river are wild and unkempt so keeping the fly in the water and not in the air too much is a good idea. I find a longer rod is an aid when landing fish too. Often you have to reach over bankside obstructions so that extra foot or two of rod length can be a godsend.
For me personally, chest waders are a must. I see other very successful anglers rocking up to the river wearing only a pair of wellies but I want the freedom of crossing the river as required and bridges are at a premium usually. The price I pay is being lathered in sweat but there you go.
For fishing big rivers I own a range of different line densities to cope with varying conditions but for spate rivers I just use a floater. If I want to get down a bit or combat a very heavy current I use a small brass tube fly rather than mess about with sinking lines. Keep your tackle simple, there is no need for anything fancy.
Some pools on small rivers look just like miniature ‘classic’ pools in shape and depth profile, a fast run into the pool at the neck then the deeper main body before the water shallows and smooths out at the tail. For an experienced angler this is easy to read and fish. A lot of ‘pools’ on the small rivers are not that obvious though. Winkling grilse out of odd corners is one of the great charms of this type of fishing and I have caught them in all sorts of places. Every sunken rock, surface disturbance, drop off or gravel bar should be fished diligently. Only experience will tell you when a particular lie will hold fish at any given height. And this is where the question of height becomes paramount.
Beginners are often caught out by the speed a river rises or drops. In these times of intensive farming, hill sheep, Sitka plantations and drainage systems our spate rivers swell with flood water and then empty at astonishing rates. Knowing the river you are fishing is a vital component of your armoury. The visiting angler who decides to fish on a certain day, starting at a given time will always be at a huge disadvantage compared to a local who can be flexible. For example, imagine a small spate river in July. A visiting angler books a days fishing for the Wednesday to fit in with other family commitments. The weather forecast is for rain on Tuesday so he is pretty confident of sport. Sure enough, it rains early on Tuesday morning and the river is a roaring flood by midday. It falls rapidly though and the locals are out in numbers by 3pm and fresh grilse are landed in prime conditions of falling and clearing water. By 9am on Tuesday the river is low and clear once again and our visitor is forced to fish either the sea pool or one or two deeper holes in the river. During the summer here in the west there is a constant flow of calls and texts between us salmon fishers. Every snippet of information regarding weather and water levels is passed on. ‘I was driving over the Party mountains an hour ago and the heavens opened, the Erriff will be up soon’, or ‘I was talking to a lad who said it’s lashing in Bangor, the grilse will be in the Owenmore’. Such juicy titbits are the lifeblood of summer fishing here and are the reason you see locals appear as if by magic when the rivers are in ply.
Within the window of a falling spate the experienced angler will have his or her own preferred pools at any given height. I could recount so many tales of catching a salmon from a lie which two hours later was bone dry. Each river system has it’s own character and seems to fish best under certain conditions. Take the Carrownisky river in west Mayo for example. I have fished this small river for many years and know excellent anglers who have done so since they were kids. None of us would bother fishing the lower stretches on a bright day. Cloudy, windy and damp are what you need there. On the other hand I have seen some good fishing on the Owenmore though on bright days though and even caught them in blazing sunshine on the Bunowen. Again, it comes back to knowing your water.
Have I caught salmon from a rising river? Yes I have. Have I caught many? No, only a handful over my lifetime. The ability to wait it out and allow the river to begin to drop is a huge plus. Often I have looked at the river at 9am to find it rising, filthy and unfishable. I’ll go off and do something else for a while then come back later in the day, the exact timing depending on the rain. If it rains all day I’ll pass on the fishing but if it stops the river will stop rising then start to drop, the exact timing depending on each system and where the rain fell. It is then that you want to be tackled up and on the bank. It can be a period of frustration or intense excitement when waiting for the river to come into ply. Here in the west the weather systems can sometimes roll in one after the other so just when you think it is time to get the rods out another belt of rain dumps yet more water into the river and up she goes again. Then again sometimes the the river drops during the night and that roaring flood at 10pm has subsided to a trickle by 5am the next morning.
The actual fishing itself is a hotch-potch of different casts trying to present the flies to fish in a wide range of lies. Long casts are rarely required but the ability to read a piece of water and fish it well are a necessity. I find myself roll casting frequently to avoid trees and bushes, wading deep to get the right angle to drift a fly into position or throwing outrageous mends in the line to hang the fly just right. I am sometimes out fished by the spinner and worming lads but in general over a season I regard the fly as the most effective method of tempting spate river salmon.
I’ve gone into fly design and patterns in other posts so I won’t re-hash that here, suffice to say that I find the smaller the better when it comes to summer fishing. Confidence in your fly is much more important that the particular pattern. I change flies often but that is simply because I am a fly tyer and like giving my new creations a swim. A Black Pennel, a Cascade or an Allys Shrimp will all catch you a fish or two so don’t sweat fly choice.
In summary, being on the water at the right time during the very short period of falling water is 90% of the battle. After that you need to read the water to figure out where a salmon could be lying then present smallish flies on a floating line. The real joy of this type of fishing is getting to know the river and its ways. Just being out on a small Irish river as a summer flood recedes is a wonderful experience. Swallows swooping as they hunt flies, the odd splash of a running salmon, the stunning green foliage on the banks or the smell of the new cut fields all combine to assault your senses. It is a very different experience to fishing the big, well tended rivers of Scotland. You should try it sometime!
I hold up my hands here and confess I am no expert when it comes to tossing streamers for wild brownies on rivers. I have used them a few times and caught fish but compared to some of the masters of the method my knowledge is very limited. I wanted to touch on them today as I was making up a few to top up the streamer box and realised I had not talked about them before. Take the advice which follows as simply as starting point for anyone who comes to Ireland to fish the rivers for trout and wants to try streamers. So here we go.
