Young people hooked by a healthy new hobby that can last a lifetime

Hollie McCabe at Darndale Park: : “I love helping little kids learn how to fish because I got taught when I was younger by the [Inland] Fisheries. That’s why I volunteer to help.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
This summer, The Irish Times will offer tips, advice and information for parents on how to help their children thrive during the holiday months. Read all about it at  irishtimes.com/summeroffamily

“I caught a fish – can I name it Rob?” shouts a 12-year-old girl with delight, which is then tinged with disgust as she is helped to reel it in.

“I don’t want to hold it,” she squeals, darting away. It takes a braver female companion to do the honours of releasing it back into the water, after their instructor, Hollie McCabe, has freed the small rudd from the barbless hook.

But fair play, it’s the first catch of the afternoon and it’s the girl’s first attempt at fishing too. She’s one of a group of eight youngsters from Sphere 17 youth service participating in a Dublin Angling Initiative (DAI) “taster” session.

“It’s relatively quick to learn the basics of casting,” says DAI coordinator Rory Keatinge, “but it takes a lifetime to get good at it”.

After a short briefing, the youngsters are invited to take up one of the wobbler rods and attach wriggling maggots as bait – or the squeamish can opt for sweetcorn kernels – before trying their hand at the waterside.

This small lake – where a dragon fly skims the surface, a heron stands on a rock surveying what lies beneath and a moorhen leads its young around the side of a large clump of trees growing in the centre – is in Darndale Park. Three stranded footballs and the odd bit of rubbish are more indicative of the gritty, urban setting.

“There’s so much madness around this park and it’s actually really quiet today,” says youth worker Sue Hanlon, who is accompanying the group.

Sue Hanlon.
Sue Hanlon.

Sphere 17, which caters for young people aged 10-24 in the Dublin 17 and Kilbarrack area of north Dublin, has been involved for many years with this DAI project.

Part of an outreach programme run by Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI), the DAI offers children and young people an opportunity to take fishing lessons and participate in trips. These afternoon sessions in Darndale help to gauge interest for the next stage – bussed outings to prime fishing spots in adjoining counties.

“It’s about showing them the five different types of fishing,” says Keatinge, listing these off as trout, salmon, coarse, sea and pike. Fishing is a vast subject, he stresses, and if he can get children interested in one particular bit, that’s a result for him. He passionately believes in the benefits of this outdoor pastime for mental as well as physical health.

Mindfulness may seem to be a relatively new and increasingly popular practice for good mental health but “fishermen have been doing it forever”, he points out. “It shuts out all the white noise” – of work, family, friends and screen technology.

His assistant here today is a previous participant  in the programme and has been well and truly hooked by the hobby. Hollie McCabe (20) lives just across from Darndale Park and now volunteers with the DAI.

“She shows all the fellas how to fish,” says Keatinge. “She’s queen of the lake.”

Hollie McCabe.
Hollie McCabe.

Hanlon explains how the youth groups are generally fairly chaotic but this is an activity where members can chill and embrace the quiet, helping them to stay out of trouble. They’re learning a process and it’s a proud moment when they catch a fish.

Role model

She’s clearly proud too of what McCabe has achieved.

“She has had chaotic moments in the youth service and has come out to be a role model and leader.”

McCabe acknowledges that her home patch is not a great area for children. “But I’ve got a lot of young kids into fishing, so they don’t go out and do what they look at older people doing.” She wants to show them that “fishing is a getaway” from drugs and anti-social behaviour.

“I love helping little kids learn how to fish because I got taught when I was younger by the [Inland] Fisheries. That’s why I volunteer to help.”

An estimated 8.7 per cent of the adult population in Ireland consider themselves anglers, according to ESRI-commissioned research published earlier this year, but the vast majority would be male.

It does tend to be more of a male pursuit but the females always catch bigger fish

To help counter this trend, the IFI is rolling out a Women Try Fishing programme in which all-female groups will be introduced to the basics of freshwater fishing by women anglers.

“It does tend to be more of a male pursuit but the females always catch bigger fish, just look at the record books,” says Keatinge. The Covid-19 era seems to have increased the appeal of it as a hobby, with Amarach research finding that five per cent of Irish adults took up a new water-based activity in 2020, such as fishing or sea swimming.

