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Lough Conn trout fishing
Irish Lough Conn is a huge lake full of wild trout and a very decent number of salmon. Fishing in it is free, and can be fantastic. And the Kelly Kettle was born on its banks.
I'm sitting at my desk after the first day's work after having fished in Lough Conn in western Ireland for five days the past week.
It's kind of a downer.
It's been a pleasant, warm and sunny summers day here in the harbor of Copenhagen, canals cutting in between the houses and the oystercatchers screaming charmingly over the water. In comparison, the days on the Conn were spent in a small boat on the water of the oftentimes rough lake in rain and wind.
It might seem an easy task to choose between the two.
It is, but the obvious choice might not be what you think.
I'd go back to the rain and wind in a heartbeat!
Lough Conn fishing
We were four guys fishing for five days. The fishing takes place from boats, and you have a local ghillie to help you. The ghillie is a knowledgeable guide who will sail the boat in the treacherous and rocky lake with many shallow parts, lots of small bays and inlets. Due to its shear size of 57 square kilometers or some 22 square miles it is not easy to know where to go, and experience and local knowledge is a good thing to have in the boat.
I'd go back to the rain and wind in a heartbeat!
The fishing is done drifting. You use the wind to press the boat sideways along the good parts of the lake, often over shallower parts and parts with structure and "corners" - protruding rocky points and small peninsulas, which are found many places in the lake. These seem too attract fish.
The preferable weather is rather windy and with drifting clouds releasing some water now and then. Rain stimulates the activity and forces the hatching insects to stay longer on the surface. The wind will raise "a good wave" as the locals say, and even though you may not think that 2 foot high waves and rain is ideal for dry fly fishing, this is actually by far the best conditions for Lough Conn.
While much traditional lake fishing is done with wet flies and even sinking lines, the preferred method here - both by us, the ghillies and the fish - is dry flies. There's a proficient hatch of mayflies on the lake and we saw mayflies on the water every day even though we didn't experience any massive hatches. This was in early June and the most numerous hatches take place a little earlier in the season. You will also find sedges (caddis) and terrestrials, daddy long legs in particular, are also important on the windy lake.
Hatches or not - our dry flies worked very well, and way better than the wets we fished a couple of times. So we staid with the dries, which is also much more fun and exciting.
You drift along and the ghillie will steer the boat along a good fishing ground using one or two ores. You cast downwind with fairly short casts and a team of two or three flies on your leader. Keeping a keen eye on the flies you strip in line to keep contact, and when a fish takes - either with a splash as the smallest tend to do or with a slow and deliberate head and tail as it's often the case with larger fish - you have to react quickly and set the hook or the fish will be gone. These fish don't tend to hook themselves, and sleeping at the wheel will have you miss a lot of takes.
Spot that fly
Seeing the size 16 and 18 flies on the lake when they are 10 meters or some 30 feet from the boat is a challenge. Seeing dries on a choppy surface is not easy. Seeing the dries between the splashes of raindrops is a even more difficult.
But you learn.
They are actually surprisingly clear once you get what to look for - either small dark spots on the light surface when the light is against you or brightly visible wings when the light is in your back. You can follow the direction of your line and soon get a sense of the approximate position of the flies. If you don't see them you simply react to any splash or activity where you suppose they are. You'd rather strike on nothing than not strike when a good fish takes.
The traditional gear for lake fishing from a boat is a long and light rod. 10 and 11' rods for a 5 to 6 line is seen as the default choice. The long rods allow you to lift a long leader off the water and lift your flies over the boat. For a right hand caster sitting to the left in the boat, this can be an advantage. Personally I prefer a shorter rod like a 9' and simply cast over my left shoulder when I'm in the left side of the boat. You always have the wind in your back helping the cast, and a 10 meter or 30' cast is more than sufficient to cover new water and get a nice, long drift of your flies.
The line and leader setup is simple. We used a sturdy 9' tapered leader on a floating line and extended it with about a rod length of 8-10 lbs. test nylon. This is again extended with about a meter or 3' of the same nylon using a surgeon's knot with an upwards pointing tag for the dropper. You tie one fly to the point and one fly to the tag and get two flies fishing with about a meter or three feet between them.
Fishing two or three flies on a two rod length leader can be a challenge, and tangles are almost inevitable especially when it's windy, but most are easy to untangle, and the ghillies are always willing to help. In the bad case you cut off the flies and retie when the tangle is fixed. In the worst cases you simply tie on a new tippet and create a new tag.
We relied heavily on Gary Piggott in the Ridge Pool Tackle Shop in Ballina for sound advice and great flies. We bought his flies (money back guarantee! as Gary often says) and followed his advice and had great success with both. The shop is well worth a visit, located right on the Ridge Pool on the Moy where anglers are fishing for salmon in the middle of Ballina city, which is a very nice little city to visit with lots of shops and pubs.
You do not go to Lough Conn to catch trophy size brown trout in the 20 or 30 inch class. A good fish here is about 15 inches and weighs about a kilo or a couple of lbs. Bigger fish can be found, but are rare.
