This month I finally made it to one of those fishing events I’ve known about for years but never quite got round to visiting. The Irish Fly Fair in Galway proved to be a friendly, fun event to put it mildly. A gathering not only of traditional game fishing converts, but also those getting into broader facets of the sport, such as bass and pike fishing, that are slowly but surely getting a foothold on the Emerald Isle, just as they are in the UK and Europe.
Appropriately enough then, I was accompanied by my friend from Tipperary, Aidan Curran. If there was ever a character to both give a nod to tradition while also shattering every cliche in the book, it’s him (and I’ll be penning something on this self-styled river punk for my “Far Bank” column in the Angling Times shortly) .
We had a great weekend too, tying flies and talking books and coarse fish on the fly. And while there has been some of the old anti-pike prejudice tossed about recently in some quarters, the really refreshing thing was how many people we met who were open-minded and already starting to target pike other species with relish.
I was a relieved, if still slightly hung over man by Sunday evening anyway. I’d arrived with a back-breaking amount of books and other stuff for the stand- but left with lighter shoulders and lots of new friends That warm glow wasn’t just the result of the “refreshment”, although there was plenty of that (the Irish are both the best and worst folks on the planet to go drinking with, depending on whether it’s midnight or the morning after).
With the weekend taken care of then, I was champing at the bit to have a crack at some Irish pike on the fly. And the omens looked good. Autumn is usually a decent time to try your luck and the weather, if not exactly settled, wasn’t too wild. I have fond memories of pike fishing in Ireland too, if tinged with two near misses with large fish. Around fifteen or so years ago I went on two occasions with my older brother, exploring County Galway and the Roscommon area. We had stacks of fish and some fine doubles- as well as something I lost on the Shannon I still suspect was a huge specimen pike.
One current problem is fishing boat hire in Ireland, sadly. Perhaps with some real and perceived decline, and UK trout waters like Chew Valley coming to the fore, visitor numbers have dropped and it’s trickier to rent boats these days. Luckily, Aidan knew the folks at Derg Isle (www.dergisle.com) were friendly and could provide motorised craft at a reasonable day rate.
We got there a bit late on day one, needing some rest after the show. But we set out late morning with high hopes. It’s such an atmospheric place too, packed with intrigue and history. There is an amazing amount of water on this vast lake, so I was grateful to have local knowledge on my side. Even so, it was fully three hours before we even got a touch, fishing sinking lines and trying to establish where the fish were. The conditions whipped up too, turning sections of the lake into a heaving sea: alas, the Irish weather is as legendary as the fishing!
Our grand total of one jack and only a couple of other missed takes was to set the tone for a testing, if educational trip. The next day, we got up super early and tried again, this time armed with a borrowed drogue and fish finder, both very useful for controlling drifts and identifying key areas.
Again, we struggled, in spite of searching some of Aidan’s favourite spots carefully. Slowly though, we got a few clues. Naturally, the key is finding the fish on these huge Irish loughs, which tend to prefer depths of 8-16ft during the colder months. But finding them doesn’t guarantee they’ll feed. We located prey shoals and nice features though, and finally that afternoon we got chances.
The fish seemed to want to lie in 10-14ft feet on our visit, with very few bites outside that range. But it was still a day of few chances- and we cursed those odd snatches that were missed. Two really important lessons come of this type of fishing: first is that you need total concentration. The harder the fishing, the more vital this is. You have to be like a coiled spring, just waiting for that moment to strike; Aidan’s way is to always imagine a fish is following the fly and willing to grab.
Another feature of the trip was the need for fast sink lines. We tended to use a Di-6. Not the nicest to cast, but necessary as even with a drogue the breeze was taking us along at a fair lick and a floater or slow sinker would cause the fly to ride up too shallow. I learned the hard way how easy it is to miss takes on these lines. They form quite a “belly” when well sunk, so it was imperative to give an exaggerated strike, both stripping the line hard and using the rod too. If you don’t feel the fish at first, strike again too if you have lots of line out. Trust me, you need to pull back hard to counter the depths involved and the bony mouths of these fish.
