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An Irish Salmon Excursion

Fishing the River Blackwater northeast of Cork, Ireland




The incessant, methodical, dripping, drip, drip, drip.  These aren't the usual "caught in the mid-day" thunderstorm kind of raindrops, but instead the result of hours of rain.  Not the kind that come from one corner of your brim, but those that manage to navigate the full arch of your brim, dripping from both ends, methodically in unison.


On this day, I have the good fortune to fish Ireland's River Blackwater, guided by local guide Len Tomlinson.  Len, a mild-mannered soul, spent much of his pre-retirement years running a 30-acre, family flower farm.  Now, if you can call it retirement, Len splits his time between hammer-toss coaching, stable-hand duties and guiding.  Today, he's brought me to Ballygally, a 2/3 mile beat of the Blackwater, known for having good fly water and positioned well with the wind to aid my left-hand "American-style" casting.  Len's traditional Irish fly selection includes the Green Highlander, Purple Wooly shrimp, Bann Special and Ally's shrimps in original and in red.  All flies are on size 12 doubles or size 14 treble hooks and well suited for the end of June.  Rivers tend to be low and can contain few numbers of fish this time of year.  We fish seven hours in the constant rain, trying to dodge as many raindrops as possible, an impossible task.  This is punctuated midway by a coffee and sandwich break, well deserved and enjoyed, shared in the comfort of a corrugated tin shelter.  These shelters are sprinkled on several beats owned by the place I'm calling home for three nights, the Blackwater Lodge in County Waterford.....for more details, read Continued below.


A section on the Ballygally Beat Fishermen's shelter


The Fishery:

If you do your research, you'll find Ireland's salmon population is on the decline, and has been for a number of years.  More worrisome, is the unexplained trend of later and later salmon runs.  To complicate matters, illegal poaching continues as wild-caught salmon prices remain at premium levels.  These concerns, combined with constant pressure from non-governmental organizations, led the Irish government to ban sea drift nets as of January 2007.


With the above stated, anglers seeking salmon should come with realistic goals in mind.  I guessed my odds for the trip at being slightly better than a 10% chance of catching fish any one day.  To further support this, my guide stated that an angler is 20 times more likely to catch salmon fishing by other means than fly fishing.  This includes worming, shrimping or spinner fishing.


Salmon are caught from January to September, with most catches occurring in September.  Historically, most fisheries in Ireland close September 30th.  Spring salmon run from January to mid-June, grilses (first year adult salmon) from mid-May to late September, sea trout from mid-April to late September and river brown trout from early March to early October.


Downstream at Upper Kilmurry Upstream at Upper Kilmurry


Things to do to increase your odds:

Salmon fish later in the year, try September

If fishing earl, follow the migration, try northwestern or western Ireland

Stay longer and fish, eventually the weather and fish will cooperate

Use two or more flies

Use double or treble hook flies

Fish fast water, areas of current and current breaks

Use fluorocarbon tippets

Wear dull colored clothing

Get a Ghillie/Guide



Interestingly enough, in Ireland, employing the usual forward and backcast technique with a single-handed rod is known as casting "American style".  Most, if not all casting for salmon in Ireland is spey casting.  This is practiced out of necessity.  Most riverbanks in Ireland are steep, complicating most backcasts.  Additionally, spey casting helps reduce fatigue through the use of long, sometimes 15-foot rods.  These long, double-handed rods can be quickly and powerfully cast with little effort.  The rod length acts as a large lever to cast the line and fly.


Single-handed rods casting "American style" is fine if you're a moderate to experienced caster.  If the river is shallow, wading to the center of the river can provide additional backcast room.  Angled backcasts can also be achieved in low bank areas.


Whether spey or American-style casting, casts are placed perpendicular to the stream bank or slightly downstream.  Flies are allowed to swing through the full drift either as a dead-drift or with taught line.


Fishing Lower Kilmurry Lower Kilmurry Beat



By American standards, Irish salmon flies are classic patterns.  The use of synthetics is near non-existent and most flies are complex in nature.  The liberal use of long fibers or feathers appears in most patterns and provides movement in the water.  Colors range as does size.  While the majority of flies don't imitate anything particular, a few patterns imitate the common prawn (Palaemon serratus).  If you're into matching the hatch, try prawn or shrimp patterns in clear to white with banded dark brown to black markings.  Some prawn have yellow, orange and blue markings as well.


Selection of Irish Salmon Flies


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Important Equipment:

Appropriate fishing license (2007 prices)

All Districts Annual: 128

Juvenile (under the age of 17 years) All Districts Annual: 20

One District, Annual: 60

All districts, 21 Days: 48

All districts, 1 Day: 34

Special Local (for Annual License holders) 24

Special Local (for non- Annual License holders) 96

Foyle Area Extension 80 (incl. 40 conservation stamp)

5 weight single-handed rods for trout.

7 weight single-handed rods for sea run browns.

8-10 weight single or double-handed rods for salmon.

Multi-tip lines preferred, also full floating to sinking based on flows.

12' of fluorocarbon with dropper.  Floating to sinking leaders also.

Polarized sunglasses

Layered clothing

Sunscreen and water

Waders and Raingear.


Invasive Himalayan balsam River ladders


Continued.....My 13 day Ireland tour canvassed the four cardinal points, north (Donegal regional, Boyle, Sligo), south (Blarney and Cork), east (Dublin) and west (Cliffs of Moher, Kylemore, Galway, Waterville).  I saw brown trout in nearly every stream and in good numbers.  The trout to the north appeared larger than those to the south, but all trout appeared to be between 6 and 16 inches.  I also saw fresh water eels to two feet.  Many of the streams were 2-4 feet deep with gravel bottoms and filled with aquatic vegetation.  Some areas contained vegetative mats so thick it would make fishing virtually impossible.  A majority of my fishing centered around the River Blackwater.


I saw approximately a dozen salmon while fishing the River Blackwater.  Most of these fish were seen porpoising as they traveled upstream.  The largest salmon probably would have weighed 10 pounds.  Fish were skitterish and at least one fish turned and swam downstream.  Terminal equipment included an unweighted fly tied to 12 feet of 10 pound tippet.  Flies were fished on a floating line 2-4 inches below the surface.  Weather was unpredictable, going from complete over cast with rain to sun and bluebird skies in 30 minutes.  Most days included some mist or fine rain.  Temperatures ranged between high 50's to high 80's.  Layering clothing worked best.  If you go to Ireland, be prepared to dress in Gore-Tex head to toe.


Blackwater Lodge Blackwater cottages


More information:

Central Fisheries Board

Western Fisheries Board

Southern Fisheries Board

Northern Fisheries Board

Shannon Fisheries Board

Waterville Fisheries Report

Great Fishing Houses of Ireland

Irish Meteorological Service

Irish Flood Warning

Black Water Lodge

Guide Len Tomlinson, Ballyduff, Co. Waterford, Ireland, Phone: 058-60897




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