The White Tail

I spent many years fishing Gilford Angling Club water as a youngster and teenager in the days before the Internet, online forums and social media. Advice, tips and reports were shared in more analogue ways and there was less distraction. The quieter, and softer, communication of those days is often appealing. The Lough I fished most was Kernan Lough in the hills behind Gilford, a Lough with an interesting history which I did not know at the time but which now helps me understand the eerie feelings walking back from McEnerney’s Point in the dark on a summer’s night.

There were many characters that I recall from that time who were generous with their time and who often readily shared fly patterns when they had success. These flies were often elevated to mythical proportions as I did not tie flies and had never seen them in the shops. After watching one man, Derek, catch his bag limit in 20 minutes I was once offered his fly and location before he left. 15 minutes later and with my three fish landed on a ‘Red Arsed Bastard’ I though that I had fly fishing sussed. That particular fly accounted for over 100 trout in one season for me until I lost it after getting broken in a lilly pad tangle.

There was a man in the club at that time called Snowy and I hope he is still fishing the Lough. He was a reserved man and a dab hand at winkling trout out of the Lough when all around was quiet. Snowy did not drive and would set off home on foot towards Gilford, a distance of about 4 miles after his evening’s fishing. My mother would often drive out to pick me up, bringing my grandmother for the run and if Snowy was walking back I would ask if he wanted a lift. The information he shared was often scant but when he spoke I knew to listen as he was a talented and thoughtful angler. I believe it was Snowy that introduced me to the ‘White Tail’ a beautifully simplistic dry fly that accounted for a lot of fish during my years fishing the Lough and River. Two memorable fish come to mind when I think of the fly; a beautifully spotted 14 inch brownie from the runs below Tullylish Parish Church and a rainbow taken from a previously unfished spot just before dark on a summer’s night. I had been fishing McEnerneys and left it to walk back to the car when I saw a fish rising on the edge of a big bed of lilly pads and I thought it might just be at the limit of my casting range, the cast was sent out and unexpectedly worked perfectly with the leader unfurling over the edge of the lilly pads and the White Tail landed gently on the water beyond. The situation could not have been more perfect as it was in line with the cruising path of the fish and with a gentle sip the White Tail was gone and more importantly there was a weight on the end of the line when I lifted which was not a snag. The fight was unremarkable, the fish small but the number of elements that unexpectedly went right together makes this one of my most memorable catches.

So, the tying of this pattern could not be more simple, the materials I used to tie this one were mostly bought from a small tackle shop I used to frequent in Lurgan. The Antron wool is my favourite material for the tail but doubled over floss would work well. Sprite hooks were my choice hook in the 80s and I still like to use those I have left. The shop used to have a bargain bucket of old capes and this particular type was one I would buy if I saw it. Tying is simple, small bunch of Antron for a tail, peacock herl body and a straggly hackle of whatever brown/ginger cape you have. I would fish this fly with confidence for trout wherever they swim.

A matchstick, a button and an elastic band

My father grew up in Scotland but his mother was from Bangor and so most of his summer holidays were spent in the town and sea fishing from the rocks and pier were a common pastime. My earliest fishing outings from the rocks at Strickland’s Glen were influenced by the tactics and techniques that my father learnt from that time. As I have grown disillusioned with modern tackle catalogues filled with unnecessary equipment, the simplicity and accessibility of the DIY rigs have become more appealing. It is my hope that this post might encourage someone to dig out the rod in the garage and try some rock fishing on their holiday.

The species you are likely to catch with this set up are varied but Pollock and Wrasse would likely be the target species from the rocks around the coasts of Ireland. The set up could not be more simple and is a simple sliding float rig allowing you to adjust the depth of fishing to find the fish. I typically start with about 8 feet below the float, to the hook, on a rising tide and adjust by 6 inches or so every hour as the tide fills. It is alway worth adjusting the depth, up or down, if you are not getting any action. Nowadays there are many float kits, available in all tackle shops, containing all you need to set up a sliding float. These are great but if you are bringing a family group together the cost soon mounts up and pieces of the kit will always be lost so it’s always worth having a handful of buttons, matchsticks and elastic bands in the tackle bag.

