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On the Heron’s Wings

On the Heron’s Wings by Andreas Buttimer

A Game Angler’s Birds and Waters

Introduction

During many game fishing seasons, I have taken an interest in nature, especially birds.  An angling birdwatcher is in a unique position.  He finds himself a part of nature, amid the scents, sounds and sights of the waterside.  These include birds, who reveal themselves more to him than to others.  It seems a wasted opportunity not to enjoy them.  In so doing, perhaps paradoxically, he may become a better angler.

In this little book I describe some favourite places for such enjoyment.  Mostly my intention is to convey the whole “feeling” of angling, the harmony and intimacy with the natural scene, followed by reflection thereon, perhaps by the fireside with glass in hand, and the inward glow of a contented heart. 

Shannon

Geographically, this is the greatest river in these islands.  It drains one fifth of the island of Ireland.  Its salmon fishing was once famous, with an average weight at Castleconnell of 21 pounds.  This was greatly harmed by the hydroelectric scheme in the last century.  The main river is better known now for its coarse fishing, including big pike.

Loughs on the system offer some of the finest wild brown trout fishing on earth.  The classic game fisheries of Ireland are the “Lakes of Westmeath”:  Sheelin, Derravaragh, Owel and Ennell.  These suffered marked decline in the latter half of the 20th century, but are now rebounding to their best.

The fishing on Sheelin in the last decade has been of the highest quality.

Derravaragh is associated with the swan legend of the Children of Lir.

Owel is spring fed, and pellucidly clear.

Ennell is my favourite.

Lough Ree, on the mainstem of the Shannon, is a huge lake.  For the discerning angler, it now offers fishing to rival the best.

Further downstream is long-famous Lough Derg, home once more to the White-tailed Eagle.

I think the greatest thing one experiences on these lakes is God’s Peace. 

The Great Loughs of Ireland

As a boy, I heard often of the mayfly on the great loughs, especially those of the West:  Corrib, Mask and Conn.  Eventually I made it to Mask, with my father.  On Devenish Island we lunched, and found an ancient cathedral, cotoneaster growing wild.

Almost four decades later, I find myself living among the loughs, this time in the midlands.

I like to think of our local lakes as miniatures of the great western ones: Derravaragh the equivalent of Conn, Knockeyon rising above it in place of Nephin; deeper Owel a miniature Mask, Church Island instead of Devenish; Ennell like my own little Lough Corrib, with its wooded shoreline. 

Sheelin 

This may be Ireland’s finest brown trout fishery and mayfly lough.  The hatch had begun early one season, but the weather only became good on 20th May.  Thus began a heat wave, lasting over a week.  I spent four of these days casting from the northern shore.  The water sparkled between wooded peninsulas.

Greendrake poured off the lake, landing along the shore.  In the evening, greydrake danced.  The sounds were the singing of the lough, and of birds:  Blackcap, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Wood Pigeon, Willow Warbler, Chaffinch and Chiffchaff.

A Common Tern tried to tempt its young one to leave a mooring a little offshore.  Two Grey Herons flew over a nearby island.  Swallow, Swift and House Martin hawked.  Other birds included Pied Wagtail and Black-headed Gull.  It was quite idyllic.

Mayfly Time

Mayflower*, Mayfly

May birds, May sky

May trout, May trees

Queen of the May Ɨ

Please

* Hawthorn

Ɨ Mary

Owel

This day was different – one of cold, misty cloud in early October.  I had a fishing partner at the helm.  We motored into the channel between Lady and Church Islands, then commenced a long drift toward others:  Srudarra and Bog.  He caught and released a one and a half pounder on a bright green rainbow trout lure he had tied himself.  We fished late.  The clouds turned pink.  “The reeds grew dark”.  A Robin sang from the trees as we returned to the landing quay.  A fog had now descended, and my companion remarked that we had got off the lough just in time.  As I returned to the lodge in darkness, the coach lights were on, and my family were there to greet me.  I had a hot shower, then a pre-dinner dram by the real turf fire, while my delicious dinner was being cooked.  It is difficult to express the extreme pleasure of it.

Church Island, Lough Owel

Ennell

This is my favourite of the great loughs of Ireland.  I have lived close to it now for more than a decade.   In that period, I have visited it hundreds of times, to fish, walk, and simply savour it.

I have been guilty of not appreciating it fully at times.  But when one opens one’s eyes, and one’s spirit is attuned, one realises that this is no ordinary water.  In fact, it is at once one of the grandest and most beautiful I have seen.

Little Wooded Island, Lough Ennell

Perhaps if you spent a month here, visiting it every third day, you would get some sense of it.  Even better, a year.  This is how I live, so I speak with experience.

It is a lake of many moods.

Sometimes it is sun kissed, with gentle wavelets lapping on the shore.

Sometimes it is flat calm.

More often there are bigger waves, with the true voice of the lough.  It moves as a great river along the line of the wind.

Sometimes again it roars, in a gale.

But it is always beautiful.

 

Wonders of Westmeath – advice for the traveller

Do not come for mountains, or the sea.

Do not come for spectacular scenery, foaming torrents or grand waterfalls.

Do not come for salmon fishing.

Come for a gentle ease, the feel of soft zephyrs caressing your face, primrose banks along quiet country lanes, hills golden with furze, woodland warblers newly arrived.

Come most of all if you are a trout fisher with a Waltonian heart.

Here are beautiful loughs, and their attendant limestone streams.

Here is peace and quiet.

Here is easeful content. 

Corrib & Mask

What trout fisher has not heard of Corrib?  To him the name means the lough, perhaps the world’s most famous trout lake.  But the system also includes two more very fine loughs, Mask and Carra, and the Corrib River, flowing into Galway Bay.

