As part of the Nomads project I've asked both Ken and James to give an account of their first encounters with Irish white-trout. James's story arrived this morning and will duly be embedded in the part of the book's gazetteer devoted to the Currane system. But it's such a lovely stand-alone story that I thought readers might like a sneak preview. Before the words I'll insert two images: (i) James playing his first white-trout on Currane (below), (ii) Sylvester's sensational sweater (above).
Monday, 21st September 2009 was no ordinary day. It was the day I fell in love with sea-trout fishing - and it was the day I fell in Lough Currane.
Until 2009 I’d had very limited fly-fishing experience. You could probably count on your fingers and toes the number of times I’d unsheathed and cast my fly-rod. Even the toes might be a little generous. Now, I’ve used the word ‘cast’. It was more like a… flog, followed by a lash, several more flogs and finished with a shoulder-wrenching lunge. How I managed to catch fish at all in the beginning still amazes me.
I grew up in the Midlands, fishing with roach poles, carp rods and quiver-tips. There wasn’t much notable fly-fishing in the city of Birmingham and to be honest, I wasn’t looking for it. My curiosity about fly-fishing surfaced in 2005 when I was poking around a little ditch in Amstelveen, just south of Amsterdam, on a balmy summer’s afternoon. I’d clocked a school of big carp cruising along the surface the evening before while cycling home from work. I called in sick the following day, loaded up the bike and returned to the ditch to see what I could find. And there I was, hunched amongst the reeds, quietly dealing with cramp, when a wet, black nose appeared from the bushes. Attached to the nose was a black Labrador, who was in turn attached to her owner. ‘Heb je iets gevangen?’ enquired the owner. I looked, baffled, in their direction and rather embarrassingly replied ‘Errrm, sorry. Do you speak English?’ I was expecting to hear that familiar Dutch-accented rejoinder which isn’t too dissimilar to a bad Sean Connery impersonation: ‘Yesh, of coursh I shpeak English.’ But instead, the man replied in real English, a sound that as an expatriate I was sorely beginning to miss, with an accent that was a little hard to place. ‘We can do English. My name’s Chris - and this little tart is called Tess.’ Chris pointed towards his black Labrador, who was happily getting stuck into the tin of sweetcorn that I’d reserved for the carp.
I bumped into Chris several more times while fishing before we exchanged contact details. A month or two later, and he’d hooked me up with a 9-weight fly-rod and was talking about fly-fishing for pike once the warm weather began to wander. I tried fly-fishing a few times, but it failed to really turn me on. It wasn’t until a trip to the Canadian Rockies, armed with a new 5-weight, that I discovered what it was all about. But remember, I was still flogging at this point, attempting to beat the trout over the head with the fly, not hook them.
Fast-forward, then, to Monday, 21st September 2009 and to Lough Currane. The trip was my first visit to Ireland with Chris, and was the first instalment of our ‘Nomads of the Tides’ sea-trout campaign. It was a relatively mild day for late September. Chris’s diary states that the conditions included temperatures of 17-18°C with a blustery SW wind which conjured up a nice, choppy wave on the lough. Apparently, where sea-trout fishing is concerned, such a wave was A Good Thing.
Finally, I was learning.
We’d arranged to fish Currane with local gillie Sylvester Donnelly. In true Irish form, he was late – creatively late, since he’d been dealing with a cow. (There’s more about the cow below.) Sylvester was the first gillie I’d ever fished with - another factor which would contribute to making this day so special.
What a character Sylvester turned out to be. He reminded me of an Irish Robert DeNiro (be sure to tell him this if you ever have the privilege to fish with him. If he doesn’t recall my name, then remind him of the two Englishmen he gillied the day his cow escaped. He’ll know what you’re talking about). He was wearing a sensationally threadbare sweater that was literally held together by dozens of his immaculately tied sea-trout and salmon flies. The three of us made acquaintance, clambered aboard and ventured onto Currane.
