It seems like a lifetime ago now that Graham (our now Managing Editor) asked if I wanted to attend this gathering. He gave me the briefest of outlines because then (9 months back, was it?), there wasn’t much known even by the organisers. The idea was that this event was for journalists as a prelude to a big pike festival to take place next year in April.
The venue was to be Lough Ree, right in the middle of Ireland, a giant freshwater lake stuffed with big pike. The entire trip was to be organised and sponsored by Fáilte Ireland in collaboration with Dave Houghton of Active Irish Breaks. Dave and Graham have known each other for years and it wasn’t long before Dave was sending me more and more information.
For myself, I just fancied a crack at a larger than 20lbs pike on lures, but on Lough Ree there’s always a chance of a 30 pounder even, it’s about 4 miles wide and 7 miles long. Anyway the preparations went ahead, we’d be staying in a modest hotel (oh yeh?), the Glasson Golf and Country Hotel just outside of Glasson in Co Westmeath. Other events were to be laid on, such as a civic reception and dinner in Athlone, a dinner and Irish music night in Grogan’s Bar in Glasson, and Whiskey tasting (I bet Marsden is sorry he missed that, now) before the presentations on the final night.
Jeff Woodhouse and Andy Nellist, the Fishingmagic team Picture courtesy of Dave Houghton
My partner for the trip would be FM member Andy Nellist, handy to have a member of the BRFC just in case you catch the Irish record, who is also no stranger to catching big pike. We planned the gear we would take in my car including his 4 x12’ Harrison pike rods (personalised with “The Dog” signature) and I would take 4 medium to heavy casting rods all fitted with Abu Ambassadeurs and heavy braid. I also took a Chub Prowla Boat rod and an older Abu carp rod for deadbaiting, two boxes of lures and jerkbaits, a chiller box full of deadbaits, the echo sounder (with broken bracket), a huge 12v battery, his and my cameras, two chairs, and loads of other stuff.
The Journey Out
We set off for Holyhead at 1:00 in the morning and I drove the first stint, stopping at Keele services on the M6 for a coffee. Andy then took over the wheel and the idea was to then go cross-country to Chester and join up with the north Wales coast road. WRONG! After 3 or 4 roundabouts the road was closed. We had to take all the little back roads with little idea as to where they would bring us out, but the sat-nav did assure us we were heading in the right direction.
When we finally made it to Holyhead it was still dark and Andy grabbed a kip whilst I had a look around. The weather forecast was not good, gales force 8 – 9 and we expected the worst. Not far wrong either, for having left the safe haven of the Holyhead Breakwater, the sea heaved with enormous swells, wind howling through the rigging (you can always tell it’s a force 8 when you hear that) and the ship crashing down with an enormous shudder into the troughs between the waves.
Andy had already eaten breakfast and was again catching some kip on a bench towards the back end of the ferry, whilst I went and enjoyed (?) a horrid bacon butty and coffee at the front end. Three hours later we returned to the car and drove through the centre of Dublin (stupid sat-nav!) out to Glasson, about 80 miles. A good journey as the N6 is now complete (that fooled the sat-nav, “Turn left” in the middle of a field?) and just a toll of €2.90 to pay. We also had our first fill-up at a garage also selling turf blocks, very quaint.
When we arrived at the hotel I mentioned to Andy that the car was making a strange noise, a weird sound, rough you might say. We found out the day after that a bracket holding the back silencer box had broken and the entire pipe was hanging down and vibrating. It must have been the shocks on board the ferry when it hit the troughs between waves that did it, but the manager at the hotel gave us a wire coat hanger and that got us all the way back home even.
Andy trying to get some information off Neville Fickling who’d been out that day in his own boat on the lough.
We both managed a couple of hours kip (separate rooms, or should I say, suites) before being driven off to nearby Athlone for a Civic Reception by the Mayor and then dinner at the Prince of Wales Hotel. What an absolutely cracking feast with 4 courses and wine, mind you, neither of us had eaten since the breakfast. Then it was off to bed and up next day at 6:30, I can’t but feel that it was like boot-camp and that I’d be cream-crackered by the end of the week.
Day 1 of Fishing
As morning broke it was evident that the wind was still with us making fishing in the lough too dangerous. The rain also made things a little unpleasant too, but we’re anglers and we had our waterproof gear with us. We eventually found our way to the slipway on the outskirts of Athlone on the River Shannon, that was easy as clear directions had been issued.
