Fishing in Ireland, fly tying, Nymphs, trout fishing, wetfly

Getting down

A lot of my own fishing in the spring takes place on smallish, wild rivers. There are no carefully manicured lawns sloping gently to the water’s edge here in Mayo! Access to the river ranges from ‘interesting’ to down right life threatening. When you do arrive, sweating and breathless at the river you are faced with an endless variety of problems to solve when you when trying to present your fly to the trout.

lovely water but access is difficult

The sheer variety of water means to be successful you must be flexible in your approach. Anglers who are used to wide open river banks often become frustrated by small overgrown rivers. You will drive yourself insane unless your mental approach to the challenges is correct. I find that a day on a wild river is best treated not as one session but as a series of short, individual angling vignettes. Each pool, run or potential lie will require its own specific issues to be addressed. Around the next bend will be yet another, probably very different set of circumstances for you to adjust too. It varies of course, but a typical spring day probably sees me spending only a quarter of the time actually fishing, the rest of the time is taken up with getting into position,  changing set up / flies, and simply just watching.

One of the big questions when fishing in the Springtime is how to get the flies or nymphs down to the right depth. In these days of heavily weighted flies you may think this is not really an issue. Most of us carried an array of differently weighted patterns, enough to cover just about every conceivable scenario. That is fine and grand when you have easy access to the river and can pick the angle to cast and fish. In tight corners this is not always the case, so what do you do when confronted with a hard to reach lie?

Tight spot on the Manulla

Tight spot on the Manulla

In the corner of a box I carry a couple sacrificial nymphs. They are rarely used but when I need them they have proved their usefulness. Precise pattern is unimportant, these flies are not meant to copy anything in particular so I use hares ear to cover the heavy wire underbody which has been wrapped on a jig hook.

Leader construction is important. Keep the sacrificial fly close to you other patterns, I like to have it only 8 – 12 inches below my ‘proper’ fly/nymph. My preferred method of attachment is New Zealand style and the trick is to use a weak link of lower breaking strength nylon to join the flies. This will allow you to break off the sacrificial fly if it becomes snagged without losing the whole leader.

How to tie the sacrificial nymph

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Tungsten bead has been threaded on to the jig hook and yellow silk started

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tie in some lead wire then wind the wire back up to the bead and break off the tag end

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Wind the silk over the wire and back to the end of the body

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dub with hare’s fur and wind over the lead, whip finish behind the bead and varnish

I have also used the sacrificial nymph on a dropper above a ‘normal’ pattern. This works too but for some reason I find I have more tangles when using this configuration. I bet some of you Grayling fishers who are reading are amused at these feeble attempts to control nymph depth. I know there are experts who can control their flies to within inches of where they want them. The problem on the rivers I fish is simply getting the fly down as fast as possible once it hits the water before the whole shebang is whipped away by the current. The sacrificial nymph allows me to do that and at the same time know I can break off easily if the nymph becomes lodged on the bottom.

I use this set up when I am faced with difficult access to tight lies. For me it is the last option as there is a high risk of losing the fly. The bonus is that you could be fishing a lie which is rarely or even never fished by other anglers.

Another issue with depth…………………………..

fast, smooth and deep

There a couple of stretches I fish where there is the opposite problem. Open, fast flowing straight runs with deep water. Here the trick is still to get down quickly but I also want to hold the depth as I swing a team of wets across the current. Normally, I tackle this kind of water using an upstream nymph but some days the fish just don’t respond and over the years I have found that swinging wets works instead. To help to keep the team of flies low down in the water column I carry a couple of sinking tips which take only a few minutes to add between the line and the leader. They don’t get to see the water very often but they are damn useful on occasion, so I recommend you have one in a pocket of your fishing jacket. Beaded or weighted patterns on the point of the leader are a must to keep the team low down.

A sinking leader with loop to loop connections

The cast is made across and down and I like to throw a loop line line as the flies hit the water so there is slack. This gives the team a chance to sink before the current grabs them.

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dryfly, Fishing in Ireland, Nymphs, trout fishing, wetfly

Crossboyne

I want to focus on a specific stretch of the River Robe in this post. There are two reasons for this; firstly one of my followers tells me he fishes in the area and has struggled to catch much. Secondly I want to run through some basic techniques which have been successful for me in the past and show the type of water where they work. This post will therefore be much longer than my normal ramblings, so please do bear with me.

The bridge over the Robe at Crossboyne. A handy spot to park and enter the river

I’ll start off with a brief description of the river as many of you will be unfamiliar with this stream. The Robe rises about 3 miles outside the town of Ballyhaunis in Co. Mayo and it winds its way down to where it empties into the mighty Lough Mask, some 40 miles in total length. This part of Ireland rests on a big slab of limestone, so the river is very fertile. Pike, perch and roach live in the river alongside native wild Brown Trout but I have no interest in any of the other species, I only fish for the brownies. It is important to understand the topography of the river as there are long stretches which, while they probably support pike and perch, as pretty much useless for trout. This is due to the low flow and deep water which don’t seem to suit the trout. Some of these slow, deep parts are natural but others as are a result of man’s tinkering with nature and dredging the river in the hope it would alleviate flooding. So, if you are visiting please bear this in mind and pick your spot carefully (this blog may be of assistance).

