Some may see the title and start rejoicing; that would be premature. Whilst I have talked at length in my last couple of pieces about poor fish surveying methods, predator (mis)management, economic implications and sinister phone calls, this piece will be a temporary departure from those issues. They will be revisited because the deeper I dig and the more people I talk to the murkier the waters become but for the time being I would like to talk about other things and I will return to the aforementioned issues when the time is right.
This time of year is a difficult time for me. As I write I find myself in the middle of ‘exam season’, just as waters are warming up, mayfly are starting to hatch and things, for a lot of species, seem to be kicking off. A couple of weeks back I sat two exams, limnology and oceanography as well as analytic techniques. Neither were fun; exams generally are not. Towards the end of that week a window of opportunity presented itself. As a busy student that possibly juggles too many other projects when you get a chance to get out onto the water, even for a couple of hours, you grab it with both hands.
I have had a dismal winter/spring fishing campaign, really horrendous stuff where fish have been very, very few and far between. I fancied a go at some pike and did not relish the possibilities of either catching net-marked fish or wasting my time altogether so I decided to give the Corrib a miss. Over the winter I had been asked to try out a couple of angling kayaks by Wilderness Systems and the paddling trips took me to a couple of waters that I thought at the time would be well worth revisiting at a later date. This particular system is a labyrinth of drainage channels that open up into small but very deep fishing holes. Most of them are roughly the size of a football pitch but drop down to over twelve metres/forty feet in depth. More than enough room and water to hold a couple of fish.
I took with me the standard kayak fishing kit; a couple of lure rods and a handful of lures. Spring growth had utterly transformed the cold, bare landscape that I had experienced in the winter and trees were coming into leaf with shrubs starting to burst with colour. Underwater growth was blossoming and around the edges of the ponds and all through the drainage channels reeds were starting to thicken out, water cabbages were starting to carpet the bottom and broad, green lily pads were starting their upward migration from the substrate. Tree limbs were starting to stretch out across the interconnecting channels, blocking access to what lay deep within the system. This trip was very much to be an exploratory trip with the hopes of returning and laying siege to this series of venues which have a distinctly ‘tenchy’ look to them. Their location, some way off the beaten track, made the venue all the more enticing.
I put in onto the first pond and started paddling towards one of the channels that I wanted to travel along with the hope of exploring the whole system, throwing lures as I went with the hopes of connecting with some good pike. If there are reasonably sized predators here then I reasoned that there must be a reasonable stock of fodder fish to support them. If I could find a couple of decent sized predators then it would be a very good indication that the area would be well worth revisiting for other species later in the summer. As the first pond narrowed into the small drainage channel the echo sounder told me that I had rapidly moved over water of five metres in depth to a level where I could see the bottom at about one and a half metres. Silhouetted against the lime green water cabbages were an abundance of fry and more than a couple of small ‘pikelets’, very encouraging indeed.
I pressed on, the small conduit becoming a maze of overgrown branches that were impeding progress. Eventually I came to a point where I could proceed no more. Out came a handsaw and I cleared back a couple of branches, only cutting what was necessary to let me through and making sure to cut as close to the trunk as possible to allow the tree to heal in as short a time as possible and reducing the risk of infection.
At the third pond I started casting my lure, a perch patterned soft plastic, as I had done in the previous two openings. Working it close to a reed bed on the first retrieve it was snatched briefly and dropped before the fish had a second attempt and found itself well and truly hooked. The fish was a small jack, about 3lb in weight but I will never know for certain as it shook the hook as I reached over the side of the kayak to bring him aboard. At least I knew there were fish here and I continued on. I travelled along another short, overgrown canal and emerged into a larger pond. Another couple of casts later and I was into another fish. No mistake this time, the small pike was landed, unhooked and returned and with a swish of its tail it disappeared back into the depths.