(However, we weren’t given directions as to how to get back at night and it wasn’t just a matter of reversing them. One sign amused Andy on the approach to the motorway on the opposite side, it simply read “WRONG WAY – TURN BACK”.)
Some of the boats waiting to go from the slipway in Athlone
Whether a draw was held or not I don’t know, but a chap came looking for me and he introduced himself as Jimmy, our boatman. The boats were a generous size, probably 17 or 18 feet long, clinker or carvel built, and some with really powerful engines of 20 and 25 horse. Well, the plan for today was to slip down the Shannon and fish in the river, but first we had to negotiate the Athlone lock.
After another mile or so downstream, Jimmy slowed the boat down, but the method we would use was completely unexpected – trolling. This is something I’ve never done before, it’s taboo in the Thames, and did we have the right gear, would it be strong enough? Andy put a deadbait (live baits are completely banned in Ireland) on his trace and with his 30 lbs Power Pro dropped it far behind the boat.
Boats gathered in Athlone lock ready to go down the River Shannon. Picture: Dave Houghton
I’d got a new Daiwa Powermesh medium lure rod before I left so I put a fairly light lure on that to begin with. It seemed to cope well with the drag, but we asked our Jimmy to slow it right down so the baits could get to the bottom. We were doing alright, the rods were taking the pressure well and with a heavier lure on my Daiwa Whisker Jerkbait rod and Andy with heavier leads on we were hitting bottom occasionally.
We couldn’t have been fishing too long before Andy was into a fish that leapt up and tail-walked. It looked a really good size and this alone lifted our spirits, we felt that we could be in for a really good week. It wasn’t long before he netted the fish and on the scales it went to 15lbs 8ozs, but that wasn’t what we were interested in.
Length, not weight. Andy’s 15lbs 8ozs fish measuring 96 cms
The competition, such that it would be, was interested in length and so we had to measure it on boards that had been made up for us. Problem No.1, the boards only went to 40 inches and as any piker worth his salt knows, that’s a pike of 17-20lbs perhaps, and we were anticipating 25 pounders. Andy’s was duly measured and I’m sure it was 960mm (I’ve converted to metric even if no-one else has), photographed and returned.
He very quickly followed it with two more small pike and I was beginning to think I was being left out (Woody Blanker strikes again!) Some time seemed to pass before we were in this bay with giant stands of Norfolk reed either side when a very obliging pike grabbed my little split tailed frog lure. It wasn’t of any size really, but at least I’d broken my duck.
We searched nearly every bay and every reed bed down the Shannon, about 7 or 8 kilometres in all, and we were struggling to find another double. Jimmy suggested pulling into the side and having lunch, but with the river being low, we ran aground into peat. With his waders, Jimmy could push us free with a method a bit like pushing a kids scooter along. Andy tied us (there’s a joke) up to a buoy for an hour or so whilst we fished static deadbaits and ate the packed sandwich, apple, packet of crisps, and chocolate bar provided for us.
A passing cruiser caused a bit of a wave and the knot (that’s the funny part) that Andy had tied came undone and we drifted away from the buoy. That ended our static deadbaiting session for the day and after a couple of more trolling sessions, we headed back to Athlone lock to join the others. The final count on the day was Andy had the 15:8 plus four smaller pike and I just had four small ones.
I texted my friends back home that I’d caught a 20, 22, 22½, and a 25, very carefully missing off the important fact that these were inches and not the usual pounds. The message returned to me was too rude to publish here. Strange thing was, we didn’t get pictures of the smaller ones, our minds besotted by the possibility of a 30.
So, a little disappointing on the fish front, we’d got soaked a couple of times with downpours, but at the same time, it was quite an experience and we did have some sunny periods. We ate in the hotel that evening joining Neville Fickling and his mate Bob Hopwood who’d faired a little better in Neville’s boat in Lough Ree. Later we were driven into Athlone again to a pub for some genuine Irish ceol agus craic (music and fun – belting thing the Internet) and to meet the boatmen socially.
So ended day 2 and the first day of fishing.
PS: I’m so very grateful to Dave Houghton for many of the pictures I’ll use as he was in the fortunate position to take them.