Sea-trout on the ebb and flood
Chris Mccully and friends find sport among the skerries and sea-weed at Carlingford Lough in Ireland
Chris Mccully finds fine sport in the skerries of Carlingford Lough
ANUMBER OF anglers have told me over the years that they’d love to try sea-trout fishing in saltwater but are uncertain where or how to start. The problems are essentially two-fold. The first is geography: coasts and estuaries that hold sea-trout can sometimes be difficult to access. There may be mud banks, treacherous sands, long walks to reach the tide. The second is psychology: even a small estuary can seem daunting – where and at what stage of the tide do you begin? – and if an estuary is daunting, the open coast can seem forbidding. Many Scottish and Irish estuaries hold (or used to hold) sea-trout, but if these estuaries lie in western, Atlantic-facing areas the average size of the fish can be small. Irish coasts abutting the Irish Sea, however, can hold some very large sea-trout as well as a stock of smaller fish. If sea-trout rivers are also found in those areas, then obviously the estuaries of those rivers are likely to be worth exploring. In very general terms, and although sea-trout can also be found in rocky, tidal channels, I’d say that the shallower and sandier (or muddier) the estuary or sea-lough, the more likely that place will be to host numbers of sea-trout, which may feed in such waters all year round. Even in winter a touch of sunlight can warm the shallows sufficiently to induce younger sea-trout to feed on ragworms or shrimp during the brightest parts of the day, and by spring, shoals of younger sea-trout may be augmented by kelts returning to the salt from freshwater. By the summer and early autumn a sea-lough or estuary may hold sea-trout
of different year classes; there may even in certain locations be bass among them. One sea-lough to which I’ve returned is Carlingford, found on the easterly border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. At first glance, Carlingford is daunting – a great expanse of water rearing under a massive sky – yet on closer acquaintance it has everything a sea-trout angler could need: there are accessible marks both on the southern (Republic) shoreline at Ballagan Point and Greenore, and further accessible marks at Greencastle, on the northern shore. That’s important because the availability of northerly and southerly marks means that a fly-angler will almost always be able to find a spot to fish irrespective of the strength and direction of the wind. Further, there’s a long, magnificent tide-rip at Ballagan Point, where Carlingford races into the Irish Sea. At Greencastle, on the northern shore, there’s another splendid tide-race and some tidal channels running between skerries. A wonderful little sea-trout river, the Whitewater (which also offers the chance of a salmon), drains into the lough nearby, so it’s possible to find sea-trout feeding in sheltered spots along the northern shoreline. Fishing such sand- or mudflats and tidal channels is sometimes more confidence-inducing than fishing the open coast, particularly if you’re seeing sea-trout feeding among the wrack. And everywhere on Carlingford the
“There’s a long magnificent tide-rip at Ballagan Point, where Carlingford races into the Irish Sea”
“In Yorkshire we’d call it fresh weather. It wasn’t quite impossible, even though it was tricky to stand upright”
saltwater is clear except in the strongest gales or onshore winds. It’s almost invariably clear enough for a sea-trout to be able to see the angler’s fly. I last fished Carlingford with Ken Whelan in 2012, working the coast at Greenore and then at Ballagan. The first thing that greeted me as I crunched across the stones at the tide’s edge was a porpoise, working up a tide-rip no more than 50 yards from the shore. I remember being astonished that day by the abundance of bird and other life in and around the lough; by the clarity of the saltwater and the energy of the two sea-trout we released before the weather closed in and storms made fishing impossible. Four years on and I couldn’t wait to get back. I fished at Ballagan as part of a group of friends that included Mick Mcshane, a noted fly-tyer and a Carlingford fan who fishes the lough almost throughout the year. In 2016 he caught or released sea-trout to over 7 lb here, and typically uses eight-weight gear: 9 ft, fairly fast-actioned rods; intermediate or slow-sinking lines. Mick generously shared some of his beautifully tied sea-trout flies with us. These were size 10 or 12 shrimp- or fry-suggesting patterns, many showing Danish influence, utilising subtle flash and mobility in the dressings, and almost all of them incorporating tiny dumbbell eyes. I’d happily have used such patterns for saltwater sea-trout anywhere in Europe. On September 23 we worked Ballagan Point as the tide ebbed. Terns and gulls squalled overhead – a good sign. I watched shoals of fry gather and disperse around my waders – another good sign. As the tide dropped, the strength of current in the tide-rip increased, and wrack on underwater rocks began to wave lazily in the surface. I expected a sea-trout to take every time the fly came across the flow, but it was Mick, fishing behind me, who turned two smaller fish. Neither of those stuck, but half a mile away, uptide from Ballagan, Lionel and Stevie were encountering finnock, releasing four tide-bright little fish they’d found feeding where a seep of freshwater found its way into the sea-lough. Yet as the tide dropped, fishing became harder until at dead water sea-trout activity stopped altogether. When the tide flooded again it brought no improvement, though the cries and action from hunting birds were ever more impressive: even gannets were working the Ballagan tide-race (‘There must be mackerel underneath them,” said Matt Campbell). Yet we encountered no more sea-trout, nor bass, nor mackerel. The strength of the wind was increasing. “There’s always tomorrow,” we thought. My diary notes testify to the tomorrow that broke on September 24: “Brutal, impossible. Gale from S, Bft 7-8. Some light rain early on… [Then] total deluge…” In Yorkshire we’d call it fresh weather. It wasn’t quite impossible, even though it was tricky to stand upright, braced against the gale. At Greencastle we found one place where there was relative shelter, and fished from half-ebb through to the first hour of the flood. We’d seen some smaller sea-trout working here among the skerries 36 hours before and trusted that