But these fish are beauties beyond your wildest imagination and they are totally wild. The lake has never been stocked and the fish have never been "helped" in spite of forces trying to instigate such measures when fishing has been bad. In its current state the lake is brimming with fish and even though they aren't big, each catch is a prize. The fishing is free - no licenses are required - and you can keep fish for the pan if you want to. We did so a couple of times, and the fish are very tasty, I can tell you.
The river Moy is connected to the lake, and salmon entering the Moy to spawn can pass through Lough Conn, so they can be caught during trout fishing or - if you want - targeted specifically. Some anglers troll spoons after the boats for salmon, and during our stay a few had been taken on spin. We also trolled for salmon during the slowest and calmest hours, but to no avail.
My boat buddy Jens on the other hand, had a salmon go for his dry fly and actually had it hooked for a few seconds before the fish let go of the fly.
We fished with three different ghillies during our trip: Michael Egan, Paddy Kelly and Martin Cawley, all very skilled and service minded and able to put us into fish every day.
You meet the ghillie by the lake where a boat and engine is ready for you. There are several places on the large lake where boats are launched and landed. You bring your own gear and necessities - waders are a good idea as is a waterproof jacket. Also pack a lunch and drinks, but expect to be offered tea and coffee made from the clear and clean lake water and boiled on the traditional Kelly Kettle.
The ghillies are worth listening to since they have literally decades of experience with this fishing, but don't be afraid of breaking with traditions if nothing happens. You are paying after all, and you have the final word.
The boat and ghillie is 120 Euros per day or about 160 US dollars, and splitting that between two anglers makes the guided Lough Conn fishing some of the least expensive you can buy.
Ireland as a destination
Ireland is a perfect destination for the angler, offering lots of good and very accessible fly-fishing for trout, salmon and pike. Should you want to fish the salt, the fly is probably not the best choice, even though some places offer some options.
The Irish are very friendly, and even though you'll see lots of strange road signs in southern Ireland, everyone speaks English and the Irish are both friendly and helpful.
Accommodation is typically bed&breakfast places, which are found everywhere and cost about 30 Euros or about 40 USD, and gives you a room with comfortable bed, oftentimes in a private home, clean sheets, access to a shower and with breakfast included.
Car rental is fair, shop and restaurant prices are reasonable and altogether Ireland is an inexpensive country to travel in. Flying in from Europe is very inexpensive thanks to the many discount companies competing for the market, and even the upscale companies offer very reasonable air fares thanks to the same competition.
The only major downturn for people coming from other places than the UK, Japan and New Zealand is that you drive on the left hand side of the road. It takes a bit of getting used to, but if you take it calmly and concentrate you learn it within a few corners turned.
If you want to do more touristy things or bring a non-fishing spouse, there's a lot to see and do. My wife went horseback riding while I was fishing and drove around looking at the landscapes and the seaside where some of western Ireland's cliffs are very impressing and well worth a visit.
Ireland uses Euros as a currency and the metric system as official measures, but you can cross into Northern Ireland where UK £ and miles suddenly take over.
A pint is a pint both places, and cozy pubs can be found everywhere, and you should definitely treat yourself to a Guinness or a cider.
The Kelly Kettle
When you break your fishing for lunch on Lough Conn, the Ghillie will sail the boat in to one of the many small islands, some having harbors, others having suitable landing spaces.
The first thing that's done is that the Kelly Kettle is filled with water and started.
It's a simple but pretty genius construction where a fire of small, dry twigs is lit below the kettle. A bit of grass or thing twigs starts it and then you add larger, but still very small twigs. Once the kettle is placed on the fire, the heat is conveyed through a hole up through the center of the kettle, allowing for a very effective conduction of heat and a really quick boil. Underway you can add further twigs to the fire by adding them through the hole in the top.
The water typically boils in under 5 minutes, and you can get the kettle in several different sizes, ranging from the very small 0.5 liter or about two cups to the large 1.6 liters, which will yield almost 7 cups.
The kettles are available in both aluminum and stainless steel. Same basic construction, but a difference in weight. You can buy additional accessories like cook sets that contain a pot and a pan, and genuine Kelly mugs.
The kettle is a local construction, originally made by Patrick Kelly, grandfather of the ghillie Paddy Kelly who we fished with and great grandfather of the current directors of the company - Patrick and Seamus. Its history dates back to the late 1800's and the basic construction hasn't changed much since then, but it wasn't before the 1970's that the kettle was set in real production and became available in several sizes.
The Kelly Kettle is a perfect companion for the outdoors person, requiring very little extra gear and no fuel other than what you can find in nature. The smallest ones are compact enough to pack in a backpack, the largest ones suitable for car, boat and raft use and bigger parties of anglers.
Lough Conn on the map
The lake is large and very visible on a map. The cities of Ballina and Foxford are both conveniently located nearby the lake, which is essentually two lakes connected by a canal - Lough Conn to the north and Lough Cullin to the south. More on the Lough Conn on WikiPedia.