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NATURE Fish stocks and bygone baits

Outdoor Living
Angling for more fish and greater sport


John Shelley

A brief lull in the wind last week allowed me to hear the evening birdsong for the first time in many days. What weather! ‘A wet and windy May fills the barns full of hay’ says B, who has left off shooting for the summer and is concentrating his efforts on the capture of trout and salmon.
He showed me his collection of flies. There were many as might be found in any modern fly fisher’s arsenal, but also a good number that I failed to identify. ‘Size 15s,’ he said, ‘from Scotland. Wee doubles, for salmon in low water. Old ones, but if they worked back then they’ll work as well now too.’
‘We shall see,’ I ventured, ‘if such a thing as low water should ever befall us.’ It seems a distinct improbability.
But those little flies got me thinking. There are a good many fishing baits that have fallen out of use in modern times. What about eel tail? Properly mounted and spun through the lies, the eel tail, preserved and made leathery by a variety of means, has possibly killed more salmon than almost anything else.
And how often do we find an angler using that old-time favourite, the Devon Minnow? Thirty or forty years ago the Devon was carried by all anglers in a wide variety of weights. Small wooden-bodied ones to plough through the surface in high summer. Four- and five-inch weighted wood or steel torpedo-type, yellow-bellied Devons with brightly painted eyes for big fish in late autumn floods. Fishing them was a science.
Now we have ‘chuck and chance’ lures like the Flying C and the Tasmanian Devil. ‘Throw it out and wind it back and when you can’t you’ve got one. That’s all there is to it’ says B. with a measure of disdain.
He’s right, too. Most anglers give little thought to what it is they are trying to do. Moreover, our modern fishermen and women start the day late, after breakfast, and in doing so miss that first hour of daylight when fish are on the move. And they finish early, while those same fish are still comatose in the deeper parts of the pools. Some fisheries even stipulate there may be no angling before eight in the morning or after nine in the evening, and so deprive their customers of the best opportunities of finding reward.
In Italy we found that siesta fell easily into the day. It felt perfectly natural to stop whatever one was doing and sleep. It wasn’t the heat of the day so much as an inbuilt mechanism that all seemed to have. It was easy to be up early and to stay up late, and it made it okay to drink wine at lunchtime, for this served to deepen appreciation for an hour or so of a nap. In the UK people are so harassed they hardly dare blink, let alone snooze. Here in Mayo we simply can’t be bothered.
How did we ever fall out of the habit? We must change.
For now, we have more than enough fishing to keep us busy. There are extraordinary runs of salmon coming into some rivers, with numbers of spring fish not seen for many years, even decades. This is due largely to the abandonment of the drift net fisheries, although other factors, such as increased protection and, in some cases, improved water quality have also made a positive contribution.
There have even been reports of salmon spotted on some of the small west coast streams that normally only get their first fish from the middle to the end of June. It would be fine to report that the ‘conservation limit’ (an adequate number of adult salmon returning to spawn in order to maintain stocks) of these rivers was being met once more. Then they could properly be fished.
There are many other even smaller watercourses that have lost their runs of fish altogether. But would it not be an easy matter to stock these with numbers of juvenile salmon smolts, which would return to the place they were released after feeding up in the ocean for a year or two. All it would take is a little imagination and the go-ahead from Inland Fisheries Ireland. There are plenty of people willing to invest time, effort and even a little money into such a project.
B would be there. So would I. Recession brings opportunity. We could build one of the best fisheries in the world and perhaps revive tradition in the process.