Praying for Salmon on the Chapel Step

Story and Photography by Peter McMullan

Business types collect business cards, fishermen too and for at least some of the same reasons. Indexed properly, even in this age of computer-driven databases, they provide an invaluable reminder of places visited ( rivers and lakes), contacts made and goals achieved (fish encountered).

The one I have in mind has nothing to do with business and everything to do with fishing. That’s as in fly fishing for Atlantic salmon on a storied Irish river, one that tumbles down from high ground in County Donegal on the way to the tidal reaches of Lough Foyle and finally the Atlantic. It was Glenmore Estate agent Thomas McCreery, over a welcoming cup of tea in his farmhouse kitchen, who suggested where we might find a bed for the night, a convenient resting-place after our first evening on the River Finn.

The cream colored card with its green typeface and accompanying sketch of the two-storey, steep-roofed premises, says it all: Harkin’s Bar and Restaurant, Brockagh, Cloghan, Co Donegal. Accommodation Available, Meals Served Daily, Music at Weekends. What more could we possibly ask?

My old friend Dave Lane, the sturgeon general’ to those who acclaim his pioneering research and hatchery work at Nanaimo’s Malaspina’s University College, on Canada’s West Coast, was happy to concur. We had just driven 170 brisk miles from Dublin noting the negligible traffic, wondering aloud what lay ahead and sensing that many smaller rivers and streams were definitely on the high side after heavy rain earlier in the week.
It was June 30, 1999, the third summer of my return to work in Ireland after 25 years of making a new life in British Columbia. Dave, now a retired biologist and teacher, and his wife Jo were visiting with Daphne and I, knowing we were due to retire back in Canada within the year. An Atlantic salmon was a shared ambition, one I felt most likely to be fulfilled on the River Finn.

After all this was where I had started to pursue salmon in the early 1960s, encouraged by Belfast engineering works owner Stewart Mackie, who owned the fishing rights, and his patient ghillie Jim Saunders. Both have since passed on but there is continuity through to the next generation with the rights still in the hands of Stewart’s son, Leslie, and one other local owner. That situation, of course, is the expected norm for salmon fishing on the far side of the Atlantic with none of the freedom to roam unchallenged from river to river that we cherish in North America. Then and happily now, the Finn remains prime salmon fly water, especially in its swift flowing upper reaches above the town of Ballybofey.

Sourced from Lough Finn, in the Blue Stack Mountains, and further enhanced by the contribution of its major tributary, the Reelan, the system supports a perhaps-diminished run of prime spring fish, in March and April. Then come strong returns of sprightly summer grilse, smaller salmon and the sea trout treasured white trout to the Irish.

While most of the best water is in private hands or controlled by local angling clubs, there is good visitor access to be enjoyed at more than reasonable prices. The upper part of the Finn, where this tale is set, has more than 30 named pools with another 11 on the Reelan. As I recall we paid a daily rate of a little less than $20 Canadian. And this at a time when the cost of game fishing in both Britain and Ireland is fast soaring out of reach for all but the very rich.
The two prime beats, Ivy Bridge, with eight pools, and Annich with 10, each limited to three rods, are priced at between $54 and $72 a day for each rod, the lower rates applying in April, May, August and September.
My own long ago introduction to the Finn came in the days before Ireland, and especially its six Ulster counties, was thrust into the torment of the Troubles. That was a time, through the 1970s and 1980s and well into the past decade, when fishing continued bravely as an expression of what was anything but a normal life, one when many Northern Irish anglers thought twice about driving at night in their own province let alone crossing the Border.
It was on the Finn that I learned to manage a borrowed Hardy 14′ split cane rod and the heavy, sinking lines of the era, to cast with growing confidence, with not a few flies cracked off, to master the gusting winds that so often sweep down the valley in the early spring. The fishing was never easy but it was totally uncrowded. To a novice in his twenties it was almost too good to be true.

