Overtime in Ireland
Overtime in Ireland
Despite drought conditions last summer, the auther toughs it out and finds salmon success.
- By: Joe Healy
- Photography by: Joe Healy
The weather report was fantastic, with the news coming from no less than a sea captain on the rugged Atlantic Coast: Mary Gavin-Hughes sent blessings about incredible spring temperatures (global warming, anyone?) on the West Coast of Ireland. Yes, Mary Gavin, as in the one and only woman runner of the sea in this region of the Emerald Isle. Blue skies and hot, an early summer, no talk of rain, is what Mary said. The more Mary and I corresponded by e-mail last spring, the more I thought about bringing a 9-weight to try for ocean fish, such as mackerel and sharks and who knows what—sea bass, maybe?
Hold on—I was to visit the Great Fishing Houses of Ireland, inland, to fish tidal rivers and lakes. This was to be about Atlantic salmon. But I’ve always been drawn to the rebellious types. And along came Mary.
The conversation with Mary Gavin-Hughes (MGH) was in late April last year, and I was to tour a consortium of west coast and southern lodges that pulled together to help with travel arrangements for interested anglers. But, alas, with ongoing drought, there was little to be had in the rivers. I got that hint when, leaving the Dublin airport en route to Galway, I spied tank tops and shorts. In Ireland? That’s the reverse of parkas and pack boots in Jamaica. What was pleasant for MGH’s ocean fishing was horrendous for salmon anglers.
In preparation for this trip, with a plan to start off in Galway and then wind up the west coast through counties Connemara and Mayo, I tied a handful of standard salmon flies, Ally’s Shrimp and her derivations, primarily—and perfunctorily, as I calculated the ghillies would have what we needed on the famous streams and loughs for Salmo salar. And then I had this image of pioneering saltwater fly-fishing in Clew Bay . . . .
When we arrived at the fisheries office in Galway we had a brimful of apologies: low water and a not-happening zone for salmon. A view of salmon skating through the fish weir, thanks to an underwater video feed, proved there were still fish in the Corrib, though not to be fished for that night. (Given low water, no salmon tags were being issued.) We dined at Martine’s Winebar, at which I enjoyed the best-ever pork-back, and fine conversation with our group of European journalists (I was the only Yank on the trip).
We left the next morning for Lough Inagh Lodge, a stately inn overlooking its namesake lake (or lough) in Connemara. I must explain that the Great House Lodges of Ireland are likely one of the best concepts invented for salmon anglers. You can get all you need if you want a salmon experience: Great guides, great food, great drink, access to some of the best private salmon water in the Western World. No worries. You’ll meet mates along the way, as I did future fishing friend Colin Folan, the fishing manager of Inagh. Still, no water—no trout, and certainly no salmon (their runs in tidal waters are triggered by rain).
“Oh the Green of Mayo” by The Saw Doctors is the song that fills in the experience of traveling to Clew Bay. We fished with MGH just off Clare Island in the bay, and I stayed glued to the sight of Kilpatrick’s Peak, where the faithful come to pray in allegiance to St. Patrick’s climb, the winding trail to the peak gouged into the side of the hill by centuries of footfalls. My boat-mates pulled in mackerel and skate on jigs and cut bait while I thrashed around with my 9-weight. Mary and the Euro-journalists were delighted. For the record, I did not pioneer saltwater fly-fishing in Ireland; but I had a dozen folk in the boat intrigued by my fly-casting. Still, the warm weather persisted and, for me, the fishlessness continued.
Next stop was Pontoon Bridge Hotel, which has a fishing school, at which I volunteered to help teach the journalists on this trip who had never held a fly rod (just down the road was Healy’s Fishing Lodge, though we had no time to stop). The wind whipped and, as an angler at the bar declared, “Zut alors!” we knew we were staying indoors. We went from high-and-dry to storm conditions. Dinner at Pontoon was wonderful; it’s owned and operated by the Geary family in Pontoon, Foxford, Mayo. I was seated next to Markus Müller, the fisheries information manager for the western region of Ireland. After some feeling-out conversation about my fly-fishing background, he invited me to fish the River Moy the next day in Ballina.
Up to this point no salmon were caught or even truly fished for in the classic Spey style (we trolled and cast from a boat in Inagh); MGH was a tremendous host and a willing catalyst in getting others to catch ocean fish, such as mackerel and dogfish, and I was glad to see the guests bend their heavy boat rods. Still, I was not overly optimistic about the Moy, though Markus pointed out that in a good year runs of salmon may reach 60,000 fish, of which 8,000 are caught on rod and reel.
The next day we arrived at salmon Valhalla: Mount Falcon Country House and Hotel, in Ballina, the self-billed Salmon Capital of Ireland, through which runs the River Moy.
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Shane Maloney had studied the guest list and met me at the castle doors. Laughing hoarsely, he said, “Ah, Joe Healy, welcome home.”
My good friend—no, newfound soul brother—on this trip, Munich’s Franz Braunschläger, who Anglicized his name for introductions to Francis, and I had a beat reserved on the Moy, thanks to behind the scenes work by Marcus and Shane (a salmon fanatic himself). Franz, who had written a guidebook on Ireland and was here to update that work, said to me (and I swear this to be true), “I had a dream last night you caught two salmon.”
We fished hard, all afternoon, under the direction of Stuart Price, fishery manager of Mount Falcon, who showed me the meaning and intension of the half-hitch salmon drift with a size 14 tube fly.
I had a tug, but that was all. Stuart had to get back to the lodge, er, castle. Francis and I kept on. He was intense. He would not quit, till it became dark amid the echo of the walls in which the Moy flows through the urban setting of Ballina.
At the Mount Falcon castle that night, Shane whispered that I had a spot on the river the next morning if I was so inclined—if we were up early and we had rain. I was, we did. Beats on the Moy are not easy to come by in June and July (by reservation only), and a guest at the hotel, hearing a Yank fishing writer was in town, offered his beat to me.
We rushed to the river—it was freshly dosed with overnight rainfall—by six, and I started out by switching the small tube fly for a fly from Maine, a streamer called the Black Ghost. I got into a roll-cast groove with my 6-weight switch-rod (believe it, a Silver Ghost model from L.L. Bean, another Maine connection), to a deep pool in the run. I had a tug, a turn; I executed a strip-set. I landed my first salmon with no one watching; the ghillies and Shane were in the fish hut, drinking coffee and smoking. I thought about thump-on-a-rock—I had an Irish salmon permit so could keep two fish—but couldn’t do it. I cradled this slim six-pounder back into the Moy.
I was in the Weir Pool; a couple pools down was the Cathedral Pool, so named because it rests under the shadow of the spire of the local cathedral. I released the salmon, bit off the fly and put on a small tube; kept casting; had a tug and a hook set—and the ghillie and Shane looked at once and saw me hooked up. Shane, for the first time in two days, put out his fag and from shore began waving his cell phone trying to take pictures.
Two salmon, just as Franz/Francis envisioned. The sun was rising over the spire of the cathedral. I was brought home when I landed these fish. Deep into overtime—an hour later, I was on the bus for the Dublin airport. Two fish, courtesy of a dream, in the only place this could believably happen to me: Ireland.