You can cross the river here at the tail of the pool

The part of the Robe in question is centred on the hamlet of Crossboyne, just outside Claremorris in County Mayo. This part of the river boasts a number of different habitats and really challenging angling. Don’t think this is somewhere that you can easily drag out 8 or 10 good trout in a few hours fishing. No, this is fishing which will test the best of fishers, water that makes you think and when your best efforts prove fruitless will show you big, fat trout which rise just to annoy you. I have landed and returned 4 pound trout here and I have blanked more often than I can remember.

Lovely pools under the trees

This is very much wild fishing, none of the pools on the river are named (as far as I know anyway). Forget manicured banks and cosy fishing huts. Here you scramble down slopes and into the water to try and sneak up on your quarry. I spend much more time trying to figure out how to get into a position to cast than I do actually fishing. Crossboyne is actually one of the easier stretches on the Robe, I know some other bits of the river that would test the resolve of a Himalayan Sherpa! While there are some large fish here the vast majority of the catch will be between 6 and 10 inches. This may sound like small fry but trying to tempt these fish from a narrow, overgrown stream is a real challenge.

Access is easiest either at the bridge in Crossboyne itself or along the tiny road which leads out towards Castlemaggarett. The river hereabouts is roughly 5 or 6 yards wide, so the fishing is going to be short range with no need for long casts. Leave your heavy rods and powerful reels behind, a 3 wt set up is fine and if you want to go lighter that is OK too. Gear is going to be basic with some spools of line for leaders and tippets (I cart about everything from 6 pound nylon down to 7x carbon). I use a wide range of flies and techniques so my pockets are filled with boxes of every sort of fly. I am growing increasingly ambivalent towards nets, some days I carry one but on others I can’t be bothered with the hassle of them catching on every twig and bush. I return all I catch anyway so there doesn’t seem to be much point in taking one with me. The choice is yours…….

An additional hazard to look out for!

With a season stretching from 1st of March right through to the last day of September you can expect a wide range of conditions and responses form the trout. The early season is usually good and then the summer is difficult but rewarding. I must admit I rarely fish the Robe after August so it might be fabulous in September but I would not know. Fly hatches include olives, midges, sedges and stoneflies and there are always terrestrials too. The bigger fish feast on crayfish and small fish.

Stonefly

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Tail of a pool, expect to catch fish here early in the season

Let me run through some specific techniques and illustrate them in use on the river around Crossboyne. I will start with early season, March and April and in high water.

Imagine it is the middle of March and the river is running a couple of feet above normal level due to a prolonged period of rain. With no hills in the catchment and mild winters snow melt is never an issue nor is freezing at this time of the year. The water will be cool and the fish reluctant to stir from the bottom of the river. That means we have to go down to them and weighted nymphs are the answer. Expect to find trout off the main flow and hunting for food which is being swept right to them. Backwaters, easy lies behind rocks and the smooth water at the tails of pools are usually a happy hunting ground in these conditions. I find normal upstream nymphing most productive, changing the weight of the nymphs to keep them near the bottom in different flows and depths. Fish the slower water carefully and at very short range. If you have more than a couple of yards of fly line outside the tip ring you are probably not in control of the flies. Due to the nature of this kind of fishing on such a small river I find I change the weight of the flies often. I am not too bothered about patterns, anything with hare’s ear or pheasant tail will do, but the weighting of the fly so it is very near the bottom is critical.

If the water is very, very high at this time of year some of the long, dead flats I mentioned in the first paragraph can produce a trout or two. Big, coloured water should be tackled with large crayfish or sculpin type pattern of streamer fished near the bottom and swung in the current. Buggers and woolly worms work too. On this stretch of the Robe there are limited places to practice this kind of method but the long flats below the trees downstream of the bridge at Crossboyne are ideal. The streamers need to be well weighted so they get down to the fish very quickly. This is when that spool of 6 pound mono comes in handy. Partly because you are casting heavy flies which will crack off if you slightly mis-time a cast and also because you are likely to attract the biggest fish in the river.

Crayfish remains

a small trout taken on a wet olive

Some days the nymph does not seem to be effective but swinging a team of wets can work instead. I like to use a weighted nymph type pattern on the tail early in the season partnered with a couple of traditional spiders on droppers. If you have been following this blog you will be familiar with my choice of spiders. The Partridge and Orange and Plover and Hare’s Ear are staples of mine but there are a host of old patterns which all work on their day. In March and April the trout will hold near the tails of the pools but as the water warms up they tend to spread out and into faster water. You need to be adaptable when fishing wets in small rivers and the ability to fish upstream is key if you are to maximise catches. For me, taking a trout on the upstream wet fly is very satisfying. Half the time when I strike I do so through instinct rather than any physical evidence there is a fish. Trying to describe how this works is beyond me and I have not read any other angling writer do this ‘art’ justice. All I can do is recommend you practice, practice and practice some more with fishing upstream wets. Trust me, it is worth the effort.

