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.

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.