Trout & Salmon (Mourne feature)

Some seasons I almost forget about losing fish, landing nearly every one. Other years, such as this one, it seems I can’t buy a fish to stay on the hook.

Likewise, there are times when every offer becomes a well hooked fish, as opposed to a series of takes that are but fleeting contacts. Illtyd Griffiths, one of Wales’ great sea-trout anglers, refers to “nippers, not grippers”, with a rolling “grrr” and a clenching of his fist, an apt description!

Solutions sometimes occur that radically reverse the situation. One night in the early 1980’s, I was fishing a secluded pool on a Welsh river where the previous night I had done well. It still held a lot of fish but I couldn’t hook them. Nine good pulls, in almost as many casts, saw me return to my bag on the shingle bank and pour a cup of coffee to reflect. There had been a bit of rain that morning making little difference to the river, up perhaps four inches and now falling back. What I hadn’t noticed in the dark was that the increased central flow was pushing a narrow belly in my line as I fished down to the hotspot. A small mend gave me direct contact, and subsequent takes produced an unbroken series of well hooked fish.

If only it was always that simple, I thought, on a recent trip to Northern Ireland, where the ratio of offers to fish hooked, and fish hooked to fish landed, made me wish I understood the Law of Large Numbers better. It was, however, fascinating fishing. Over three days the numbers were (roughly, for I lost count!) missed takes >20, fish hooked and lost >8, fish landed, 6. One run down a pool fifty yards long produced five abortive pulls at my flies.

After an absence of almost twenty years, I was in Northern Ireland for the second time in six months, this time to fish the Duke of Abercorn’s water on the River Mourne. This piece of good fortune was a result of a red letter day last January shooting woodcock at Baronscourt, the Duke’s estate in Co. Tyrone. Stories of the prolific runs of salmon and grilse on the river had fired my imagination and when the opportunity arose to fish the water for three days in late June the dates were marked immutably in my diary. Arrangements were made to overcome the main constraint. One of my Labrador bitches was due to whelp for the first time in mid June, but with trusted puppy sitters in place I booked my ticket with Easyjet for the half hour flight from Glasgow to Belfast.

Easyjet is fisherman friendly, my return flight costing less than a mid-range fly line and my rod tube safely delivered via the outsize baggage door.

The airport official who delivered my rod was an enthusiastic angler, rattling off recent rainfall and water levels with great optimism: “It’ll be right tomorrow, and full of fish!”

The Foyle system has an 1130 square mile catchment area including Co. Donegal in the Republic, and counties Derry and Tyrone in the Province. The Baronscourt estate water includes sixteen pools on the River Strule, by Newton Stewart, becoming the River Mourne from the Strule’s junction with the River Derg, downstream towards Sion Mills. The cricket club in Sion Mills, founded 1864, achieved celebrity on July 2 nd 1969 when the Gentlemen of Ireland had the West Indies all out for 25 runs. Apparently the tourists were somewhat mugged, being entertained into the small hours the night before with large quantities of strong liquor, some of which had never seen the taxman.

Just below the junction with the Derg is the famous Snaa Pool, one of the best pools on the river. This one pool produces more fish per annum than many entire, well known beats elsewhere in Britain. It was here the Duke’s guests Gordon Bishop and his wife Pauline were in conference with his ghillie Robert Wilson when I arrived at the hut. The water was falling after heavy rain three days earlier, and looked perfect. Fish had also been showing in the short time they had been there.

I had met Robert when shooting in January, and enjoyed his humour then. My tackling up a 15foot rod, floating line and five foot slow sinking polytip was regarded with approval, until my favourite fly box came out. It is a monoculture of Cascades, tied mostly on #6, 8 and 10’s. Noting its contents, and my cast, he queried “You’ll perhaps want one of those as a teaser on the dropper?” For a moment I thought Robert was suggesting that my flies were more suitable for marlin fishing than attracting salmon. He changed tack diplomatically, adding that one of the most successful rods on the river used a teaser on the dropper, and if I had a small one in the box I could fish it above the Gold Shrimp on the point. Digging deep, I found a size 12. I had no Gold Shrimps, more of which later, so Robert kindly lent me one.

