November 02, 2023
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As trip hosts for Frontiers Travel, we are constantly looking for international destinations that not only offer great fishing but also touring and sightseeing opportunities for nonfishing partners. You wouldn’t want to take a non angler to our favorite lake in Argentina, Lake Strobel, aka Jurassic Lake. Yes, it has huge rainbow trout, but a grueling truck ride into the lodge is required, and when you get there you must deal with the wind, waves, and boulders the size of small cars. It’s barren, remote, and if you don’t fish, there isn’t a lot of anything else to do.
I remember a client who brought his new bride on a peacock bass trip to the Amazon. He talked up the beautiful swimming pool, the tropical location, and the exotic birds. Two days later, she was bored to death in the hot, sweltering jungle. She had 100 insect bites from swimming in the pool, and she wanted out. If your traveling companion doesn’t fish, it’s best to choose a destination that offers exciting experiences for both of you. Ireland is that place.
As with England and Scotland, Ireland has a rich history when it comes to trout and salmon fishing. Fly fishing in England started sometime in the 13th century, and its popularity soon spread throughout Ireland and Scotland. We have found that it’s Ireland—with green rolling hills and winding hedge-lined roads—that today is home to some of the best fly fishing in all of Europe.
When it comes to fly fishing, Ireland offers everything from coldwater lakes and freestone rivers to limestone spring creek environments—all with robust trout fisheries. There’s also some very good salmon fishing.
Actually it’s on the storied salmon beats at Ballynahinch Castle where we first got our feet wet in Ireland. The castle estate is a world-renowned salmon and sea trout fishery located in the picturesque setting at Connemara, County Galway.
The Ballynahinch River runs through the estate and continues three miles downriver to where it enters the Atlantic Ocean at Bertraghboy Bay. Every Atlantic salmon and sea trout must travel through the castle water on their upstream migration to spawn. Although the season officially opens February 1, the prime salmon run generally starts in late June and can go into the later part of September.
Tradition prevails here, and fly fishers cast from jetties or platforms strategically located to give anglers the best position to cover all of the holding water. Spey rods with 7- or 8-weight floating lines are generally used, with smaller single or double flies working best. Popular fly patterns include Silver Rats, Badgers, and Connemara Blacks. You will use sinking lines only during high water levels.
The fishing guides on the estate are quite a bunch. Depending on the age of the guides, their fishing attire ranges from contemporary Simms waders, hip packs, and ball caps, to more traditional deerstalker hats and tweeds.
For some, their heavy brogue accent is hard to follow. In other words, you’ll know you’re in Ireland.
On our first two visits to Ballynahinch Castle, our guide Michael Van Muren was a flamboyant chap. Michael is the real deal and came complete with a heavy wool sweater that had many seasons on it, sparkling blue eyes, and a sense of humor that immediately put us at ease and had us laughing.
We climbed in his little car and when we got to the water, he decided to teach Cathy how to cast a fly rod. He walked her through the steps of making a snap T cast, he then made a beautiful cast, and then suggested that she try it. Cathy took the rod and copied Michael’s cast perfectly. At first not saying a word, Michael turned and walked up to me and said in his heavy Irish brogue,
“That woman can f*****g cast!”
Although the salmon fishing is steeped in fascinating history, it is trout fishing that brings us to Ireland time and time again. Frontiers put us in touch with Andrew Ryan years ago. Ryan owns Clonanav Fly Fishing, a specialty fly shop and guide operation near the village of Ballymacarbry, in County Waterford. Andrew Ryan is a household word when it comes to fly fishing throughout Ireland and Europe, and is recognized as the premier authority for trout and salmon fishing, fly-fishing schools, guiding, and general information. Virtually every brand of fly-fishing gear is represented in his shop—Hardy, Simms, Patagonia, Sage, RIO, Orvis, and lots more.
Clonanav Fly Fishing is conveniently located and has access to beats on the Suir, Nire, and the Tar rivers. The three rivers have very different personalities with the Suir being the largest. The Suir is Ireland’s third-longest river and without a doubt is our favorite. Its birthplace is in North Tipperary and begins in a southward flow, eventually turning north then east in the direction of Waterford Harbour, where it empties into the Celtic Sea. We spend most of our time on the limestone-rich flows that run through Clonmel. Here there are both trout and salmon. In fact, the largest line-caught Atlantic salmon was caught in the Suir. Along with that, the Suir is recognized as one of the best dry-fly rivers in Europe.
When we first saw the Suir it reminded us of the historic Test in England, but after learning its pools, flats, and runs, we came to understand that like most rivers, the Suir has its own distinct personality. Luckily we’ve spent most of our time on the river with Andrew Ryan at our side. Ryan controls a number of beats on the river, and taking advantage of his knowledge of the water is like fishing with the late Ernest Schwiebert. Andrew knows the insect hatches and the right flies, he’s fun to be with, and his history of the river is impressive. This level of professionalism persists in all of his guides as well, which contributes to his success and popularity.
The Nire is our second favorite and a tributary to the Suir. For the most part, it is a smaller river, maybe 35 feet wide, a perfectly clear freestoner that drops from the Comeragh Mountains and through the Nire Valley until it joins the Suir. Andrew also holds leases on some of the best beats here and it is often his “ace in the hole.”
