The approaching evening summoned me back to the Glenelly, where a gaggle of Gaff Anglers had gathered on the bridge over the river. They had been on a recce of their favourite pools and had returned disheartened to suck their teeth and pack up their gear. Even when a salmon cannot run up the river it is usually worth fishing for sea-trout, but there was not enough water for the white trout’ either. They stood around, complaining, as though reluctant to go home. I pushed on through the darkening woods and proved the hard way the truth of their assessment.
As with most things, in salmon fishing there is no substitute for local knowledge, and they say there is no better time to get to know a river than when its bones are showing. The Mourne above Victoria Bridge is ribbed with groynes of rock, narrow bands of harder stone that have been heaved up on end and eroded into natural weirs running across the river.
The spacing between each band is perfect for a salmon pool. The frustrating thing was that it would only take a foot of water – a night of good rain – to turn this stretch into dreamy fly-water and send a pulse of grilse (year-old salmon) up from the estuary. Northern Ireland
has an annual rainfall about three times that of South-east England; in the course of a week, any week, you expect some proper rain. All it had managed the night before was a couple of hours of’ misty drizzle.
Still, Mark Gough was confident he could have a fish out, if he felt so inclined, but it was his last day as the publican of the Mourne Bar and he had better things to do than get up before dawn.
He knew where to find the fish and wouldn’t waste time, as I would, on pools that were merely pretty water-features. We spent the afternoon together: me propping up the bar, him talking about fishing. He was giving up the pub to develop his fishing business, currently a tackle shop run from a freight container next to the pub, though he has plans for a ghillie service and a website.
Fishing and politics in Ireland are more closely linked than anyone on the other side of the water could possibly imagine. At the time of the Good Friday agreement, the Foyle Fishery Commission was held up as an example of how cross-border cooperation worked. It was later reconstituted as the Loughs Agency and, like much fixing of things that are not broken, it no longer works so well, said Mark. The agency was not his only bugbear. His downstream neighbours, the Sion Mills Angling Club, issue day tickets on their water, like all the clubs on the system, but it was the sheer number they sold that exercised Mark. There is a footbridge not a hundred yards below the weir at Sion Mills and he had once seen 72 anglers on this stretch. Standing in the same spot
the only fishers I could see were a group of boys who were netting minnows by the sluice gates. They looked to be having more success than I had had so far.