Saltwater fly-fishing in Ireland presents its own unique challenges and opportunities. The little island perched precariously on the eastern side of the Atlantic is subject to many influences and none more so than that of the weather. The Atlantic Ocean plays the dominant part in our weather, insulating us from the temperature extremes that can be experienced in other European countries. Our position on the Northwest of Europe places us in the path of Atlantic low-pressure systems hence we are subject to a lot of cloudy overcast, humid and often very wet days. But don’t despair, its not all doom and gloom! The sunniest months of the year occur during late spring and early summer and the southeast of the country gets the most sunshine, often up to 6 or seven hours a day during early summer. Air temperatures reach between 18 and 20 degrees C during the summer and average around 8 degrees C during winter. We live in a temperate climate that is heavily influenced by the North Atlantic drift; in fact our seas are considerably warmer than average global temperatures at similar positions. Winter water temperatures along the coast fall to as low as 8 degrees but by August and September they are at their warmest and are as high as 15 degrees C. In fact during winter our seas are warmer than the air temperature while during summer the air temperature is warmer than the surrounding sea.
So as one can imagine with all of these influences the fishing opportunities that exist are many and varied. As the season’s roll on summer species like smoothound and tope move offshore and are replaced with typical autumnal and winter species like coalfish and codling. Springtime is often a transitional and difficult fishing period but with the days getting longer and seas getting warmer during March and April, fishing slowly begins to improve through into early summer and the cycle starts again. There are several interesting species that we could target on the fly in Ireland, wrasse, pollack, coalfish, and even garfish, but two species spring to mind as the most immediate, interesting and challenging. These are, early summer mullet and autumn bass.
Catching mullet on the fly is quite an angling challenge, not an impossible one, but one that takes a little patience and time. From as early as late March or the first few weeks of April these fish can be seen mooching, swirling and splashing about in our estuaries. As water temperatures rise and the days grow longer into late April so their numbers increase, where they spend their winter months maybe something of a mystery, but I greet them as the first sign of hope after a bleak January and February.
This species is late maturing often as late as nine or ten years, and not only are they late developers but they also seem to possess an ability to spawn in which ever year they choose. Subject to the usual influences like water temperature and availability of food, it is suggested that they do not spawn until at least late April and spawning may continue into late summer. Fish tend to remain in one local over time especially if there is a local 'food supply'. Often to be taken advantage of by the fly angler.
So what are we to do? How do we set about catching them? Like many of our approaches to saltwater fly fishing in Ireland it helps to find a congregation of fish or rather where at specific times do fish tend to congregate in good numbers. Estuaries, harbours, tidal drainage systems and even the open sea, quite often close to shore hold large numbers of fish. Through simple observation we can judge when might be the best time to tackle our elusive quarry. During the early stages of a rising tide large shoals of mullet will sweep into the estuary moving further inshore with the flow of water. There is an interesting behaviour that you can observe during this time especially where there is a lot of bladder wrack. Fish will often swim in less than six inches of water and you can often see their dorsal and tailfins. Its important that you stay out of sight to avoid spooking them, if you do don’t worry too much as they will return. With the rising tide fish will often swim under sections of the seaweed with a very much-exaggerated sinuous motion, almost snakelike. I often wonder are they dislodging food particles from the seaweed tentacles? Watch them move from bunch of weed to bunch of weed!
Ok so we have found a few fish I here you say but what are they eating? If there is a local supply of food like an outflow pipe or effluent from a commercial fishery or otherwise, mullet will tend to gather at these locals - imitative flies of the food source can catch you some fish no doubt. Bread flies, worm flies, seaweed flies even grayling flies have been cast at this wonderful fish. The latest story I have heard is that in one locality during summer they develop a weakness for ice cream cone! Now there’s a tying challenge.
It’s probably best to fish and cast at them as effectively as possible with a generic 'white fly' or bread type imitation at first, then try fishing with more specific patterns if this doesn’t work. They ‘scooch’ about, hoovering the surface and seabed looking for microscopic material. They digest this material rather slowly through their long guts. But they must also from time to time eat other things. Some of the types of flies that I have caught fish on can be seen here - and its worth remembering that streamer patterns, seatrout patterns and even small bass patterns have also caught me fish.
Fish will often be quite close to you less then 10 metres or so and you can stalk them
by staying low and sneaking up on them. I fish with a #7 rod and a line with a short head, which allows a quick effective turnover at short range. Tapered leaders are a must for that extra little and better presentation – whilst they are spooky, they tend to return rather quickly but often become wary and will move off with constant splashdowns. Upon hooking a fish hold on for a surprise they fight like demons.
The late summer and autumn present one of the greatest opportunities for the saltwater fly fisher with many species in perfect condition after a long period of bountiful feeding. The seas at this time are often full of sandeel, fry and sprat, huge mackerel shoals herd the baitfish onto the beaches and inevitably bass are never far away. Warm water and shortening days condense these ideal fishing conditions and often provide classic saltwater fly-fishing sport. It’s during September and October that tidal flows and ebbs are often at their strongest of the year. Sea water temperatures are at their highest and the sea is often alive with baitfish. If you want to catch a bass on the fly then this is the time to do it.
…The pale pink, cream and lavender skies of late September and early October signify a special time in fishing for me. As water temperatures drop slowly and the days get shorter the quality of bass fishing improves greatly. There’s an atmosphere of calm, which pervades your fishing after a summer of hectic visitors and holidaymakers. Traffic is lighter on the roads and people stop and talk, and in the lateness of a warm September evening you can get lost in chat with strangers about nothing and everything and the state of the world and the people in it. There is a feeling of winding down, of giant wheels slowly coming to rest with a deep sigh. A ceasing of a distant noise somewhere that you can’t quite identify. The stark whiteness of the last of summer’s terns against a gunmetal sky forces you to stop fishing again for the umpteenth time – you here the splash you see the flutter and shake of the feathers and watch the droplets fall back into the calm sea as the bird continues down the beach in its never ending quest for food. You wave your rod to straighten the line, pick it up, make a false cast, and shoot a little and then cast and retrieve slowly again. The big deceiver pattern lands perfectly on the next cast, you throw a little offshore mend, tighten slowly into the line and suddenly you see a dark and silvery shape and the line tautens...this is what is all about.
Generally a #9 rod and line is sufficient for bass fishing in Ireland – this allows us to cats some quite big flies long distances. It’s not always about distance though as bass are to often to be found at our feet. It is possible to locate what I call a two shot fish, which may reside in a location that can be only five or six metres distance. One cast to grab his attention another to hook him. One more cast its often the case the fish will swim away.
These are just two of our challenging species that can both be tackled in Irish waters on similar tackle in similar locations. Both present their different angling challenges and both are worthy species to fly fish for.