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Maamtrasna’s magical trout lakes

Outdoor Living

QUIETER DAYS The Owenbrin, which carries spillover water from Nadirkmore and Dirkbeg into Lough Mask. Pic: Dixon

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

A night of heavy rain filled the rocky basins of Nadirkmore and Dirkbeg lakes and sent an overflow spilling into the Owenbrin to transform that merry stream into a maelstrom that roared down the long hill and into Lough Mask.
At its height the flood was yellow-brown and turgid, swirling thick over the bare boulders that form its course. We heard it roaring from a distance and, as we drew close, felt the very ground thrum beneath our feet.
Even the hills poured with water. Miniature streams could be seen all along the rocky peaks, as fine white threads peeking through a torn blanket of cloud. Before they descended many feet, these same streams began to join forces as they found their way into gullies and chasms formed by centuries of similar weather events.
All of this water would reach the river, every bit of it would find its way to the lake, and in the lake the trout would be stirring in response to the flood, their instincts excited by the influx of fresh water calling them back to the place they were born.
Thousands of fish will run this river within the next month or two, offering opportunities to predators such as otters and fish-eating birds, and luring the poaching man with the prospect of a heavy haul of trout. Most of the Owenbrin drops back quickly when the rain stops, leaving only a few deeper pools along miles of stony shallows; it is in these deeper pockets that the trout will congregate, sometimes in dense shoals, while they await the final push to their spawning grounds.
Some will reach the corrie lakes mentioned above, and perhaps the rather diminutive Lough Nambrackeagh, a peat-stained water that, judging by the abundant growth of weed, must be fed by mineral-rich springs rather than by rainfall alone. The trout of Nambrackeagh are dark, almost black, with pale-ringed, dark spots along their flanks and just the occasional crimson fleck to make them uncommonly beautiful. They are different enough from those found in the adjacent lakes to convince me they are a race of their own.
I had with me two fly fishermen from abroad, who had come to explore. They were lost amid the splendour of these Maamtrasna hills and so absorbed by the situation they were almost afraid to fish. And where is there more lovely, more wild, more rugged? Where could be further removed from industrial Bavaria, where my guests had begun their journey?
When they did begin to cast they found the trout ready for engagement. A small, dark dry fly allowed to rest motionless on the water brought an immediate response as fish after fish rose sharply to take what it thought to be an easy meal. It was one thing getting the trout to move, yet quite another bringing them to the bank. For half an hour not one of dozens that came to the fly was hooked, and the air carried a succession of guttural, Germanic grunts, the meaning of which was beyond me.
I told them as best I could. “A sharp strike—quick, lift the rod as soon as you see the water move,” and then seized the rod of one in frustration. I cast, just a short distance, and lifted the line to send the fly further, only to find a half-pound torpedo shaped trout firmly attached to the end. It was pure fluke, of course, but I wasn’t going to tell my friends that. They stared in amazement and wondered at the sleek, streamlined creature I had conjured from the water before I set it free.
That had them going, and I was happy to see them soon follow suit with fish of their own. None were large. None of the trout in Nambrackeagh are, unless there are cannibalistic monsters hidden in those mysterious, reed-rimmed corners.
After an hour we crossed the bog to find Nadirkmore, circumnavigating soft sphagnum bog of untold depth and trudging over rough, tussocky ground until this second lake appeared before us. If there is a finer setting than here, I don’t know where it might be. With the precipitous slope of Binnaw behind us and the crest of Buckaun before, with that wild sheet of water spread at our feet, with neither sight nor sound of any other human, and not a whisper but that of the wind rushing around the natural amphitheatre formed by the cliffs, Nadirkmore is a magical gem.
We should sell this glimpse of wild Ireland, one day at a time, together with the trout that flood from Mask to keep this secret corner alive. There’s gold in those hills.