Fishing houses that lure the angler
`It's like sitting in front of an open fire. You can just sit there for hours, watching and being drawn in. It's like that when you're out on the water." John O'Connor, of Lough Inagh Lodge in Recess, Connemara, is describing the allure of fishing for him.
"It's all about the challenge of trying to catch a wild fish; it's exhilarating. I wouldn't consider myself a fishmonger. It's not a numbers game. It's about the skill of landing them, and the experience of harmony with the landscape that I feel being out on the lake."
Lough Inagh Lodge is one of 21 hotels, lodges, and guesthouses included in a new Bord Failte booklet, The Great Fishing Houses of Ireland. The idea came from Margaret Caulfield, a keen trout angler, and the angling promotions executive for Bord Failte. She co-ordinated the project over a year, with the initial encouragement of John O'Connor.
The booklet was launched recently in Ballynahinch Castle, deep within Connemara, and inevitably the west claims more than half the fishing houses listed within its pages. Some of the other fine houses in the scheme include Mount Juliet in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, Glencar House Hotel in Co Kerry, Blackwater Lodge in Co Waterford and Ballyvolane House in Castlelyons, Co Cork.
The sport of fishing is a gift to tourism in a country with weather as unpredictable as ours, as is happily pointed out in the booklet's entry for Delphi Lodge in Leenane, Co Galway: "Delphi fishes best during and after wet weather."
Delphi, incidentally, reports a record catch of 1,043 fish this year: the fishing season runs between February 15th and September 13th.
Peter Mantle is the owner of Delphi Lodge, a beautiful secluded country house at the foot of a mountain, which overlooks one of Connemara's famous grey and glinting lakes. Prince Charles stayed here on his visit to Ireland.
"The people who come on fishing holidays are in the same socio-economic group as those who come on golfing holidays," says Peter. "The costs are broadly similar, and there is the same sort of mix of people."
Half of those who come to Delphi to fish are British. A quarter are Irish, with the rest coming from America and Germany. The average stay is a week. Guests have a choice of fishing from boats on the lake, or from "beats" along a riverside.
The river will be divided into various stretches, or beats, and there is a limited number of rods allowed to fish each beat. "Ghillies" are loosely described by Peter Mantle as "fishing guide, companion, and boatman all in one."
Grasshopper Cottage, at Dooras, near Cornamona, is one of the smaller houses in the brochure, with just four bedrooms and a modest daily rate. Roy and Sorcha Peirce opened here in 1990. Their house is on the shores of Lough Corrib, and people fish for the elusive wild brown trout and salmon.
"In the 1950s and 1960s, Cornamona had a tradition of British anglers coming to the area," Sorcha says. "That stopped when the Troubles started. But they've started to come back again now. The English angler is the backbone of our business. We wouldn't get many Irish, not because they don't go fishing, but because they already know where to go and they'd have their own traditional family haunts."
All areas have different policies about what happens to the fish when caught. At Delphi, wild trout and salmon must be returned alive to the water, although tagged salmon can be kept.
At Grasshopper, there is an optional "catch and release" policy. "More and more, people are releasing the fish," Sorcha observes. "Catch and release would be the norm in the States," Peter Mantle comments. "It's a conservation measure, and something which is becoming more common here now. The art of fishing is in the catching, rather than in the keeping."
The fish that are kept have three destinies. Some are eaten for breakfast or dinner. "We call a rasher, egg and trout a Cornamona breakfast," Sorcha reports. Others are frozen and secreted within luggage, to be flown home and eaten in triumph with family and friends. The really big fish get the attention of the taxidermists.
Like every sport, fishing has a beguiling arcane language of its own. What are Blue Badger, Silver Doctor, Claret Bumble, Green Peter, Bloody Butcher, Delphi Silver, and Black Pennell? They are all names of fishing flies.
"In the evenings, people often sit and tie flies," says Sorcha Peirce. "They try to tie flies that match what they have seen on the river or on the lake."
Lal Faherty has been running the Lakeland Country House and Angling Centre in Oughterard for almost 30 years. "About half of our fishing visitors come from the UK. But we also get a big Northern Ireland contingent. And then the rest would be French, German, and Dutch."
Pike, a robust-tasting fish which would have fewer enthusiastic eaters in this country than the subtle flavour of pink-fleshed salmon and trout, is the preferred catch of the French and German visitors. "It's easier to fish for pike," Lal suggests. "There isn't a tradition of fly fishing in those countries."
He encourages catch and release. "But, of course, brown trout is prized as a delicacy. Most people would want to bring that home and eat it." The biggest catch that Lal remembers being landed is a 15 lb trout caught by an Englishman called Bill Palmer. "He had it stuffed and it's in pride of place in his lounge in north London."
Like all the proprietors of the great fishing houses of Ireland, Lal is a committed fisherman. "Angling is not an exact science," he explains. "You never catch a fish the same way twice. For me, it's not the killing of the fish that matters, but the chase. Being out there on the water is so tranquil."
For 16 years, John O'Connor was the general manager of Ballynahinch Castle. Together with his wife Marie, they now run their own hotel, the Lough Inagh Lodge, which is just 10 miles away from their old quarters. Like Delphi, Lough Inagh was originally built specially as a fishing and shooting lodge.
Their guests usually stay for about three days. " We've tried to keep the hotel small and intimate, in the tradition of the original lodge," they say. Lough Inagh has only 12 rooms.
Visitors fish for wild sea-trout and salmon. "Wild fish are so much harder to catch," John emphasises. "People love that challenge." Like the other fishing houses, they get a lot of repeat visitors. "The loyal angler is like the salmon. They want to come back to the place where they started out."
The Great Fishing Houses of Ire- land is available free of charge from Bord Failte, Baggot Street Bridge, Dublin 2.