Dreaming of Big Sea Trout, in the Eye of a Storm

Story and Photography by Bob Salisbury

Most fishing outings start as dreams. In the mind’s eye, the water conditions will be perfect, fish will be there in numbers and the weather on this exposed North West coast of Ireland will be kind. The dream continues as we pack the sandwiches, fill the flask  and have one final check of the gear before hitching up the boat.

We intended to take an early season visit to the Ballyshannon Estuary in Donegal, Ireland, in the hope that the big sea trout would  be moving. The early morning weather forecast put the first dents in our optimism by stating  the wind strength had increased during the night. Even in the shelter of the estuary, conditions were likely to be choppy and the fishing shop in Belleek confirmed our worst fears when the proprietor informed us that ‘the estuary was turning a bit nasty’.

When we arrived at the quay, it was very obvious that his warning had been accurate. Looking out towards the ocean beyond the sheltered inlet we could see the wind coming in from the sea was creating waves which would  challenge  our small boat. This stretch of water always has to be treated with the utmost caution because the channel out to the sea meanders between kelp beds and ever changing sand bars and the tide empties and fills with extreme pace. The hydro-electric dam behind the town adds a further potential hazard because large amounts of water from the Lough Erne system are released periodically, entering the estuary as angry currents. The combination of a fierce tidal flow, sudden releases of  fresh water and variable winds  make this a dangerous location for the unwary and caution, linked to a sound local knowledge, has  to be the rule of thumb.

We intended to troll slowly down the margins of the estuary – Peter, my son Howard and I – but launching the boat was not easy as the wind constantly forced the vessel broadside, back towards the quay. But eventually we were finally aboard and set off down the estuary to begin fishing. It was very boisterous once we  left the shelter of the slipway and to keep balance we had to wedge our feet against the sides of the boat. Almost immediately we met two boats of fellow anglers returning to the quay.

“Much too rough this morning! Can’t even take a drop of tea! We’re heading back!”

They were right. Accessibility to the best fishing marks in the estuary was almost impossible as the boat battled through the wind and waves and it was soon obvious that we would also have to seek calmer water.  We were just deciding there was little incentive to stay out when the outboard engine coughed and died. Unusually, it had spluttered a little earlier but since it was totally reliable we paid little heed and carried on. Peter spun round in his seat and hauled on the starter handle to try to get a restart.

“With this tide and wind and no engine we would soon be half way to America,” he said with relief as the engine fired up. “Could be some water in the carb but if she is going to play up we’d be safer getting back to the calmer water in the estuary.”

It was tempting, given the poor weather, absence of fish and a dodgy engine to abandon our fishing trip altogether but we knew conditions would become easier as the estuary emptied out and the fishing alongside the exposed sand banks might yet prove productive. The sand eels we’d trolled had not worked so as we reached quieter water Howard changed to the fly rod and put gadget flies both on the point and the dropper. The tactic worked and almost immediately he was in to the first sea trout of the day and though it wasn’t the biggest fish ever caught, on light tackle it fought well and eventually came to the net .  Two more quickly followed and were quickly unhooked and released. Inexplicably sport then seemed to dry up and we decided to resort to the old ‘cup of tea ploy’ to see if we could induce some more action.

Every fisherman knows that when the tea bag is placed in the mug, the boiling water carefully added,  the mixture allowed to brew and the milk added –  then the moment the drink is lifted towards the lips,  the rod will twitch. It seldom fails and in our case it worked perfectly. A rod trolling a sand eel almost jumped out of the holder and a series of muscular jerks deep down in the water signified the presence of a good fish. We had to play him with great care because the spool held light line and the drag whined as he made several runs and took out considerable line. Eventually he tired, came to the surface and was netted but surprise, surprise – the fish was not the expected sea trout but was a well marked rainbow trout.

Whether it was an ‘escapee’ from stocked waters and that had moved down to the estuary or whether it had migrated farther afield was a mystery, but it certainly added to the action of what could have been a bleak day. It was a fine trout whatever its actual lineage.

The outboard soon became ]more troublesome and as the wind subsided and the surface of the sea less rough Peter decided to try one last tactic.

“We’ll anchor up on one of these exposed sand bars and try the fly and the sand eel in the shallow water. This margin is the area where the hunting sea trout normally patrol and we might get lucky.”

Wading was safe and comfortable and the main flow down the centre of the estuary still carried the line strongly out towards the sea with the current giving movement and  life  both to the fly and the eel. It was not long before Peter was into a good fish which had surged in with great pace and taken  in a few inches of water. Fresh run sea trout  fight with spirit and Peter had to work hard to keep the fish clear of the anchor chain. Next it was my turn. The take came quite gently but once he was hooked the action was spirited and sustained and it took time on our light tackle to finally bring him to the net.

Given the combination of harsh weather and an unreliable engine we had almost given up and abandoned our fishing for the day but persistence had finally paid off and we had finished up with a memorable outing. Five sea trout, two of takeable size,  a rainbow trout to remember and the realization that sometimes if you stick with it you can often actually achieve your dream.