Fishing in Ireland, fly tying, salmon fishing

Spate river fly design

What makes a good spate river fly?

I tie hundreds of flies every year. I used to tie much, much more but these days a few hundred come off my vice and most of those are tied during the quiet winter period. Due to the nature of the fishing in the West of Ireland these flies fall readily into groups, trout: river dry, wet and nymph, lough trout dry and wet and finally salmon river and lough. I have never really thought too much about the distinction between the salmon flies I use in flowing water as opposed to the ones for the loughs but they are fundamentally different and here is my reasoning.


Hairy Mary, classic pattern for spate rivers

A large part of my reasoning for using differing lough vs river patterns is due to the movement of the flies in the water. On rivers there is a flow which acts on the hook and materials and causes the fly to move both in the current and within itself. Lough flies have a different role in that they will be moved largely by the angler drawing in the line and also in the ‘Z’ axis as the waves in the lough rise and fall.


Shrimps and Cascades

Perhaps the greatest difference is the hooks I use. On the river I still favour trebles and doubles with a small single occupying the dropper position on the leader. I like the weight of the trebles and doubles and the way they ’grip’ the water much better than singles which travel much higher in the water.


An Eany Tailfire tied on those lovely Loop doubles


Fly design for spate rivers

I normally fish with two flies on the river and accept I may lose the occasional fish when the trailing/dangling free fly snags on a bush /tree/bottom (in practice I find this happens so rarely that it can be disregarded). I like to be able to offer the fish two different patterns on the same cast and will take a lot of convincing that this is more effective than the normal single fly approach. The only downside of fishing a dropper for me is the inevitable tangles suffered when casting into high winds.

Now picture the scene on a typical west coast spate river. Small, often deep pools, occasional long deep canal like stretches and short fast runs connecting these features. River width can vary from 3 to 30 yards and there will be lots of obstacles like trees and bushes. All in all, a world away from the beautifully tended, wide, smooth running ‘classic’ rivers of the Scottish East coast. As you can imagine, this has a big bearing on the flies I use here.

high water water on a spate river


The Dee at Cairnton, a world away from my local spate rivers

There is very little in the way of spring salmon fishing here, so grilse are the target from May to September. Always on the move, these fish are often encountered is small groups and sport can be brisk when you bump into these pods of fish. Your flies need to be presented at a level in the water to attract their attention and the received wisdom is that needs to be in the top foot or so of the water column. There are minor tactics like skating flies but generally speaking you present the flies sub-surface. This is why I prefer my river patterns dressed on trebles and doubles. These flies sink immediately they hit the water, unlike single hooked patterns which have a nasty tendency to skate on the surface due to their much lighter weight. I have experimented with weighted flies and even adding weight to the leader but met with poor success so far.

Sinking lines or sink tips are useful to a degree and I admit a fondness for homemade sink-tips. My argument against them is based on that critical first few second after the flies hit the water when I need them to sink instantly instead of waiting for them to be dragged under by the line. On narrow, heavily overgrown spate rivers fish are often found lying hard against the bank, so casts need to be accurate and the fly simply must sink immediately it hits the water. I have experimented with small brass tubes in the past and found them to be pretty useful but I still prefer trebles or doubles for this work.

So my preferred set up on spate rivers when fishing for salmon is a small treble on the point, usually a size 10 down to a 14 with a small single hooked pattern on the dropper. Dropper length is roughly 4 to 6 inches. I will talk about patterns in another post.


A small,coloured grilse from a spate river about to go back

Fishing in Ireland, salmon fishing, sea trout fishing

Casting practice

Friday morning and the weather vane on top of Lagduff Lodge is still firmly set in a Northerly airflow. Dry again today so the fishing will be little more than casting practice, leaving me less than overjoyed


I fished from pol Garrow down to the Rock Pool but the only fish I saw was a  large resident who made a terrific splash in the Brigadier’s pool. Small flies like the Black Pennel, Blue Charm and Stoat’s Tail were all given a swim but without success. Time to head back to the comforts of the lodge.

The walls were decorated with old photos of past glories and the fishing register had pride of place on the table in the sitting room. 155 salmon had been landed from the beat this season but we were not going to be adding to that impressive total this week!