For McCabe, the love of fishing was nurtured at home, copying what her older brothers were doing with their father Brian, a keen angler.

“I was about three when I picked up a fishing rod. When I was 10, I was doing it with Sphere 17.”

Rory Keatinge, Dublin Angling Initiative co-ordinator: “It’s relatively quick to learn the basics of casting but it takes a lifetime to get good at it.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Rory Keatinge, Dublin Angling Initiative co-ordinator: “It’s relatively quick to learn the basics of casting but it takes a lifetime to get good at it.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Now, every evening after work in a local newsagent’s shop, she comes to the lake to fish, where there’s predominantly carp, along with roach, perch, rudd, tench and hybrids.

“It’s good for my mental health. I just love being over here, it’s so peaceful,” she says.

While it’s probably not so great for the mental health of the fish, they do get to swim away because everybody using this community facility must put back any fish they catch. The biggest fish she has landed here was a 14-pounder last summer.

Considering the amount of fishing she has done not just here but elsewhere, does she ever keep and eat fish?

“Only out of the chipper,” she quips.

Different experience

Fishing gives children an opportunity to create a really meaningful connection with nature, says angling advisor Myles Kelly, who is based in the IFI’s Clonmel office in Co Tipperary.

“It gets them out in wild habitats and environments and they can see the food web; everything is dynamic, live and wild around them, and it  can really give them a sense of just how important it is to keep the environment healthy and clean.”

He too talks about fishing giving children the chance to develop mindfulness. It’s never been more important for people of all ages to find an activity which enables them to switch off and lose themselves “in the zone”.

Rory Keatinge, Dublin Angling Initiative Co-ordinator and Sue Hanlon, youth worker, with the Sphere 17 youth group at Darndale Park. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Rory Keatinge, Dublin Angling Initiative Co-ordinator and Sue Hanlon, youth worker, with the Sphere 17 youth group at Darndale Park. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“In a world where kids are so hooked into Tik Tok, memes and quick jokes, computer games with high kill rates and instant gratification, it’s just a totally different experience for them. When they catch that fish, all those other things don’t matter.”

It’s an activity “where they can have goals and achievements but there isn’t the stress to perform, to win, to score the goal”, he adds. “There can be just as much personal achievement but without the same level of external pressure.”

Dan O’Neill brings adults and children out angling in a world apart from Darndale – the majestic surroundings of the Mount Juliet estate in Co Kilkenny – but the core pursuit is the same: the patient luring of a fish. People tend to get caught up in the complexities and intricacies of fly-fishing, he says, and overlook the more basic elements.

“They think there is so much involved and really there’s not. Your first catch starts with putting bait on a hook and throwing it in – everything is a learning curve after that.”

Even now, as fishery manager of the estate, “I am on the river five days a week to keep sharp”. It’s seasonal work, which he combines with a job at Kilkenny College in term time.

Growing up in Gowran, 14km outside the Marble City, he was learning to cast and reel on the River Barrow with his father by the age of four. When he saw the loop of a fly rod unfold: “I thought to myself, I want to be able to do that”.

Now he enjoys giving other people the chance to experience the sense of release that fishing brings.

“Everybody has a bad day in work, or bad experience somewhere, and they just need to offload. If you stand in the river or at the edge of a lake and fish, that is exactly what happens – there is nothing else in the world, only that.”

First lockdown

Looking back, he knows he wasn’t a good place during the first lockdown and lost a lot of interest in things.

“I found when I went fishing for a few hours, it was like being revitalised. It brought back all your passion and your drive,” he says on the phone from Poland, the morning after his wedding.

People don’t have to be staying at Mount Juliet to book a fishing session there. Guides bring families to two lakes on the estate where the banks are cut back and safe for small children.

“I have had children down to three years old fishing with their parents and they can fish away, there is no problem. While “sevenish is a nice age” he suggests, “I have had them three, 33 and 63 – it doesn’t matter, anybody who wants to try.”

A teenager starting out in fly-fishing will find that there is more practice than actual fishing at first.

“Whereas if you go down to a lake, where the tench and the carp are, it’s  just learning how to do one cast, leave it there, wait, float drops and your fish comes – although it’s not always as simple as that.”