Dave had heard the stories and was anxious to be on the water. Modest sums exchanged hands for that evening’s fishing and for the next day with the prospect of falling water to enhance our chances in the morning. It was time to head on, across the Ivy Bridge, stopping briefly to view the famous pool of the same name far below, and up the hill to Brockagh, not so much a village as a tiny roadside hamlet looking out across the deep, river-worn valley of the Upper Finn, its borders a patchwork of neat fields and traditional stone walls.
I recalled once taking a double figure fish on a light rod from Bonners Pool, following it downstream waist deep, half-swimming, half struggling to find a foothold, when it left the confines of a narrow lie not far from where we parked. That was one to remember and it was Leslie Mackie who reminded me of the day in a letter penned almost 40 years after the event. Talk about wet wading.

On arrival, Mrs. Harkin’s greeting had all the warmth of a summer’s day. She had beds available, a room apiece as she wasn’t too busy, and yes, we could eat when we came back from the river. And when should we be back? Don’t you worry, the bar’ll be open and we’ll get you something, was her promise. A family-owned operation for over 50 years, she now has her daughter back to help after a nursing career in London, another small example of how increasing Irish prosperity is bringing its people home.

It would have been a wonderful climax to return at dark with a bright fish but it was not to be. The water was still coming up, typical of an Irish spate river, one that responds quickly to rain in the hills yet can then steady and start to fall within hours. Earlier we might have fished the so-called creep, seen the telltale signs of rising water as the first grasses and twigs float free, giving hope of meeting a taking fish responding to the changing conditions.
Dinner that night was as memorable for its setting as for its quality. Our places were set on the long wooden bar where we enjoyed fine steaks, with chips and all the trimmings. A turf fire warmed our backs while the locals supped their pints. Later, very much later I recall, there was Irish whisky and lots of fishing talk for it is not every day that a Canadian pair find their way to Brockagh.

To his lasting credit, Dave stayed the course for I was in a deep sleep, in my own bed let it be said, before the bar finally closed for the night. Dawn came all too soon, as it always does in such cases, but we were still on the river shortly after 6 am, fortified by early morning tea and biscuits. We worked the upper pools first, Letterbrick, also called New Bridge for obvious reasons, the Corner Pool, where I had one or two good fish so many years ago, and Herns.

Then it was time for breakfast, the full Irish version with fried eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, black pudding and potato bread and more if we had had the appetite. And the bill for dinner, bed and breakfast about $45 Canadian each, quite superb value.
The rest of the day passed all too quickly. We headed for water familiar to me over the years, to a long beat that ran from the Chapel Steps through pool after quality pool, deep water and streamy water, The Sea Trout Pool, Martins and Pattons, each holding the promise of a fish to the very next cast. Had we had the energy, we could have worked our way right down to the Rock Pool, the last of the estate fishing below the now empty Glenmore House.

Dave was using my 10 foot Scottish-made Clan trout rod, beautifully balanced and well able to deal with what was in the river at the time, an early summer run in the three to eight pound range and the occasional larger fish. I left him working his way carefully down the Chapel Steps, encouraged by the sight of a small salmon landed by a local angler just after he arrived, his fly working perfectly down and across a strong stream confined by a rock shelf reaching out from the far bank.
My objective, my hope for the day, lay half a mile downstream at Keys High Water Pool. First I fished a number eight double gold shrimp and then a thunder and lightning through a succession of deep pockets, demanding wading in boulder strewn, challenging places where the salmon must surely lie, if only briefly, as they push on up towards the Chapel Steps.

The take, when it came at last, well into the morning, was in Keys, just below and out from the massive mid-stream boulder that forces the current towards the right bank. The 13-and-a-half-foot, double-handed Sage had made light work of the moderate casting distance and the fish pulled strongly at the shrimp fly; boiled once just below the surface and was away.
The sink tip line had only just tightened to the hand but it was most certainly an offer, all be it fleeting.

One chance, only one chance, as it is so often with Atlantic salmon. Of course there were no regrets, only vivid recollections of the promise of a classic river in a totally beautiful and ever so Irish setting. When, if ever, will I return? A lifetime is too short for all the fishing we must do.