Gawn, who had been fishing down river returned to say he had an offer from what he was fairly sure was a salmon but the fish didn’t stick and we remained fishless apart from Julian’s early success with a Sea Trout

Fishing in Ireland, salmon fishing, sea trout fishing

Sticks and stones

Day 2 on Lagduff and the drought continues. There was some mist in the morning which we all prayed would develop into a deluge but it petered out without making any difference to the water level in the Owenduff river. I elected to try fishing down at the bottom of the beat and set of with rod and wading stick along the side of the shrunken stream. The wading stick was an essential bit of kit as the bottom of the river consists of rounded stones covered in very slippery algae.

All the way down the river was a sad shadow of a river, more stones than water.

I fished the deeper pools but this was hard work as there was so little flow the flies were virtually lifeless. A couple of very small sea trout jumped in one pool but it was quiet apart from that. I was picked up at lunchtime and caught up with the rest of the party who all had similar tales of woe. The only salmon we saw all morning were in the photographs on the walls of the lodge.

After a bite to eat I strolled up river to the Rock Pool. A slight increase in the wind ruffled the surface at the top of the pool but because it was coming from the North the main body of the pool was flat calm – not ideal conditions.

As I fished down a grilse jumped some 20 yards below me giving a degree of encouragement. I covered the lie without success but some small sea trout started to jump hard against the far bank. Julian appeared from upstream where he had fished without seeing any signs of fish. He worked his way down the pool and near the tail another grilse jumped close to him. We fished on for a while but could not stir the salmon so Julian went back to the lodge for a well earned cuppa.

Two more grilse jumped in quick succession but these all looked like fish which had been in the river for a while and were highly unlikely  to be takers. I called it a day and made my way back to Lagduff Lodge where it was my turn to make the dinner. Maybe Friday will see a change in fortune for us.

Fishing in Ireland, salmon fishing

No water on the Owenduff

The Owenduff. Just the name is enough to set the pulse of any salmon fisher racing. This lovely stream flows through some stunning scenery in North Mayo and I am  lucky enough to be fishing it for a few days this week. I’m staying at Lagduff lodge in the company of 3 other like minded souls and casting small flies for salmon and sea trout.

I drove up in the morning and met the rest of the guys as they were tackling up outside the fine old lodge. The news was not good however as the river was at extreme low summer level with no forecast of any rain to come. This was not unexpected but disappointing all the same as the river has fished well this season when there has been a spate. High pressure has settled over the country and any chance of rain looks to be remote. The river is down to its bare bones.

Undaunted by the challenges I set off to the top of the beat. The river is well managed and provided with bridges to cross the river.

I fished down from the top of the beat to the famous Rock Pool, covering some lovely water with the flies but there was no signs of fishy activity beyond a couple of yellowfin (junior sea trout). The low water levels meant the flow was weak and the flies had to be hand-lined back to impart some degree of life to them.

Julian (that’s him in the photo at the top of this post) saw a small fish move in the Rock Pool when he approached it first thing in the morning and covered the rise without any reaction. He had a lovely 3 pound Sea Trout last Saturday but the river was showing 6 inched on the gauge that day, now it was below the gauge completely.

I  fished on through the middle pools and then headed back tot he lodge for a bite to eat. Julian had beaten me back to the lodge and was catching up on some work beside the fire.

After a spot of lunch it was time to try some pools further downstream. My arthritic ankles precluded much in the way of exploring and I had to be satisfied with a short walk down the river casting into the likely looking spots where a salmon or sea trout could be sheltering. I was using my faithful old hardy rod – the one which I repaired the handle on earlier this year.

For flies the choice was tiny single hood offerings like the Black Pennel.

At the end of the day we all gathered back at the lodge, each with the same tales of no water and no fish. A hearty dinner and a few glasses of wine restored some degree of hope for the next day and we retired for a good night sleep. Tomorrow would be another day……………….

Fishing in Ireland, salmon fishing

Grilse still in short supply

July is often a wet month in Mayo. A little rain fell on Tuesday night and some more as the Wednesday morning wore on, so I decided it was worth a look at a small river I sometimes fish in North Mayo. Expecting a small rise in the water I was instead confronted with a bank high flood upon arrival. Bits of trees and other rubbish were being washed down river and I tackled up thinking I may have hit the water at exactly the right time (for a change). I marked the edge of the water where I entered it with a stick so I could see if the water was rising or falling.


