First trip to the limestone loughs of Ireland

Can I get you something warm to drink? Of course the answer was yes and that’s how we met a charming French couple on the shores of Lough Mask. For the last 40 years they had been returning to Ireland in their Eriba caravan and they had constructed a holiday lifestyle that on first impressions seemed modest but was far from it as we soon discovered. The caravan door swung open to reveal a collection of spirits; Plum poteen, brandy, whiskey, cassis and a healthy slug of our selection was added to a glass on top of two sugar cubes. The drinks were supplemented by pate, bread, nuts and framboise biscuits from a neighbour back home in France. Stories were shared, and the odd snippet of information was traded which was carefully squirrelled away in an ageing notebook that pre-dated the digital era. The topic of Brexit was on the agenda and it was treated in a very diplomatic way when it was discovered that we were from Northern Ireland. It was most interesting to hear the strength of feeling described as the fracturing of a family and losing their cousins.

More sociable folk could well have spent the evening perched on a deck chair outside the caravan but there was still a few fishing hours left and the prospect of some food back at Cong. We had spent the evening exploring a few locations around Lough Mask and had been directed to a point on the shore where the Cong canal enters the Lough. The Cong canal was a bit of an engineering disaster cut through a limestone landscape that collapsed and disintegrated over the years – we were reminded that the project had been overseen by English men.

The area is accessed down a winding lane with multiple opportunities for the less committed to feel that they are trespassing, gates must be opened and signs warn of untold dangers. The car we were travelling in had limited clearance and we reached a point of no return on a single track. Thinking we were the only fools to have considered this journey we were mighty surprised to find a collection of European visitors, including our French friends, in various vehicles camping on the shore. We saw plenty of fish on the first evening but had not yet found the fishing rhythm necessary to catch fish, the limestone loughs of Ireland needed different skills and techniques than we were used to and our preparation reading various websites and blogs was no substitute for time on the water or local knowledge. As we drove off we saw a few folk return to their campers with a fish or two for supper.

Dinner for us that evening consisted of a BBQ chicken and a loaf which had been bought on route from Belfast earlier in the day. We were glad of the preparation as food options were limited as we arrived back in Cong at 9.30pm. Earlier in the day we had visited the fishing shop in the village and had been told of good trout fishing in the Abbey, so that’s where we headed for an hour or two casting tiny nymphs to tiny fish. We left when we could no longer thread flies on to the leader in the darkness.

Sleep came quickly and the alarms were set early for the short drive to Cornamona to meet Tom Doc Sullivan for our first guided day on Corrib. Lough Corrib has always interested me since I first heard the ‘auld hands’ at Gilford Angling Club talk about it when I was a youngster . The fishing and experience was talked about with such enthusiasm that I knew how special it could be and it was an immediate ‘Yes’ when Brandon asked if I fancied joining his trip this year.

There a is a view of Corrib which appears over a hill on the road from Cong and I am sure every fisherman making the journey for the first time has stopped there like we did. In May the blossom is bountiful and the Spring growth is bursting at the seams, a great opportunity for a photograph.

A number of other cars slowed to admire the view and it was clear from the gear that this was serious fishing country and we joined a convoy of cars with registration plates from across the island of Ireland and British Isles heading towards Cornamona. All the cars turned left along a shore road and it soon became apparent that we were all heading for the same place. Tom Doc’s place was a buzz of activity and accents with many folk well in to their dozens of years on the lough at Mayfly time. Tom Doc advised us to set up a 6 weight for the dries and a 7 weight for the wets which was unfortunate as I was armed with a 5 weight and a utility 6-8 weight Shimano Twin Power, a rod bought for me by my father in Coburns Banbridge 30 years ago. Tom was accepting of my gear and said the 5 weight would be grand as the day was calm. As the rental boats pushed off, the frantic energy of so many enthusiastic fishermen slowly dissolved out in to the Lough and we were left with a peaceful bay to finish our preparations.

