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Trout and pike shine in the Emerald Isle

6/21/2006

One spring evening several years ago, I was driving through County Meath in Ireland with David Byrne. We'd been fishing all day and were headed to our hotel.

It was about 7:30, the rain had stopped and the sky ahead to the west looked promising.

"It's looking like a good evening for trout," remarked Byrne, an ardent trout angler and then marketing director for the Eastern Regional Fisheries Board of Ireland. "Might be some fish rising."

Indeed, despite persistent rain and cool weather throughout late May, some mayflies had been hatching and we'd had success fishing dry flies on small rivers that were still relatively clear.

Evening in the spring almost always has some promise for catching surface-feeding brown trout.

"The Blackwater's up ahead at Kells and we could give it a go there."

"Why not?" I said. "How often do I get to Ireland and have a chance to catch these gorgeous trout?"

So Byrne called his friend, gillie Patrick McLoughlin, who lives nearby, and coaxed him into joining us. A half-hour later we were at the Maudlin Bridge in Kells, heading a hundred yards upstream.

This small town in County Meath is where Scottish monks fled in the year 806 to escape Viking raids on Iona Island. Afterward they produced the famous Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the Four Gospels.

It is not known whether the monks did any fishing in the Blackwater River, but if they did it was for the native ancestors of the brown trout that live here today.

There was an occasional rise in the flat water of this fast-moving river, which is known to produce heavily marked browns up to 4 pounds (and an 8-pound record).

But I'd only made a few casts when the skies opened up and a downpour began, keeping us under tree cover for nearly 30 minutes. When the rain stopped, the light was fading and there was no visible fish activity.

"Put this fly on," said McLoughlin, handing me a locally productive Klinkhämer dry fly, which is a good candidate for blind surface strikes. Then he pointed his rod to the tip of a small island.

"Fish the top of the island and the seam of the two merging flows above it. I know there's some fish there, even though they're not rising now."

About 15 minutes later my fly was slurped under the surface as it drifted along the seam, and to my pleasant surprise a good-size trout leaped into the air as I set the hook.

McLoughlin and Byrne had been watching from the bank, and Byrne later confessed that just a moment earlier he'd been thinking that this evening stop hadn't been such a good suggestion.

The trout, a plump 15-incher with a yellowish belly and large black and red spots, came to hand a little while later; after a few photos it was returned to the water.

That was followed by a slightly smaller trout, and two more that somehow found the drifting dry in the darkening conditions.

It was nearly dark at 10 o'clock when we quit, eminently satisfied and ready for dinner.

Loads of rivers and trout

Ireland has become one of the best English-language destinations in the world for American travelers, many of whom don't realize just how good Emerald Isle fishing can be. Approximately 500 kilometers long and 300 kilometers wide, this country is roughly the size of South Carolina, with a high ratio of water to land (1 to 35). There are thousands of lakes and 14,000 kilometers of fish-bearing rivers.

The quality of Ireland's trout fishing is good, with many opportunities to angle for wild trout in natural, undisturbed habitat.

Brown trout are available in almost every stretch of freshwater. The average size and coloration is variable; limestone rivers and lakes produce the larger fish, which can vary from all silver to gold with numerous black and red spots.

The trout season runs from early March into October.

There are excellent insect hatches on Ireland's limestone streams, and from mid-May through June the conditions are usually right for excellent dry flyfishing. My experiences occurred in the Boyne Valley of County Meath, a 40-minute drive northwest of Dublin.

The River Boyne is one of Ireland's premier wild brown trout waters and holds large average-size trout, with some heavyweights in the 5- and 6-pound class. It drains an area of more than 1,000 square miles and, together with its tributaries, has over 300 miles of flowage.

Fishing on the River Boyne, as elsewhere in Ireland, is managed by angling clubs and private fishery owners. Permits are available in Drogheda, Navan, Trim, Longwood, and Edenderry.

The river also gets runs of Atlantic salmon and sea trout (anadromous brown trout), although the numbers of the former are low and a state license and additional permits are necessary to angle for these species.

Some of the smaller tributaries to the Boyne, like the Deel and Stonyford Rivers in County Meath, are lovely, high-banked streams that course through cow and sheep pastures in the quiet and lush countryside.

One morning on the Stonyford, I caught fifteen colorfully dimpled wild trout on dries in just a two-hour span, none more than a 15-foot rollcast away; my companions did equally well.

Trout in loughs and pike galore

Trout fishing in Irish loughs (lakes) is largely pursued in a very classic European style. Although there is some casting and trolling done with lures, the majority of Irish lough anglers flyfish for trout using "drifting" boats and by casting and retrieving multiple flies.

The loughs vary in size, and the prime ones are managed, developed and promoted as trout fisheries, even though many have good populations of coarse fish and pike. Most of the prime trout loughs have natural wild-trout populations, with some specimens running to 20 pounds.

One that I visited, Lough Sheelin, located among farm hills in Counties Meath and Cavan in north-central Ireland, is a 4,000-acre lake with depths to 65 feet and an average depth of but 15 feet.

Wild brown trout here rise to the surface for mayflies and olives, or take subsurface insects. They evidently do so prodigiously, because they grow quite healthy here, the largest known specimen being a 15-pounder.

Pike are second-class citizens to devoted Irish trout anglers, yet they're abundant and grow to enormous sizes. They are referred to in the same context as coarse fish, a term that refers to such non-predatory species as tench, roach and bream.

There is no season and no fishing license required for pike or coarse fish in Ireland. However, Irish loughs are loaded with coarse fish, which is what makes the predatory pike grow large. Many pike to more than 20 pounds are caught in Ireland annually, and grow to 30 pounds or heavier.

Ireland has hundreds of waters with coarse fish and pike, and many of these have good angling in tranquil and idyllic rural surroundings.

I spent two days pike fishing and had a ball doing it, catching many on spinnerbaits and single-hooked plugs, which are seldom used by Irish anglers.

One of the pike loughs I fished was Glaslough in County Monaghan, which is a private lake on the estate of Castle Leslie, a centuries-old structure used as a hotel, restaurant and equestrian center. The castle was outstanding, the 62-acre lake was full of shallow weeds and I caught a lot of pike here with the castle in the background. It was an excellent venue.

On another day I caught pike on Loughs Ballyhoe and Rahan near the Carrickmacross family-run anglers house of Peader O'Brien, a distinguished angler who has been on the Irish National Match Fishing Team. There are thirty-five loughs, varying in size from a few acres to 950 acres, within a 10-minute drive of O'Brien's place, and all of these contain pike, many with the chance for big ones.

O'Brien assured me that the best time for pike in Ireland is in October, and from December through March. The lakes don't freeze, so winter fishing for pike is not as big a hardship as it might seem.

However, I think the winter is preferred because most anglers are trout fishing the rest of the year, and my guess is that pike fishing could be good at any time in many of the lakes for an experienced angler.

For more information on angling, see Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia, available through www.kenschultz.com.