My stick to mark water level

A size 8 Tailfire and a Silver Garry were first up on the cast and I edged into the stream, feeling the pull of the flow and the gravel moving beneath my feet. Due to the high water I used a sinking line to try to get down a little. The rain was lightler now so I was hopeful the river would start to drop soon. Debris in the water was a real pain in the posterior and the flies had to be cleaned every few casts. No fish were showing but that is to be expected in high water and I fished down the initial short stretch without a stir. Other anglers were now appearing as word that the river had risen passed through the neighbourhood, mainly armed with worms and Flying ‘C’s. The rain kept falling…………..

Very high water

Very high water

I persevered for a while but the water level was still rising, albeit quite slowly. Salmon fishers will agree that a rising river is the hardest to catch fish on and today proved to be no difference. Rain further up the catchment area was still filling the river when I thought it would be dropping and any salmon who were there are running hard.

The gusty wind would die then spring up again and I mistimed a cast just as a gust blew up, landing my cast in a thicket of bushes behind me. I snapped the leader trying to pull them out so I marked the spot to retrieve the flies later. My arthritic ankles are in agony (deep wading seems to upset them no end) so I decide to exit the water and get back on to dry land.


It’s time to rethink tactics so I headed off to a local pub for a pint and a chat with Ben (who was also fishing). Guinness is great for relaxing the mind and after a pint of porter and a final check of the river (still rising) it was unanimously agreed that operations would cease immediately and resume early the next morning.

next morning………………….

The alarm goes off and I hop out of bed to check the weather. No water in the little bucket I keep outside the back door meaning there was no further rain overnight. There is a a thick blanket of clouds and a steady westerly breeze. It is pleasantly warm already and my mind is made up-  time to get back over to the river! Country roads are quiet at this time of the day and I make good progress through the early mist. The river has dropped almost back to normal summer level and has thankfully cleared of the floating sticks and leaves which were such a pain yesterday.

I turn off the engine and start to tackle up. My jacket is still wet through from yesterday evening and it is unpleasant pulling it on. The sinking line set up is too heavy for the lower water level today so I change to a floating line and size 10 flies. Over the gate and down the lane, disturbing some cattle in the field who look less than pleased at my intrusion. More anglers appear downstream of me; it looks like I was not the only one with the alarm set this morning!

 A local spinning

A local spinning

I fish down a couple of pools without a touch then wade across the river and try my luck in a normally productive deep hole. A worm fisher is fishing there with a great bunch of lobworms suspended under a pike float. Gruff greetings are exchanged and it is clear he is fishless too. Cast, retrieve, cast, retrieve – the cycle continues as I fish steadily down to the tail of the pool. Still no signs of life and this is looking increasingly worrying. The flood of yesterday was sure to bring up some fresh grilse but nobody is catching them. I speak to another local who has been here since first light and we compare excuses (mine are definitely better than his in my opinion).

I decide to head way up river in case the fish have made a dash upstream in the high water. A short drive along some narrow, twisty roads brings me to a parking spot and I tackle up again. Swallows are darting around and a lark is high in the sky. The heavy black shape of a cormorant takes off from the big holding pool and turns towards the sea.

I walk up to the top of the fishable water and start casting. I fish through the best parts of the pool and again see no signs of life at all. I reach a narrow deeper section and hook a small Sea Trout on the dropper. At last, something to reel in! I noticed a second sub-surface flash when the sea trout took me and presume this is another trout which has grabbed at the tail fly (I have a size 10 Black Pennel on the dropper and a size 14 Black and Gold shrimp on the tail). The Sea Trout puts up a spirited scrap but it is soon obvious there is another fish on the tail fly after all. After a minute the Sea Trout has tired and I pull him towards me only for him to shoot off in the opposite direction – what ever is on the tail is much stronger. I pull back and a fresh grilse takes to the air. This should be interesting!

The fight takes longer than it should as every time the grilse tired the Sea Trout would waken up and splash around in front of him. Finally I drew both fish over the rim of the net. The Sea Trout was hooked under the chin and was quickly released back into the river. Mercifully there were only a few lice on him.