I associate streamers with high/coloured water but they will catch fish in most conditions bar dead low/crystal clear. That means using them mainly early season around here. I find that some days the fish hit them really well but on others they are totally ignored, so if you find yourself trying the streamer and they are not biting give it a rest and try another method rather than wasting too much time on them. I look for structures such as deep holes, undercut banks, rocks, tree roots or sunken logs to fish. Anywhere that a good fish might have taken up station to ambush fry or crayfish. The usual cast is at 90 degrees to the current but sometimes you need to be more creative so cast as best you can to present the fly deeply. I know places where I have to cast directly upstream just to get the fly over the lies. So be prepared to mix it up and do what you have to to present the streamer at the right depth and speed.
I guess that streamers would possibly catch fish on a dead drift but I like to give them as much action as possible, varying the retrieve until I find which provokes a strike. Short, sharp pulls often works but at other times long draws are better. You need to experiment to find the killing retrieve on any given day. Don’t be afraid to try fast strips too, they can provide some hair-raising takes. The Marabou or rabbit fur or flowing hackles of streamers mean they respond well to plenty of movement and remember these patterns are suggestive and don’t stand up to close scrutiny by the trout. Keep it moving in jerks and you won’t go far wrong.
One other thing, watch out for pike as they take a streamer with gusto too. I got bitten off on the Robe once by a good pike which nabbed a streamer in a deep pool. Where there are a lot of pike it is worthwhile adding a short section of wire to the end of the leader. Even a 6 inch length of 10 pound breaking strain wire will give you some security from the green fellas teeth but it may reduce the number of strikes from trout.
Serious streamer anglers have a dedicated set up with a more powerful rod and heavier lines. I don’t fancy lugging around a second rod with me as my wild brown trout river fishing is a highly mobile affair. Instead I put up with the limitations of my 5 weight Orvis which, although far from ideal manages to cast the heavy fly the relatively short distances I require. I also stick to my faithful floating line as well. I know that many streamer anglers use sink tip or even full sinkers to get down a bit more. I doubt if a sinker is going to make a huge difference to me on such a narrow river as the Robe so dragging around one or two spare spools hardly seems worth it for a method which gets used infrequently. I like to use a leader of 6 pound breaking strain nylon as it is tough and can stand the abuse of being pulled through rough patches of weeds or the bottom. It also gives a degree of hope if you run into a big fish. Double figure brown trout live in some Irish rivers and meeting one of these on light leaders is only going to end in disaster.
For me, the hardest part of fishing streamers is the strike. Forget lifting into a fish as you normally do, you need to learn to strip-strike. That entails sharp pull with the hand retrieving the line. Sounds very simple I know but it takes practice as your instinct is to lift into the take. I must have missed dozens and dozens of trout by not strip-striking over the years. I guess if I was to do more streamer fishing it would become second nature but for now I will just accept I need to work harder and pay more attention to the strike.
I have one pattern I use almost to the exclusion of all others, all be it in different colours. Buggers. I love buggers in all sorts of sizes and shades. They imitate everything and nothing at the same time, being simple suggestive patterns. I tie them in all colours from brilliant white through olives and browns to jet black. Some sport bead heads, some have lead wire under the body and few even have no weight at all. Dark olive grizzle and black ones have probably been my two most successful to date. I tie them on size 6, 8 or 10 long shank hooks. A marabou tail maybe with a hint of flash, a fur or chenille body and palmered hackle are all that is required. I have some crawdad patterns in the box too just to give me something for a change.
So why am I tying up more streamers? With time on my hands I have been thinking about the places I am fishing on the Robe and there are some spots which could be home to better fish which I have not dedicated enough time to get to know. Searching with a streamer may produce a trout of considerable size from these spots and I want to fish them more diligently when lockdown ends. I know the river has been heavily fished by the bait and spinner fishmongers lately but maybe they missed a few of the big lads. There is one particular pool which I want to try out again this season. I had some success on it a few years ago with an olive bugger but I did not fish it all as there was a big, deep drain on my side of the river which I could not cross, meaning I only covered about half of the pool. This place is also full of pike so there may be some action with them too on the streamer. I plan to attack the pool from the opposite bank where access is a bit better, all be it from a high bank.
Streamer fishing will never replace my love of swinging spiders or flicking dry flies but it is an alternative on days when you just want to change things up a bit or look for a big fish. My wee fly box holds enough to see me through a season and only fills a small pocket on my waistcoat so I think they earn their keep. For me, that is good enough and I can’t see me investing in another set up anytime soon. I would urge those of you coming to fish the rivers here for trout to bring along a few streamers, they might just catch you the biggest fish of the season.
I don’t know how, but I had not met Peter before I started this latest job. A fellow Scot, he lives in the Westport area and does a lot of fishing. We both know the same guys and fish in roughly the same places but we had never bumped into each other before now. Both of us pitched up in Mayo around the end of the 1990’s but unlike me he already had strong family connections to the area. We finally met up and have been swapping fishing tales since I started this assignment in January. Peter’s main focus is on sea angling but he dabbles in other branches of the sport too. Last week he surprised me with a wee present.
Peter has been around and on a trip to USA some years ago he picked up a box of small soft baits which regaled in the name ‘Trout Magnet’. Alas the trout showed no interest but he caught some perch on them back in the day. Since then the lures had been left in his loft and forgotten about until he heard me rabbiting on about canal fishing. I was delighted he no longer wanted the box when he gave it me them. Here was another form of fishing for me to try out.
In the past soft baits have caught me the odd pike but nothing to write home about. The whole drop-shotting thing passed me by and ‘urban fishing’ on canals in cities seemed to be a world away from me drifting in a boat on the Irish loughs. Now that I occasionally fish the Royal or Grand canals here I can see that jigging a small soft bait could bring me a few perch. I don’t own a drop-shot rod but I have a couple of light spinning rods that might do the trick. There is an old ABU Duet with two tops, one of which is rated for 2 – 5 grams so that will probable be fine for this kind of work. I know the experts in drop shotting use braid for their running line but the old ABU’s rings were never intended for that so I will just use some light mono instead. All I want is a set up that I can use for a change and not spend the whole day with.
