Sea-trout on the ebb and flood

Chris Mc­cully and friends find sport among the sker­ries and sea-weed at Car­ling­ford Lough in Ire­land

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: GAR­DINER MITCHELL

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?

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.

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...

ABOVE Look­ing up the lough with the Mourne Mountains of North­ern Ire­land on the right and Coo­ley Mountains of the Repub­lic on the left.

What was that? The adren­a­line flows as a big fish leaps, out of sight, while Chris re­trieves.

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