Let’s move on a few weeks and into the glorious month of May. By now there should be good hatches of flies in the Crossboyne stretch, enough to tempt the trout to take food from the surface. Like many other anglers I am always itching to fish dry. Flicking a tiny floating fly at rising trout is right up there with the finest methods of angling. Once again, the Robe fish are not too demanding when it comes to specific patterns and an Adams, Grizzled Mink or similar ‘general’ dry flies will work on most occasions. If you encounter a very picky fish you might have to go through your fly box to find a better copy. Over the years I have found that switching to an emerger pattern and fishing it ‘damp’ will often fool these difficult fish. I tie up very simple CDC emergers in grey, olive and yellow and they have worked well.

My olive emerger. Fur body and CDC looped over the back

The stretch of river immediately upstream of Crossboyne bridge is lovely dry fly water. You will need to wade here to get into good positions, so I better say a bit about wading in the River Robe.

The new church just visible from the water

For me, wading is an intrinsic part of fly fishing. There is something deeply satisfying about getting into the river, feeling the power of the water and the coolness of the different environment. The Robe, while small, demands respect when wading. These limestone rivers can be tricky and you need to be aware such hazards as:

  • Steep shelving bottoms. The water can plunge from a few inches to many feet deep very quickly and due to the colour of the water and the dark nature of the bottom this can be really hard to spot.
  • Silty bottom. Look out for pockets of deep silt which can be hard to extricate your feet from. These are often encountered in slow stretches.
  • Slippery rocks. The bottom of the river is covered in slippery weed and algae. I always use a wading stick for extra support and to give me that ‘third leg’ for when I slip on the rocks. I urge you all to do the same, it has saved me from many a ducking.
  • Difficult access. This rough fishing and just getting into the water can be among the biggest challenges. High banks are the order of the day and selecting the right spot to enter the river is an art in itself.

Back to the dry fly. Also in May the evening fishing starts to pick up on this part of the Robe. Dry fly reigns supreme during these late spring and summer evenings and matching the hatch is the name of the game. Falls of spinners are often the cause of the evening rise but watch out for fish taking small sedges and other insects. It is really hard to be specific about patterns due to the variety of fly life available to the fish so I will leave it up to you to decide on what to try. I will do a separate post of patterns which have worked for me (this post is already getting out of hand!).

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Some years we get huge falls of Black Gnats and the fish go crazy for them. This can be wonderful fishing. Normal small, dark patterns fished dry or in the surface film work a treat. Look out for hawthorns too, they are never plentiful but the fish seem to love them so I carry a copy in my dry fly box just in case (I saw the first Hawthorn of the year today at Crossboyne).

Blue Winged Olives are the mainstay of the evening fishing and you must have a range of different patterns to cover these little beauties. Some evenings the fish was yellow-ish olive duns, other times it has to be an orange bodied spinner. When the trout switch on to a fall of BWO spinners the river seems to be covered with the rises of the fish. Stretches which you though were barren suddenly come alive with trout. As usual, these impressive rises are all to short and the failing light puts an end to the sport. You will do well to land 3 or 4 trout in the short space of time between the start of the action and ‘lights out’.

4 pounds plus

The old trusted technique of skating a biggish sedge on the top of the water as the light fades usually produces a fish or two and sometimes a good one. I remember dong this late one summer evening when a huge trout appeared out of nowhere and grabbed the size 10, he shot upstream, jumped and smashed my tippet. He was four pounds if he was an ounce! That fish was lying in less than a foot of water. Red sedge, Balloon Caddis and dry Green Peters all work well as the sun goes down.

Dry flies

High summer is always a challenging time for any river fisher and the Robe shrinks to meagre, weed encrusted trickles by July. Small, dark flies and terrestrial patterns are what you need. If you stand on the bridge at Crossboyne and look down stream you see trees. Lots of trees, overhanging the river and almost totally enclosing the river. While these trees are obviously going to be a headache when casting they are also a larder for the fish. All kinds of creatures fall into the river and keep the fish well fed. The secret to fishing this short stretch is to go down to the tail of the last pool and enter the river. By slowing and very carefully wading upstream you can just cast under the branches. You will lose flies and leaders aplenty but you just have to accept that as the price you pay for this ‘jungle fishing’. Take care when wading, the bottom in these pools is very uneven and there are some small but deep holes to be avoided. I have never had any monsters out of these pulls but it is satisfying to catch even a 10 incher from difficult spots like this.

Stimulators, like this green one, catch fish on summer evenings when sedges are on the wing

I can’t say that I have fished the Crossboyne stretch after August so I may be missing out on spectacular late season trouting. For me, this is an early season and summer evening sort of spot. I hope this has been of some help to you and that you are able to give this piece of water a try sometime.

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