George Barron explains why every trip to Corrib should include a visit to neighbouring Lough Mask, and gives three essential Mask patterns including Young Pretender, White-hackled Kate, and Peter Ross Nymph
Hook: Size 12/10 Fulling Mill heavyweight.
Thread: Black 8/0.
Tag: Silver tinsel.
Tail: Dyed scarlet and sunburst toppings.
Rib: Silver wire.
Body: Black seal’s fur.
Body hackle: Badger cock dyed red.
Cheeks: Split jungle cock.
Head hackle: Black hen, longish.
Hook: Size 12 Fulling Mill heavyweight.
Thread: Black 8/0.
Tail: Dyed red tippets.
Rib: Silver wire .
Body: Black seal’s fur.
Body hackle: Black quality hen or soft cock.
Head hackle: Natural white/cream hen.
Hook: Size 12/14 Fulling Mill heavyweight.
Thread: Black 8/0.
Body: Silver Mylar.
Rib: Silver wire – fine.
Thorax: Crimson seal’s fur.
Cheeks: Jungle cock dyed orange.
Head hackle: 2 turns natural badger hen.
When the Great Man said “to everything there is a season” I would guess he had fishing in mind and the season he was referring to must have been a spring similar to 2006. In his wisdom he might also have added an extra couple of lines to his philosophy, possibly “a time to fish and a time to stop at home, wrapped around the fly-tying vice with a glass of Rioja to hand”.
Born of good indigenous, Celtic stock, I’m not really a big softie but the thought of chasing spring fish around the Corrib with blue hands and feet so cold they would pose a serious challenge to the most caring Eskimo wife’s bosom, just doesn’t appeal. However, such was the weather in the west of Ireland in late March last year that what duckfly were hatching were emerging from the water in fur coats and Cossack hats and rapidly making their way to the nearest shore to light a fire to huddle around. Fishing for them from a drifting boat was what could be described as sheer purgatory! Sure, trout were being caught on deep fished Epoxy Buzzers and they were mostly in prime condition, but the stomach contents produced a varied assortment of food including shrimp, louse, small roach fry and a few buzzers. Everything, duckfly included, seemed to be lagging about three or four weeks behind last spring, even the lough-side hawthorn, which is normally in bloom in late March, was still naked of even its first leaf buds but an early appearance from some martins did give cause for some optimism. After a couple of slow but none the less reasonably productive days, salvation arrived in the form of an invitation to spend a couple of days pulling old fashioned wet flies on Lough Mask … it was like an answer to a prayer!
Lough Mask lies a few miles north of Corrib and, at 22,000 acres, it is roughly half the size, but what it lacks in acreage, it more than makes up for in splendour and mystery. Water levels here can vary as much as eight feet between the summer and winter marks and the southern end of the lough has a fair sprinkling of needle-sharp reefs which can prove very dangerous to the uninitiated novice and expert alike. Rightly so, Mask has always had the reputation of being a lively lake full of free rising trout, which seem always prepared to come to wet flies fished in the traditional manner – though the prevailing weather conditions would soon put that theory to the test.
There seemed no respite in the weather and it was still blowing cold when we arrived at Rosshill Bay on the first morning but the impressive Partry Mountains standing guard on the western shore like huge windbreaks would surely provide some shelter from the elements. They do say that what has been created naturally by Nature’s own hand can very rarely be improved upon by man and the seemingly manicured, reeded, Rosshill Bay looked immaculate in the mid-morning light as we slipped down the single track to the boats. The millpond-like surface was only disturbed by an excited posturing male swan marking the boundary line of his patch and in this sheltered little Eden, not even the tops of the trees were ruffled by the breeze. Baled out, loaded up and ready, we motored out to the main lough through a channel bordered on both sides by densely packed trees covered in grey/green lichen – motionless in the flat morning light, they seemed to be silently standing to attention like gigantic stick insects. There is always something special about spending a day in the company of someone who shares your passion for fishing and if he is also one of the best sources of local information and advice, that’s a bonus! My host was Gerry Dixon, who is all those things and no mean performer with a fly rod. The added pleasure and presence of Mr Deacy in the other boat with Terry would ensure an entertaining break for lunch and the likelihood of an even more lively evening meal later at Burke’s in Clonbur – a watering hole not to be missed for the quality of its food and genuine old-fashioned warmth and hospitality.
As the temperature struggled to rise above zero, floating lines were definitely not the order of the day. Gerry decided to start on a Wetcel II while I opted for the clear, fast intermediate, intent on fishing them short and steady through the levels with a team of three or four wet flies. Our casts were basically standard traditional patterns with the exception of a new dressing I’d whacked together in a rush after hearing that Mr Deacy had apparently moved (or ‘raised’ as they say in Ireland) a lot of fish to a Clan Chief the previous weekend. Never having been a great fan of heavily tailed flies, I decided to play around with Captain John Kennedy’s original pattern and create a more spring-like concoction. Substituting the standard dual floss tail for a softer looking one of scarlet and sunburst toppings and adding jungle cock cheeks below the head hackle, the fly certainly looked the part and my original six were soon reduced by three in the car park.
