Fly Fishing the Emerald Isle: Salmon, Trout and Guinness on the Rivers and Lochs of Ireland

You don't need an ancestral connection to feel drawn to Ireland, though many of us have one, as I do on my mother's side of the family. Whether you like traditional music, honest golf links, or pints of Guinness that truly taste better than the American imagination might suggest, there are ample reasons to make a "life trip" here. And now there is another reason: fishing. Whether you fancy spin tackle or two-handed fly rods, Ireland has something to offer every angler. And the action -- particularly for Atlantic salmon and sea-run brown trout -- is only getting better.
I traveled with Chris Santella, who writes for The New York Times. After our overnight flights landed at Shannon, we drove a few hours north to County Mayo, where we were met by Markus Muller and Bryan Ward of Inland Fisheries Ireland, who whisked us off to the River Owenmore, west of Ballina. Fittingly, I have never seen a riverbank draped in so many brilliant shades of green.
The Owenmore is a "spate" river, meaning the fishery revolves around finite windows of opportunity dictated by Mother Nature and her desire to flood or not. The rains fill the river with water, which assumes a tea color because of the peat in the ground. Those currents prompt an instinctive migration of salmon that pulse in from the sea. There can be days or weeks when none of this happens. But when the conditions line up perfectly the river can magically turn on overnight.
As we worked downstream, swinging traditional wet flies (in my case, a Cascade) with two-handed 7- and 8-weight rods, Markus hooked a bright salmon. But after a few minutes of fight, the fish rolled through a rapid and spit the fly. Soon thereafter, we met two anglers who had been luckier, landing a grilse salmon. The friendliness among anglers you encounter along the banks of Irish rivers is a level above what most Americans are used to.
One of the misnomers about fishing in Ireland is that it is all "pay-to-play" and very expensive. While it is true that rivers are often divided into managed beats, the prices to fish a beat can range from 20 to 120 euros (for a six-hour session). The prime beats in the busy season of July and August are naturally most expensive; however, there are also some sections of unmanaged water where angler numbers are not restricted. It is possible to fish Ireland on a do-it-yourself budget.
On the other hand, if you have the interest and means to truly spoil yourself, you might consider staying at the luxury four-star hotel Mount Falcon in County Mayo, which has private access to the River Moy. Mount Falcon is owned and operated by the Maloney family, who ensure every impeccable detail is covered. A number of notable pro golfers and other celebrities visit Mount Falcon when they want to do some Irish fishing.
Fishing the fabled "Ridge Pool" or "Cathedral Pool" beats on the River Moy, in the town of Ballina (and I mean right in the middle of town), is the equivalent of playing golf on the nearby classic links courses at Carne (Belmullet) or Enniscrone. It's all about the tradition.
An Irish ghillie doesn't work in the same way that the typical American fly fishing guide does. They're certainly there to help you, offering advice on where to cast and what fly to pick, as needed. But they're also part lifeguard, watching where you step in the swirling currents. And most importantly, they serve as "shepherds for the flock," meaning they are the front-line stewards when it comes to the salmon, ensuring proper fair chase angling practices are followed. This is Declan Cooke, Moy fishery manager.
I fished the Ridge Pool along with four other anglers. The process was straightforward: You enter at the top of the pool (which is a few hundred meters long), cast and swing your flies, stepping downstream as you work. The anglers space themselves apart accordingly, and move at the same pace. When you get to the bottom of the pool, you climb out of the river, and either take a break or walk back upstream to rejoin the rotation.
When you're on a break, you might have a cup of tea to warm up, or perhaps a pint of beer. There just so happens to be a pub near the lower section of the Ridge Pool -- V.J. Dougherty's Ridge Pool Bar, which was established by the current proprietor's great grandfather in 1913. If you want to pop in for a "swifty" between casts, don't worry, you can keep your waders on.
The truth is, the Moy and many fisheries in Ireland are in recovery. As recently as the 1980s, commercial fishermen netted and clubbed salmon right in Ballina. The Irish government prohibited the use of commercial drift nets offshore only several years ago. And channelization of the rivers has also had a dramatic impact on native fish populations. The good news is that the Moy, for example, sees about 75,000 salmon running each year. The country has installed weirs and counters like this one to gauge salmon returns. And all of this points to a very bright future for sport fishing in Ireland.
After fishing the Moy, we drove several hours to the southwest, to the town of Waterville in County Kerry. This part of Ireland is far more familiar to tourists, and the picturesque lakes in this region, most notably the 2,500-acre Lough Currane, are part of the draw.
We met up with Neil O'Shea, who is a fourth-generation ghillie -- his father, Donal (pictured with Neil) is a ghillie, as were both of his grandfathers, and one of his great grandfathers. It's clear that angling in Ireland is every bit as much about tradition as it is the fish themselves.
Lough Currane is separated from the ocean by a mere 500 meters, but it consists entirely of fresh water. Atlantic salmon swim through the lake to spawn in tributaries further inland. Lough Currane is also home to sea-run brown trout. The water in the lake is fairly acidic, so there are no mayflies to speak of. Instead, the trout venture to the sea to do their eating. They might go to the sea when they are six inches long, and return after six weeks weighing over a pound. They'll make return trips to the sea to bulk up throughout their lives, and some ultimately weigh 12 pounds or more.
The salmon aren't eating when they're in Lough Currane. Anglers use flies to elicit a reaction strike. This is largely true for the trout as well, though they will eat while in the lake. The typical rig is a 7-weight single-hand fly rod up to 10 feet long, a weight-forward floating line, and a 10- to 15-foot leader made of 10- to 12-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon. Neil uses a three-fly rig. He has the angler make a long cast and then slowly retrieve the flies with strips of the line. This method is called "dibbling."
Neil's fly boxes contain all the staple salmon and trout patterns like Thunder and Lightning, Silver Doctor, Blue Charm, Munroe Killer, Willie Gunn, Bibio, Silver Stoat, Watson's Fancy, and my favorite, the Red Arse Green Peter.
Ghillies fish Lough Currane by boat (rentals cost 140 euros/day; 55 euros for experienced DIY anglers). The lake can be 120 feet deep in spots, and water 30 to 40 feet deep is typically best. The boats are unique clinker-built timber designs meant to handle the winds and currents of the lake. Though on the day we fished, it was eerily cool, gray and foggy.
There's something to be said about fishing the gray waters of Lough Currane with traditional flies, especially when the backdrop is centuries-old ruins of a church on an island.
I managed to hook and land a sea-run brown. It was just over one pound, but it fought larger than that. And I was thrilled to have caught it, just to say I did it. Of course, Neil didn't have to prove that there were larger fish in the lake, but he did anyway. He showed me this photo of the all-Ireland record sea trout landed by Sean Smith of Yorkshire, England, on May 27 last year. It weighed 13 pounds, 5 ounces.
The bottom line on fishing Ireland is that there is a range of options, from classic spey casting on big rivers for salmon to lake fishing for brown trout. If you're all about pounds and inches, you should stay at home, or go to Alaska or Canada. But Ireland is quickly coming into its own as an angling destination. And as far as the cultural experience is concerned, there's no place like it in the world.

Last year, Field & Stream editor-at-large and Fly Talk blogger Kirk Deeter fulfilled a lifelong ambition of visiting Ireland, where he not only soaked in some ancestral culture, but also cast flies in the fabled River Moy and Lough Currane.

Check out these links for more information on fly fishing in Counties Mayo and Sligo, and these for fishing Lough Currane and the Ring of Kerry.