Gordon was wading down the neck of the pool when I was finally ready, so I made my way up to the Derg junction to follow him down. As I passed he announced a pull, which was encouraging. My first contact with a Mourne salmon followed shortly after. About my sixth cast, there was a fierce jag on the fly, then few seconds of silver thrashing in the fast water, and a slack line. The size of the fish was salmon, not grilse, and I wondered then if the gremlins had travelled with me from Scotland. On the Tummel the previous week I had lost two fish one afternoon, the last a leaping acrobat in the mid teens.

Two thirds the way down the pool the flow slackened slightly, and I started a brisk figure of eight retrieve. This brought a rapid reaction from the fish, two fierce pulls in as many casts. Wading out, I headed back to the hut to re-group and consult Robert, who was otherwise engaged. He was making his way down the bank to net a fish for Gordon – it came off.

My next run down the pool seemed set to follow the same pattern. After a few casts I hooked a grilse and had it on for barely a minute before it fell off, then a brief handshake of a take that came to nothing followed. Confidence is crucial, be it with rod or gun, and I knew mine was at low ebb. Finally success came – I met a gripper! When I beached a sea liced grilse I felt both relief and disbelief, for not only had I landed it, but my Gold Shrimp was far back in its throat.

There must have been a lot of fish in the pool (a big run of grilse had been seen passing through Sion Mills the previous day) and they carried on doing what grilse do so well: avoiding a firm hook hold. I tried even smaller sizes, cast different angles, worked the fly or let it swing. A fast figure of eight retrieve certainly attracted more fish to the flies than not working them, but did not encourage firm hook ups, which is a problem I have grappled with before. Holding the rod tip high, creating a slack droop of line didn’t help, any more than taut contact with the fly. At one point I put up a single handed rod and stripped a Sunray Shadow part way down the pool. The fish met this challenge well, one managing a savage wrench on the fly and a bulge on the surface as the fish departed.

Above all, it was an enormously enjoyable and fascinating challenge, more so than if every offer had resulted in a fish landed.

Later in the afternoon I waded as far as I could below the main pool, where the river flowed slack and deep. Casting a small Gold Shrimp on a long leader under overhanging trees on the far bank, and stripping it back, brought a solid take and a strong head shake. This was a different class of fish to those earlier, and I started to edge back upstream to a shingle beach where I could concentrate on the fish rather than water within a hand span of broaching my chest waders. I was nearly ashore when the fish made the first of three powerful runs downstream and across to the far bank. Some minutes later I felt I was getting the upper hand, and even anticipated landing the fish, looking behind me for a place to beach it. Until then I had yet to see it, and managed to draw it up until I made out a lengthy bronze flash deep in the peaty water, a good sized salmon… the hook pulled out.

Eventually I went the distance with another sparkling sea liced 5lb grilse, thus ending the day with as pretty a brace of fish as one could wish for. In addition, I’d had about a dozen unconverted takes, and lost four fish.

Conditions the following day were extraordinary. I did not start fishing until about 11am, getting more pulls and dropping a couple of fish before warm overcast conditions changed to a near cloudless sky, dazzling sunshine and a gale force wind. Twice my tight fitting baseball cap blew off and floated away downstream, thankfully recovered.

I explored the Mourne, downstream of the Snaa pool, where tall trees on the left hand bank might cast some shadow on the pools. Here I met one of the Baronscourt syndicate rods, who had just landed a grilse on such a pool. We chatted, and he pointed out a series of lovely pools downriver explaining how he would fish them in different conditions.

An abiding impression on both my trips to Northern Ireland this year was how the easy friendliness of everyone I met seemed universal, not restricted to the river bank or shooting field.