My first epic fishing trip was to Mask, with my father.  We stayed in a bed and breakfast near Tourmakeady on the remote western shore, under the Partry mountains.  It rained like Hell.  Between fronts, it felt like Heaven, during the day as our boatman showed us his favourite secret places, in the evening on the lake shore amid the greatest silence I have known.

Measc

Mask. Of what do you think when you hear this word? Hallowe’en? A fancy dress ball? The Covid pandemic? What about Corrib? The best trout lake in Europe. Yes. Mask. That’s another lough, isn’t it? It’s near Corrib, just to the north of it. Yes, now you remember. Each May, Corrib plays host to hundreds of migratory anglers. Perhaps thousands. They crowd into bed & breakfasts in Oughterard, the ‘Wild Trout Capital of Europe’. The town has an air of bonhomie at that time. Its pubs provide plentiful Guinness. Mask is superficially similar to Corrib, but essentially different. It is a wilder water, the wildest of Ireland’s great loughs. On Corrib, there is a friendly welcome. On Mask, there is none. Corrib is a smiling lake. Mask scowls. It is an austere lough, dark and menacing. This is no bluff. It carries a formidable reputation. Corrib is dangerous, right enough. One may get caught out in an unexpected storm. But even then, one is likely to survive the episode, perhaps by sheltering in the lee of an island. On Mask, it is different. If one of its dangers doesn’t get you, it has several ‘trump cards’ up its sleeve. Its wind comes hurtling down suddenly from the Partry Mountains. It is a black wind, like a witch on a broomstick. It is twisted and turned by the hills, sometimes seeming to blow from all quarters at once. When it arrives at the lake, it has a reach of four or five miles with which to raise a huge sea. To be out on it in a storm is to know what the word “awesome” really means. Is that all it has to threaten a fisher? No. It is not enough for it to blow a boat ashore, and wreck it on water-rounded rocks. It has numberless limestone reefs, sharp enough to slice a craft clean open. “Ah!” you say. “I will keep a close eye out for those reefs, and avoid them.” Not so. Mask’s water is peaty from the mountain bogs. Its dark hue conceals these submerged hazards, most of which remain unmarked.

For all that, for a few favoured fishers, Loch Measc remains their first choice, and ever shall. Why? The danger? Perhaps. The fishing? Certainly. More wild trout of ten pounds and over, and pike of more than forty, have been caught here than in any other European water. Fred Buller, foremost authority on pike, chose Mask as the central focus of his operations. The scenery? Definitely. For all its dark reputation, Mask may on occasion smile. It is like a sultry, beautiful woman – aloof, austere, unattainable. But when she smiles! On a sunlit day, its beauty is without compare: bright green, mature woodland on its isles; sparkling water, blue and mahogany; the different blue of the Maamtrasna hills. Days of bird song, lulling motion and peace. In such a mood, Mask is memorable.

Conn

It was a sunny morning in late May.  My friend and I headed for the lough from nearby Killala, where he lived.  We met the boatman, who took us out for a day’s fly fishing.  Nephin rose from the far shore.

One trout was caught between us for the day.  This was considered bad fishing for such an illustrious locale.  But there were compensations.  A Red-breasted Merganser we saw reminded the boatman that it was called “Geansaí” locally.

The sun was still shining as we adjourned that evening to the lough-side bar, for excellent Guinness.  A sign on the wall said: “A bad day on the lake is better than a good day at work!  So it had proven. 

Kells Blackwater

Nowhere could be more peaceful than Donaghpatrick, where the Saint had his church.

Tackling up at Donaghpatrick

One can sit in the graveyard overlooking a pastoral scene, cattle grazing in the field, Kells Blackwater gliding softly by.  June is best, with Wood Pigeon, Blackcap and Song Thrush singing.

On the river a Mallard leads her newly hatched family upstream.  The mayfly is up, ethereal greendrakes adding elegance to the air.  So are the fish on this, one of Europe’s best trout streams.

Liffey

During January and February, I visited Dodder and Liffey catchments, searching for a stream.  The ideal stream.  I ordered a rod for it, thinking it to be upper Dodder at Glenasmole, hoping that this time, forty years later, I wouldn’t be thrown off the land.

One day, I continued west over the high elevation watershed between Dodder and Liffey.  There I found the Shankill River, a hill stream which I had also fished four decades previously.  This one had since become unwelcoming, with gates and signs designed to repel.  I pushed on.

As I descended from the mean hill-country, it was a surprise to see spread before me a scene of startling beauty.  Ahead and below lay the lake – the Poulaphouca Reservoir(s), upon which I recalled losing a big pike after playing it for forty minutes.  I crossed Brittas River, meandering like a chalk stream between old woods, on its way to nearby Upper Liffey.

I traversed the nicely-named village of Kilbride (Cill Bhríde, Church of Bride), and found Three Castles (actually, it was only one).  Here it was obvious that the lake was near, Liffey just above it slowly flowing.

I turned, and went right along a small lane, searching for a bridge, the painting of which my parents had sent me, six thousand miles away, for Christmas sixteen years earlier.  Then, I had had no idea that I would return to Ireland.

At last, I found Ballyward Bridge, with the thrush singing at dusk.  Away upstream rose rounded hills:  Seefin, Seefingan and Kippure.

I doubt there exists a finer watershed for all-round loveliness of scene.

This was confirmed on another trip, farther up in the Coronation Plantation, with old Scots pines, Mullaghcleevaun Mountain, black-brown Liffey and Dipper calls.  As with upper Dodder, what a shame salmon and sea trout couldn’t reach it!  But either river might become my ‘Highland Stream’, which I could fish for trout, after my birthday rod arrived.

Another contender was Shankill again, just before it joined Liffey, falling in a picturesque cascade below Clochlea Bridge:

Shankill River at Clochlea

©Andreas Buttimer 2024

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