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.

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.