Tom finished his final checks and we pushed off in to the Lough about 10am and made our way to the first drift where some big fish had been active the day before. What struck me first was the clarity of the water and therefore how little margin for error there was in our presentation particuarly in a flat calm to the lee of a small island. We immediately saw fish and many were not the type of brown trout I had grown up catching, some of these specimens were well above 5lbs and my 5 weight seemed underpowered. I don’t have a huge amount of experience dry fly fishing and expectations were low, this was a trip to start the learning process on the Irish Loughs, I was therefore mighty surprised when my size 10 Mayfly disappeared in a gulp on the first drift. I lifted rapidly and pulled the fly straight out of the fish’s mouth, Tom graciously advised me what I could do differently next time and also commented that the 5 weight would need some energy to drive the hook of a size 10 home – I made a mental note not to miss the next one. We continued to see fish and expectations were now high that we were going to meet a fish or two. The chat on the boat was light and cheerful and Tom, like all good boatmen, had a wealth of stories and methods for keeping conversation going – this easy manner had been honed by lots of experience sharing boats with others. Despite seeing lots of fish, and moving drifts, we did not make any more contact for a couple of hours until a new drift round the corner of an island and towards a drop off when again the Mayfly disappeared this time in a big splash – I waited a moment and lifted hard and this time there was brief tension on the line before everything went slack. Some folk I fish with get very annoyed by these things but I considered that two fish showing an interest in what I was doing was a good day so far and with that we broke for lunch which was an experience I felt privileged to experience. We arrived on to an island where a number of other groups had assembled around a purpose built hut where there was a collection of Kelly Kettles coming to the boil, tea was decanted in to solid metal mugs and the mornings fishing was discussed – we had not faired too badly with only two small fish having been caught by one boat.

We were fishing on a Friday and weekly trips for far away visitors tend to run from Saturday to Saturday and by Friday lunches have become a little depleted. There was therefore enthusiasm for some of the large amount of food we had brought with us, I had perhaps overestimated requirements as I had read that it was good etiquette to bring lunch for the boatman. Tom, however, told us that he has had so many bad lunches over the years that he prefers to bring his own which prompted a question to the other boatmen about the worst lunch they had ever had on the boat to which the droll reply was ‘the invisible one’. Other highlights of the conversation include the top two tips for fishing:
1. Never give too much information away…….

Pork pies and cherry pie helped the conversation along and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the boatmen share their experiences about fishing, community and life.

After lunch we were back on the water and I could sense that Tom did not have high expectations for the afternoon. We tried wet flies and switched to buzzers but activity had slowed and we saw few fish caught. On slow days, as the day drains away, there is always a tension on the boat from both those of us fishing and the guide both of whom want success for each other. We fished every cast expecting the line to tighten but the day came to a natural conclusion when we saw the last of the other boats head for shore. Conditions were difficult and excuses were many but we both felt that Tom has taught us a huge amount and had provided us with much more confidence about how to approach a day on one of the big loughs.

We made our way back to Cong and enjoyed the hospitality of the village before heading back to the B&B to prepare for the final day. As I have got older with more responsibilities I do struggle to justify too many nights away and had been the person who had shortened the trip to two nights and had promised to be home for evening. We therefore had the morning to fish and we decided to return to Lough Mask for a morning session. The journey down the lane felt more familiar this time and we had relaxed in to the rhythm of the place and the ethereal beauty of the countryside started to make us understand why tales of other worlds are threaded through Irish culture. At one gate stop we met a group of beautiful Connemara ponies who seemed to be hovering between this world and another.

Our first stop did not seem promising, a strong onshore wind made fly fishing impossible so we headed onwards to one of the many other bays on Mask. Conditions in this spot were perfect, calm conditions in the bay and a good wave and breeze out on the point where it met the main Lough. As we were about to fish I realised that neither of us had a net and I decided to make my way back up to the car to rectify that – I decision I was glad I made.

