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Westport’s wisp of a fish

Outdoor Living

IASC BEG ÓN CARROWBEG The diminutive gudgeon, or brannóg, is usually less than just 12cm long.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

I found James peering over the stone parapet of the bridge behind Westport library. I joined him and together we stared at the ebbing flood, at lines of bubbles, at the slack water to the side of the current.
“Watch now,” he said, and pulled a fragment from his sandwich, rolled it into a bead and dropped it into the water, where it disappeared in an instant.
“Trout,” I noted. “The Carrowbeg has plenty of them. But tell me, what does that name mean?”
James ran a forefinger the length of his jaw in that familiar manner, so that I knew not to believe what followed. “Carrowbeg,” he said. He spoke the word softly, as if tasting each syllable. “Carrow-beg. Beg means small, but you know that much. Caradh, now that’s weir, and there are many weirs along here. I’d say that’s what it is, the Little River of the Weirs, or something like it. They were built  to hurry the water along, to swiften the stream and make deep holes where the salmon could lie. There would have been salmon back when the house was built.
“There was some discussion, when the country was still a new one, about fishing rights off the river mouth of the river. The problem seemed to be that people couldn’t agree just where the river met the sea. In 1919 the Department of Agriculture passed a law that prohibited netsmen from fishing from that point to a distance a mile and a quarter seaward. They’d not have bothered had there been no salmon, or even very few. It’s all academic now. I bet there hasn’t been a salmon leapt these weirs in half a century.”
“I wouldn’t be sure of that,” I said. “In fact, I heard last year that three had been spotted holding station upstream of that bridge behind us. The following day they had moved on. It could be they survived to spawn. I imagine the man that found them to be a reliable type.” I added this last to reassure myself, although I knew well that the perennially bored exterior of that individual conceals a keen eye and rapier wit that would have a salmon on a slab in an instant. When he said the fish were ‘gone’, the statement was immediately ambiguous and levelled in such a way as to defy questioning.
“Watch this,” said James, as he tore another piece of bread and dropped it down, one small white pearl after another, to the hungry mouths below. Each one vanished before it had travelled a foot.
“Brown trout. The river’s full of them. They used to all be wild, but now they stock the river with farmed fish in summer, to give the kids something to do. Some of them get down to the lake and at this time of year they’re all back up to spawn. There’s something else here, too, that nobody bothers with…. ”
I had to ask. “Go on then, tell me. What is it?’
He gave me a guarded look and spoke low. “There’s fish in this river that are nowhere else in Mayo. I’ve heard say they were brought in by the Brownes, in the early days, for the ladies to catch when they had dinner parties. They’re only small,” he held up a illustrative finger, “but they’re special, all silver and bronze and slim like a minnow, except they live on the bottom. If you can guess then we’ll get some.”
I knew immediately. “Gudgeon. I caught them here before.”
“Gudgeon! We should give them their proper name – Brannóg, out of respect for the people of Cathair na Mart who were hungry even while little Brannóg was frying crisp in butter. Come on, I’ve the rod in the car and I know where they are.”
When we got to the spot, James baited a tiny hook with a fragment of bread and dropped it into the edge of the current, where it swirled slowly into an eddy. Almost immediately tiny shadows surrounded it and stripped the bait. This time James pinched his morsel more firmly to the shank and when it disappeared he pulled gudgeon number one from its element. It was tiny, a mere wisp of a fish. It looked at us from round eyes, its mouth open wide as if in astonishment.
“Do you want to keep it?” he asked.
“You’d need a few of them for a dinner. No, let the poor thing go. There’s new laws now. Four fish a day, that’s the limit for coarse fish, and four of them wouldn’t make a mouthful. Anyway, there’s a man over there who probably thinks you’re fishing for trout, and them out of season.”  
We retired for coffee, over which we debated by which means the pretty gudgeon had arrived in Westport. The nearest place I know them to occur is beyond Castlerea; it could be they are more widespread than we know.
One of Ireland’s earliest naturalists was Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, who in the 12th century listed the gudgeon, which was already a highly prized delicacy, among the ‘magnificent freshwater fish’ absent from Irish waters. Perhaps the Norman lords made sure their petite goujon travelled with them. Perfect sense.