Reel Life

Tem­pers are tested as our fish­ing cor­re­spon­dent and the Edi­tor de­ploy Sil­ver Badger, Col­lie Dog and Ice­landic Sil­ver Stoat Dou­ble flies in pur­suit of salmon on the west coast of Ire­land

Country Life Every Week - - CONTENTS - Pho­to­graphs by Glyn Sat­ter­ley

It’s a tale of grilse and grit­ted teeth as David Pro­fumo is em­bar­rass­ingly suc­cess­ful on a fish­ing trip to Con­nemara

FROM the mo­ment I walked in, past the rod racks in the hall and the stuffed puffins on the stair, I felt right at home in Bal­ly­nahinch. Edi­tor Hedges and I had been whisked from Shan­non air­port by Noel, an af­fa­ble for­mer trawler skip­per whose con­ver­sa­tion en route en­com­passed con­tem­po­rary Ir­ish fic­tion and where you can find a like­ness of the Vir­gin Mary in­side a lob­ster’s head.

I hadn’t been to Gal­way since the 1960s, when my un­cle was Master of the Blaz­ers, but have long rel­ished the de­scrip­tion by Somerville and Ross of the river there rac­ing ‘un­der its bridges like a pack of white hounds’. ‘The wa­ter should be per­fect for Beat Four,’ de­clared Noel.

Fish­ing is part of ev­ery­day life out here in the heart­lands of the Ir­ish-speak­ing west. Salmon used to fea­ture on the coinage and ap­pear in the old­est of Ir­ish cre­ation po­ems, such as Amer­grin’s The Mys­tery, which be­gins: ‘I am the wind which breathes upon the sea.’ We were to stop just short of the sea, by the Con­nemara coast.

Set in many acres of spec­tac­u­lar and peace­ful wood­land, Bal­ly­nahinch Cas­tle is a nice, rather rare mix­ture of high-end com­fort and in­for­mal am­bi­ence. There are pre­cious few four-star ho­tels in which you can clonk into the bar in your waders. On ar­rival at the Fish­er­man’s Pub (for­merly a ma­hara­jah’s snooker room, now be­decked with cased fish—or Har­vey Wall­hang­ers), we took a pint of the dark stuff with a sand­wich of pulled brisket and soft blaa bread and met our de­light­ful ghillie, Cyril Big­gins, who told us the first salmon had ar­rived just a few days ear­lier. We tack­led up in a trice.

Hav­ing spent the pre­vi­ous week­end me­thod­i­cally re­pair­ing his bat­tle-scarred waders, Edi­tor Hedges scoffed at me as an ar­riv­iste for wear­ing brand-new Orvis chesties and spiffy Hodg­man boots, which he claimed re­sem­bled the plat­form-soled footwear sported by 1970s glam-rock band The Sweet (whose al­bum Des­o­la­tion Boule­vard was a prize of my record col­lec­tion, years ago, un­til Mrs Reel Life sold the en­tire lot when I was away in Mex­ico). As for­mer lead singer of The Ran­cid Vi­cars, I ig­nored this un­war­ranted snip­ing and qui­etly strung up my 13ft Loomis.

‘Edi­tor Hedges scoffed at me as an ar­riv­iste for wear­ing brand-new Orvis chesties’

The whole Bal­ly­nahinch sys­tem is some 15 miles long, with the Cas­tle wa­ter com­pris­ing the lower sec­tion of the Owen­more River, which of­fers prime fish­ing with an an­nual catch of some 100 salmon. Ir­ish mi­gra­tory stocks are em­bat­tled in sev­eral places, but the ben­e­fits of the 2007 drift-net ban are be­gin­ning to show and the Bal­ly­nahinch fish­ery is be­ing pos­i­tively man­aged.

From July on­wards, there is the ad­di­tional bonus of a sea-trout run, now show­ing signs of re­cov­ery (coastal aqua­cul­ture op­er­a­tions hav­ing dis­as­trously af­fected the ‘white trout’), and these of­fer great sport, es­pe­cially in the gloam­ing. The grilse tend to peak in July, but the sea­son con­tin­ues un­til the end of Septem­ber.