I tend to fish faster than others, well that’s my excuse for leapfrogging my fishing buddies and my companion is more polite which is how I found myself up near the top of the bay where it joins the main Lough. I had seen plenty of Mayfly coming off the water and had seen a fish take a few from the surface in the same spot easily memorised due to the presence of a big rock. By the time I reached that spot, the wind had moved a little and there was a nice ripple on the water. After a couple of casts the dry Mayfly was taken and I struck much too quickly and missed the fish. The brief contact had sharpened my concentration and I thought back to Tom’s words of advice from the day before. I should note that without Tom’s guidance I would not have been fishing the method I was with so much confidence. After sharing the brief success with Brandon I made my way up to the top of the bay where a strong wind was blowing on my back keeping the temperature down and necessitating hats and hoods. I always like a strong breeze and there was wind channels on the Lough which seemed like a likely place to present a fly. The dry fly was difficult to see on the surface in the wave, something I have since learnt could have been fixed by using two flies, one as a “sighter”. I need not have worried because the take when it came was so violent that I could not have missed it, the patch of water near where I was looking was disturbed in spectacular fashion as the trout went all out to take the fly with total confidence. This was not a subtle nibble at the start of the night and felt more akin to how you would treat a kebab at 3am after a skinful – I assume the fish had been feeding freely on Mayflies to be so confident.

The fact that I was not looking directly at the fly meant that there was natural delay in lifting the rod and as the splash subsided I felt a measured bend in the old Shimano Twin Power. I really do love the action of this rod, deep and slow and so unlike any of my modern rods. After a shout down to Brandon to share the good news of a bend in the rod after two days of slow progress, I started to look at my location a bit more closely, Limestone is sharp and there were many edges around obstructions and rocks close to the shore. The wild fish, aware of safety amongst the obstructions headed straight for them, raking the fluorocarbon against the rocks as it did so and I could feel that horrible grating vibration through the line. Thankfully the fish was not large and it became quiet compliant, responding to side ways pressure after a few darting runs. Watching the video back I seem to have been in a world of my own, not responding to offers for help but the fish was landed and my first wild fish on a dry May fly had been landed. It was a nice feeling.

A fish landed always heightens expectation and we both fished hard with Brandon making the next contact. He had changed to lighter line on the flat calm and as he lifted to cast, something from the deep took an interest in his fly. After brief contact the line came back without the fly, these circumstances always get the mind cogs whirring – “what size could it have been?”.

Mindful of my promise to be home in the evening I started back down the bay where I could see some activity, as I approached I could see a lot of fish moving amongst a cloud of Mayfly. I covered a few of the fish in the flat calm and got no interest, the activity increased and it was time to get two rods working the rise. Brandon came down and we covered fish after fish with no interest. Experienced lough fishermen would probably be able to identify what stage of the insect they were feeding on and select the most appropriate tactics, all I can say is that we failed miserably to make contact with anything. The activity was so intense that an hour had passed in what seemed like minutes and it was time to head back to the car.

The remains of yesterday’s lunch had reached a nice level of maturity and the blue cheese in the sandwiches was ripe to say the least but they were consumed heartily at the roadside as we mulled over the trip. Brandon has spent a lot of time in the West of Ireland, in rural parts, and is aware of the rejuvenating experience of time spent outdoors in that part of the world. My time in the West tended to be in hotels or as part of work trips or rowing events and I was not quite expecting how much impact the environment and experience was to have on me. The landscape, the community and the kindness of people we met has left a lasting impression and it is a place that I hope I will have the opportunity to return to – we both made a commitment to make sure that future Mayfly seasons are not missed.

As we drove out from the shore of Lough Mask with the road ahead leading to work, responsibilites and stress we came across a family of geese that perhaps do not know just how lucky they are to live where they do.

Mishaps on the river bank

As long as i can remember, i have had an interest in rivers and fish and I often try to link it back to a definitive moment as I reorganise a series of memory snapshots in to some sort of, probably inaccurate, story. In the mid 70s my parents bought a small cottage in the townland of Carnamuff, outside Ballykelly, and as I recall there was small stream which ran close to the cottage. A map tells me that it is either the Ballykelly River or a tributary that descends towards the shore of Lough Foyle. My memories from that time include a fascination for building dams and playing in the stream. My parents had some friends in the area at that time who moved to the Isle of Wight in the early 80s and on a family holiday I was mightily impressed to find a ford, across a brook, at the end of their lane to explore.

