Fishing in Ireland, trout fishing, wetfly

A beginner’s guide to trouting in Mayo

First I have to say a heart-felt ‘thank you’ to all of you who read my ramblings on this blog. I guess I must infuriate some of you as I roam across a vast swathe of different angling genres, never settling on just salmon fishing or fly tying. I jump around from topic to topic as the fancy takes me, perhaps an insight into my disturbed mind and legendary short attention span. Today I am wandering off down another path, this time to offer some thoughts to those of you who are new to fly fishing for trout and live or are planning on visiting County Mayo.

Nice, streamy water on the Robe at Hollymount

I can still recall my early attempts to catch trout on the fly. The sheer impossibility of hooking and landing one dwarfed all my efforts. There was so much to remember from the books I was reading. So much I had to learn about the fish, what they ate, how to cast, what gear to use. The list was endless and the job in hand assumed Herculean proportions. I honestly believe learning to do anything is so much easier these days, what with the internet and access to all manner of knowledge, but still catching those first trout can be tough for a newcomer. Let’s see if I can help you to cut some corners.

Here is a nice pool with some quicker water which can be accessed from the other bank

  1. This is the golden rule which you must always remember! You can only catch fish if they are there in the first place. Sounds very simple but there is more to this statement than meets the eye. You see wild brown trout inhabit most of the rivers loughs and streams in Mayo but some places have more than others. Let’s take the River Robe as an example. Books and websites galore will tell you that the River Robe is an excellent river for trout fishing. This is a true statement but for the beginner this is simply not precise enough. You could waste hours casting into parts of the Robe which hold very limited stocks of trout while a mile up river there are plenty of the spotty wonders. As a beginner to fly fishing you need to find some streamy water. Avoid smooth, flat water. Avoid very deep, slow moving water. Find some ‘runs’ or ‘riffles’ as we fishermen call them. Why? Because that is the kind of water trout like to feed in. As you gain experience and knowledge you can explore the deep, slow stretches with different methods but for a start stick to streamy runs. To be even more specific, the runs and pools around Hollymount offer some superb trout water for any new angler to hone their skills.

A succession of pools and runs on the Robe, perfect trout water for the beginner

2. Following on from step 1 (and closely related) is know when to go fishing. If I had to choose the best time to start learning to fly fish in Mayo I would plump for April or May, between the hours of 11am and 3pm. Sure, you can catch fish outside those times but here I am talking about giving yourself the best bet of connecting with some trout. The spring months see the water temperature rise which in turn triggers the small water bourn insects to be more active. This increase in food supply awakens the trout and they become much more active. As a general comment the trout are active in the middle of the day early in the season and again towards the end in September. During the summer months the best of the fishing is often in the evening just as the sun sets or again at sunrise. 

a small trout caught one spring day on the Robe

3. OK, so you have sold your soul to get a day off and you are now standing on the bank of the Robe around lunchtime one day in late April. What do you do now? Get you tackle sorted out, and assembled and then have a good look around you. Don’t rush into the river flailing around like a lunatic, take some time to absorb what is going on around you. A lot of people remark on how little time I actually spend fishing as opposed to watching the world around me. This is because I am looking for clues as to the particular dietary requirements of the fish at that time. Trust me, time spent observing the natural world is time well spent. Some things are obvious such a big, splashy rise of a fish or a few mayflys floating down the river. I note the wind direction, strength and its effects of the surface of the river. I look around the banks in case there are insects there which could fall into the river, I look at the level of the water and how that effects potential spots for fish to lie. Is the sun shining on the water, if so are there areas which are shaded? Just take a few minutes to look at the clues which are all around you and then decide what to try first.

An Iron Blue Dun, easy to miss these on the water as they are so small but the trout love ’em!