despite the weather, the sea-trout would return to these same channels at some stage in the falling tide. It took a while – a little auk swam, feeding underwater, over my wading boots, and shortly afterwards I was mobbed by a seal – but an hour before dead water we had glimpses of sea-trout feeding among the wrack. A moment later and David Spencer (Loughs Agency) had connected with a sea-trout that turned out to be one of those wonderfully energetic fish that are no longer finnock but aren’t, perhaps, fully mature: around 1¼ lb, wild as the tide. It was David’s first saltwater sea-trout on the fly. He was still grinning from ear to ear when I released a second, smaller sea-trout taken from among the same group of feeding fish. In the way of saltwater sea-trout everywhere, there was then a pause, but as the tide began to flood again it was Gardiner’s turn to connect with a fish that was the twin of David’s. Pattern seemed unimportant: Woolly Bugger, Minkie and White Shrimp had taken those sea-trout and provoked offers from others. The critical thing was simply being there when the shoals of feeding sea-trout began to prospect into the channels and the wrack. I’d add that the sense of achievement, in conjuring even these small fish from the wind and the tide, is equal to almost anything I know in angling. It’s something very close to exhilaration. I noted earlier that the Whitewater river runs into Carlingford just north-east of Greencastle. It’s an archetypal spate stream that courses from the Mournes in a succession of pools, falls and glides, running south for ten miles through the Mourne Country Park. In normal flows it’s spectacularly clear and because there’s a good access path that runs the length of the middle river you can (and should) use daylight hours for fish-spotting. On the first day of our September visit we marked a number of smaller seatrout, though there were bigger fish lying in two fine, deep holding pools (Hunters One and Two) near the top of the park stretch. On that first evening, working down a glide below the Hunters, I’d released two feisty finnock (Stoat’s Tail, size 8), but had been shocked to the wader-studs when a fish of no less than 4 lb jumped – twice – at the moon just before midnight. Yes, I certainly did cover it, first with the sunk fly, then with a Surface Lure, but the fish didn’t show again. And if I was briefly flattered by those two finnock, I then discovered the following day that local angler Joe Brown, who had been fishing 200 yards above me, had released a sea-trout that pushed his weigh-net scales to 7½ lb. I was able to admire Joe’s fish on the camera of his mobile phone. But the mobile held images not just of that Whitewater sevenpounder. “This has been a good year for big fish,” said Joe (and how grand it is to be able to report a sentence like that in a seatrout context). He scrolled; paused at one image. “That sea-trout can’t have been less than 13 lb. The biggest we took last year for the hatchery” [where fish are stripped and grown on into fry] “was 16¼ lb.” Other local anglers, whom we met as the rain struck, talked nonchalantly of 3 lb sea-trout being “small ones”. As a spate river floods there’s the bare chance of a sea-trout in the first few inches of the rise. After that, as the river climbs the banks, fly-fishing is over until the water begins to drop and clear. Of course we tried, while the Whitewater rose. Agitated by the fresh water, sea-trout were jumping – a succession of fish airborne, not one of which was less than 3 lb – but the
“The sense of achievement, in conjuring even these small fish from the wind and the tide, is equal to almost anything I know in angling”
rapidly rising water and the presence of early autumn leaves hampered us and reluctantly we left the river to its leaf-soup until the following morning. So heavy had the rain been that, even then, the Whitewater wasn’t quite in order, though local anglers had caught fish – “small ones” of 3 lb – on worm and spinner. I’d have given a great deal to have fished the river over the next two nights, but as I left for the airport I resolved to go back to this lovely, unheralded part of Ireland that is so generous to its sea-trout fishers. Then again, it can afford to be generous because it holds sea-trout in both salt- and freshwater; they can be caught during daylight and in the river at night; the fish range from feeding finnock to multiplyspawned leviathans grown in the rich waters of Carlingford and the Irish Sea. Wind, tide, abundant wildlife, and sea-trout…. What more, really, could any sea-trout fisher want?
ABOVE Looking up the lough with the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland on the right and Cooley Mountains of the Republic on the left.
Chris Mccully has written or edited more than 20 books, including, Nomads of the Tides, a book about Irish sea-trout, published by Medlar Press. Mick Mcshane’s flies (left) for sea-trout and some for bass, too – alongside Chris Mccully’s box. David Spencer’s first-ever saltwater sea-trout on fly.
They’re there! Chris spots fish in the daylight on the Whitewater. It’s a bit tight: how’s he going to cast to them later? ABOVE A night-time finnock from the Whitewater.
What was that? The adrenaline flows as a big fish leaps, out of sight, while Chris retrieves.