That was that for my day, an expedition to a most favorite place, an opportunity to share past experiences with an old and valued friend, one whose reaction to the whole affair was summed up over a recent New Year’s dinner in Nanaimo when he said: You know, we’ll have find a way to get back to Mrs. Harkin’s one of these days.
Dave’s day on the Finn was a mirror of my own, a single fish played almost to the bank well down the Chapel Steps when the hook came free. An experienced fly fisherman and a fine fly tyer, he took the disappointment well for this was his first crack at Atlantic salmon. He could have been disconsolate but that’s simply not in the character of this always-cheerful companion.
My hope all along was that he would have had a first fish on the bank before the start of the long drive back across the country, almost from coast to coast. It was not to be, but we still brought home our memories of the day and that surely is so much an integral part of fishing the world over? As we get older, we can only pray these treasured images from the near and distant past remain in focus as we look ahead to the next time.

Field Notes
In which Peter’s fishing companion, Dave Lane, offers a few observations of his own:
What an experience all this was for a newly-arrived visitor to Ireland. On our first evening I was speaking to a rather muddy lady farmer she had just taken a tumble on the slippery surface who was tending her cattle along the riverbank. I quickly found out her son is one of New York’s finest and that many area families have strong connections with the north eastern part of the USA. Finally she told me I should get back to the fishing if I wanted to catch anything sage advice.
Then it was time for Harkin’s. How small is Brockagh? Very small while the bar itself seemed to be about the size of a living room at home, The atmosphere was really quite wonderful and, to my ignorant Canadian eyes, suggested a set for one of those nostalgic Irish movies. Our excellent meal, accompanied by frothing pints of Guinness, one of Ireland’s great gifts to the civilized world, was finished as the bar finally started to fill at a late hour.

I can recall at least 10 friendly people with more Guinness being drawn, now accompanied by glasses of Black Bush. Peter is seeking local fishing advice while I chat to the others. I quickly find I can understand three of these gentlemen perfectly, three mostly and three hardly at all. I ask for an explanation and am told the three I understand have spent some time in North America, another three have worked in England and the others have never been away from Co. Donegal.
The next morning found us fishing tea colored water in a light drizzle, what the residents would call an Irish mist. I had company at the Chapel Steps and soon the local rod coming down behind me took a grilse of about three pounds. I learned from him that he pays about $1200 Can for his annual permit and expects to take up to 50 salmon in a season from what is his home river. He was a devoted fly fisherman with a low opinion of those who opt to use bait worms being the usual choice.
Later I hooked my fish, which looked to be around five pounds, at the tail of the pool and enjoyed a good battle at the outset. Not being equipped with a net, I was forced to seek a suitable spot for beaching and that was when it spat the hook at the end of a long line. So much for catch and keep I quickly convinced myself that I am really a catch and release man anyway. Being Ireland, the fish is probably still chuckling at the thought,
Mrs Harkin’s breakfast was a sight to behold and, with our plates cleared, she announced she also made excellent porridge and would we perhaps like to try a plate. Out of respect to what had gone before, we politely declined the offer, one typical of a country where they really do all they can to make you feel at home. Would I return to the River Finn, most definitely, and would I stay at Harkin’s, without question.

If You Go:
For anyone interested in fishing the Glenmore Estate water on the River Finn, the contact is through Thomas McCreery, Altnapaste, Ballybofey, Co. Donegal, tel. 074 32075. The river opens March 1 and the season ends September 15. In addition to an estate permit, the fisherman must also be in possession of a rod licence issued by the Foyle Fisheries Commission.

From the bookshelf:
More information on the Finn, and many other Irish rivers and lakes, can be found in Peter OReilly’s Trout and Salmon Rivers of Ireland, An Angler’s Guide, 3rd edition 1995, published by Merlin Unwin Books, 58 Broad Street, Ludlow, Shropshire SY8 1GQ, England, or in Irish Game Fishing, by Paul Sheehan, published in 1997 by Swan Hill Press, 101 Longden Road, Shrewsbury SY3 9EB, England.