(First published in the January 16, 2020 issue of City Pages)
Fishing guides help you discover the deep culture around the legendary lakes, rivers and seas
Boat landings aren’t standard on Ireland’s lakes, and fishermen like Gordon Dickenson know that access is controlled more by soggy peat than trespass laws.
Though I was in Ireland, all the fishing reels on the shop’s wall looked familiar, instead of something appropriately “Irish” to go with the 10-foot quiver rod my fishing guide had given me a few days before.
The saleswoman in the tackle shop confirmed my suspicions, saying all the reels were imports. When I asked if she stocked any Irish-made tackle, she steered me to trout and salmon flies, and a lineup of Kilty casting/trolling spoons.
That experience was common while fishing during my two visits to Ireland, the most recent one last summer. Some gear and conversations were so familiar it seemed I had never left home. Even in Ireland, we can’t escape the fact we’re all still fishing with Chinese-made reels.
But make no mistake: Ireland’s fishing boasts many distinctive pleasures.
For one, Ireland isn’t overrun by $55,000 boats with 200-horsepower engines. Those wooden rowboats you see on Ireland’s postcards aren’t just nostalgia. Much of it is pure function—they’re the most practical watercraft, as developed boat landings aren’t standard, and access to most lakes is controlled more by soggy peat than trespass laws.
And even where surrounding lands are firm, few large homes plague the shorelines of Ireland’s legendary lakes and rivers. When I asked my ghillie Gordon Dickenson if the government prohibits lakefront homes, I swear he glanced to see if I was joking. Then he said no, that people simply prefer not to build too close to the water and clutter the landscape.
Few large homes and other buildings clutter the shorelines of Ireland’s legendary lakes and rivers.
Two weeks of driving there taught me that the Irish trust people to figure things out for themselves. They post street names indifferently, if at all, and routinely post speed limits of 100 kilometers per hour on narrow, winding roads where centrifugal force ensures you’ll never top 40.
Much of Ireland’s fishing also seems self-regulating. One Irish publication even says its big pike thrive on neglect. Ireland, after all, remains a pastoral country of farmland, mountains and peat bog, with a low population by European standards.
But shared experience makes even the exotic differences suddenly familiar. The Irish might call a guide a ghillie, and they might call a rough fish a “coarse” fish — and they might release it with the reverence we reserve for muskies — but in the end nature herself doesn’t really care, as long as we do no harm.
Like North American, Ireland faces challenges to its fishing, both inland and at sea. Its once-renown sea trout fishery is at risk, probably because salmon farms have spread a virulent strain of sea lice. And, like North America, Ireland is coping with zebra mussels, a common, invasive pest.
By our standards, few people fish in Ireland, even if those who do say otherwise. They obviously don’t have Wisconsin as a reference point. You won’t find tackle stores similar to our big retailers and northwoods musky-marts.
But you will find outdoor guides who will show you the pleasures of fishing in Ireland, plus provide fascinating history of the local landscape and culture.
Lough Gill inspires legends and poets
The ancient chapel on Lough Gill’s Church Island was built in the 5th century and burned in 1416. Locals believe the poet W.B. Yeats often went here seeking solitude to write.
I usually go out fishing at least one day whenever I travel abroad, and Ireland is famous for big northern pike and salmon. A day of fishing also allows my wife free time to shop and tour nearby towns.
During a day out in northwestern Ireland near the town of Sligo, (about 120 miles northwest of Dublin), our ghillie apologized sincerely for the slow action as we trolled the lake, Lough Gill, for salmon, perch, northern pike or anything else that might strike our lures. My friend and I assured Jackie Mahon we didn’t require his contrition. Even skilled guides like Mahon can’t force fish to bite.
Mahon grew up fishing Lough Gill, and came from a local family with deep roots on the legendary lake, which feeds the Garavogue River for its three-mile journey to Sligo before roiling through town to the nearby North Atlantic.
Besides, I knew Lough Gill wasn’t Mahon’s first choice to fish that day. He had subtly suggested lakes with better summertime odds when he and I started corresponding weeks earlier. But I wanted to fish for pike on Lough Gill, which is the unnamed lake in W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
If you spend any time fishing or simply sitting next to lakes and rivers, you understand why folks in cities, cubicles and factories pine for such waters. Yeats’ famous poem captures their yearnings, especially its closing lines:
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
Mahon understands and witnesses that longing; he said people visit Lough Gill nonstop in summer to gaze out at the modest, one-acre island of Innisfree just off the lake’s southern shore. Mahon promised even better: We’d moor at Innisfree, where he’d make tea while we ate our sandwiches.