4. We will continue with this mythical day and let’s presume there are no clues that you can see. The more experienced you become the easier it is to spot the smaller details but we will go along with the idea that there are no flies to be seen, the river is completely quiet with no signs of any fish and the wind/air/sun are all within normal parameters. Now what! No need for despair, you turn to a general pattern to search the water with.When I go trout fishing I bring hundreds of flies with me. I love making flies and then trying them out so I don’t mind my pockets bulging with boxes full of weird and wonderful tyings. As a beginner though this will lead to confusion and reduce your chances of catching trout. For Spring fishing on the Robe all you need for a start is:

Partridge and Orange

Plover and Hare’s ear

Beaded Pheasant tail

Buy (or better still learn to make) some of these three patterns. They will serve you well. All of these are fished wet. You can worry about dry fly fishing once you have mastered the basic with the wet fly.

  1. What about the gear I require? Pretty much any basic fly fishing outfit with a rod between 7 and 10 feet in length, a fly reel to match and a forward tapered floating fly line (the rod will be ‘rated’ for a given line size. Something around AFTM 5 or 6 is a good starting point for beginners). The leader is the fine line attached to the end of the heavy fly line and you want this to end in a piece of nylon of 3 or 4 pounds breaking strain. There are clearer, finer and stronger materials for making leaders out of but stick to nylon for a start, it is much more forgiving of bad casting and other general abuse.

6. How many flies do I tie on my leader? ONE. I will say this again ONE. ONLY FISH WITH ONE FLY UNTIL YOU HAVE GAINED SOME EXPERIENCE. One of the great frustrations of our sport is tangles. We all suffer them but when you are learning you tangle your line a lot. Trying to cast and fish with more than one fly when you are only learning invites a world of hurt. Stick to one fly and the whole process becomes that bit easier.

nice water on the Robe

A nice water on the Robe. I have caught dozens of trout from this run.

7. All ready? Now you can begin casting. Fishing by casting facing upstream is a magical way of catching trout, it is also damn hard to do! So, for the tyro it is better to cast across the current and let the fly swing across and down. You can add some movement to the fly if you want, gently jiggling of the rod may help to fool a fish some believe. Don’t try to cast long lines, on a river like the Robe a 5 yard cast will put your fly over trout. Move slowly downstream, covering the water with successive casts. Relax, enjoy the feeling of the water around your feet, the fresh spring air in your lungs, the birdsong, the gentle rhythm of your casting. Ease yourself into the natural world again.

A beautifully marked trout about to go back

8. Sooner or later it will happen, maybe on the first cast or on the one hundredth. That electrifying tug on the line that signals a trout has snapped at your fly! The chances are you will not hook it. Why am I so pessimistic? You see you fly is winging down the river and the trout is probably facing upstream. When it grabs the fly it normally turns back downstream again. A high proportion of trout hooked when fishing downstream simply tug on the fly without being hooked at all. Don’t be deflated by this minor irritation, keep casting and searching the water for the next lad.

9. Change the fly if you are not having any luck but avoid stopping every 5 minutes to tie on another pattern. Keep a look out for insects on the water, in springtime they can appear suddenly. Sometimes even a small hatch of flies can bring the trout on the feed.

10. When you do hook a trout try not to panic. Remain as calm as possible and guide the fish towards you. Most trout will be between 6 and 10 inches in length and so easy to bring to the hand but some very large trout live in the Robe so if you hook one of these monsters you need to let it run when it wants to start with and only when it begins to tire you can reel it towards you. While the rules and regulations allow you to keep some trout I urge you to release them again. A quick photo and then pop the fish gently back into the water.

The reason I am being so exact in my wording today is that I want you to catch some trout. Failure to catch a fish is common for us all but when you are new to the sport the feeling of that fish on the end of the line is what you yearn for. Success breeds success and you will learn to love your days on the river for more than just the catch, but catching is important at the outset. Spring days on the Robe in Mayo are a wonderful experience for all anglers, but it is a perfect place for beginners to take their first faltering steps towards joining the ranks of us afflicted souls – dedicated trout fishers.

They can’t all be monsters!

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Fishing in Ireland, salmon fishing, trout fishing

Reflections so far

We are in the last week of April and  I have been thinking about the season so far and any lessons I need to learn. By now I would normally have landed my first salmon of the year and brought some decent brown trout to hand. Neither of these things have come to pass and the 2015 spring fishing has been very poor for me. I don’t think that I am alone and from the reports I hear other anglers are experiencing a similarly difficult time. So what has gone wrong?

