Last summer (2018) due to the unusually hot summer and drought conditions on the rivers in Ireland I practically stopped fishing for trout and other freshwater fish. The waters were too low and too warm for catch and release fishing.
After a few weeks of frustration from not being able to fish locally I turned my attention to the only type of fly fishing that would be any good in those conditions – saltwater fly fishing!
My brother and I had talked a few times about doing a camping trip with some saltwater fly fishing so with the freshwater fishing out of the question this seemed like a good time to finally get around to doing it. Our plan was to do a bit of mixed sea fishing for various species and a bit of saltwater fly fishing for Pollock, mackerel and wrasse in between.
We decided on going to a mark that we used to fish together and go camping there when we were kids. I hadn’t been back there in 23 years!!! The place we chose was Carrigaholt in County Clare. Carrigaholt always provided the opportunity to catch a wide range of sea fish. The most common species found there are; mackerel, Pollock, wrasse, dogfish, bull huss, conger eel, thornback ray, dab and flounder. Carrigaholt is situated in South Clare, just outside the popular seaside town of Kilkee along the mouth of the Shannon Estuary. From where we were camping you could clearly see across the Estuary to County Kerry. Not a lot has changed here in the 23 years since I’ve been there except for the windmills across the Estuary in County Kerry.
Carrigaholt was always one of Ireland’s lesser known gems and never really gets that busy even in the height of the summer. And like anywhere in Ireland it is steeped in local history and unique landscape. But more of that later.
We set off from my brothers house early on the Thursday morning and our first stop was to Kilkee to catch some mackerel from the cliffs for bait for the next few days. Or at least that’s what we thought! The cliffs we went to are among the best in the country for mackerel but surprising to us there was none around! This is highly unusual for that time of year. We met a couple of Polish lads who spent two days there and said they caught absolutely nothing between them. We persevered for a couple of hours casting our feather rigs off the cliffs but we decided to cut our losses and head into Kilkee town and buy some bait. Before we left I had a good look around and took in the familiar sights that I haven’t seen in years. I took a moment to remember some of the friends and people I knew that I used to fish up there with but sadly are no longer with us. It was lovely being back there after all these years but the rubbish from anglers littering the rocks put a dampner on it.
So on we went into Kilkee town for to buy some fresh mackerel. The street vendors that normally sold fresh mackerel on the corner were not there and the small seaside town seemed eerily quite. I went into the local butcher shop and asked if he had any mackerel or if he knew anywhere I could buy some. He told me that the mackerel were very scare that year and said when the hot weather came the mackerel seemed to vanish. They usually come in with hot weather so we were taken by surprise. From there we drove out to the fish mongers in Carrigaholt village but they had none either and said there was none to be got anywhere. This was a disaster as we badly needed fresh mackerel for the congers. We decided to take a chance and drive back to Kilrush and try Tescos. We were in luck and managed to buy mackerel fillets. I prefer heads and tails for conger but it would do.
Back we went to Carrigaholt full of optimism. We headed straight to where we were going to camp – the wreck. Parts of the wreck are visible at low tide as can be seen in the pic below. It is a wreck of a steamship from Panama called the Okeanos which ran aground in 1947. It was transporting grain from the River Plate (now the area of Argentina and Uruguay) to Limerick. On its way back up the Shannon Estuary after delivering its cargo of 5000 tonnes of grain she hit a rock and sounded her siren. The Okeanos was wedged on two ledges 60 feet from the shore which was lucky for the crew onboard who were easily rescued from the ship by local farmers. Of course the incident is surrounded in mystery and many locals believe it was deliberately ran aground. To read a good colourful account of the events click this link: https://clarechampion.ie/70th-anniversary-of-okeanos-shipwreck/
After we got our tents pitched we quickly went to our place on the rocks overlooking the wreck. Despite our problems in the morning we were bang on schedule and timed our arrival well as the tide was just about to start coming in. Edd set up a couple of rods for the conger close to the wreck but I was too anxious to start fly fishing so after a quick bottle of beer I headed off along the rocks to try a few casts for pollock. My set up was simple, my 10wt pike fly rod with a fast sinking di10 line, a relatively short leader of Amnesia in 15lbs b/s and a few bright coloured weighted clouser minnows for the Pollock. It didn’t take long before I was into some Pollock.
The conger fishing was still slow so Edd decided to do a bit of fly fishing for pollock too and he was also into a few pollock quiet quickly. Although we released the majority of the fish we caught, we kept just one 4lb pollock for us to fry up on a camping stove for our dinner and it was absolutely delicious.
After our feed of fresh pollock and an ice cold bottle of beer to wash it down the tide was just starting to turn and go back out so we decided this would be a good time to try for a conger so we put on some fresh strips of mackerel on a rod each and lobbed the baits just out in front of us between the rock we were sitting on and the wreck.
It wasn’t until the tide was nearly out before we got our first bite from a conger. It came to Edd’s rod and he had no trouble bringing it in and landing it at the side of the rocks. The main worry when you are fishing close to a wreck is that the conger will back up into the wreck which would then be a guaranteed lost fish. When you hook a conger they spin and swim backwards back into the snag they came out of. Another while past and the tide was well out when I got a solid tap on my rod. I hit it hard and held on. It was a very big conger and despite using 70lb braid as my mainline I couldn’t get the fish to budge. The sheer power of it was amazing. Definitely the biggest conger I ever hooked. I kept it there not giving it an inch but unfortunately it broke me off. The wire trace broke.
After that it was starting to get late so we done a bit more fly fishing this time trying for wrasse. I changed flies and tried everything from small baitfish patterns, sandeel patterns and shrimp patterns but unfortunately we couldn’t find any wrasse but had a few more pollock.
Then we put the rods away for the night and sat around drinking beer and reminiscing of days gone by. It really was a trip down memory lane. As we were chatting a ferry went past that was all lit up and it was lovely to watch. As it faded away into the horizon we called it a night and went into our tents to get our heads down for a few hours.
The next morning we woke early and cooked a fry up and made coffee on the camping stove. As we had breakfast we discussed our plans for our final day. We both wanted another go at the conger but we weren’t very confident of getting any from the wreck that day. So we decided we give it a try on the incoming and outgoing tide then after that we would try the beach at Carrigaholt village on our way home. As we were making our plans a boat tour were out past us on a dolphin watching trip. They must have been envious of us because the dolphins were swimming around just right in front of us.
Our suspicions were right about the conger. It was all too quiet so we decided that before we left early wreck we would fish along the other side of the rocks to see what we could pick up. But all we managed to get there was a good few dogfish.
Although it was another addition to our list of species caught on the trip , we soon got fed up with catching them and decided it was time to move and try the beach at Carrigaholt village.
The beach at Carrigaholt is known to produce thornback ray. And some pretty big ones too. Except for one other Polish angler there and a couple of swimmers we practically had the place to ourselves and this was a Saturday afternoon in the middle of July during a heatwave!
23 years ago when I last in Carrigaholt there would have been a good few anglers fishing especially along the beach and along the pier near the castle. But these days there’s just not anywhere near as many people fishing in Ireland anymore.
With a rod each out but baited with mackerel strips we waited in anticipation in the hopes of a thornback ray but unfortunately we didn’t get anything other than more dogfish.
After a few hours we called it a day and we stopped off on the way home at a popular chipper in Kilkee for some first class fish and chips. We both agreed that we would try to make this an annual thing of a couple of days camping and fishing together in the summer. We already have plans for this summer which is going to be in a few weeks. We are returning to Carrigaholt but we have a whole different plan for this time. I will do another article about this year’s trip.