It’s no secret that Ireland gets a lot of rain, and rivers like the Suir can blow out in a hurry, but the Nire is a spate river—it comes up fast and drops fast. In 2022, we had a torrent of rain and the Suir was about to spill out of its banks. We left the Suir and drove to the Nire, which was also high and off-colored. Ryan said, “No worries lads, it’s streamer time now, and we’ll be fishing drys by noon.” We thought, no way, but Andrew was right. The streamer fishing was hot, a black Super Bugger and a slow retrieve produced some beautiful browns. By noon the stream had dropped and was clearing. By 2 o’clock we had clear water, Blue-winged Olives were hatching, and the trout were sipping. This kind of river can save the day, as it did ours.
The third river is the Tar, and it certainly reminds us of an English chalkstream. Although we may have first misjudged the Suir, there is no mistaking the Tar, it is exactly what you would expect of a European limestone river. At nearly 20 miles long, the Tar enters the Suir between the towns of Ardfinnan and Newcastle. The sections we’ve fished are wader friendly, basically because it’s a wide, shallow river punctuated with flowering ranunculus weed. The Tar is a dry-fly angler’s dream with prolific insect hatches and rising fish. In addition to the Blue-winged Olives and other mayflies, there are abundant caddis populations.
Most of our trout fishing in Ireland has been with 9-foot 5-weight fly rods and floating lines. If we had only one outfit to travel with it would be this one, but on calm windless days, especially on the smaller waters like the Nire, a 3- or 4-weight is a lot of fun. If faced with a spate and muddy water, a sinking-tip line and a fast 6-weight rod can be a game changer.
Our favorite fly patterns are what most spring creek fly fishermen would already have in their boxes—Blue-winged Olive duns and spinners in sizes 18 and 20, along with an assortment of caddis adults in sizes 16 and 18 in tan, black, and dun gray. Terrestrial patterns like Black Ants and smaller Black Beetles are good choices for surface patterns. For searching flies, a black Super Beetle in size 12 has found us some really big fish.
Underneath, don’t even think of going to Ireland without a selection of Pheasant-tail Nymphs. Carry sizes 16 through 20, all with beadheads, and take some of your favorite Euro nymphs, also in 16 through 20. There are so many Euro patterns today it’s hard to keep up, but Europe is where this style of fishing first became popular, and patterns like Perdigons, Croston’s Full Metal Jacket, and Olsen’s Blowtorch all work here. British author G.E.M. Skues first began the idea of tight-line nymphing in the later part of the 19th century, and the technique has continued to be refined to where it is today. The Spanish, Polish, UK, and French teams have all had big impacts on the modern version of this type of fishing, hence the collective name “Euro” for both flies and techniques involving this style. It’s also very popular and effective in Ireland.
Over the years, we’ve had many opportunities to spend time with Ryan’s guides. From the get-go you know they take their job very seriously. Looking through their fly boxes one will see a good variety of Pheasant-tail Nymphs, mostly in smaller sizes. I wonder if Frank Sawyer, the English river keeper and originator of the Pheasant-tail Nymph, could have imagined how important his contribution would be to the world of fly fishing. Along with the Pheasant Tails, there will be Hare’s-ear Nymphs in mixed sizes, a lot of Perdigons, a smaller number of olive or black beadhead Woolly Buggers in size 6 or 8, and just a smattering of other streamer patterns, which indicates that they don’t do a lot of streamer fishing. Pheasant-tail Nymphs and all the variations on that theme reign here.
A lot of water has traveled downstream since our inaugural day of fishing with Andrew Ryan. We remember the first time we compared fly boxes. Ryan’s boxes were well stocked with all of the above flies, as were ours, but then he pointed to our Squirmy Wormies and said, “You fish with those?”
Next he touched a Mop Fly and gave us a less-than-approving look. And then, after fishing this storied water with the Squirmy well, let’s just say that the next year, you guessed it—there were Squirmy Wormies in all the guides’ fly cases. Think whatever you want, the darn things work and at times they save the day.
Most brown trout fisheries in Ireland open between February 15 and March 15, and close on September 30. The best of the mayfly hatches occur during May and June, which is why we always plan our trips in June. We’ve found good weather in June, the foliage is bright green with flowers in full bloom, and there are hatches.
June is also a great month for touring, and when visiting the Emerald Isle it would be a shame not to spend a day or more in Dublin. There’s much to see, and it’s one of the cleanest, friendliest cities in the world. One early morning we found a woman with her vacuum cleaning the sidewalk in front of a popular pub. We remarked that we had never seen someone vacuuming the sidewalk, and she told us that the Irish like to keep it tidy.
Dublin is the capital of Ireland and sits on the east coast at the mouth of the River Liffey. The city is packed with history, with not-to-be-missed sites such as the Dublin Castle and the St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And for those who like to combine fishing and golf, there are some world-famous golf opportunities. For us, it’s the sipping rises on the River Suir that keep us coming back.
Book your Destination
To get to Dublin, you can fly nonstop from most major East Coast cities like Philadelphia, New York, or Boston. For information on Cathy and Barry Beck’s annual hosted trips, contact Frontiers Travel. For general information on Andrew Ryan’s Clonanav Fly Fishing, visit flyfishingireland.com.
Cathy and Barry Beck live in Benton, Pennsylvania, where they offer fly-fishing schools and guided fishing on Fishing Creek. For more than 40 years they have traveled the world with fly rods and cameras, documenting everything from African safaris to South American golden dorados and New Zealand rainbow trout. For more information visit barryandcathybeck.com.