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Cold air and low water are not a good combination

To my mind there is more than one cause for the poor fishing. The weather has certainly played a part. We have had very low temperatures followed by a period of unusually fine, bright conditions then a return on Saturday to a bitingly cold northerly wind. Our prefered conditions of a steady south/south-westerly air flow bringing cloudy, mild and wet weather have been conspicuous by their absence. Normally good levels of fly life which are a feature of April have failed to materialise so far and we can only hope that this is a delay in the hatches rather than the loss of them in total. A few hardy olives and Iron Blues have hatched out and the small stoneflies have shown up as normal but I have yet to witness any significant numbers of flies on the surface so far. With not much to eat on the surface the brownies are hugging the bottom for now.

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Water levels were high during the month of March, something which usually provided good fishing. I like to think that the higher flows push food out into the open where the trout can prey on them. But March failed to meet expectations and April has been no better. With the water level on the Robe now down to summer heights the advantages of high flow have gone. Yesterday I fished two stretches of the river, both of which should be in good fettle at the end of  April. I gave up on the first stretch after only a 20 minute session. The runs I fished 2 weeks ago were now ankle-deep and weeding up fast. One half pounder fell to a PT but it was clear more rain was needed urgently for this part of the river. I decamped for a deeper section some miles downstream.

A change of flies and a reduction in leader thickness, based on the low clear water, and I was soon up and running again. The air was full of midges but the water was apparently devoid of ephemerides. A lot of wading and tramping and casting followed without any response. This has been the theme for the season, very little signs of life in the river. I genuinely don’t get too upset when I am not catching but a lifeless river is difficult to stomach. The bitterly cold Nor-Easter could be partially to blame but I believe it goes much deeper than that. I suspect that the numbers of trout in the river at much lower than normal. Pollution, poaching or natural selection are all possible reasons for the drop in the trout population. The river has an eerie quietness about it, bird life seems to be quiet and I have seen none of the animal tracks in the margins that I would expect.

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Clear water on the River Robe

In total I brought about a dozen trout to hand, but most of them were in the small to tiddler range. I managed one good fish of around the pound from a very skinny piece of water at the tail of a gravelly pool. I swear there was no more that 3 inches of water covering him when he took my Francolin Spider.

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The hot weather sandwiched in between the periods of cold gave has given the algae a head start this year and margins of pools are bedecked in rafts of green slime. Chunks of it break off and can be seen floating down the river and hooked fish usually manager to cover themselves and the flies in a coating of the stuff when fighting. In itself I am not aware that the algae is harmful but it is an indication of the nutrient levels in the system.

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So what will the rest of the season bring on the rivers? If I am right and stocks of trout are well below normal then there will obviously not be much of an improvement in the fishing this year. The rivers around here are all natural and there is no stocking carried out, so nature will have to come to the rescue if possible but that will take time. With (hopefully) milder weather in May and June the evening fishing should start and I am planning on fishing the sedge hatches through the summer in the hope that some of the better fish which have been hiding in the deepest pools will move out and feed under the cover of darkness.

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My salmon fishing so far has been both low level and unsuccessful. Very few salmon have been caught in the area this spring with poor angling conditions again largely being blamed. I fished Carrowmore Lake on saturday but we came back to the shore with clean boards. Seamus reported 4 fish boated on that day but there were 17 boats out in reasonably good conditions so the lake is still not fishing very well.

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I am reading reports from Scotland and the lack of fish over there seems to echo our woes on this side of the Irish Sea. All over it looks like a dramatic collapse in salmon stocks, the kind of doomsday scenario which environmentalists have been warning us about for years. In Ireland the spring salmon were decimated years ago by the government sponsored environmental vandalism of  drainage works on just about every river in the country, so we have been struggling to catch many early fish for a long, long time. How will this year pan out? I expect a few more springers to turn up with the next spate and the grilse will show up beginning in May and gradually building in numbers if we have a wet summer. A dry summer will spell an angling disaster for us though.