The cheeky Sea trout being unhooked before release

The cheeky Sea trout being unhooked before release

The salmon had swallowed the shrimp and I could only just make out the eye of the hook away down the fish’s throat. A nice fresh grilse of around 4 pounds.

I fished on for a while but decided it was getting a bit crowded (word had spread rapidly of my success) so I went down to a pool I like, well away from the hustle and bustle. This is a tiny wee pool which most angler walk past without realising there is a good salmon lie there. Getting into the river here requires a leap of faith as the vegetation is dense and I have to slide down a bank into the water through 6 foot high reeds.

about to drop into the river through the reeds

About to drop into the river through the reeds

I fish down the pool without success but I am nearly back at the spot where I lost the flies last night. I wade across and fish down the run while at the same time looking into the dense undergrowth for my missing flies. Sure enough, I spot the Cascade first and manage to collect both it and the Pennel. Just as importantly I gather up the leader to prevent any wee creatures becoming entangled.

With some pressing jobs to take care of at home I call it a day and walk back to the car. Once again the fly scored when spinner and worm failed to produce. I am convinced that the ability to control the speed and depth of the fly gives it a huge advantage over other methods.


If we get some more rain I will be out with rod and line over the weekend.

Fishing in Ireland, salmon fishing

Fly patterns for Lough Beltra

After my posting some photos of Lough Beltra I thought I’d better give you some patterns to try if you are fishing there. Elsewhere in this blog you can find details of the Beltra Badger, Claret Bumble, Bibio, Goat’s Toe and Black Doctor. Those 5 alone would make a good selection for the lough, but here are some others to think of using.


This is my own interpretation of the Jaffa. As far as I know this was originally tied by the redoubtable Eamonn Kennedy and the head hackle he uses is a silver badger one. I prefer to dye that yellow. This catches a lot of salmon on both Beltra and Carrowmore every season


You simply can’t fish an Irish lough without trying a Green Peter. Variations abound of course, so picking the right one can be a bit of a lottery. The Red Arsed variant is pretty good and works a treat on Beltra. On days on mountainous waves a Peter with a muddler head is good for creating a disturbance too.


Dark skies call for dark flies and the Clan Chief  is supremely good in these conditions.


Beltra is known as a springer fishery and rightly so. We expect the best of the fishing to be over by July but there is a run of grilse through the summer and so there can be the opportunity to catch the silver lads on daddy imitations. Red Daddy and Silver Daddy will both work as will the more normal pattern with a Pheasant Tail body.


A word now on hook sizes. The old adage of ‘the bigger the wave the bigger the fly’ holds good and we use some fairly meaty flies in the springtime. Size 4 salmon irons are definitely not too big in a decent wave in March or April. We scale down a bit in calmer conditions and as the water warms up, dropping down to 8’s and 10’s.


Fishing in Ireland, salmon fishing

Spate river tactics, part 1

Fishing the tiny streams for summer salmon and sea trout are the mainstay of my angling year. I don’t particularly enjoy elbowing my through the crowds for the chance of chucking worms or ironmongery into the slow, deep water of the River Moy so I tend to avoid that prolific system. The Galway Weir is a fabulous fishery but the crowds hanging over the parapet of the bridge put me off fishing there. I like my angling forrys to be secluded affairs, removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life. That means Galway is not an option for me either. So for river fishing for silver fish I opt for the narrow and overgrown spate streams which abound in the West of Ireland. Here is how I go about it….

small weir on the Bunowen

The first, and by far the most important stipulation for success is water. Plenty of water. I would go as far as to suggest that height of water contributes to about 90% of the success when fishing spate rivers. No water – no fish (well, not many anyway). The streams in the West are in general VERY spatey. With short and steep catchment areas the rain which falls in the early morning will have swollen the river by lunchtime and then returned it to summer low levels before the sun has set. Timing your trip is the most vital element in spate river angling. Too early and you just get a soaking and a big, dirty flood. Too late and you can walk across the best lies in wellies and not see a single fish. But time it right with the water falling after a couple of feet of a rise and sport can be brisk with both salmon and sea trout. A word about the fish before we go on. Grilse are the target these days since the sea trout were decimated by sea lice from the salmon cages offshore. The sea trout are trying to make a comeback but numbers are still pathetically low and all sea trout should be released by the angler.