The old box is in poor shape, all twisted and bent. I will try steaming it back into shape but I suspect it is beyond saving. The same goes for most of the hooks. The neat little jig hooks were all rusted to some degree. I tried to save one or two but I will have to make up new ones. In the end only4 hooks could be salvaged by cleaning up with fine grade emery paper, the rest were far too rusty. The baits themselves have fared much better and a wide range of coloured grubs are perfectly usable. A good clean in warm soapy water was administered as they were dirty with years of neglect. A swoosh about in the suds then dried off in some paper towel and they looked just fine. They are very small, only an inch long but I think they will be attractive to perch. I already own some bigger ones so I now have a good selection to pick from.
The tiny jig hooks are light enough they could be cast with a fly rod. I however am planning on using them on normal hooks on a drop shot set up. The baits themselves come in a range of colours with browns and oranges prevailing. They are split tails so should have a bit of action in the water.
I looked up Trout Magnet on line and sure enough they are still going strong. There is a short video on the website which goes into the detail of how to rig the lure. They fish these on the river suspended under a bobber on very light line (2 pound test).
I particularly like the fact they are so small. The run-of-the-mill perch in Irish canals is between a quarter and half a pound. Your average 3 inch bait is just too big for wee fellas like these but my newly acquired one inchers should do just fine. I have watched a few videos on drop-shotting and while the basics look pretty straight forward I am guessing there is more to it than meets the eye. My love of using maggots under a waggler will remain but the wee plastic grubs mean I now have an alternative for slow days of when I am low on bait.
A much-loved fly tying book which has been lost for ages turned up yesterday when Helen was doing some spring cleaning. It had somehow found its way into the bottom of a press along with some of her astrology books, disused scarfs and toys for the cats. Rescued from this ignominious fate, it has now returned to pride of place on one of my fishing book shelves. Yes, one of the bookshelves, there are a few. Let me state quite clearly that I am not a book collector. There are no first editions in my collection and nothing remotely valuable. I simply acquired various angling books along the way over the years and it adds up to a nice few by the time you get to my age. With modern technology I wonder how many younger anglers will enjoy the same experience of owning angling books or if there will just be digital copies floating around in the ether?
Between us, herself and I have filled the house with books of many kinds. Besides my fishing books my passion for military history, travel and nature means there is a healthy collection of those genres too. Add in Helen’s tarot, astrology and cookery books and it gets to be a bit overwhelming sometimes. There are books galore in the sitting rooms, in the bedrooms, on the landing, in the hall and kitchen. Only the bathroom is a book-free zone (so far). There used to be more! Over the years I have moved house/country often and along the way a chest of books and photographs disappeared. I was very busy with work at the time and failed to notice the loss for months but I miss those treasures from my past now.
The long lost book I mentioned at the start is a lovely volume simply entitled ‘Irish Mayflies’ by Patsy Deery. Gorgeous photographs adorn the pages and it is a pure joy to sit and read the descriptions of the flies and the notes about the fishers who invented them. If you enjoy making trout flies I highly recommend you buy this book even if you live far from Ireland, it is a lovely thing to own. For me it evokes memories of past glories during the mayfly seasons of yesteryear, great trout slashing at high-riding dries, greendrakes on the breeze or the fish dimpled surface on a calm day. The hatch is but a shadow of what it used to be but I was lucky enough to enjoy some spectacular days on Mask and Carra in the waning years of the last century.
I tend to trot out the same books again and again. Both Hugh Falkus books, simply titled ‘sea trout fishing’ and ‘salmon fishing’ are rightly seen as classics and I bought my copies many moons ago and still read from them on a regular basis. That the man himself has since been shown as none too pleasant does not detract from the brilliance of his work. Clear, concise, tempered in the forge of experience they provide anglers with a solid grounding for migratory fish angling. I know he fished on prime beats during halcyon times but still the concepts he wrote about generally apply today as well. Cold winter nights in front of a blazing fire, spent with a glass of something strong and one of Hugh’s books to ponder over are a great joy.
Before relocating to Ireland I used to buy books on Irish angling to get me through the long periods away from the Emerald isle. These are all well worn now after years of thumbing but I still love them. Malone’s book of Irish Trout and Salmon Flies was, and indeed still is, a particular favourite. Lots of variations and many very old patterns are in this volume and I found it fascinating that there could be so many flies with the same name. The complexity of some of the old salmon flies must have made them a real challenge to make. While I enjoy making and fishing with some mixed wing patterns I steer clear of the ones which demand the eyesight and dexterity of a jeweler.
Most of my books were bought from book shops or online and exactly where or when I bought them is not something I remember but some books are different. This one for example:
What makes this non-descript soft covered book of New Zealand fly patterns special is where I bought it. I was in Delhi with work ( I have been lucky enough to have worked out there a few times). I had a day off so met up with a mate and we spent the day visiting museums, eating amazing food and walking the dirty, over-crowded but endlessly fascinating streets of the Indian capital. We ended up taking a tuk-tuk to a book market where you could buy just about any book in any language and in any condition. The thing was there was no order to any of this, just piles of books of all kinds to rummage through. Books in Russian, Japanese, Mandarin or any tongue you can imagine littered the market but I stumbled upon the New Zealand paperback and was delighted to buy it. Just picking it up reminds me of the afternoon heat, that poor woman picking over a pile of rubbish looking for something to eat, the black kites wheeling in the hazy sky and that unmistakable smell of Delhi. I admit to falling in love with India, I miss it terribly and want to go back again despite the awful things you see there. Maybe next year………
Most of my books are either fly tying manuals or cover game fishing but there are a few dedicated to the rough and tumble of sea fishing. I love an old book called ‘The Anglers book of Sea Fish’ which I remember buying from an angling book club in the dim and distant past. This large format book contains virtually nothing about how to catch the fish but it has glorious photographs of the different species and it for this reason I adore looking at it. Sometimes you need lots of information but other times just staring at a good picture is sufficient.