I don’t have any answers to our lack of fish, the problems are complex and we humans seem to be adding more every year. Fish farming is a horrible business and it has added to the loss of wild fish here. More farms are at planning stage and if they are successful (which I have no doubt they will be) it could be the final nail in the salmon’s coffin. I plan to try hard to catch a few this year – there may be none to catch in 2016.

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Google maps and dead presidents

After another fruitless day trolling for salmon yesterday I was ready for some fly fishing today. I felt like a change of venue so I turned to technology and consulted Google maps. At the highest resolution you can discern water features such as bends, weirs and rapids and I use this to guide me to new spots on the local rivers. I spent some time this morning going over parts of the River Robe which I had not fished before looking for just these kind of features and I liked the look of a short stretch near Crossboyne. I’ve fished upstream of Crossboyne many times but between there and Robeen was virgin water to me. I knew a lot of this part of the river is deep, slow and canal-like, very poor water for trouting. But the maps seemed to show some weirs and bends around Curraghadooey. I planned to give them a try after a quick look further upstream at Castlemagarret.

IMG_1771[1] I know the Castlemagarret stretch in great detail and started at the first good pool. Water level was good and the river was obviously slowly dropping after the recent rains. I set up with a team of 3 wets to search the water. An experimental size 18 Iron Blue Dun pattern went on the bob, one of my own ‘Benjamin’ spiders occupied the middle position and a Beaded Endrick Spider was the point fly. After a handful of casts an 8 incher grabbed the Iron Blue, a good start! I fished a couple of pools and runs without any further offers so I legged it to a long pool further up river, bypassing less likely water.

The remains of a Pike were lying in the grass at the high water line. The Robe has a big population of these and I keep meaning to fish for them during the winter but somehow never quite get around to it.

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Remains of a Pike. I reckon this one was around 6 pounds when alive

I slowly fished downstream, flicking the flies into the little bays and around any rocks in the river. I missed 3 fish before finally landing another smallish lad, this time on the Endrick Spider. With no fly life and certainly no fish rising this was looking like it was a day for wet flies so I plugged away with the team of three, ending up with a tally of 7 trout only two of which would have been worth keeping.

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By now it was well after 1pm and I walked back to the car and set off to execute the second phase of my plan for today. Some dodgy map reading notwithstanding, I eventually discovered the tiny concrete bridge over the river I had identified on the computer and parked up nearby.

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I had planned on fishing my way upstream from the bridge as I had seen a weir and some fast water on the map up there, but when I looked over the bridge it was clear there was some good water immediately below the bridge. The only problem was going to be how to get to the water’s edge. The farmer had his fence as close to the river as possible and the bank was pretty much vertical and around 10 feet high. I decided to try fishing from inside the field, casting over the barbed wire fence and accompanying each cast with a prayer I wouldn’t hook anything too big. The water looked perfect with excellent flow and depth. Only a few casts in and the first trout snatched at the flies. I got him on the next cast, a shade under a pound in weight and a nightmare to swing up to my hand through 3 yards of thin air. He had fallen for the Benjamin. Within a few minutes I was in action again when first one and then a second fish took the flies but they both fell off during the fight (the Lord be praised). The fishing was hectic for the next half-an-hour with trout coming steadily to all three flies.

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Access  became worse as the bankside vegetation increased. I managed to slither under the barbed wire to get closer to the water which helped slightly but the going was tough and I nearly took a ducking when a fencepost I was using for support came away in my hand. Some Sandmartins appeared, the first of this seasons swallows and the fields were home to a number of very vocal larks.

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A bit of bank erosion

Time spent on the river always passes quickly and today was no exception. Sport slowed and finally died away just after 3pm so I trudged back to the car which had by now settled into the soft verge and was sitting at a somewhat alarming angle. Loaded up, I was able to extract it from the muck without too much drama but I will need to find another spot to park when I go back to this stretch again.

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Looking downstream

‘What has all this got to do with Dead President’s’ I hear you ask. Well, my Benjamin fly is named after Benjamin Franklin. The hackle is made from a body feather from an African Francolin, so ‘Francolin’ morphed into ‘Franklin’ in my head and fly got the forename of the great man. The full dressing of ‘Benjamin’ is:

Hook: 12, 14 or 16

Tying Silk: Pearsall’s no. 6

Body: the tying silk covered with touching turns of clear horse hair

Thorax: one strand of Bronze peacock herl

Hackle: the small body feather of an African Francolin.  These are pale tan with lovely dark barring.