Orig­i­nally the strong­hold of the O’fla­herty clan, which in­cluded the no­to­ri­ous Pi­rate Queen Grace O’mal­ley, in the 18th cen­tury Bal­ly­nahinch passed into the hands of the Martin fam­ily as part of an es­tate ex­tend­ing to 250,000 acres. ‘Hu­man­ity Dick’ Martin was a found­ing fa­ther of the RSPCA (his other so­bri­quet was ‘Hair-trig­ger Dick’ from his fond­ness for du­elling), how­ever, prob­a­bly the most colour­ful pro­pri­etor was Col H.H. Shri Sir Ran­jitsin­hji Vib­haji II, Jam Sa­heb of Nawana­gar GCSI GBE, known to his Cam­bridge chums as ‘Smith’, the Test crick­eter whose bat­ting ca­reer was ter­mi­nated when he lost an eye on the grouse moors, yet who con­tin­ued to fish here each sum­mer from 1924 un­til 1932 and whose nu­mer­ous cast­ing plat­forms re­main to as­sist the vis­it­ing an­gler.

Still fish­less the fol­low­ing morn­ing, we dropped by the streamy Beat One, where my friend Mark Wormald had just lost a salmon and his host (lo­cal poet Robert Jo­ce­lyn) had taken two grilse. Mark is a Cam­bridge English don on sab­bat­i­cal, putting the fin­ish­ing touches to his study of Ted Hughes and fish­ing— nice work, if you can get it.

Af­ter lunch, it was our turn on that pool and we tried it with the usual flies—sil­ver Badger, Col­lie Dog, var­i­ous Shrimps. Cyril then se­lected an Ice­landic Sil­ver Stoat Dou­ble for me. Mend­ing the sink-tip into a slot be­tween the twin cur­rents, I was taken by a fresh fish that fizzed away across the stream, splat­ter­ing to the sur­face, then ca­reer­ing back. At long last, Cyril lifted the land­ing net with a con­spir­a­to­rial grin of tri­umph. It was a 6lb male, lice still on his back, and we kept him for sup­per. I was so thrilled, I be­gan shak­ing like a rookie.

Edi­tor Hedges tried again, el­e­gantly Spey cast­ing down both banks, then ig­nited a Cuban can­dle. I changed to a lit­tle Posh Tosh and sud­denly, by Saint Poly­carp, the line went away again and a five-pounder came to Cyril’s net. That crunch was an editorial cigar butt be­ing bit­ten clean in half.

On my glam-rock boots, I ca­vorted up the con­crete cat­walk, but I fear the Boss was on Des­o­la­tion Boule­vard. Back in the bar, I wal­lowed in adu­la­tion like a warthog. Later, in the smart Owen­more restau­rant, we feasted on hake and feath­erblade of beef; the Edi­tor told me he usu­ally or­ders prawn cock­tail when fir­ing con­trib­u­tors. We rounded off the day with tum­blers of the aptronymi­cally named whiskey Writ­ers Tears.

We were up at Sna’ Beg the fol­low­ing af­ter­noon, where a stream leads into the lough. Sea­mus Heaney com­posed his lovely poem

Bal­ly­nahinch Lake here, evok­ing ‘the spring-clean­ing light’. A help­ful breeze cor­ru­gated the sur­face and the Hedges fly-line reached del­i­cately be­neath the far rocks. At the sight of a sil­ver swirl, he tight­ened his line, but all went slack. The hook was straight­ened—and it was one of my flies, too. I was treated to a look of glassy in­credulity and held my peace.

That night, we dined off my grilse and Des, the cas­tle his­to­rian, showed us the au­to­graph man­u­script of his friend Fa­mous Sea­mus’s poem. One morn­ing left.

Beat Four of­fered lots of de­li­cious rif­fles and creases, but it was not un­til Cyril rowed us across that we saw a fish. I im­me­di­ately re­alised this was no grilse as it lugged away with my Stoat in its in­cisors and he proved to be a 14-pounder, their big­gest fish of the sea­son so far. I was riven with dis­be­lief. As an­other ghillie once said: ‘Sure, ye have the luck of a fat priest.’

The of­fi­cial Cas­tle web­site in­ge­niously recorded that we ‘caught four salmon, land­ing three’. I’m lunch­ing with the Edi­tor soon and pray he doesn’t order the prawn cock­tail.

‘That crunch was an editorial cigar butt be­ing bit­ten clean in half’

Time­less tran­quil­lity: the au­thor and the Edi­tor in the shadow of Bal­ly­nahinch Cas­tle

Above: Cyril the ghillie nets one of the au­thor’s three fish. Above right: Hold­ing the catch un­der the venge­ful eye of the Edi­tor. Right: Tak­ing din­ner back to the cas­tle

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