I think you will have gathered by now that I love books and fishing books in particular. Is my generation going to be the last to enjoy a love affair with the written word or will physical books make a comeback? I don’t think they will. Chopping down trees to make books is going to become a no-no in the near future (book paper needs to be made of virgin fibre to give it bulk and opacity). With so much of the planets resource under pressure and diminishing on a daily basis reading books for pleasure is going to be a thing of the past. I will hang on to my collection, enjoying them and reading often until my eyesight fails me. Then I hope to pass them on to someone younger and who will treasure the books as I have. like all my other fishing gear, I hope someone else get enjoyment out of them once I depart this mortal realm.
Perhaps in a small way I am contributing to the demise of books. Here I am at a computer writing down my thoughts and ideas in a blog instead of in a book. I must admit the idea of writing a book does appeal and it is something which I might tackle at some point in the future. I can’t imagine any publisher would take me on but self-publishing is common now and I will look into it later this year. Who knows, maybe in years to come someone will pick up a dusty volume written by an exiled jock in the book market in downtown Delhi!
I know that none of you who read this blog want to hear anything remotely pertaining to politics but today I am so angry I feel the need to vent. For those of you of a gentle disposition, please ignore the first paragraph!
The fools who comprise the Irish government are now telling us we are to be locked down at least until May. Their utter lack of leadership has led the country to this point and I suspect it could even be June or July before they reduce to level 4 and allow us the minor relaxation of being allowed to travel within the bounds of our home county. That we have to try to eliminate the virus by reducing person to person contact is clearly understood, it has been for a full year now. Why then did Me-hole Martin and the rest of his cronies present the whole country with a free-for-all for three weeks before Christmas? The virus remains very strong here in the west and I personally know many people who have recently contracted Covid-19. Most are far younger than me and it is a worry how rapidly it spreads through the younger generations. I will have to wait until late spring to go fishing thanks to a government bereft of intelligence, empathy or decency. If I sound bitter it is because I am. Hopes of some relief in March or even April have been dashed and I know exactly who to blame for that. Sorry, rant over!
So fishing is on hold indefinitely. Some anglers, lucky enough to live close to the water, are catching a few salmon from the Drowes and Delphi. Locals down Oughterard way are catching good brownies on the Corrib on trolled brikeen baits too. Apart from that it is all quiet here. Water levels are high so hopefully some spring salmon are nosing their way upstream, unmolested by us anglers. There were good numbers of salmon in most rivers last season and we have to hope that trend continues this year.
I will tie some flies and do some repairs but with the grass growing outside, birds singing in the bushes and the days lengthening it feels like time to be out on the water. I fixed three broken swimfeeders yesterday afternoon but it really just made the longing for the riverbank worse. The swimfeeders were part of a batch I bought online secondhand. It was a good selection of types and weights so it was handy to get me started. Some of them needed repairs and these three had somehow escaped previous attention so I whiled away a few minutes tying on a loop of 30 pound braid and a swivel to each of them. To finish them I wanted to use some silicon tubing to stiffen the new link but try as I might I couldn’t lay my hands on any. They might twist a bit in use but they are a nice size, small enough for everyday use and not like some of the huge, heavy ones I have in my box.
Next up I sorted though some plugs to put together a set to bring coarse fishing with me. I always carry a pike rod in case the roach are not biting. A small tin of metal spoons live in the bottom of the coarse fishing box, different sized Tobys and Atoms, but I think a selection of plugs would be handy too. I have a couple of spare 13cm original Rapalas so I pop them in an old blue plastic box. An 18grm Hi-Lo was lying around so it found a new home. There is a very nice X-rap too which could be a great lure for canal pike. Then there are some tiny wee rapalas which are as likely to lure a perch as a jack. That will do, I just wanted a few plugs to give me an option if metal spoons don’t work on the day.
In an attempt to cheer myself up I ponder over a map of the local area. I am looking for somewhere within 5km of the house where I could wet a line. I know there is nowhere with good fishing but I am desperate so perhaps I can find a few perch in one of the small loughs around the town. Lough Sallagh reputably holds a population of perch but it is surrounded by houses and the margins are dense beds of reeds, so it is no use. Mallard Lough is just on the 5km limit for me, just out the Newport road. I used to live out that direction and passed the lough every day but never fished it despite there being a ramp for launching a boat. Over the years I have heard differing reports about this lough. My angling mates would have all fished it when they were kids, cycling out there with rods strapped to their bikes. All they ever caught were tiny perch and minute jacks. A mate of mine from Westport had much better success a few seasons ago float tubing it with a fly rod and taking pike to double figures there. I have no float tube but I could drop the boat there for a day and see if there are any of these pike still living in the shallow, rocky water. I would not risk taking my engine with me, not knowing the lake it would be an invitation for disaster.
The Castlebar river is just a tad over 5km from home but it is not worth risking fishing there. The cops patrol the path beside the river on bikes, handing out fines to anyone they catch there. It is a shame because there is a good head of trout in the river and it get a big hatch of Large Dark Olives in April.
The far end of Lough Lannagh has a small population of Tench which I might try for once the water warms up a tad. I would be right on the 5km limit and so risking the fine if caught. I heard of one poor chap out Louisbourgh way who was a keen surfer. He just could not stand being cooped up any longer so he went to a local beach to catch a few waves and breathe some fresh air. The cops were waiting for him on the beach when he came in. That is how bad things are in the Irish police state these days. So the tench in Lannagh will have to wait until summer.
It looks like Mallard lough is my only option then. The weather is has been mixed lately with everything from snow and ice to balmy but windy days. Next month will see some proper fishing weather and I will venture out and try for a pike on Mallard then.
We got some snow here over the past few days. Not a lot of snow, maybe an inch or two but enough to make the roads treacherous and to push gas bills into the stratosphere by keeping the heating on all day. It’s February so we should expect some inclement weather I suppose. My problems is still the lockdown and the noises coming out of the Irish government that they will keep level 5 in place into April and maybe even May. Their incompetence knows no bounds! Hundreds dead because they opened the country up too early and now we have to suffer in silence until the summer.