The afternoon was one when the fish kept their heads down. That said I have rarely fished in wind so strong combined with sun so bright. Returning to the Snaa pool, I found that Gordon had not had any action either. He planned to finish the day about 5pm after one more run through the rough water at the head of the pool and with the sun still high and the wind strong he waded out. Moments later he was into a fine grilse, duly netted by Robert and a testament to Gordon’s perseverance and the perversity of fish. The Gold Shrimp had scored again. Thinking shopping might use the next hour better than fishing until conditions improved, I asked Robert where I might get some shrimps. Two tackle shops within five miles of the water, both with good stock and friendly service is being spoilt for choice. I had telephoned David Campbell of Mourne Valley Tackle the week before, asking what to tie up and on what size. He had been most helpful, and amongst various patterns the Gold Shrimp came highly recommended, tied on #6 and #8 trebles. I had imagined using smaller sizes. Hearing that the river was running high, I tied a couple of dozen Cascades on the Ken Sawada doubles I like, and decided to purchase the Gold Shrimps on arrival. Not checking manufacturers and comparative hook sizes I nearly fell into an old trap, for there was a considerable size differential between my hooks and Mr Campbell’s well tied trebles, my #8 being perhaps nearer to his #4. My mistake, and I was lucky I hadn’t tied a mass of outsized Gold Shrimps!

Back on the river the sun was lower. With half an hour to fish and time for a final run down the pool I felt confident. A couple of pulls and a lost fish later, I finished the day with a nice grilse on the bank.

The following morning the wind had gone, but the sun was high and glaring off the river when I arrived. I wasn’t too concerned, for I had arranged to spend part of the day at Baronscourt with the Duke’s headkeeper, Sammy, and could return to the river in the evening.

Once a famous woodcock shoot, the estate has undertaken an ambitious habitat management programme. As a shooting man fascinated by woodcock, the sight of kilometres of recently cut rides opening up dense scrub and vast plantations of conifer on low ground and hill, to be managed for woodcock, was nearly as exciting as fishing!

Later, an hours fishing gave me another grilse, and assorted contacts, together with an arrangement to meet Robert at 6am for a final hour before leaving to catch my plane. We were both on time, meeting under an overcast sky with fish moving below the hut. At first I wondered if much had changed as I bumped a fish and then lost one, but the next stayed on, as did the one after that. We agreed that these were a new influx of fish, both a pound heavier than our previous grilse, with sea lice and on one, a slight net scar.

The Foyle system, being partly in the Republic and partly in the Province, has a joint management policy that allows netting unlike rivers wholly within Northern Ireland. A six week netting season from mid June to early August saw a declared net catch last year of 35,000 fish for the system. In addition, some would estimate an illegal net catch of c. 10,000 fish. Other estimates vary from 40,000 – 60,000 salmon and grilse as an annual net catch. For a river system that provides outstanding rod and line fishing, it could of course be argued that the net catch is a sustainable harvest. However, the mind struggles to grasp the potential of the rod and line fishing if a further 40,000 fish were to run the Foyle system rivers. To put the above figures in perspective, for 2003 the declared net catch for the whole of Scotland was 33,247 and the declared rod catch (fish released or retained) was 52,368, with the Tweed accounting for c.14K of these fish.

The Baronscourt water is fly only, fished by a syndicate of twelve rods, with two rods being retained by the estate for guests staying in superb self-catering accommodation on the estate. Whilst a great deal of water is available to the visiting angler on the Foyle system, mixed method prevails, and overcrowding can be a problem. So the opportunity to take fishing on what for Ireland is expensive, but exclusive fishing makes Baronscourt unusual. On his way to the British Open at St Andrews the American golfer Mark O’Meara stopped by and had five grilse for his day’s fishing. The cost of a day is considerably less than on most well known Scottish beats.

The estate has recently increased the number of prime weeks when its house rods may be let.

In the next few years, when the nets come off as they surely must, the only way of booking a week on the Mourne at Baronscourt may be via dead men’s shoes. Prescient parties will have already become regular guests.

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