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There’s something in the water at Emlagh

Outdoor Living

ROD READY Emlagh beach, near Louisburgh, offers rich rewards for winter fishing.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelly

There is something compelling about fishing these wild Atlantic beaches in the depths of winter. Facing into the west, they greet oncoming weather systems with impunity, soaking up driving rain and absorbing punishing winds, the sea often a lash of surf and the strand a whip of sand.
“It’s a hardy man who’ll fish tonight, or a foolish one,” said James, who was eyeing our location with uncertainty.
I tried encouraging words. “Just look at this, and think about it. Any fish that’d be swimming close to shore has to come round this rocky headland, and once it does it’ll find itself in quieter water. With the tide coming in there should be an eddy here, where anything edible likely gets swept. It’s my bet there’ll be plenty of fish. What would you expect?”
“To be home before dark,” came the sardonic reply. I knew better than to take him seriously. When it comes to fishing, there are few more determined than James, and it is only as the sun goes down that any worthwhile fish move within casting distance of the shore. He’d stick it longer than I would.
“There should be coalfish,” he said in a more serious tone. “And pollock. Didn’t I ask for cod and chips and what did I get? Pollock. A few years ago, when cod were scarce as hen’s teeth, that’d nearly be excusable. There’s more cod around again now, not that they’re common, but there’s enough for a feed. Anyway, wouldn’t they know a man like myself would be able to tell the difference?”
He’s right. There is a big difference between the thick, succulent, boldly white flakes of cod and the thin and often pale flesh of its close relative, the pollock. There’s a big difference in price, too. There was a time pollock was fit only for the cat. Passing it off as cod might fool the tourists...
He poked a thick finger at the map. Worn and soiled, it had shown us many a mark on the west Mayo coast. Emlagh was one we had yet to try, although it has a good reputation and looks like an ideal spot. Another man told me about shoals of small whiting here, and where there are small whiting there will be that most sought after of all winter fishes – yes, cod, come to feed on them.
“I was reading about Emlagh. There could be turbot, and maybe a nice sea bass, as well as an early codling or two.”
We had chosen our evening well. With the tide peaking some two hours after dusk we should have a profitable three or four hours and be back and ready for a pint. Twenty minutes of digging had supplied us with an abundance of lugworms for bait, and we were set up in plenty of time. An insulating blanket of low cloud kept the cold at bay and as the tide built the wind dropped away, giving us almost perfect conditions.
As always seems to be the case, the few exploratory casts we made in daylight were unproductive, apart from that army of small whiting that were stripping our worm baits from the hook. These pin whiting, as they are called, are a plague. No more than finger-sized, they are nonetheless endowed with needle-like teeth. An overabundance of them indicates a shortage of larger, predatory fish.
High tide came and went, and as we followed the retreating waves back down the beach it was apparent that the small fish had disappeared. Had they gone with the tide? Or had the predators arrived?
As if in answer, my rod nearly leapt from my hands as something large and powerful took the bait out there in the darkness. Almost immediately James hooked up as well, and as he did whatever had swallowed my hook spat it out again and the line fell slack. James wound in hard, his rod doubled over. Nothing moved. Was it the bottom? A large clump of weed? He managed to gain line and then lose it as his fish stripped 20 metres from the reel with a determined run and leaped clear of the water.
That was no cod. What could it be? We were not to find out, for as the fish went back into the waves the line parted. And that was our sport for the evening.
But now we know that something large is visiting Emlagh after dark. We’ll be back. Friday, at dusk.