I am making a few flies for Dr. John Connelly today. A wonderful angler and great naturalist, John lives in Pontoon and fishes the loughs around here as often as he can despite his 80 years. One of life’s true gentlemen, I had the pleasure of fishing with him and Derek Woods last year and I promised him then I would make some flies for him. Today seems to be the perfect day for that job.
I started off with my Fiery Brown, just the normal tying but with an added orange hen hackle and jungle cock cheeks.
Then a Katie Bibio which are always a good early season pattern on lough Conn.
A Bumble next, golden olive.
Raymond, that great killer of trout on lough Conn is next.
Green Peter, of course on size 10’s for sedge time.
A teal, Blue and silver in case he is fishing for sea trout…..
Maybe a Yellow Stimulator too, good during the mayfly
I make a few others and chuck in a couple of salmon flies for good measure. John lives right on the shore of Lough Cullin and Conn is well within the dreaded 5km limit of travel so he will be able to get out fishing when he wants. I hope these few flies bring him a trout or two, the good doctor is a great man for winkling a few out!
After struggling through a tough week at work I am sitting here at the vice here making flies this weekend. For the past few days I have been battling with a computer which kept crashing, ‘Word’ that froze and ‘Excel’ which corrupted all my spreadsheets as I pulled together the documentation for a ISO45001 audit. Data was lost/corrupted every day and the whole thing was a nightmare culminating in a total melt down of the desktop on while in the middle of the audit itself on Friday. We scraped through but it was a stressful week. I could have really used a day out fishing this weekend but that was not to be. The 5km travel ban is still firmly in place here in Ireland so the best I can do is play some blues guitar and tie some more flies.
Normally I sit down to tie roughly similar flies. It might be a batch of spiders or maybe some shrimps for example but this weekend I just made what came into my head with no rhyme nor reason behind it. Sometimes it is nice to just go with the flow and see what happens.
My black winged olive. I tied this fly up years ago and it was a great pattern for the tail of a wet fly cast. Tippets for a tail, an olive seals fur body with gold rib, a black hen hackle and wings made from slips cut from crow or jackdaw flight feathers.
Coch spiders. Well, kinda! I prefer the paler Greenwell hackle for this pattern. Have not used these for ages but made a few up to try again. Tinsel tag (silver, gold or pearl), peacock herl body and long fibred greenwell hen hackle.
Blue Delphi. Usual pattern but with blue hackles to replace the normal black ones. sea trout like this one very much.
GRHE Bumble. A topping tail, hare’s ear/yellow seals fur mix (50/50) for the body with oval gold ribbing holding down a palmered red game hackle. A couple of turns of a yellow grizzle then three turns of a slightly longer blue grizzle hackle finish it off.
White IPN! Yes, I do make and use rainbow lures and this is as good as any in cold water. Not that I am likely to get the chance to use it anytime soon but I needed a few for the box. I use fire orange silk and leave some of it showing behind the bead in the hope it might suggest gills. White marabou and pearly tinsel chenille with a gold bead. Easy Peasy.
Rogan’s Extractor. Never a big catcher for me but it picks up the odd trout at mayfly time.
Let me see, what news do I have from around here? Delphi picked up their first and second salmon of the season last week. Obviously angling pressure is virtually nil but local rods had a nice wild springer and a rancher. My mate, Ben Baynes, has been elected to the chair of the East Mayo Anglers Association. This is a big job as the club have a lot of water and members. Wishing the big man every success in his new role. The weather is promised to be very cold this coming week so I guess we will just batten down the hatches for a while.
I try not to get involved in arguments about fishing. It is a gentle sport and no place for heated fights but if there is one subject guaranteed to raise hackles it is the choice of running line. Somewhat against my better judgement here are my own thoughts on the thorny subject.
I grew up in the era when there was only a very limited choice of line. Everyone used nylon, the only exception was sea anglers who used stuff called Dacron. Dacron has, rightly, been consigned to the dustbin of angling gear. It was not good mainly because it was so thick. I fished with for a few years back in the day but the claimed benefits of low stretch and good strength were comprehensively outweighed by the way it caught the tide and lifted you bait/lure off the bottom.
So nylon was your only option back in the 70’s and 80’s. Maxima was very popular with salmon anglers and while I caught more than my fair share of salmon it I switched to Stren when it came on the market. I don’t know if it is still available but I liked the golden yellow Stren and I can’t recall it ever letting me down. Then along came a new line – braid.
These days boat anglers are using braid more and more. Skippers generally hate the stuff as sorting out tangles with braid is the devils own work but some anglers love the bite detection and thinness of braid. I have used braid on my big multipliers for a few years now and aside from the afore mentioned tangle issue I find it excellent line. I still have nylon on my feathering reel though as constant jigging up and down seems to suit the stiffer nylon better.
I have flirted with braid on and off. I use it now on my trolling rods where I want strong line to cope with vicious takes and rough treatment when trying to prize baits from the bottom when they become snagged. Braid has been a godsend for this type of fishing and most of the other troll fishers I know swear by braid. By local standards I fish light with 30 pound braid on my trolling rods. Many of the lads use 70 pound! Would I go back to nylon for trolling? No, I don’t think I would. I have grown accustomed to braid and will stay with it from now on.
I have tried using braid on my spinning rods but have to admit I swapped back to nylon again. I didn’t enjoy casting with braid, it seemed to ‘dig in’ to the spool and any advantage I gained from low diameter was lost by the stickiness of it as it came off the spool during a cast. I reverted back to 15 pound nylon for my salmon fishing and have not regretted it (so far).
