CULTURE: TRAVEL Casting to trout by the 15th century ruins of the
Cathedral of St Peter and Paul on the River Boyne.
Photo by Shane O'Reilly / Inland Fisheries Ireland

When you hear “Ireland,” you might think leprechauns, Guinness and rain. But how about wild brown trout, salmon and bass?

BY BAY STEPHENS

Few realize how popular fly fishing is on the Emerald Isle—perhaps even more popular than in Montana. While the Montanan angler knows her fair share of mountain-framed streams, what lines the waterways of Ireland are ancient stone castles and millennia of rich history.

“The reason I love these places is the story behind [them],” says Daire Whelan, host of the podcast Ireland on the Fly. “You’re fishing in a place of history, you know.”

Montana and Ireland have long been kindred spirits. Indeed, many Irish immigrants streamed to Butte in the late 19th century to work in the copper mines for their countryman Marcus Daly, one of the Copper Kings who made a killing in Butte’s heyday.

Along with angling, Ireland brims with pastoral landscapes, austere coasts, warm locals and a thriving pub culture. A fly-fishing trip here doubles as a stroll back in time.

Fisheries scientist Ken Whelan casts for brownies on the River Awbeg in front of the town of Castletownroche, County Cork. Photo by David Lambroughton

Salmon on the Fly: The King Fish

The salmon flashes its way down through Irish mythology and history. It stamped Ireland’s 10 pence coin before the euro, annual salmon festivals dot the island in the summer, and all Irish children know the peculiar folktale of The Salmon of Knowledge, entailing a salmon in the River Boyne that contains all the knowledge in the world— knowledge that could be transferred to whosoever can catch and eat it.

However, for 800 years Ireland’s salmon rivers were owned by and reserved for the aristocratic English elite. Only since Irish independence a century ago did this divide dissolve so that many guides today consider salmon fishing affordable for the average person. But Atlantic salmon are difficult to catch, especially on the fly, as premier salmon guide Glenda Powell elucidates: These fish don’t feed in freshwater. If “the tug is the drug” when it comes to fly fishing for other quarry, the salmon tug is a hard drug, according to Powell, because it requires so much practice and patience.

“The angler who wants to catch a few fish per day, possibly, they will go trout fishing,” Powell says. “Somebody who does not care about catching a fish and will patiently wait for possibly a week or more, they’re salmon anglers.”

Though Atlantic salmon have been in decline since the ‘90s, the summer of 2020 saw a dramatic uptick in the number of salmon being caught. Most summers Powell hopes a client catches one fish. But last summer she saw rookie anglers snagging three salmon in a day.

While many hope conservation efforts yielded the improved season, fisheries scientist Ken Whelan thinks it’s more likely attributed to 2020’s cool and rainy weather, emulating typical Irish summers of 40 years ago. “I really, really want to be wrong,” says Whelan, an avid fisherman. “Of course, I want to see this as the beginning of the improvement.”

A fresh-run Irish salmon caught on the fly. 2020 saw a notable uptick of salmon catches, which some scientists attributed to the cool weather that was characteristic of 40 years ago. Photo by Christin Breuker
Anglers select flies on the shore of Lough Mask, located just north of Lough Corrib and Galway, while a curious goat looks on. Photo courtesy of Inland Fisheries Ireland

Trout: The People’s Fish

While salmon were historically reserved for wealthy aristocrats, angling for wild brown trout has always been accessible to the Irish layperson. Though brown trout abound in Irish rivers, such as the Suir in County Tipperary, lough (Irish for “lake”) fishing is a traditional mode of seeking out “brownies.”

Every May, the 27-mile-long Lough Corrib draws anglers from across the republic and U.K. for what’s known as “Mayfly Madness.” Groups post up on the hundreds of islands across the lake to cook fish, steaks, potatoes and stir-fries, washing it all down with glasses of wine.

“They’d nearly spend longer on the islands than they would fishing,” says Lough Corrib guide Tom Doc Sullivan. The “Doc” in his name was the Irish way his community differentiated him from other Tom Sullivans in the area; his dad was the village doctor, so his son became Tom Doc.

The traditional belief is that if you visit Lough Corrib in May you’ll leave with a bag of fish, but weather plays a large role, says Sullivan. Ideal conditions include cloud cover and wind off the nearby Atlantic, which the 20-year guide employs to drift his timber boat over the best lies, casting wet flies with the breeze so that each cast plies new water.

Sullivan says the best way to experience lough fishing is to stay in a country bed-and-breakfast near the water for several days, allowing short commutes to fishing and a taste of rural Irish life. And book a full day.

Irish guide Tom Doc Sullivan marvels at what he refers to as the “Melvin Monster,” one of a subspecies of brown trout called Ferox—Latin for ferocious—that he caught on Lough Melvin in 2017. Photo courtesy of Tom Doc Sullivan
Most guides in Ireland will have tackle, rods, waders and any other equipment visiting anglers will need to wet their lines and rip lips while on the Emerald Isle. Photo courtesy of Inland Fisheries Ireland

Irish Sea Bass: The Ocean’s Pull

A sport growing in popularity on the Emerald Isle is fly fishing for sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax, not to be confused with North American striped bass, Morone saxatilis) off the west and south coasts. John Quinlan, a guide who owns Thatch Cottage Fishing Lodge with his wife, has built a livelihood around bass fly fishing in County Kerry.

Fly fishing for bass in Ireland is somewhat of an adventure. Executed from shore, bass angling involves clambering over the rocky coastline or wading into the surf on “storm beaches” where the water stays shallow far out into the Atlantic.

“Even people who originally came for salmon, I think many of them now prefer the bass,” Quinlan says. “They’ve changed their mind[s].”

Quinlan also takes anglers after fish that are new to Irish shores. Golden-grey mullet and triggerfish are two of the subtropical species that have migrated north due to warming oceans. Offshore fishing vessels even catch blue-finned tuna and albacore nowadays.

Called “storm beaches,” areas where the water deepens only gradually as one wades further from shore are great spots for casting flies to sea bass swimming nearby. Photo by Markus Muller
A beautiful Irish sea bass hooked on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Photo courtesy of Christin Breuker

Beyond the Fly

The Irish are renowned for their bed and breakfast locales, offering quaint and cozy accommodations paired with great food. Car rentals are cheap and, as long as you’re comfortable driving stick on the left side of the road (and the car), allow the optimal flexibility for a 7-10-day trip.

They say the Guinness in Ireland tastes better than anywhere else (they’re right). When you settle in with your “pint o’ plain” at the local pub after a grand day fly fishing, don’t forget to salute your neighbor.

Sláinte!

Bay Stephens, is a former Mountain Outlaw associate editor and lived in Ireland when the pandemic hit in spring of 2020. He now lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, working odd jobs and writing as much as he can.