As we were motoring towards our first mark of the day, I fumbled anxiously with the business end of my leader, attempting to rig up a team of wet-flies. Until then, I’d always fished a single fly for fear of tangles and rig-making incompetence. But with the combined years of experience I was fortunate enough to be fishing with, I thought it would only be wise to give the impression that I half-knew what I was doing. I tied the infamous Bibio onto the dropper and a Teal, Blue and Silver onto the point. I was armed and ready for action. On my fourth cast of that first drift - apologies if you were hoping to read about me hooking into a Lough Currane legend - my overly hard-flogged fly cracked Sylvester smack-bang in the back of his skull. I’ll never forget that sound and surely, neither will Sylvester. If you can imagine, for a moment, what the impact would sound like if you were to drop a coconut off the Eiffel Tower, then you’d have a good idea of how terrible that collision actually was. Sylvester looked at me with wincing eyes and with supreme politeness asked me to keep my rod tip a bit higher when casting. What a good start to the day, I thought. That wasn’t the reputation, nor was it the legend, that I was searching for. Looking round warily, Sylvester put on his hat and a large pair of sunglasses. The shades weren’t of of the polarised variety - more like the ‘protect your eyes from projectile Bibio’s’ variety.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before the veteran put us over sea-trout and Chris was into his first ‘Juner’ of the day, which was lovely little fish of 1¼lb. That first fish always brings a sense of optimism. Even if it isn’t ‘your’ fish, then a heightened sense of concentration ensues. You become more in tune with the environment and with one’s casting ability, or so it seems. The second part of that last sentence isn’t entirely accurate – ‘ability’ is perhaps generous - but… After a good enough cast, I began to slowly strip back my flies and suddenly, about six yards from the boat, there was a small boil and my line tightened. With a well-timed strike I lifted into the fish and it leapt with an acrobatic attempt to shake the hook. There was a flash of silver and blue.
Chris’s fish hadn’t jumped. It’s as if the ancient lough herself wanted to impress me. She had decided to put on a show. And what a show it was. I was in awe. I was captivated. I was operating on instinct alone. Did the lough know it was my first sea-trout? Or maybe, for once, the angling gods looked down upon me with kindness.
It wasn’t a big fish – it was somewhere around the pound mark - but it was in peak condition. It made several short runs and tussled under the boat. Sylvester administered an experienced stamp of the foot on the boards of the boat to startle the fish and steer him away from the propeller’s tangle-zone. Finally, I brought the fish to the gunwale so our gillie could net him. The heart-stopping moments of the play were all but over. Sylvester asked me if he could keep the sea-trout for his table, but I politely declined, swiftly unhooked the fish and safely returned him to the waters of the mighty lough so he could continue his journey. The moment was truly perfect - a climax of anticipation, anxiety and months of planning. I think Chris was happy too. Or was he relieved? [No. Just happy. CBMcC] He has a tendency to feel responsible for his party and their fishing. After all, it was he who invited me to work on this project and it was he who’d arranged this wonderful trip. [Delighted. CBMcC]
To this day I’m still unsure why I made the decision to return the sea-trout. It was a gut feeling. I’ve killed fish for the table before and no doubt I’ll kill them again. Superstition maybe? I don’t think so. It was simply one of those moments in life when one truly connects with Nature and her overwhelming power. I think she was testing me and I felt the need to express my gratitude, so she would allow me to return to that incredible part of the world to enjoy what she has to offer. It was also necessary in some way to appease the beady, watching eyes of the angling gods.
Not soon after this life-changing experience, a ringtone began to issue from somewhere in Sylvester’s pockets. He swiftly answered and listened intently to what the caller had to say. He hung up and with a worried look asked us if we minded taking an early lunch because his cow had escaped and was wandering freely around the local village. Of course, we obliged – it’s not good to have a cow on the loose - and set off for shore. Sylvester tied up the boat, made a dash for his car and in a puff of smoke, was gone. It was time for us to take a break and get stuck into our packed lunch.