Historically, my father mentioned that he would have made balsa floats out of scrap balsa wood, the edges would be sanded and a wire loop would be lashed to the bottom, if you were feeling flush you might have added a swivel. As fishing in Bangor was popular off the piers, your float had to be distinctive to stand out in the crowds and you would have got creative with any gloss paint you could find in a shed or garage. With a nod to nostalgia, most local tackle shops in Ireland still sell hand painted balsa floats and I do still like to use them instead of the plastic modern alternatives. If you really want to go DIY, a drilled Jiff Lemon works as an alternative.

The snap below shows what you will need to rig this up. I attach photos of two hooks, the heavy gauge that my father always likes to use and the lighter hook that I have had more recent success with.

The knot that will be used for the elastic and matchstick is the same as one as you might have used as a kid to make a ‘blow knot’ where you tie a knot in a rope, hold both hands, blow and pull. The knot disappears.

The process is outlined below:

  • Thread your line through the bail arm on your reel and through the eyes on your rod.
  • Leave about 10 feet of line beyond the top ring of your rod
  • On the line closest to your rod tip, tie a slip knot as per the photo above and insert a small piece of elastic band to act as the float stop. This elastic will be reeled on to the reel when you cast if you decide to fish deeper. To fish deeper, pull the elastic out and pull the slip knot through. Attach the elastic further up the line.
  • Next get a button and thread it up the line, the button will hit the elastic as the float rises and stop the float sliding up the line.
  • Next, thread on the float
  • Below the float, tie another slip knot and attach a section of matchstick.
  • Next attach suitable weights for the float, all coastal tackle shops will have buckets of these weights and they are known as drilled bullets. I like my floats to fish low and bob so a large and a small one usually works well for the type of float in these pictures.
  • Next attach another slip knot and a match stick.
  • Attach the hook using a clinch knot

It’s not a great photo but you can see the order of items, elastic band, button, float, matchstick, weights, match stick and then hook. Ideally you would also add a swivel before the hook and attach a length of lighter, sacrificial, hook length but it’s not necessary.

With this rig, using a limpet as bait, you will pick up Pollock and Wrasse from any rocky outcrop with a good drop off of depth close in.

Pollock mayhem on the fly

Saltwater fly fishing combines two of my favourite things, the ocean and of course fly fishing. Although being out on a quiet river trout fishing remains one of the best uses of time imaginable, I love the exhilaration of fly fishing in the sea: the surf and spray, the taste of salt on the lips, the howling wind, and of course thrashing large and dangerous flies narrowly passed your ears and battling endless line tangles, not to mention the pleasure of the pandemonium of catching a fish in the midst of all that.

The first fish I caught on the saltwater fly was in 2003 in South Africa and it was a Shad. A Shad in South Africa is a very different fish to what the Irish or British call a Shad. A Shad in the Indian Ocean is an aggressive predatory fish that hunt in large shoals often chasing sardines particularly in Kwazulu-Natal.

Shad also known as Elf, Tailor or Bluefish

The Shad is also sometimes called an Elf, Tailor or Bluefish and grow to 100cm in length weighing 10kg. There is no-one who grows up fishing in South Africa that has not fished for Shad. A run of Shad can be an exciting experience as the fish shred through sardines chased by even bigger fish. I recall once seeing a fellow angler, in the frenzy of a Shad run, bring in a Shad with most of its body missing after a shark hit it as it was being reeled in. Shad also make for an excellent meal.

Back in 2003 I hired a guide, whose name I now sadly forget, to take my brother-in-law and myself saltwater fly fishing targeting Shad. The guide knew his stuff. We eased ourselves into the experience by catching on the fly some Blacktail and also what in South Africa we call Moonies.

The first saltwater fish (Shad or Elf) I caught on the fly with my brother-in-law. No digital cameras in those days, so not that clear! Just before the fish hit the braai (BBQ), delicious.

