Stalking Wild Browns in the Hidden Gems of Ireland
Story and photography by Bob Salisbury
I love to fish the small streams and rivers of County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland.
These tiny waterways are largely neglected by many local anglers who prefer to try for a salmon on the larger rivers. It is true that these undisturbed streams are often difficult to fish because of overarching alders and willow, hidden barbwire and high waterside vegetation. Getting a fly to stay clear of the abundant broad leafed pond weed can also be tricky but it is worth trying to overcome these various obstacles because these streams do contain surprising populations of excellent wild brown trout. In the places where a car can be parked and the river is accessible and a straightforward cast can be made the trodden grass shows evidence that fishermen do visit the river – but walk a few hundred yards down or up stream and the vegetation is unmarked and it is clear that no one has recently frequented the banks. These popular ‘easy’ spots tend not to be the haunt of the good trout and the best fish usually inhabit the most difficult places where putting a fly over them requires effort and perseverance.
Knowing that you are the first angler that season to explore a favourite section of the river where good trout will be lying is pure joy and a real privilege, but the thing which really sets the heart beating is the realisation that none of the trout which lurk in these awkward lies will seldom, if ever, have seen an artificial fly.
On a warm summer evening when there is a good hatch of fly, this undisturbed idyll for the dry fly fisherman can be a little deceptive. Wild brown trout have a loathing and suspicion of anything unnatural in the landscape and at the first sign of anything which disturbs their tranquility will disappear to sanctuary until the danger has passed. I came across a fellow angler last season dressed in a luminous waterproof and standing on the top of the bank at an open stretch where the cattle came down to drink. He told me he had been there for some time but so far had little luck.
“There are very good trout in this deeper water here but I have tried almost every fly in my box and nothing seems to interest them,” he told me. “Fish are rising steadily under those trees upstream but they are very hard to get at along that stretch.”
I expressed my commiserations about his lack of success and continued up the river knowing that every trout glimpsing the bright yellow jacket and human silhouette bobbing about would have long since gone into hiding.
Creeping cautiously along the bank in a semi-crouched position wearing somber, camouflaged clothing and watching the water for the sign of a feeding fish is the best tactic. Polaroid sunglasses also help to locate good trout but before this stage is reached deciding what the trout are taking and trying to imitate the natural insect as closely as possible is essential. These wild browns can be astonishingly single-minded in their preferred feeding and selecting an artificial which is as near to the fly they are taking is always worth the effort. Small imitations seem to work best on these streams so a hook size of 16 to 18 with a 2lb or 3lb leader is my preference, fished on a number 5 or 6 floating line with an eight-and-a-half foot rod.
I like to hold loops of line in the hand so that if a rising fish is spotted an instant cast can be made without the need for several false casts. It is not especially easy to cast accurately and delicately whilst in a crouching position but it is often the case that the angler gets one chance to put the fly in the correct place before the fish is spooked or the vegetation or overhead trees intervene. I am always amazed how leaders and artificial flies seem to be attracted to every twig and reed along the bank and how quickly the slightest inattention on the part of the fisherman can cause an almighty tangle.
One technique my son and I use for the most impossible places where we can see a fish feeding is the ‘catapult’ cast. A large fly such as a ‘daddy’ or mayfly is best for this practice and the fly is firmly held between finger and thumb, the rod arched in to tension and the fly is catapulted out through the vegetation to cover a fish lying under the near bank. Generally the take will be immediate and it requires extreme will power on the part of the angler to hesitate for a second before lifting the rod to give the trout time to turn down. Once hooked the fun really begins and on these closed in streams there is always an element of luck before any fish can be brought to the net. Immediately the fish is on I try to wind any free fly line back on to the reel and in order to get it clear of the bank side vegetation and holding the rod high protects the fragile tippet from the lunging shocks created by a good trout. If the bank is suitable and the water not too deep, slithering down on the backside so the fish can be played in open water at the centre of the stream helps to avoid the many hazards which dense summer vegetation and waterside bushes and trees present. However these streams are not easy fishing and whatever tactics are employed, many fish will be lost even after being well hooked.
A few years ago, by accident, I hit on a unique solution to landing fish in really overgrown streams. I had hooked a very good trout which had become tangled up under a bush which grew over a deep hole in the river. The line was snagged, the trout flapped about on the surface and we had come to an impasse. My old black Labrador, who in her day would retrieve anything, decided enough was enough and slipped quietly into the river, grabbed the trout as skillfully as any otter and swam back to place it gently in my hand. It was unmarked so the fly was removed and the trout returned non the worse for its canine experience. It was the first of many successful retrieves and though she has now passed on, the memory of a Labrador proudly swimming back with a lively fish still makes me smile.
The wilder reaches of these unpolluted streams are haven for fish, birds and all forms of wildlife and it is vital that these resources are valued and protected. My favourite stretch has otters, kingfishers, newts and wildlife in abundance as well as a healthy, sustainable population of brown trout. When one is finally landed most people are very happy to enjoy the pursuit of these fine fish and are equally determined to return them safely to the water to ensure the continuance of the species.
These small, under fished streams are the hidden gems of Ireland. They quite frequently contain superb wild trout, many of them grown to a good size because few anglers fish for them. The fishing is often free or very cheap and when a good fish is stalked, tricked in to taking a well presented dry fly and battled successfully to the bank through every possible obstacle, it is fine sport which is truly, very hard to beat.