Sylvester took a while to return (perhaps he was thinking, between cows, of projectile Bibios) and I find it difficult to sit around doing bugger-all so after the food and drink had been demolished I decided to wade out to the boat to get…something. I can’t remember what it was I was searching for. Maybe I was hoping to find an overlooked cheese sandwich or a bar of chocolate. Whatever it was, I was in such a rush that one foot wrapped around the other and away I went, arse over tit, into Lough Currane. I was up to my neck in it. The waders were compromised. I was fully soaked. Profanities began to fly left, right and centre: ‘Feckin’ eejit’ (from the left), ‘Ahh, me ballix’ (from the right), ‘Oh, dear’ (from the centre). Chris was howling on the bank. ‘Be careful you don’t choke on that sandwich,’ I said.
So there I was - bloody soaked to the bone, without a change of clothes and a good seven hours of fishing ahead of me. Fortunately, it was warm for September but the wind was picking up, which wasn’t helping much. I removed my waders, drained the excess gallons of water and wrung out my woolly wading socks. Chris was still laughing, and he didn’t – a pity - choke on that sandwich. It was going to be a long day, but the thought of catching more sea-trout spurred me on.
Sylvester returned a happy man after rescuing his cow from the village. Order had obviously been restored to his world and stories of me ‘going for a swim’ made him chuckle too. I no longer felt so bad about the lump on the back of his head. In fact, I was quite tempted to flick it.
The rest of the day provided some enjoyable fishing in and amongst the beautiful backdrop of the southern end of MacGillicuddy’s Reeks – a name which for some reason it’s good to repeat to yourself, silently, as you drift. We didn’t catch scores of trout that day. I think we had a few more each. Nothing big, either. They were all Juners, averaging around the pound mark. We didn’t see anything of the massive, fabled end-of-season Lough Currane sea-trout. But this day out on the water was a milestone in my angling career – and in some way, in my life. It symbolised the start of many ‘firsts’, among them the start of what is sure to be a life-long love affair with that nomadic, migratory and maddening fish, the sea-trout. It was the first time I’d ever fished in Ireland and the first time I’d ever fished a lough with a gillie. And last but not least, it was the start of my detailed involvement in the Nomads project. Currane was the most wonderful place to kick it all off. In my imagination, in the depths of winter or when I’m tucked up in bed, I often revisit that day. And when I do, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of warmth and peace. I can still smell (and taste) the lough and remember every intimate little detail. It’s strange that these memories of three years ago are so intense given that I can barely remember what I had for tea last night.
As I sit here working at my desk in our little flat in Amsterdam, I’m also preparing for another change. Another milestone in life’s great adventure is about to pass, because I’ve just accepted a job in Toronto which means packing all our belongings into a shipping container, saying goodbye to our friends and family and travelling across the Atlantic to begin the next chapter of our lives. But I’ll still return to Ireland to make fishy pilgrimages long after this book is finished. I am, as they say, ‘hooked.’
During the writing of this little story, I experienced another mind-blowing first. My beautiful wife, Nicole, and I discovered we’re expecting our first child. We’re having a son. We think we’ll call him Gus. Will he be a fisherman, just like his dad? Who knows? But one thing’s for sure. He’ll have to read this book and maybe one day he’ll nag me to take him fishing in Ireland to catch his first sea-trout. I couldn’t imagine anything better. So here’s the relevant sentence in writing.
Dear Gus, will I take you fishing for sea-trout in Ireland?
This website details some of the angling travels that are currently going into the making of a new book, Irish Sea-trout: Nomads of the Tides (Chris McCully and Ken Whelan, with images by James Sadler, forthcoming from the Medlar Press in 2013). Included here are also fragments of text, musings and speculations, fly-dressings and other material - about kettles, splices, (Irish) angling history and etymology - that we think is interesting. The book will represent not only an operational phase (angling travels in Ireland, 2007-2012) but also the long experience of fishing for Irish sea-trout that the writers share. We hope you enjoy these pages.