LEVIATHAN OF THE LAKES ‘Salmo ferox’ (Ferox trout), an 1879 illustration by Alexander Francis Lydon, a Dublin-born natural-history artist who was based in Yorkshire.
Country Sights and Sounds
In summer visitors from all over the world have the island village of Cong bursting at the seams. In winter it holds a quiet charm, and when the wind blows from the north to leave a steely ripple on the water we have the place to ourselves.
While not much appears to be happening on the streets, the underwater world is full of action. Salmon are still spawning, and while these are certainly interesting, it is the big brown trout alongside them that hold me enthralled. In one quiet backwater four lay in the shallows. Utterly spent after their exertions on the gravels, they gave me no regard. The largest of them was about eight pounds, the smallest five or so.
A short distance upstream, half a dozen salmon chased each other back and across the stream before pausing to line up over the same gravel where the trout have already laid their eggs. It is easy to tell the difference in that cold, clear water; even the largest salmon have a slight V-shape to the back of the tail, whereas the back end of each of those trout was square, notwithstanding the rather tattered edges the females had acquired in the act of spawning.
I met a man, an angler. Last summer he had brought one of these trout to the bank; it weighed 17 pounds. I do not disbelieve him, for in another nearby location I found three more brown trout, each of which must have been between 12 and 15 pounds in weight. He showed me fish that I failed to find on my own, including some very big ones.
These are Ferox trout, thought to be a subspecies of our ubiquitous brown trout (Salmo trutta).
But are they? While some authorities make this claim, others are unsure. After all, are any other of our freshwater fishes as widely variable as the humble trout?
On small, acidic streams they are invariably dark, while their cousins found in certain mountain loughs are almost black, with very few additional markings. On the other hand, some Lough Mask trout are copper-backed with bold red spots along their sides. And as for those found in nearby Carra, why, these must be the prettiest of all, being silver-sided, pebble-dashed torpedoes of fish.
Wherever they are found, trout are able to change their colouring to match the ground over which they live. Thus a fish transported from one water to another will adapt and change its appearance in just a few days.
But that beautiful, bronze Ferox! There is more to him than looks alone can tell. As a newborn he dined on tiny forms of life. In adolescence he ate flies, freshwater shrimps and other invertebrates.
Then came a change. At two or three years of age he discovered that other, lesser fishes made a much easier and far more satisfying dinner. No more picking at morsels for him! His nature was changed. He became an apex predator, Ireland’s own Leviathan, and his rapidly accelerated intake of high-protein flesh caused him to grow large and heavy.
There is no doubt the explosion of coarse fish in many lakes is behind the quantity and quality of the current stock of Ferox, particularly in Lough Corrib, which is where those fish currently in the Cong River spend the greater part of their lives.
It was back in 2008 that some €50,000 was sunk in a feasibility study to assess the potential for developing a Salmon Life Visitor Centre for the town of Ballina, the so-called Salmon Capital of Ireland.
In 2014 an alternative, or perhaps additional project was mooted for Cong, which has an abundance of both salmon and these superb Ferox trout, and also has a level of existing infrastructure not present in Ballina. Neither project has materialised.
We should have no doubt as to the value of a salmon/Ferox-based visitor centre to local tourism, as well as to education. At present, the number observing Ferox in the Cong River are few. If potential anglers could see for themselves what monsters they might be fishing over, the tourist angling industry might be revitalised. If more people share the stirring experience of watching these great trout in the act of spawning, the push for improved water quality would gain needed impetus.
The prospect of a record Irish brown trout coming from Corrib in the near future is very real. In 2012 a specimen of 23lb 12 oz was taken by a visiting angler. The Irish record is held by an 1884 fish of 26lb 2oz. Are there fish that size in the river? Who knows?
Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.