We decided to begin around Inishgleastai Island, drifting onto and off the many shallows. This is classic wet fly water, providing long drifts over ever-changing depths. Drifting this area the previous spring, we quietly watched an otter dive three or four times in front of the boat before it finally settled on its back for lunch – which, in this case, was an eel about 18 inches long. We drifted within 30 yards before he became aware of us and promptly disappeared subsurface. Surprisingly, and despite the cold, fish were prepared to take the fly, with most of the ‘takes’ coming to the top dropper or one down as the flies made their way to the surface at the end of the retrieve. The majority of the fish we caught were around the 11/4lb to 11/2lb bracket, slightly leaner, with longer heads and a lot darker than their Corrib cousins.
This area normally gets a very good duckfly hatch but there was no sign of fly life so early in the day as we continued to work our way around the lough, past the Dog Holes and on towards Inishowen Island. These areas produced some sport but the most productive spots were always coming on to the shallow reefs. Fish were caught on a variety of flies – Kate McLaren, Black Dabbler and Claret Dabbler, but the new Clan Chief, or Young Pretender, as we had christened it, was outscoring them all – possibly because it occupied the prime top dropper position on the cast and being the first one to break for the surface, it had a distinct advantage.
Meeting to compare notes and stretch the legs, a shivery lunch was taken on the shore behind Lambs Island. As the boats filled with rainwater from another downpour, we struggled with sandwiches which began to look like they had been on the receiving end of a blast from a water cannon but the morning had produced over a dozen fish between the two boats – mostly returned. Between the squalls a few fish had been prepared to rise in sheltered water and if you could get the flies over them the response was normally positive. One successful technique was to cover a rising fish and simply do nothing more than watch the end of the fly line for a few seconds. ‘Takes’ would come either to the static fly on the drop, or as the retrieved flies made for the surface. There is always something special about seeing a fish rise, covering it and having it take the fly! The initial excitement, anticipation and then the take may only last a fraction of a second but will often be remembered for a lifetime.
Perhaps because Corrib fishes so well in the spring or maybe it was the unusually cold weather but we saw very few out fishing, only the occasional boat trolling around the edge of deeps, trying for a specimen trout.
Mask is renowned for its large ferox trout and gillaroo, a distinctively gold coloured trout with large red spots which mostly frequent rocky areas and rough shallows. These predominantly shrimp and snail-eating trout will fight long and hard when hooked. While Mask has never produced one for me I have been lucky enough to catch them on previous trips to Lough Melvin further north.
Cahir Bay was to be the arena for the afternoon’s battle with the trout and the elements – a large bay littered with rocks, reefs, deeps and shallows but with the weather showing slight signs of improving, the prospects for the rest of the day looked promising and so it proved. In the small window of ‘goodish’ weather we had a few more fish, the best perhaps pushing 21/2lb. For that short period a floater, or certainly an intermediate, would likely have produced more visual sport but cold hands and bodies ensured line changing was kept to a minimum. Enough being enough, we ran for Rosshill earlier than normal – or it may have been the thought of the double fillet steaks awaiting us at Burke’s! The Irish have a wonderful way with the stuff they put in bottles. I was off to bed that night with aching sides from the ‘craic’ and almost comatose from a hot whiskey solution made to Mr Deacy’s specifications. Who would ever have thought of adding cloves to whiskey?
Dixon insisted on taking us there via the scenic route – over the mountains and down into Ferrybridge from the west. Half an hour longer and I’m sure his intentions were honourable, but I reckon he didn’t fancy being out on the water too early as the weather was similar to day one. Perhaps the brains were a wee bit scrambled from the night before but Mr Deacy and I decided to go for the comfort zone and stick with the general areas we had fished the day before. Gerry had a feeling for Maamtrasna Bay, a long bay cutting deep into the western shore that he reckoned fished best early in the season before heavy weed made parts of it unfishable. Needless to say, they got it right and we didn’t. Our sport was slower than the previous day and it never looked like happening even though we did get a couple of trout.
In the shelter of Maamtrasna the other boat came across rising trout feeding heavily on floating snails and buzzers mostly over areas with a muddy bottom. The successful patterns were small Hutch’s Pennells, Black & Peacock Spiders, Peter Ross nymphs and, once again, the Young Pretender. I think in total they had about 14 fish up to 3lb in weight and in far better condition than the trout we caught around the shallows which were more numerous but at that stage of the season, nowhere near in such good condition.
The conclusions to be drawn for the angler would be: always go with your instincts and believe that even on the coldest of days fish may still be found feeding at some part of the water. On reflection, it would seem obvious that the sheltered areas would be best in a cold wind but we were distracted by the easy pickings of the previous day instead of concentrating on the obvious.
Strangely, no matter how old we are, this fishing game is forever a learning game and, if nothing else, this trip did throw up a couple of new patterns and provided the ammunition to maybe create a couple more. It also showed me the true potential of Mask and proved it has no need to hide in the shadow of its big brother, Lough Corrib. Two days on Mask during my week in Oughterard this spring will now be something to look forward to and maybe this dark mysterious water will reward me with more memories.
* Flies that'll let Mask slip
The Young Pretender
We all have favourite flies that always seem to get a swim before we go looking for the answer in the fly-box and this new fly fits into that category. To my humble eye this is one of the best looking wet flies I have ever put together or used. It just looks right. The balance of colours and the general appearance is spot on and it certainly appeals to spring fish. Of course, only time will be its judge.
A slightly heavier, bushier version of the highly successful ‘Hutch’s Pennell’ – possibly first choice when the wind picks up a bit on a cold spring day.
Peter Ross Nymph
This pattern did the necessary on Corrib when fished one down from a Dabbler – I can also imagine giving it a go around the major stillwaters. Again, a perfect early or late season choice.