I wish I could say I like using the modern co-polymers, fluorocarbons, etc but in truth I have no faith in them. I have a habit of giving my line or trace a sharp tug before using it and when I did this with those ‘double strength’ and other new products they snapped in my hands. The only one I like is ‘Riverge’ which is horribly expensive but is an excellent product. I often see visiting anglers using extremely long fluorocarbon leaders when fishing the local loughs, maybe around 20 feet or more in length. This might be required on English stillwaters but I doubt they will bring you many additional trout here in Ireland. I personally use nylon for most of my leaders and am happy to stick to that. Many of the top anglers around here use a nine foot leader made out of 8 pound nylon!
Looking at my filled reels here is what is on them right now:
Both ABU Ambassadeur 7000’s – 20 pound nylon. Used for shore fishing
Daiwa PM9000H Fixed spool – 20 pound nylon. As above
ABU Ambassadeur 6500C – 18 pound nylon. As above
Winfield multipliers x 6 – 18 pound nylon. As above
ABU Ambassadeur 10000C – 50 pound braid. Used for boat fishing.
Penn Del Mar – 20 pound nylon. Used for feathering mackerel from the boat.
ABU Ambassadeur 4500CB, 5500C, 5000D’s and 6000’s – 30 pound braid. All used for piking, trolling etc.
Light fixed spools – mainly 6 pound nylon but lighter lines on some coarse fishing reels
Baitcasting reels – 6 pound nylon
Looking at that list there is obviously some rationalisation required. The 20 pound nylon on the big beachcasting reels is a hangover from a bulk spool I bought a while back. Similarly the 10 pound nylon I have habitually filled my 3500 series fixed spools could be upgraded to 15 pound to simplify things a little. The minor loss of distance would not be a big issue for me.
I have gravitated to braid on my trolling and boat fishing multipliers and nylon for everything else. I didn’t set out to do this, it just grew organically over time as I tried different options and ended where I am today. This may not suit everyone but it seems to work for me and I am happy to keep going like this.
For a few weeks now there have been rumors circulating in the county of strange goings-on in the cold waters of Clew Bay. The lockdown has meant that very few people can see what was allegedly happening but the reports were pretty consistent. Explosions of bait fish were to be seen, obviously being chased by predators. but what could the mysterious winter visitors be? Dolphins some people said but others were not convinced.
Today a good and trusted friend showed me a couple of video clips. He wouldn’t share how he came by them but it was very obvious where they were taken, from the salmon farm in Clew bay. There were two clips, each a few minutes in duration and of high quality. One was taken from a boat and the other was shot underwater. In both you can clearly see the culprits who have been harrying the bait. Tuna.
We all know that Tuna visit Irish waters and some specialist boats go out fishing for them. I have not heard of the tuna coming into the bay before now though. I have tried to upload both the clips here but so far only the underwater one has uploaded (I will keep trying). While it is wonderful to see these majestic fish it is heart-breaking to know they will soon be dead. The Japanese tuna fishing fleet is just off the coast, ready to sweep up the fish when they move slightly offshore. For now, they are feeding hard on small fish, probably sprats or herring fry. Why can’t we just leave these amazing creatures alone?
With time on my hands I have been thinking a lot about my fishing. Of course I am missing getting out with rod and line something terrible. I snuck out once in December but apart from that I have not fished for 3 months now. With lockdown set to continue well into the spring this year I am brooding over what I am missing. Which led me to contemplate, what exactly am I longing for so much? Today I thought I would write down what Irish angling is all about, hopefully to give you visitors, and potential visitors, an insight into what makes Ireland such a great place for us anglers. Being non-Irish and having fished here initially as a tourist before pitching up in a full time capacity I kinda have two very different perspectives on the subject.
Anglers have written whole books about fishing here so my paltry few words will not add greatly to the subject but one day this pandemic will ease and we will regain the ability to travel and I hope this post generates some interest in coming to Ireland.
Let’s get the downsides out of the way first. Ireland should be the premier angling destination in the world. I honestly believe that! 100 years ago the rivers and loughs were full of fish and the seas teemed with everything from sprats to tuna. Destruction of habitat, pollution, over fishing and neglect have destroyed vast swathes of the aquatic habitat and fauna. Thousands of miles of rivers were dammed, dredged and straightened in the name of hydro-electric power, flood prevention and land reclamation.
I understand the need for electricity, huge parts of the country did not have mains electricity well into the 1960’s so there was some justification at that time but those days are long gone and the mighty dams like Ardnacrusha on the Shannon and the Erne barrage have outlived their usefulness and could be removed. Ardnacrusha was completed in 1929 so it is nearly 100 years old. The last Model T Ford rolled off the production line when this dam was being built. Would we be happy running about in a Model T these days? I think not and these dams on Irish rivers are similarly out dated. For comparison, could you imagine the River Tay in Scotland being dammed at Perth? Both rivers are of a similar size but the Tay has a healthy run of Atlantic salmon, whereas only a handful of fish evade the turbines on the Shannon and the once prolific upstream beats are now devoid of life.
Fish have never really been very high on the list of considerations in this country. Unlike many European countries there has never been a tradition of eating seafood and most of what is caught commercially goes for export to mainland Europe. Fish were just a resource to generate some money but beyond that nobody cared much about them. Poaching was always a part of rural life here. A salmon netted out of the local river was a welcome addition to meagre diets for the poor farmers back in the day and who could blame them when you lived close to starvation all the time. These days poaching is a much more sinister business involving organised gangs, sometimes armed, netting and poisoning rivers at night. Some river systems are notorious for the poaching effort and are not worth fishing as a result.
Apart from the dams, the huge expanses of bog across the country were destroyed by state agencies in the name of progress. Peat has a very low calorific value but in a country where there was no coal, apart from a very small coalfield in the north, the decision to build peat burning power stations seemed to make sense. A huge industry grew up around the collection, drying and burning of the peat which is only winding down now. Narrow gauge railways snaked across the bog for miles and huge machines ripped the sodden ground apart to remove the ancient turf. Rivers were damaged or re-directed and the spawning beds became unusable for the fish as the fine particles of peat clogged the gravel. It was environmental vandalism on a grand scale. No attempts were made to mitigate all this destruction. It was just bog and seen as little more than useless.