After lunch and tea, I navigated narrow paths through Innisfree’s ferns and tangled brush. I soon agreed with others who’ve walked the same short trails: Innisfree’s rocks, brush and gnarly trees probably didn’t inspire Yeats’ famous poem. Yeats probably just liked its name, and used poetic license in applying it to a bigger, more likely isle on Lough Gill, such as Church Island or Cottage Island.
Of Gill’s 16 islands, only Church and Cottage offered realistic space and terrain to grant Yeats’ wishes for nine bean-rows, a hive for the honey-bee, and a small cabin of clay and wattles.
A reporter at The Sligo Champion in 1950 detailed why Gill’s 40-acre Church Island was likely Yeats’ inspiration. For instance, the island is within an easy boat-row of the Clogherevagh boathouse Yeats often visited, and it’s home to the ruins of a fifth-century chapel that burned in 1416. The site offers peaceful solitude for writing.
Cottage Island, called “Beezie’s Island” by locals, likely didn’t inspire Yeats’ famous poem, but has its own legends. A woman named Beezie Gallagher lived there alone into the 1940s, after several generations of her family living on and farming the island’s 14 acres. Beezie often rowed her boat into Sligo, a 6-mile roundtrip, well into old age before dying alone in a house fire.
Water the size of Lough Gill does more than bathe islands and inspire legendary poets. At 5 square miles and depths up to 102 feet, Lough Gill turns deadly when whipped by hurricane winds blowing in off the ocean. A plaque leaning against a rock wall of Church Island’s chapel offers mournful tribute to four young Irish soldiers who drowned Jan. 2, 1984, in a storm after fishing for salmon.
Mahon, 47, shared those stories and many more during eight hours of fishing as we trolled past the beautiful shores, including the forests of Dooney Rock and Slish Wood, which are visitor attractions themselves and along the 40km Lough Gill Cycle Loop.
Jackie Mahon, a ghillie on Lough Gill, enjoys sharing the lake’s history while guiding anglers.
A former sales executive, Mahon now guides anglers and ties trout flies full time. He also enjoys hunting upland birds, and said the area’s best woodcock haunts during his youth were on Lough Gill’s northcentral shoreline, which he and his springer spaniel reached by boat. Uphill through the woods was a Catholic convent. “I’d usually get off one shot before the nuns ran me off,” Mahon said with a laugh. “They were mean. You had to shoot fast, grab your bird, run back to the boat, and get out of there. I always prayed the motor would start on the first pull.”
Mahon spends most days tying, selling and shipping Irish trout flies, which he sells worldwide through his Facebook page. He has tied thousands of flies — 150 in just the two days before guiding us on Lough Gill.
He learned his craft from an uncle, and refined it under the tutelage of Frankie McPhillips, who learned to tie from a woman in Ballyshannon. Mahon said he’s the only one in his family to fall for fly-tying and fly-fishing. Most Mahons troll with spinners and other lures, just like we were doing this day. I caught only one pike that day, and it was too early for the salmon, which show up in late fall.
Maybe Mahon is more patient than his kin. A cousin and fellow ghillie once stranded two German clients on an island after arguing with them about World War II. “He warned them not to talk anymore about the war, but they did anyway, so he helped them onto the island and left them there,” Mahon said.
Mahon didn’t say if his cousin abandoned the Germans on Innisfree itself, but I doubt it. If an island is too tiny and barren to inspire a poet, it offers even less to men needing actual shelter.
Ireland’s champion fishermen
Don’t forget to admire the wildlife when visiting the famous Skellig Michael
Atlantic puffins fill Skellig Michael during nesting season. Star Wars filmmakers, prohibited from disturbing the birds while on location, created the “porg” creatures to edit out the real inhabitants of the island.
Looking like the half-pint progeny of a penguin and toucan, the Atlantic puffin seems made to inspire stuffed toys and cartoon characters. But don’t sell these bird short.