During the family holiday we often visited the Crown Inn in Shorewell which had a large beer garden with a river that ran alongside with a small dam containing two resident rainbow trout. A few stray chips were often left aside from the ‘chicken in a basket’ to feed the trout and I spent a lot of time on my belly watching their movements through the water.

My father has always had an interest in fishing and encouraged my enthusiasm by organising trips to the rocks off Bangor, float fishing for Mackerel and Pollock. The rock fishing excursions were often supplemented by outings in the Mirror dinghy from the Long Hole with a Seagull outboard motor for power.

Bangor was quite a distance from Portadown, where we lived, and I needed to find fishing closer to home to satisfy the curiosity. The River Bann at that time was an impressive coarse fishery and large competitions were often held on the river which were attended by people I would have seen in the Angling Times, people like Bob Nudd. I would often spend time watching the fishermen with their swim feeders and poles, catch bag fulls of Roach and Bream from the pegs around the boat club. I spent a few years messing about on the river having moderate success piggy backing off the knowledge of some helpful folk that would allow me to fish their swim when they were leaving and had it well fed.

Aware of my developing interest in fishing a school friend would often share his experiences fishing Gilford Angling Club’s water on the Upper Bann and Kernan Lough. Fly-fishing was his chosen method and I soon started to be influenced by his stories and wanted some of the action.

Thanks to a nudge from his father, my name was put on the waiting list for junior membership and I was given a list of things I needed for the coming season. Ever supportive of my hobby my parents took me up to the local tackle shop in Craigavon shopping centre,FC Computers and tackle, where you could buy a power pack for your ZX81 alongside a bag of groundbait. As i recall my first outfit consisted of a Leeda 7 weight rod, a Rimfly Reel, a Shakespeare Glider line and a half dozen generic fly patterns. My friend then spent many nights in my parents’ garden teaching me the fundamentals of fly casting, something I am eternally grateful for. Having got membership quite swiftly we were all prepared for opening day, the 1st of April. A gaggle of us piled in to an ex BT van, driven by my friend’s father, and we headed up to Kernan Lough. It was that day I hooked my first rainbow trout, the fish took a Whisky fly and I can still relive the fight and could take you to the very spot where it happened. I do remember dispatching the fish and having to check it every few minutes for the rest of the day before proudly bringing the trout home.

As we got older, with a few rainbows under our belt, myself and my friend would cycle out to the River Bann and develop our skills on the wild river trout. I was given a list of flies, which I still find evocative, to buy for the river; Mallard and Claret, Teal and Green, Black Pennel, Greenwell’s Glory, Wickham’s Fancy.

These were halcyon days, long summers, easy living and endless free time. Our days spent on the river were long and we often had time for mischief alongside the fishing. On this particular day we started at Lawrencetown with a vague plan to investigate the river back towards Gilford. Picking up trout on our favourite Black Pennel and White Tail dry flies we had a satisfying morning. As the day heated we found ourselves down by the bible college near Tullylish and here we found an impressive rope swing that arced out over a deep and slow pool. In those days I had a pair of bullet proof Barbour Chest Waders, which were relatively novel and almost got me banned from a fishing competition on the lake, but that’s a different story. I decided to climb up the tree in my waders, not an easy task, to try out the swing. I managed to grip the handle of the swing and launch myself out over the river in a lazy arc. As the trajectory slowed, mid-way across the river, I could feel my chest waders feeling heavy and start to touch the surface film and as the drag increased so did the plane of my body, from a vertical to a horizontal. As with all these situations you hope that you will defy physics and save your embarrassment, alas this was not the case and I executed a perfect belly flop in to the deepest part of the pool much to the hilarity of my fishing buddy. Having watched Hugh Falkus I knew to throw my legs up and try to trap air in my waders which I did with little elegance and ended up floundering on my back through the pool.

Whilst the rest of the day was spent squelching along the river towards Gilford, the memory often returns making me laugh and reminisce about those endless summers on the river bank.