With his own son, Anthony (aged 8), he gives him a little shovel and they go down to the woods together to dig up worms as bait and then fish with those.

“It becomes an adventure. You are out in the wilds from the first minute.”

Anthony O’Neill.
Anthony O’Neill.

This passing on of a love of fishing to the next generation is clearly working for the O’Neill family.

“Without asking him or forcing him, Anthony turned around to me one day and said ‘I’d rather be down here than playing on the PlayStation’. Job done.”

Anthony O'Neill.
Anthony O'Neill.

 

Getting Started

If you’re interested in giving children a taste of fishing, what’s the best way to start?

“It all depends on where you live,” says Myles Kelly, an angling advisor with Inland Fisheries Ireland. Or, indeed, where you find yourself during this “staycation” summer.

In coastal areas, the best thing you can do is take advice from the guys you see out there fishing from the shore, piers and jetties, he suggests. Late July and August is a really easy time to catch fish, as the mackerel come inshore.

“You will catch them with very simple tackle. They’re such an obliging fish and are there in great numbers – any size of kid can catch them and everybody can get involved. It is great fun.”

And what about in our capital city?

“We have three magic rivers: the Dodder, the Liffey and the Tolka,” says Dublin Angling Initiative co-ordinator Rory Keatinge. “They all have really extraordinary wild populations of trout and salmon.”

However, you can’t just “rock up with a rod and off you go. You need to be aware there are rules and regulations with trout and salmon,” he cautions.

Your best bet is to contact one of the angling clubs on these rivers. There are a few community facilities, he adds, such as Darndale, and the “brilliant” Killinarden Angling Initiative, which has taken on Ballymount Lake, near Newlands Cross.

In the midlands, says Kelly, beginners can try one of the numerous coarse-fishing lakes.

“There is so many perch, rudd and roach, which are fabulous fish to go hunting for with a worm or maggot under a float.”

Another option is the stocked fisheries.

“They are generally a surefire place to catch a fish,” he says and many will have other amenities such as playgrounds, coffee shops etc, along with tackle shops where you can hire rods and reels. “They can be fabulous days out.”

The guy in the shop will advise on what you need for your local water

Wherever you head, the local tackle shop should be your first port of call. You’ll find a directory of these on fishinginireland.info, which is run by the IFI. They’re like Aladdin’s caves and children will love them, says Kelly. “The guy in the shop will advise on what you need for your local water and, if there are permits needed, he will sort you out for that.”

If you want to put some structure on your children’s sampling of the sport, many of the coarse, sea-angling and trout clubs have junior sections, with coaching available. Through club events, elite anglers can go all the way up to competing at national and international level – with most events run on a “catch and release” basis.

Charter boats offer a day, half day or evening sessions of fishing off the coast. Again, you’ll find an extensive list of such boats on fishinginireland.info.

“It can be a really easy way for a family to get out and see if it is something they want to embrace,” says Kelly. “So many of these guys will give you an opportunity to see more than fish – you’ll see birds, puffins, dolphins. Anytime you bring kids out and you see a dolphin and get to catch a fish, they are going to be talking about that all summer long.

“If you have kids that are a bit more adventurous, you can bring them out shark fishing, that is something they will never forget.”

Blue shark can be found all around the Atlantic waters from off Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford, right up to the top of Donegal, from the end of May to early winter.

It’s a full day out “but an experience and a half”, adds Kelly, who brings his children, aged seven to 17, out once a year for shark fishing.

“They absolutely love it.”

Family-friendly fishing spots

Wherever you’re living or holidaying in Ireland, the nearest Inland Fisheries office listed on fisheriesireland.ie will be happy to deal with any angling query. Staff can help narrow down your preferences and advise on suitability and availability.  A few examples of family-friendly fishing centres include: Adaire Springs, Mooncoin, Co Kilkenny; Southern County Fishing Lakes, Bagenalstown, Co Carlow; Oaklands Lake, New Ross, Co Wexford; the National Disabled Angling Facility, a fishing for all venue, Aughrim, Co Wicklow; Lough Boora Discovery Park, Co Offaly; Lilliput Boat Hire, on Lough Ennell, Mullingar, Co Westmeath. A county-by-county guide to fishing guides/instructors can also be found on fishinginireland.info.