I also tie a dark version of the Benjamin with claret tying silk and use both versions when small stoneflies are on the water.

Francolin (Crested) 9732a

A Francolin, the hackle feathers are on the chest of the bird

I will definitely be back to give this stretch another try soon. There is some excellent water and it fished very well despite the lack of a hatch today. And I have yet to venture upstream as was my original plan. My final count of trout for the day was 16 with 4 or 5 of them being in the 14 to 16 ounce class. All the flies I tied on produced fish, so they were not too fussy (for a change). I had better make up  a few more Benjamins this evening and I have an idea that a Hare’s Ear variant might be worth a try!

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Fishing in Ireland, fly tying

The Iron Blue Dun

I want to discuss the Iron Blue Dun (it is too much hassle to write Iron Blue Dun all the time so I will refer to it as ‘IBD’ in this post). For such a tiny insect it has generated a huge amount of words in  angling literature, and rightly so. From the earliest history of fly fishing the IBD has been recognised as a hugely important species. I won’t bore you with the minute differences between the three separate species as they so closely resemble each other it requires a magnifying glass to differentiate. I am more concerned with the practicalities of catching trout when the IBD hatches out.

IMG_6875 There is a common misconception that the IBD only hatches out on cold, windy days when no other fly life is active. While I have certainly seen them hatch in just such conditions I have also seen them coming off the water on mild and calm days too so I am inclined to treat the whole ‘bad weather fly’ theory as highly dubious. What is not in doubt is the high regard the fish have for the IBD. Back in the days when I fished the Aberdeenshire Don it was not unusual to see heavy hatches of Large Dark Olives, March Browns and IBDs on the same day. The Olives would come down the rivers in a pretty steady trickle and the March Browns would just appear in explosive bursts, none on the surface one minute then a host of them like miniature speckled sail boats the next. Within the space of a few moments the March Browns would be gone again only for the process to repeat itself  20 or so minutes later. The IBD hatch can vary widely. Some days they would gradually build from one or two flies to a heavy hatch over the period of up to an hour while on other occasions they never seemed to appear in more than a trickle.

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The problem for the fly fisher is to initially spot the IBD when the hatch starts. They are tiny and in moving water can be hard to spot, especially when other species are present at the same time. I have been guilty of missing the start of an IBD hatch more than once because I simply didn’t see them. Surely an experienced fisher would not not caught out like this? Well, let me tell you that when olives and March Browns are drifting down the stream and trout are rising all over it is very easy to fix your concentration on what seems to be the obvious and automatically cast your olive or March Brown copies at the risers without stopping to study the water for the possible appearance of something else. I have been fooled many times into thinking I knew what was happening because I had seen fish actually take a few olives. Trout will accept the olives all right but they much prefer the IBD when it is available in my experience.

Iron Blue spider pattern

That brings me to the question of tactics and fly patterns for fishing the IBD hatch. There are a number of traditional spider patterns which imitate the IBD such as the Snipe & Purple and the Dark Watchett. Fished up or downstream as the situation dictates these are very effective cathers of trout. Avoid the temptation to use flies bigger than a size 16. the naturals are very small and size seems to be one of the triggers for the fish. Some IBD patterns sport a crimson tag and while I have netted numerous fish on flies with this adornment I remain sceptical they add significantly to the success rate.

Personally I prefer to tackle trout rising to IBD’s with a dry fly. I find that they take a floating dun imitation well and will come to it even if the hatch is light. Tiny klinkhammers and parachutes are ideal for this job. Brightly coloured wing posts are a real help to those of us with dodgy eyesight.

You can expect to find the IBD in numbers from now until mid-May so be prepared to scan the water closely for them. It is so easy to miss them but you can be sure the trout won’t. Those minute flies which resemble spots of ink in the water can provide you with some unforgettable sport if you keep your eyes peeled.

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