Saltwater fly fishing in the relentless Irish Sea

Fishing is a lifelong learning process which is compounded when, like ourselves, you continually try to target new species and use different techniques. Recently we decided to try to target Pollock on the fly in Northern Ireland.

Although we have had success for large Pollock on the saltwater fly in Connemara in Ireland, and also in Donegal, to date we have not fished in Northern Ireland for Pollock on the fly. So recently we headed off to the County Down Coast on the Irish Sea to see if we could hit some Pollock just before the end of summer season…one last blast.

It was not the most productive excursion, but it did yield some feisty small Pollock and perhaps more importantly we learned a good few lessons about saltwater fly fishing in Ireland.

The most important lesson by far is that the Irish Sea is an unforgiving and tough environment to fly fish. Grabbing a fly rod and heading to the sea has none of the tranquility of the romantic saltwater fly fishing in the tropics on flats. The Irish Sea is generally pounding, relentless and seldom do you get out without a good shower or two of lashing rain. On the day we set out there was a strong breeze, reported as Force 4!

Of course, this does not diminish the beauty of the place as is evident in some of our photos, but the saltwater fly fisherman has to expect the worst from strong gusts of wind to a turbulent sea that can wreck equipment.

The idea of using a 7/8 rod (which seems to be a preferred weight for many saltwater fly fishers) in Irish conditions, at least from the rocks, seems impractical at best. The 10 weight rods we had seemed to deal with the conditions well.

The sea spray and several waves crashing over us meant a reel with a sealed drag was essential, along with a waterproof backpack (and good rain gear over course). About two hours in we also started to wish for waterproof socks or a wetsuit as the water seeped through the alleged waterproof Gore-tex shoes.

The fly lines were also battered on the rocks and not doubt were damaged. A stripping basket is a must to minimise harm to fly lines, let alone tripping you up on precarious rocks.

This all raises serious questions about what equipment to use. We were in two minds, one opinion, being you could use very expensive strong and resistant equipment, and other, hardy but relatively cheap equipment might be preferred. A good example in the Airflo Bluetooth 10/11 Saltwater rod, which performs in rough conditions cutting into the wind but has a smooth action at the same time. It is not the cheapest of Airflo rods, but significantly cheaper than many other saltwater specific rods.

When fishing on beaches, lagoons or flats, a good line might make all the difference. But in the Irish Sea something rugged is more of what is needed, and knowledge of the type of places the fish might be hiding is far more important than your equipment. If one was fishing in the sea regularly in Ireland fly lines would no doubt need to be replaced fairly often as rocks, barnacles and limpets can be hazardous. Cold saltwater specific lines, with a tough outer coating, are probably best.

We were also shocked to see how quickly the leaders tended to fray. Even when using expensive 23lb Seaguar Ace Hard Fluorocarbon (preferred by many salmon fishers), abrasion was evident very quickly. Inspecting the leaders and replacing a few times on the trip was necessary.

Wrecked flies after a little action

Flies also took a hammering, and although the robust and slightly cheaper equipment might be recommended for rods and fly lines, good quality flies are essential or better still tie your own as saltwater flies are generally not complicated. Some of the flies we used on this trip were commercially bought. The eyes fell of one and were blown away before hitting the water, and the others were pretty much destroyed after being tossed about in the sea and then being taken by some small Pollock. So save money on your rod and invest in good flies!

Tiddler taking a sizeable fly

Finally, we were also left wondering if size does matter when it comes to Pollock flies. The first fish caught was a tiddler, but interestingly the fly it took was almost the same size of the fish. Although the slightly larger fish caught took smaller flies it did get us wondering if we should be using larger flies. It is not unusual to hit a Pollock on a 6 inch spinner, so why use a 2 inch fly?

Overall, it was a mighty day as they say in Ireland. The 4:30am start produced some spectacular photo opportunities and the sport for Pollock, although limited in number and size, was nonetheless rewarding particularly as we struggling against the conditions.

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.

