A tale of two harbours
First things first, you need to get the pronunciation correct. ‘Purteen’ is said ‘Purcheen’.
Purteen lies on the south coast of Achill Island, a small fishing harbour, home to a few small boats that ply the near waters on the fringe of the Atlantic. It is usually busy with tourists during the summer but of course this year there were none so life was very quiet out there in 2020. Achill is very beautiful in a desolate sort of way. It has known many hard times and life there has never been easy. Scraping a meagre living from the hill or sea was the lot of the islanders for countless generations but these days it is the natural beauty of the place which draws visitors and their money. I guess that I very lucky in that even in lockdown I can remain within my county and still visit such a magical place.
A spell of calm weather tempted me to try my luck, even though it is very late in the season. I hoped there might be a few stray Mackerel hanging around or maybe a few small flat fish. It has been many years since I last cast a line from the harbour but I remember two salient points, the horribly rough ground off the end of the pier which swallows tackle and the huge shoals of mullet that came in with the rising tide. Regardless, it was a chance to get some fresh, salty air and admire the views. I looked out a couple of rods and packed a bag.
Bait, the never-ending problems of procuring the damn stuff. I had some Mackerel in the freezer as well as some very old and fragile sardines so they came with me on the journey west. I would have preferred worms as bait for the flatties but digging them around here is the devil’s own work. Slivers of fish it would have to be.
The harbour itself has a skinny outer wall which is difficult to fish from because it is so narrow. In anything but a flat calm it is too dangerous to walk out on. There are three inner piers, short, stubby affairs which dry out at low water. This is very much a high water mark so I planned on getting there to fish up the rising tide and down the first hour or two of the ebb. The rocks to the west of the harbour can be fished too but again, the bottom is incredibly rough and tackle losses will be high.
I was a bit early in leaving but thought the slow drive would ensure I arrived about the right state of tide. No, I was to early and the water was still very low in the harbour so I took my time and had some coffee before tackling up. There was a stiff wind blowing so I parked the car in such a way that I could get some shelter from it and this worked out really well for me. Frequent showers throughout the morning caused me no undue stress as I simply ducked under the open tailgate of the motor. I baited up and cast out but each throw had the same result, stuck in thick weed. I kept at it as the tide rose but all I landed was one minute Pollock.
A small boat left soon after I arrived and I greeted the fisherman with a wave. He returned after a couple of hours and after tying up he hailed me over and gave me some fresh mackerel and a pair of coalies. We chatted for a while about the state of the fishing and life in general then I let him get on with his work of sorting out the catch which consisted mainly of Huss from what I could see. More casting, more weeds, no bites.
The day was not going according to plan at all so I decided to change venues. Packing up I drove back the way I had come and then turned off on to the narrow road to Cloughmore. It was nearing high water by the time I was set up and the bait was in the water. I could see lots of sandeels shoaling in the water at the foot of the pier so I set up a spinning rod with a set of tiny feathers and proceeded to catch about a dozen. These will be frozen for bait.
I hooked a much bigger fish on the feathers but it shot straight under the pilings of the pier and stuck me fast there. I snapped the main line trying to free the hooks. My guess it was a mullet which I had accidently foul hooked because I have had them pull the same trick of shooting under the pier at this mark before. A shoal of small Pollock arrived and made life interesting for a short while but they soon moved on again.
The beachcaster was getting constant nibbles but I am sure they were just crabs, a persistent nuisance at this mark. Eventually I had a good solid bite and lifted into a small fish which turned out to be a lovely small female Corkwing Wrasse. She was only lightly hooked so I slipped her back into the water with the minimum of fuss after a quick snap. Heavy showers came and went with warm sunshine between them but the fishing was slow to say the least. In the end I packed up and headed home.
The fishing around Achill used to be some of the best in Europe but today it is a shadow of what it was. I first fished here nearly 40 years ago and the marks were alive with fish back then. Descent sized Pollock were a nuisance and any bait left on the bottom for more than a few minutes would be snaffled by a dogfish. Big wrasse, huss and coalies were easy to catch. The beaches were home to rafts of flounder and dabs. Making the effort to reach deep water rock marks could result in huge fish. Now there is very little left for the angler. I read some of the advertising blurb from IFI and the tourism people about the wonderful fishing on the island but to be blunt they are telling lies. Achill is beautiful and sad but there are hardly any fish left for the angler.
Some of you may be wondering what I would do with the coalies? I make fish cakes with them, the strong flavour they have fits well with the potato. Don’t be put off by the grey-ish flesh, it turns pure white when cooked. Remove the flesh from the bones and skin. Place in a saucepan and cook in milk with salt, pepper and bay leaves. Remove the bay leaves, drain and mix with an equal quantity of mashed potato. Divide into balls and flatten them into thick patties. Coat in egg them breadcrumbs and shallow fry until golden.