A special place that is heaven for anglers


Hidden among native oaks where the quiet deep pools of the Kerry Blackwater are transformed into a rushing river, a salmon vaults from the water. The sight and sound of it, so close, is enough to indicate why anglers might consider this their most precious place, their Shangri-La.

The river runs through broadleaf forests, low-lying pastures and rough moorland, which combine to make beautiful, distinctly Kerry landscape between Sneem and Kenmare.

It is a classic spate river, flooding low-lying areas when its waters are high. Its great power is obvious when in spate as it pummels its banks. They often subside, suggesting it can never be tamed. It is 16 km long and drains the Blackwater Valley. It receives excellent runs of grilse (young salmon that have only been to sea once) and spring Atlantic salmon weighing up to 4.5 kg. Lough Brin, one of the river's sources, is a brown trout haunt. Sea trout arrive on the river in April, peak in May/June and surge again in September, though the weather may play tricks with this schedule.

"You can expect a good, long solid pull on every cast there," declares fishery manager James Pembroke as he surveys the Boat Pool. When another salmon jumps at the top of a natural weir, he explains it is part of "a show by the fish to say we've made it" on their way up river.

It is hard to see how anyone would dare threaten it, but such is the river's vulnerability it needs more than care to keep it productive in terms of the fish it nurtures, the anglers who fish it and the tourism businesses it sustains. Essentially, this fishery is a non-renewable resource, according to assistant regional fisheries manager, Patrick Buck of the South Western Regional Fisheries Board. This premise should dictate everything done with the Blackwater, and every Irish game fish river.

They have to be tended and developed in a meticulous, non-intrusive way. The ethos has to be one of looking at the environment first, he said, and then applying a finely focused commercial edge. Most fisheries embrace environmental principles to some degree, but few, if any, to the extent being applied in the Kerry Blackwater, where economic and social considerations are so carefully factored in.

The fishery was purchased by the Central Fisheries Board in 1994. From source to sea it is now run by the SWRFB. "We are developing a fishery as a model of sustainability, and we seem to be getting things right," explained Mr Buck.

It has a lot to do with fishery development closer to nature. It can be as simple as coaxing natural canopies in the form of tree cover to extend over the river and encourage insect life. It will soon entail extending the tourism season by having weekends for teaching fly-fishing when salmon/trout angling is in abeyance.

It can mean adjusting the angling season if it's in the best interests of the fish. And restoring a fine boathouse at the estuary where the river flows into Kenmare Bay (which he hopes will be soon done) is not just to beautify it but to enhance the attractiveness and financial potential of the whole product.

All this is a million miles from the intensive fisheries of the past. They have increased catches by 400 per cent. And the yardstick is that four smolts in the natural surrounds of a river are worth more than 60 in a hatchery because the latter rearing process is so expensive and its survival rates very low.

No chemicals are used on the river, and environmental audits are regularly carried out on the system. A sophisticated fish-counter in the river nearing completion will, with a camera, indicate numbers and type of fish running through the system.

"Considerable emphasis is being placed on the integrity of the environment, and all materials used in the fishery are natural and from the locality. Also of utmost importance is the socio-economic significance of this development, and the challenge of striking the correct balance."

Mr Buck is undertaking a PhD on sustainable development using the Kerry Blackwater as a model game-fish river. He is motivated by its uniqueness. So it should not be compared, he said, to other great fishing locations as in Scotland, Alaska or Russia. Some £340,000 is being spent on the fishery over three years with finance from the 1994-1999 Tourism Angling Measure, which is part of Government's Tourism Operational Programme.

Sustainability is threaded strongly through the SWRFB's recently adopted strategic development plan for 1999 to 2003. Some may not yet be fully convinced of its principles. He believes, for example, that ultimately "catch and release" of fish will be a central part of sustainable game fishing; insisting "the angling experience" is not diminished by it.

Such vision and appreciation of the benefits of developing tourism products with one eye always on their environment take time to become established, even if they are already well rooted around the Kerry Blackwater.