The Pike that got away

There are a lot of myths about Pike, as a child growing up near the River Bann I often heard stories of missing fingers, vanishing ducklings and legendary thirty pounders in the reeds of the Newry Canal – incidentally that fish was called Moses.

Roll back to the mid 80s and my tackle in those days was utilitarian and used for all types of fishing something I often lament when I look at the variety of rods, reels and lines that I now possess. The setup was a Daiwa spinning rod, Shakespeare reel and mackerel spinners left over from the occasional rock fishing outing to Bangor. The first pike came from a fishing peg near the Bowling Green in Portadown Town Centre. A small pike, about 5lbs, was tempted by a red and silver Toby and the rush of excitement was soon dulled when I realised I had neither a landing net nor appropriate unhooking tools. We somehow managed to bank the fish, with a questionable approach to welfare, and extracted the hook through a stubborn desire to avoid losing a favourite spinner. The whole process was a little frantic and stressful heightened by the myths of the creature.

A few weeks later, following the purchase of a Vibrax spinner in Tedford’s tackle shop, I cycled up to the Point of Whitecoat where the River Cusher, River Bann and Newry Canal meet. I started in the mouth of the Cusher a cast of about 12 feet and on the first cast a pike which I now know to be about 8lbs, but which felt much larger, engulfed the spinner and led me a merry dance out of the Cusher in to the canal and back to where I hooked it. The bank sloped gradually at this point and I was able to beach the fish and drag it up the bank. The Vibrax spinner had been engulfed and I could see many weeks of pocket money well down the throat of the pike. What I did next still stings and I am a little ashamed but I dispatched the fish with a nearby rock.

The commotion had attracted the attention of a young lad and he came over to have a chat. He asked me why I had killed the fish and then showed me photographs of the many large pike he had caught and released on that stretch of water. He was calm and respectful of my youthful enthusiasm, something which I now know must have been difficult for him and so very different from the reactionary social media posts that are so common nowadays concerning fish welfare and techniques for safely handling fish. We all start somewhere.

It was this background and context that perhaps prevented me from Pike fishing in the proceeding years and I joined a local trout club (Gilford Angling Club) which influenced my fishing direction as I grew older. Twenty years later, and in a work meeting, I noticed a colleague had a tell tale phone cover with a fishing influence and saw the opportunity to improve the meeting greatly. Soon plans were hatching and photos were being shared and, as it was Autumn, consideration was being given to trying for a hungry predator. Neither of us felt that confident handling pike so we needed someone to help. Anyone active on social media fishing circles will be familiar with Gerard Smyth of Border Fishing Guides and we quickly identified him as the person that could help us. Thus followed a number of pretty incredible Pike sessions thanks to Gerard’s expertise and work ethic. More posts will follow about these experiences but the ‘Pike that got away’ is one of my favourites, particularly as it has been caught on camera for posterity.

As is often the case with Gerard we were on to fish quite quickly and had a good start with a couple of good runs on the Shimano reels, is there any nicer sound in fishing than the click of those reels as your deadbait slides out in to the morning mist? Things slowed and the wind started to get up so we moved to a new spot, anchored and cast the baits out. A run followed quite quickly and I stumbled towards the rod, the excitement was building as the fish went out on a long first run and I kept calm under Gerard’s instruction and waited as the line peeled off the reel. And then a pause and Gerard’s command to hit the fish, I lifted the rod swiftly without first disengaging the free spool and ended up with a monumental braid tangle which I am told has never been matched. Somehow the fish remained hooked as Gerard sorted out the mess and I was still attached to the fish.

The fight was rather lethargic, perhaps not surprisingly, but the fish certainly was full of beans as it was lifted over the net. The video below shows the calamity unfold.

A gallery from 2015

At the end of each fishing season I like to compile a gallery of photographs from the many lovely places that my hobby takes me. 2015 was a particularly good year for trips, if not catch returns. A nice mix of coarse fish on the fly, night fishing for Dollaghan, a River Dee excursion, pike on the fly and many day’s out on the rivers of Donegal and Tyrone. There is even a nice early April Springer in there caught by my colleague on the River Finn.