Arterial drainage. Those two words strike terror into the hearts of anyone who cares about the environment. Here in Ireland the government has a department called the Office of Public Works or OPW. Let me be very clear here – these people operate above the law. It doesn’t matter what EU legislation says, the OPW will just do what it wants with impunity, and what the OPW likes more than anything is to dig. Oh how they love digging things up! Show them a winding, natural watercourse and they will have that dredged, straightened and even encased in concrete at the drop of a hat. They have been at this for years and the level of wanton destruction is almost beyond belief.
I will end this litany of woes with fish farming. A disgusting, nasty business which has made a handful of Norwegians extremely rich and damaged the fauna of the west of Ireland beyond repair. A tiny number of poorly paid jobs was the bait and the government fell for it. The tortured and malformed creatures in the cages often escape and add further pressure on the already struggling rivers of the west. Sea lice in their billions ravage the native trout, eating them alive. We are stuck with the farms as nobody in government has any interest in closing them down.
On the bright side
OK, that is enough doom and gloom. I wanted you to see both the good and the bad to see that there are two sides to fishing here. Now we move on to the good stuff! Let’s start with brown trout fishing on the great loughs.
I don’t have any figures but I would suspect that the majority of anglers who come here do so to fish the great lakes. Corrib and Mask are the obvious ones with some anglers trying their luck on Sheelin, Conn, Cullin or Carra. Maybe some venture to Ennel or Owel in the midlands or the huge Erne system which straddles the border. What is all the fuss about then?
There are so many facets to fishing these hallowed waters it is difficult to know where to start. I suppose the biggest attraction is you are fishing for completely wild trout. The fish spawn in all the small rivers and streams which flow into these loughs and are direct descendants of the fish which colonised the loughs after the last ice age. They are truly beautiful creatures and it is a joy to catch even the smallest of them. Not that they are all small! Every season double figure trout are caught on the fly from the Corrib and Mask. A three pounder will not turn anyone’s head on those waters. Wet fly is the preferred method, a cast of three flies, flicked ten yards in front of a drifting boat. Some of the fishing is out in the deeps while at other times you can scrape the keel of the boat on the tops of jagged limestone rock as you search out fish in the shallows around the shore or the islands. Dry fly is good, especially during the mayfly season. Dapping is hugely popular on the Corrib, less so on Mask. Carra used to respond well to a dapped grasshopper in August. I rarely see a dapping rod on Conn or Cullin though.
So what is the big attraction? The fishing is technically simple after all. I think it is the ‘total package’ which makes trout fishing here so wonderful. The day starts at 9 or 10 o’clock typically. Visitors staying in a hotel or B&B will have no doubt availed of a huge breakfast (the full Irish) to ‘set you up for the day’. If you have hired the services of a ghillie there will be the usual chat about prospects as the boat is loaded to overflowing with all manner of angling gear and then you are off under wide skies and (hopefully) in the face of a good breeze. Depending on your ghillie, drifts will be in total silence or with a running commentary of every topic under the sun. Tales of great fish caught and lost, the latest gossip from around the village, world events – they are all covered from the unique perspective of an Irish boatman. Those of sensitive disposition need to know that here the use of curse words is an integral part of the language. Around 1 o’clock you will pull into an island or sheltered bay for the lunch. Out comes a Kelly kettle or similar device and some hot reviving tea or coffee is handed around. Time to stretch your legs after being cramped up in the boat all morning. More chat about the fishing and plans for the remainder of the day. Relieve your bladder behind some bushes. Tie up a new cast maybe. All of this at a leisurely, unhurried pace. Indeed, on a slow days fishing there is a tendency to linger on shore and just enjoy being outside in the fresh air. The afternoon may produce a few fish, then again it may not. Cast, retrieve, cast retrieve. The ghillie strokes the water with one oar out the back of the boat, correcting the drift as he sees fit. Tangles are sorted out, rainwater baler from the bottom of the boat, sudden excitement as a trout shows close to the boat, waving to other boats as they pass by. Any luck? A slow sweep of a hand indicates they have not met any fish. The glorious countryside provides a backdrop you will long recall. By the end of the day, usually between 5 and 6pm but it does vary, you motor back to the harbour and unload the gear. Back at your accommodation the tiredness sets in and a pint of Guinness in your hand feels heavy. Another huge dinner is greedily consumed. If you are in or close to a town or village there is always the option of heading to a local pub for some drinks and craik with the locals. It really is a fabulous way to spend your days.
How about salmon fishing on the loughs? The situation here is patchy and some of the best fisheries now struggle to provide good fishing. Others are still plugging away and a day on Inagh, Carrowmore or Beltra will live long in your memory. The format is very similar to the day outlined above but the fishing is harder. Don’t expect to see fish jumping. Most days you won’t see any showing at all. This is a game of stoic determination and workmanship. On some loughs the ideal conditions are summed up as ‘a good wave’. To anyone but an Irish salmon fisher a ‘good wave’ is a terrifying ride in a small boat being tossed around in huge waves. You get soaked, no matter how good your expensive rain gear is. Waves top the sides of the boat and the ghillie battles with the oar to keep you broadside to the weather. Turning into the waves at the end of a drift he opens the throttle and the boat rises and plunges as you forge your way through the white tops. Just to be out on the water in this kind of a day is invigorating. The day-to-day existence which most of us live, commuting, the office, sitting in front of a television, all pale as you are tossed around in this maelstrom. You feel alive! Then, out of nowhere and in slow motion, a great silver fish ploughs through the waves, arrowing towards your flies. It seems to take forever to turn down and it takes all your experience not to strike immediately. The fish sinks down and the line tightens, you are into one! Those minutes as the fish runs, jumps, bores deep or simply sulks are priceless. The Ghillie’s deft swipe with the cavernous net and the fish is aboard. You hold him up for the obligatory photographs before slipping him back into the water. There is no other feeling like this. The rain pours down and the wind howls like the banshee but you care not a jot. As angling experiences go, a springer on the fly from an Irish lough is high up there as one of the best.