A nice sea trout about to go back

A nice sea trout about to go back

Grilse numbers vary greatly from season to season but they are usually present after a good flood any time after May. Size wise these fish range from tiny 2 pounders right up to nicely proportioned fish of 5 or 6 pounds. Summer salmon are also around in small numbers and the odd springer which entered the river back in April can sometimes be landed. These fish are in no condition for the table and should be carefully returned to the river of course.

lovely small grilse

Locals often sling Flying ‘C’s and other similar metallic delights into the river and these certainly catch more than their fair share of grilse. It is only in exceptionally high water I resort to the spinner, not through any altruistic reasoning, I simply find the fly more productive. When a spinner hits the water the fisher must begin to retrieve immediately. It is very hard to ‘hang’ a spinner in such small pools so the spinner is retrieved briskly and the next cast is made to repeat the process. Using a fly rod I can ‘hang’ my flies over every lie and give the fish a better chance to decide to grab it. I often see spin fishers work through a small pool in 10 or 20 casts, whereas I can spend 30 minutes trying different angles and patterns in the same pool. The ability to roll cast is essential for small, overgrown streams. This, coupled with wading deeply allows you to cover the water effectively. Why deep wading? Although the rivers are small the banks are a profusion of trees, bushes and reeds. Getting into the water is often not just desirable, it is very often the only option. I make a point of figuring out where my exit from the river is going to be before I launch myself into it. Trying to wade back upstream against a strong flow is not pleasant, so make sure you know where the appropriate gap in the bank is situated ahead of any excitement. Tackle for this type of fishing is simple and every UK stillwater angler already possesses a rod and reel which will do the job admirably. A 10 or 11 footer rated for a no.7 or 8 line is perfect. I never bother with a double hander, the size of the anticipated catch and the short casting ranges mean a single handed rod can do all that will be required.

hardy sirrus reel

Don’t over-burden yourself with a vast range of lines of different densities. I only ever use a floater and a slow sinker. The floater covers pretty much all my needs and I only resort to the slow sinker in very high water or when fishing in a high wind on flat pools. Weight forward is the profile to go for as you want to load the rod quickly for the short casting which is the norm.

Leaders are also very simple. A heavy butt (to aid turnover) of about 18 inches is attached to the fly line by your own favourite method. I whip a loop on the end of my fly lines and then a bight loop on the heavy butt section to make the join. Leaders are 10 or 12 pound nylon straight through. I usually fish with two flies so I add a dropper to the leader which has a total length of about 9 or 10 feet.

I will discuss flies for spate rivers and some tactics which can make the difference in my next post

Fishing in Ireland

Old flies


I found this guy nestling in the corner of one of my fly boxes today. It has lived there for a couple of seasons now after catching a few grilse and receiving some significant battle scars. It’s hard to see from the photo but the rib is very loose. I don’t mind the roughened up body of the missing hackle fibres, they actually add something to the fly making it more lifelike in my opinion. But the loose rib is another matter and I suspect it will break after a short period of use if it was tied on a cast again. So instead it has been retired or maybe that should be semi-retired as it was still in the box. A wounded soldier who is not fit for the front line any more but likes to remain in the company of fellow warriors.

So what are we fly fishers supposed to do with the likes of this Pennel? I can’t bring myself to simply discard it. Chucking a fly which brought success seems to be mean spirited, a faithless act of wanton begrudgery. I know that on one level this is just a hook with some bits of feather and hair tied on to it but I can still see in my mind’s eye this fly in the scissors of a fresh grilse, hear the stream gurgling as I unhooked her and feel the twist of her tail as she lunged off back into the pool. No, there must be a better ending for such a fly.

I am thinking about framing some of these old flies. They would look nice set up in a small frame with a note of where and when they provided me with sport. With the new season just under way it will be months before I get around to it but idea is appealing. I will hang on to any of those flies who score heavily or outwit a particularly good fish and set them up next winter. For now, I will go and make up a few more Pennels with red tails. After all there is a space in the box now.