When I did finally get a second chance, it was a thrilling fight on the nine-weight rod. My fish of five or so pounds fought well above its weight, really bending the carbon and it was only as it neared the boat I realised it was nowhere near as big as its inflated temper. With the chances so few and the fishing so hard, even this modest fish felt quite satisfying. Sadly that was it for Derg- just two fish in the best part of two days. Harder than Chinese algebra!
Could a smaller lough produce better then, for a final crack on my last day? We decided to take a session on a less formidable water where pike were maybe not as potentially epic in size, bit quite plentiful. The theory sounded great- and the sheer beauty of the place was captivating. Utterly magic.
This time we had Adian’s brother, Ed Curran, a vastly experienced pike fly angler, to give further local advice and hopefully a change of fortunes. Again, conditions were a bit weird, a mild ten degrees as opposed to frost this time. Surely this occasion the pike would cooperate?
We tried just about everything. Light and dark flies. Weedy drop-offs and greater depths. Fly retrieves can also be critical for pike. When things are hard, I am often a believer in a slower “picky” retrieve. But you can also try really smashing back a fly hard if you think some provocation is required- and I’d use a big, bright fly for this. The roly-poly retrieve (above) is handy at times for this- especially if you want to fish shallow water with sinking line! Another good tip is to make short strips of line, rather than longer pulls, so that you always have plenty of room to pull hard on the line.
What an absolute bollock-breaker of a day it turned into though. Aidan and me had just one bite each in the first five or six hours. Weirdly, the rare bits of attention we did get were in seven or eight feet or water, quite near the bank, totally different to Derg. One of Aidan’s top bits of advice for these Irish loughs is never to neglect the margins- quite often the first drop off is just the place.
Perhaps most frustrating of all was a sudden, huge swirl in a reedy area. It can only have been a pike, and a large one at that, although by the size of the commotion I half expected Godzilla to come up. Was the fish following the fly, or just spooking at our presence? Who knows. It wouldn’t take and we left the area several drifts later, no wiser.
I finally got my only fish of the day after switching to a floating line and trying a bay with snags and eight to ten feet of depth quite close to the bank. The floater perhaps allowed me to tease the fly a bit slower and deeper- although the fish I had grabbed the fly right by the boat in a quite deliciously violent, visible take. It was welcome, but not big. It also looked like something bigger had bitten it.
I had another fish hooked and lost on the next-but-one cast, which was only a pound or so. That was about it. Ed, meanwhile, was just as baffled at the lack of action, catching a small jack and getting just one other bite the entire day. What had happened? To get one slow day is quite normal; three bitterly tough days was just desperately unfortunate. I was sort of gutted yet also felt slightly more human to hear that Ed had struggled just as much- because if the local expert finds the fishing attritional you know it isn’t just down to you. Weirdly, I felt as if we had fished not only hard, but quite well over the three days!
So, I had enjoyed the fair and come a long way, but the fishing just hadn’t delivered. Even so, I’d enjoyed Aidan’s company and learned some important lessons and local tips, albeit the hard way. Perhaps the truth doesn’t always make the best story then, but these tough days teach us to refine our skills and certainly make the good days sweeter. Nor, as I’ve explained before, do I believe in just filtering out the tough sessions to kid you into thinking I lead some sort of charmed existence. Nobody does and actually, it’s nice to make others feel a bit more human because we all have hard days.
That’s about all for now- but should you want some further reading, don’t forget to keep an eye on my weekly Angling Times slot, as well as Fallon’s Angler Number 11, out very soon, where you’ll find an exclusive piece on piscatorial artist Kari Furre from me, along with the General’s latest adventure, entitled “Ottergeddon”. Oh, and if fish with teeth are your thing, there are still some copies of Tangles With Pike available at just £14.99 in signed hardback, and of course Crooked Lines at just a tenner for 24 of my best tales, beautifully illustrated by Neil Bunn . You can’t say fairer than that… Christmas is coming too (hint, hint) and fish-themed socks are rubbish.