I think it is true to say that few visiting anglers come here to fish the rivers for wild trout and this is a great pity. For years I have fished my local rivers and have yet to meet a solitary visitor. I would dearly love to see some of the fine anglers from across the globe fishing my local Irish rivers. These little fished streams have a charm, and the fish, to make even the most jaded angler very happy indeed.
Unlike the loughs, there is little in the way of infrastructure for the river fishers. Access is notoriously difficult, often resembling hacking your way through a jungle rather than actually fishing, but there is some really great fly fishing to be had for those who persevere. I wear chest waders on the river so I can get into the water and wade upstream as required instead of negotiating the wild banks. Do not bring your expensive waders with you. Use a cheap pair you don’t mind about as the thorns, barbed wire and other hazards will almost certainly result in a tear in the fabric sooner rather than later. A wading stick is a necessity in my book, for wading obviously but also to help cross electric fences and a host of other obstacles. The trout you encounter are of course completely wild, there is no stocking of the rivers here. A competent fly fisher will delight in the variety of water to fish, the range of tactics to be deployed and the number/size of the trout. Your typical day on a limestone river will throw up may be a dozen trout between 8 and 14 inches. Trout grow to 5 or 6 pounds and some even bigger! You will most likely have miles of river to yourself. I consider the limestone rivers of the west of Ireland to be a hidden gem and well worth the effort. Even for you dyed-in-the-wool lough lads and lasses, packing a set of river gear when you come over gives the option of a day on the streams if the loughs are ‘off’ or the weather is against you. Tackle wise, your favourite 4 or 5 weight set up will do just fine.
Sea anglers have been coming to Ireland for decades now. The surf beaches of Kerry drew them here as far back as the early ‘60’s. Sadly, our sea fishing is but a shadow of what it used to be. I don’t think I can in all honesty recommend you come here for a sea fishing holiday based solely on catches. By all means come for the experience. The craik after the day out, the hospitality and wonderful scenery are still the same as ever but there are less fish around than of old. I used to come to Ireland on holiday back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when catching 3 or 4 rays, dozens of wrasse, buckets full of mackerel and pollack were the norm. Now we rely on dogfish for most of our sport. The odd ray still puts in an appearance too. Until the overfishing off the west coast is addressed (don’t hold your breath) the situation is not going to change.
The English and European coarse anglers found Ireland to be a paradise many years ago and until the pandemic they made their way to the midlands every year. The small towns in the heart of Ireland rang with the voices of French, Italian and English visitors as they spent a couple of weeks in late spring or summer fishing the lakes for bream, roach, tench and pike. Please come back when you can! With only a handful of commercial coarse fisheries in the whole country this is primarily wild fishing and it can be exceptionally good. I am only a beginner at this branch of the sport but the experts make impressive catches. Regarding tackle, what you use at home will work here. Maggots and worms are by far the most popular baits. Once again though, it not just the fishing which makes it so attractive to come here. The soft Irish weather, the stunning greenery of the country, the friendliness of the locals. There is something unique about rural Ireland, something which endures despite the changes wrought by modern times.
So what is putting you off coming to Ireland on a fishing trip? You have probably heard it is expensive. Well it is! Yes, the cost of living is very high here, nothing is cheap. Living here you become used to it and don’t bat an eyelid at the ridiculous prices charged for everything. Hotel accommodation is very pricy. B&B’s offer slightly better value. Camping has never been a big thing in Ireland so there are only a few campsites around. Eating out is expensive too so you need to budget for that as well. I can’t gloss over it, you will have to pay a fair bit to holiday here but the experience is so unique I think you will find it worthwhile.
Bring good waterproofs with you. It does tend to rain a lot here so pack accordingly. Make sure your travel insurance is up to date as the cost of healthcare should anything go wrong while you are here is incredible expensive. This especially applies to UK visitors who are so used to the wonderful NHS they find it a terrible shock to be presented with a huge bill after an unplanned visit to an Irish hospital. The question of hiring a ghillie needs to be discussed. It is a considerable expense to hire a ghillie for a whole week. Normally a ghillie can be had for around €100/€120 per dayplus a tip. He/she will know the water you are fishing like the back of their hand, will help with setting up your tackle, control the boat on the drift and selecting the right flies. They handle the boat and help out at lunchtime. It does not sound like much maybe but as someone who ghillies from time to time I can assure you it is a hard days work. My personal recommendation is you hire a ghillie for one or maybe two days, you will learn a lot and be more confident if you go out on your after that. Over the years I have seen time and time again days when the boat with a competent ghillie catches fish while the other boats (with excellent anglers on board) come in dry. I think I need to add that the picture of old fashioned ghillies has receded into the mists of time. Gone are the days of a curmudgeonly old man in tweeds who tells you what to do and woe betide if you don’t do his bidding! All the ghillies I know are knowledgeable, friendly, helpful and, above all, expert anglers.
There are good tackle shops in most towns and cities so please avail of them. Spending a few Euro in them helps to keep them going (we have lost many over the last few years). Prices are maybe a tad higher then you are used to paying but it is nice to have a piece of tackle to take home from your trip here.
These days it is easy to do all the research necessary to find the right place to come. Blogs like this one, YouTube videos, endless publications all contain valuable information which will allow you to plan your trip. Take your time and plan so you have some alternatives if your chosen fishery(s) are not doing well. I used to make sure I had at least one day off from the fishing during a holiday, time to re-charge the batteries and have a look around the locality.
My apologies if I am sounding like I work for the tourist board! The lockdown has deprived us all of things we took for granted and it seemed to me that losing our annual influx of anglers from abroad has been a major loss. When travel restrictions are lifted, and they surely will be eventually, I urge you to consider a trip to Ireland. A warm welcome awaits you here.