After a long, barren run of form it is a momentous occasion to hook and land any fish. The angler hopes it is a catalyst for change and it brings to an end a trend that none of us like to endure. Buoyed by this small victory I fished on. But another trend has been observed here; despite the waters looking very clean and healthy, despite there being ample aquatic vegetative growth present, despite the fact that there is an abundance of fry in the shallows, there seems to be a distinct lack of anything else. Not only on that afternoon but on subsequent days too I have failed to locate any good fish of this series of small interconnected waters. Any fish that we have encountered have been small. No pike has exceeded 5lb and certainly not come anywhere near to double figures. Any shoals of fish spotted on the echo sounder (which uses quite powerful Down Scan Imaging by Lowrance) are made up of decidedly small fish, most likely roach and perch. There certainly appears to be no bream or tench present, despite a couple of sources suggesting that there are. I have found no evidence of this whatsoever.
I am not going to say that I possess superior angling skills and that if there are good sized fish in a water it would be a foregone conclusion that I would catch them. In just the previous paragraph I mentioned that I had been subjected to a horrendous run of fishing luck for the last couple of months. But having said that I have spent enough time on the water using watercraft and technology and consulting with others to know that there are no sizable fish in what seems a tranquil fish utopia crammed with all other forms of life. So where could they be?
I read with interest the piece penned by Leo Farrell and it has to be said that a lot of the symptoms of troubled waters are evident on the series of small waters that I thought I had to myself. I had seen rubbish and patches of scorched earth on the first pond, the gateway to the complex of small ponds. I thought little of this, dismissing them as being the calling card of those that had fished the first lake but not delved any further. On closer inspection the same debris was found on one of the larger openings some way into the system. These were accompanied by the forked branch rod rests. So an image was becoming clearer, I certainly had not been the sole angler on these waters in the past few months.
On another excursion to a different water, one that was famed in the area for regularly producing large bags of specimen bream, I met a couple of locals who were coarse fishing. There is no knowledge as good as local knowledge and a short chat with these men painted a very bleak picture indeed. They proceeded to tell me that the fishing in the area had taken a nosedive. The once famous shoals of specimen bream are gone, as are the tench and any sizeable pike and perch. “You’ll catch small roach but that’s about it”, they told me. They went on to inform me that this particular lake as well as the series of waters I had been fishing in have been subjected to a core of unscrupulous anglers that have little regard for law or land and they got in and over the prior few years have removed all fish of any reasonable size with the aid of nets. Their account was a little more ‘colourful’ than my summarisation.
Driving home, somewhat deflated, I reflected on what the locals had told me and what I know about the waters I had been fishing on. Small waters are very easy to empty with a methodical netting strategy. This would go a long way to explaining the seemingly perfect parameters for abundant fish growth that are host to a distinct lack of fish. There were no tell-tale marks of a netting campaign on any of the shorelines but these water’s shorelines are inaccessible by foot. It stands to reason though that a small punt or dinghy could easily exploit them. There were fry in the shallows and these are undoubtedly roach, small roach having escaped the nets and subsequently spawned. Roach reach maturity quickly and can reproduce while still very small. The lack of sizable pike point to the same scenario. Granted, the presence of small fish and fry indicate that the waters are somewhat undergoing a recovery as Nature is very capable of but how long will it take before such a system is back to its prime, assuming it is not plundered again in the meantime?
There is no doubt that there are groups that care not for the law and the land travelling the country and doing serious damage to small wild fisheries. The problem is not a new phenomenon. I would wager that every county in the country can tell a similar story. What is the solution? I have not got the answer but it is a depressing thought that even those out of reach waters are not far enough out of reach that they cannot and do not receive unwanted attention. Quality coarse and pike fishing is being slowly eroded away in Ireland one way or another and it is to the detriment of the nation as a whole.
Also mentioned by Leo Farrell last month was spearfishing and his uncertainties to the legality of such an activity in Ireland. Spearfishing is very much allowed in this country but only in the marine environment. SPEARFISHING IN FRESHWATER IS TOTALLY ILLEGAL and I would encourage anybody that witnesses such practices to report the incidents immediately in the interests of the environment and public safety.
If anybody has any comments or queries, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org