24th September 2020
Offaly sits in the very heart of Ireland, bounded by no less than 7 other counties. It is another one of those places which I have driven through so many times while commuting to jobs but have never stopped in, let along fished. In my mind Offaly was all bog which was being systematically stripped by the huge machines of Bord na Mona to feed the hungry power stations. I required a spot of re-education. The most obvious angling opportunities were on the river Shannon which formed the border between Offaly and Galway. The river is wide and strong here, it sounded like too much for a novice coarse angler like me to tackle with any degree of confidence. What I required somewhere more sedate and intimate. The river Brosna flows across the county but I could not find out too much on exactly where was best to fish so I discounted that river too. How about the canal? The Grand Canal could just be the place to try.
The Grand Canal links Dublin in the east to the river Shannon in the west. By the time it was fully open in 1804 it had taken nearly 50 years to build. After a brief period of success it fell into disrepair for many years. Nowadays, restored to its former glory, it is full of pleasure boats and is home to a good few coarse fish. I read the canal held Pike, Perch, Bream, Eels and some Roach. Pike ran to 5 or 6 pounds in weight but the perch were wee lads with a half-pounder being a good one. I began to hatch a plan to fish for perch on the canal and found a nice looking stretch at Shannon Harbour, right at the very western end of the canal. It looked like it would normally be extremely busy with boats but this year there are few people holidaying on the canal and anyway this is the end of the season. One of the big attractions for this spot was the abundance of parking places at the edge of the canal.
Looking at various maps it appeared there would be an interesting area to fish where the 36th lock (the last one on the canal), the river Brosna and the river Shannon all converged. Surely there would be some fish hanging around such a piece of water. If not, between the lock and the hump-backed bridge in the village there were moorings and some wide basins which would also be worth investigating. All in all, it looked as if there was going to be more than enough water to keep me busy.
The weather forecast was not great. The day was promised to be cool and windy with heavy showers, your typical autumn day in Ireland. I packed some rain gear in the car and a few spare clothes in case I got very wet.
This would be another first for me as I have never fished a canal before. From my very limited knowledge of canal fishing you need to find the fish first and this can be difficult. The advice was to look for places where the canal either narrows or widens as this seems to attract the perch. Under bridges are also good holding spots apparently. Perch are very accommodating little fish that can be caught on a wide variety of baits and lures so I figured on trying small jigs to start with. As there were small Pike also present there was a good chance one of them might grab a soft bait too. In addition to jigs I also packed some spinners too. Lacking the new fandangled drop-shotting gear I packed a couple of 6 foot baitcasting rods and reels. I planned to give some small jigs a whirl and see if the perch liked them. That would entail moving around a bit to cover as much water as possible and I would need to travel light. As a back-up plan I would bring along my coarse fishing tackle in case the perch were unresponsive and I could try for roach and bream on the maggot or worm. As usual, I would bring some bread and sweetcorn with me too in case of emergency.
My route there was straightforward, M17/M6/R357 then cut off for Shannon Harbour. There should be none of the twisty roads of my last couple of forays into Leitrim and Cavan, just good straight road and motorways. I reckoned that a bit more than a couple of hours should see me at my destination and as I wanted to be back at home for 5pm that would give me somewhat less than four hours actual fishing. Would that be long enough for me to catch something (anything!)? I stepped out into the garden to check the weather before I went to bed, a cold, clear night full of twinkling stars. What would the morrow hold?
Sure enough, the day broke amid squally showers driven by a wind which didn’t seem to know which direction it wanted to blow from. Whatever the direction it was strong! Eating my porridge I consulted the weather forecast again, they were now talking about gale force winds and heavy rain with possible spot flooding today. Looks like it is going to be a rough one!
The trip down to Offaly was uneventful and the roads were pretty quiet. The small bridge over the canal in the village was supposed to be closed so I diverted through Cloghans and came into the village from the south, a fair bit of a detour. On reaching the village it was obvious the bridge was in fact open so my detour had been for nothing. I bounced along the rough track on the south side of the canal and reached a parking spot next to the last lock on the canal. I quickly surveyed my surroundings and decided to try the jig first to try and temp some perch from the likely looking water above the lock. Problems immediately became obvious in the shape of weed, lots and lots of weed. It grew thickly on the bottom and maddeningly floated in great clumps on the surface too. Each cast resulted in a fouled hook. The weed on the bottom came away easily enough so I was not losing any gear but nor was I catching any fish. This wasn’t working at all so I needed a plan B.