Yes, these big-billed seabirds stand just 10 inches tall, and sport orange on their leggings, eyeliner and webbed feet. But they’re hardcore deep-diving predators that spend most of their lives afloat in the North Atlantic, far from land and adoring humans.
Atlantic puffins live ashore April through early August to nest on remote crags like Skellig Michael, a 44-acre spire of an island eight miles off Ireland’s southwestern coastline.
This World Heritage Site (designated in 1996) was made more famous as the film location for recent Star Wars movies. So most visitors to Skellig Michael don’t make the hour-long boat ride from Portmagee (an 80-minute drive from Killarney) to watch puffins. Folks mostly come to climb the 600-step stone staircase to tour an ancient monastery 700 feet above the water where Christian monks lived from roughly the 600s to 1200s AD.
Still, you can’t help but be charmed by puffins as you ascend steep staircases toward Christ’s Saddle, a green expanse about halfway to the monastery. Puffins are neither shy nor pesky. Some lounge atop rocks as if sunbathing while others stand erect like soldiers on watch. Vigilant or relaxed, puffins let you approach close enough for selfies, but they don’t beg for handouts in return.
They’re too busy fishing and feeding their young. Puffins constantly launch their stubby bodies from Skellig Michael’s cliffs, knocking loose enough rocks that tour operators long ago installed roofing over part of the entry trail to protect arriving visitors.
Seconds later the puffins disappear into the Atlantic, diving to depths of 200 feet to catch prey. They fly back up to their burrows after securing a mouthful of small fish, and alight at the entranceway in a blur of wingbeats that reach 400 beats per minute. According to Audubon, a puffin racks up 10 fish per trip on average, ducking into its burrow with fish tails and heads drooping from each side of its beak. When you stand among puffin burrows and hear them growling like revving chainsaws, you half-expect one to step out toting a miniature Stihl.
The more time you spend watching puffins, the more you understand why people give them human traits. As Audubon notes, their scientific name is Fratercula arctica, which is Latin for “little brother of the North.”
When puffins land by their burrow, they’ll place one foot in front of the other, much like a ski-jumper’s “Telemark” landing. If a puffin is passing through a crowded colony and intruding on another’s turf, it will lower its head and walk rapidly, as if saying: “Don’t mind me. Just passing through.”
Puffins communicate through body language. Mating pairs rub their beaks together and can cause enough excitement to draw crowds of puffin voyeurs. Antagonists often square off by puffing up and opening their wings and beaks. When really mad they stamp a foot. They’ll lock beaks when brawling, and try to wrestle each other to the ground, sometimes rolling off rocky ledges while tangled in combat as their curious neighbors watch.
• Fishing: If you want spend a day fishing in Ireland, know that hiring a fishing guide, or ghillie, is easy. Don’t try the DIY approach, especially if you want to fish rivers for trout or salmon. Unlike North America, Ireland’s waterways are mostly privately owned, as are the fish in those sections. Guides keep you out of trouble, and entertain you with insights into the area’s people and history.
• Planning a road trip isn’t much more difficult than a do-it-yourselfer around Wisconsin, thanks to online services for renting cars, hiring fishing guides, and reserving bed-and-breakfast rooms.
• Driving around: I recommend no more than four hours of planned driving daily, because it’s hard to stay on schedule on the many country roads. We once were stuck behind a long funeral procession on a rural road out of Kenmare. When renting a car, specify an automatic transmission, and buy full-coverage insurance so you won’t sweat the inevitable bumps and bruises from driving on the left side of mostly narrow roads and the holes because most roads lack shoulders.
• Lonely Planet guidebook: For our July 2019 trip, I wanted to spend time in Dublin, tour the historic Skellig Michael island, visit the cliffs of Moher, and spend time in County Sligo and fish Lough Gill for northern pike. Our trip started in Dublin, and we stopped often along the way to visit sites we studied in the Lonely Planet guidebook on Ireland. The book includes maps, photos and detailed descriptions, as well as advice for dining, drinking, shopping and sleeping.
• Getting to Skellig Michael requires patience and persistence. The number of visitors to the island is limited, and weather and rough seas regularly cancels trips there from the mainland. But demand is high because of the island’s appearance in the Stars Wars movies The Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Visit skelligislands.com for a list of boat operators and other details.