We then waded out over some rocks and onto a sandbank targeting shad standing waist deep in the surf (in the interests of health an safety I do no recommend this method given my previous mention of sharks feeding on Shad). Anyway, our limbs remained in tact, and it was not long until we hit some Shad. The feeling of a powerful fish like that, relative to their size, hitting a fly on a light rod and tearing off into the waves has always stuck with me.

Since then my saltwater fly fishing has been limited but when I get the chance, and the conditions are right, I am always willing to give it a go. I have over the years had a bit of success targeting Pollock particularly in Connemara, Ireland where we often holiday. I have also caught Mackerel and Pollock on the fly in Bundoran in Northern Ireland, and in a few other spots in Donegal.

On my holidays in Connemara this year, however, I had my best experience with saltwater fly fishing yet. Up to that point I had had a fairly slow fishing holiday. At the start of the trip we targeted and caught some fierce wrasse off the rocks with floats laden with limpets cut off the rocks, but the Pollock had alluded me, losing a few big ones while fishing with a float.

After a few days of turbulent sea and storms (and no fishing) I went down to some rocks I have fished at many times before, and found the sea dead calm. Positively, the high tide was coinciding with nightfall, the time I have been most successful in the past. I started by float fishing and on the first cast, after seeing no action for about 10 minutes, I reeled in and as I lifted the Sandeel bait from the water a large Pollock launched itself at the hapless eel narrowly missing it. Within minutes, however, I caught the enthusiastic Pollock using the float and the same Sandeel.

A deadly saltwater fly after taking more and a dozen Pollock!

I immediately decided, given that the fish appeared to be feeding on the surface and the wind was in the perfect direction, I should try the fly rod. The setup was simple: an Airflo Switch Reel (#7-9), Rio Outbound Short line, and my trusty Shakespeare #9-10 Expedition rod. I used a fly I had caught Pollock with before, which I think I may have even bought in South Africa.

I then cast across the inlet I was fishing and on the first retrieve a Pollock threw itself at the fly, missing and launching itself out the water. On the next cast I hit the first fish, and from there is was just mayhem, fish after fish. I landed at least a dozen in a 1.5 hour session. I even quickly drove back to the holiday house in between to fetch my son so he could join in the action. The largest fish was in fact hooked by him as I cast and he retrieved in the fading light.

Needless to say, if I was hooked on saltwater fly fishing before this experience, I am now forever a convert.

Below is a video featuring some of the highlights.

A slow day on The Corrib

My experience of fishing Lough Corrib has not been great, at least in terms of catching fish. Lough Corrib, for those who don’t know, is a 176 square kilometre lough in Ireland, famous for its Brown Trout and particularly its Mayfly hatch, as well as its more elusive residents the cannibal Ferox Trout. The Corrib is deeply embedded in Irish culture. Boats dating back to the Bronze and Iron Age have been uncovered there, as well as medieval craft.

I fished the Corrib first in 2000 (or thereabouts) and completely blanked. It was a very unusual day for Ireland as it was 28 degrees with a burning sun, and not a breath of wind. These are the worst possible conditions for Irish lough style fishing, which needs a good wave on the water to deliver results. Well, that is my excuse anyway, and I am sticking to it.

This summer I set out again to try and improve on my dismal record. The Corrib is enormous and I could not imagine fishing it alone, or without local knowledge. My guide for the day was Tom “Doc” Sullivan, who was excellent: great company, full of local stories and needless to say very familiar with the lough he grew up on and the most productive fishing techniques. He is also a superb maker of tea. I had a fantastic day out with Tom, as we drifted many of his most prized stretches.

The fishing was unfortunately slow and I only managed to hook two rather small brownies, but could not fault Tom’s guidance. Tom felt more of a wave might have been necessary, and at times my rather laidback retrieval style needed some speeding up. Tom gave me a demo of a faster retrieve and managed to hit a good fish, which managed to escape just before the boat.

That all said, it was a good day out and absolutely gorgeous scenery-wise. I will return hopefully next year for the Mayfly. Third time lucky.

The video below captures some of the essence of the wonderful day.