The weather now degenerated and a troublesome wind sprang up closely followed by a very heavy shower. I got a good soaking but used this time to grab my coarse gear and leg it down to the end of the canal, only about 100 yards from the Shannon itself. There was a steady flow here as the river Brosna came in just up from where I was on the opposite side. Plumbing the depth I found there was about 12 feet of water in front of me. Given the weed situation above the lock I opted to try red maggots on the float tackle with the worm on my light leger rod close in to the reeds at my side.
I trotted the float through the run for an hour or so without success before the float ever so slowly slid under. I was equally slow in lifting the rod, thinking this was just a bit of weed again but no! A nice wee roach came to hand, sparkling silver flanks and red fins. I had photographed him and popped him back in the water before it struck me, I had done it, caught a fish in Offaly! I repeated the exercise again with another, slightly bigger roach on the float fished maggot about 20 minutes later but by then the weather had taken a turn for the worse. A veritable monsoon broke and driving rain penetrated every leak in my old waterproofs. Fishing was extremely difficult as you could hardly see or feel anything in the deluge. I packed up as quickly as I could and started to plod back to the car through the downpour.
Nearing the carpark it became clear the rain was easing off somewhat so I decided to try a few casts from a floating pontoon. I was soaked through anyway so a few more minutes in the rain wasn’t going to make a hell of a lot of difference. In normal days I am sure this spot was a hive of activity as boats queued there to ascend the lock. Today there was a solitary empty boat tied forlornly to the pontoon leaving tons of room for me to fish. This looked like the ideal spot for perch so I dropped a worm over the edge of the pontoon while I sorted out the float rod. I turned to see the tip of the leger rod rattle but when I picked it up and wound in the perch had scoffed my worm and got away scot free. The rain renewed it venomous downpour, horizontal now in a howling wind. I turned my back to it and kept on fishing but it was very tough to see any twitches on the rod tip. Thankfully, the torrents of rain eased off a bit and I was able to see and feel again. Soon the tip of the wee leger rod give a rattle and I set the hook in a small perch. I repeated this trick another couple of times with similar sized perch then added another nice roach, also on the worm, before the next belt of weather came rolling in.
By now even I had to admit defeat so I packed up and made tracks to the car and some welcome respite from the elements. A drop of hot coffee and a sandwich revived me a bit and I sat there watching the teeming rain on the windscreen. It was nearing three o’clock and I lacked the will to tackle up again so I called it a day. Once more I braved the rain to throw the rods and gear into the back of the car then I turned the key in the ignition and set a course for home, this time driving over the bridge and cutting a big chunk off the journey back north. Strangely, the bad weather abated as I neared Ballinasloe and I completed the rest of the journey home in sunshine and light showers.
At home the sopping wet clothes were bundled up and fired into the washing machine. The left over bait was frozen for use as ground bait in future. The rest of the gear can wait until the next day to get cleaned/dried/sorted out. Reviewing the day’s events, I had found a really nice place to fish and it is clear that in better conditions and a bit earlier in the year the canal at Shannon Harbour could produce some great fishing. I was reasonably pleased to have managed to winkle out a few fish in truly horrendous conditions. I know they were small but I was far from disappointed. Once again I had fish to both float and leger tactics. The only real downside is my inability to catch anything other than roach and perch. I need to think out what to do when there is a lot of weed growth. I figured that the float was the answer but would a swimfeeder with a popped-up hook bait been a better option? It did cross my mind to change to that set up but the rain was so heavy the idea of making any changes was just too much effort. All I wanted to do was try to keep as little water as possible from getting through my jacket and trousers.
The next day I dried out all my gear and tidied up my tackle box. Items which were not being used were removed and a few small bits were added. Rods and reels were wiped down and checked over. The old Cardinal 444A was running a bit stiff so I opened it up and lubricated the innards. Groundbait is running low now so a visit to a good tackle shop is required. I need to look at new waterproofs, my old ones are past their best now and I got very wet in the heavy rain. I’m also going to start bringing my heavy leger rod with me when I go coarse fishing. It can handle heavier/larger swimfeeders and this might help me to add more groundbait into swims and thus attract and hold some bream.
Counties Dublin and Donegal are locked down again due to spikes in Covid-19 with other counties looking like they will go the same way. At least I have ticked off another county before it becomes out of bounds. After this burst of activity over that past month I will be slowing down a bit over the winter and, if the gods are good to me, I will go at it hell for leather from next spring. I am plotting some local pike fishing next month, watch this space…………………