Hooked – David Shanks on the delights of fishing

The skills of casting

Father taught me to fish for trout – and many we caught. I have happy memories of Glens of Antrim outings particularly.

But when I was about 15 we were coming up a slope from the Glendun River, where we had been trying for brown trout, I turned to Father saying “I don’t want to do this any more.” I had qualms about the cruelty of it. He took it very magnanimously, replying with something like: “That’s fine.” I didn’t fish for years.

But Father liked to go night fishing for sea trout at the tidal estuary of the Glenariffe River. There was a steep bank – and he had got old and less sure on his feet. Mother leant on me to go with him. So I did, putting aside my qualms – and very enjoyable it was.

In the middle of the night we would return to Father’s uncles’ house in Cushendall with sometimes more than 15 fair-sized white trout, which we laid on plates for the early risers of the house to admire.


After Father’s death, and another angling pause as an adult, I took to salmon fishing – with some success. (Father once hooked a salmon – at a Dargle River, Co Wicklow, weir pool – and I was blamed for his losing it. I was supposed to dance in shallow water to keep the fish out in the deep. But that’s completely another story.)

Lately, however, I find myself returning to my thoughts expressed at Cushendun. I have hesitated to write this diary, for fear of offending angling people I know, particularly a friend who has been kind enough to invite me more than once to a salmon stretch of the Slaney he rented.

The point of this piece is that I never for long had the courage of my convictions. I love the river, lakes, water in general – and above all the hooking of a fish is a thrill. And there’s the beauty of communing with nature.

The flies and lures – Greenwell Glory, Hare’s Ear Nymph, Silver Spider, Parachute Olive, Bibio, Claret Bumble, Silver Doctor, Black Pennell, the Sedges, Bloody Butcher, Flying C, Devon spinners and copper and silver spoons imitating aquatic creatures – have colour, creativity and fascination. (Digging in Great Uncle James’s Cushendall midden for fat worms is a childhood memory of delight.)

Then there are the skills of casting, particularly spey casting, and the learning to understand what the fish sees, because of refraction. And where salmon lie for a rest, often behind big rocks. That’s where you try to land the fly.

Anglers talk of “playing” a fish. But it’s not play at the end of the line for the quarry. I’ve even heard it said that small-brained fish have no feelings, only a survival instinct. Surely that’s a feeling? It’s one of mine. Really it’s a blood “sport”, I hear in the back of my head. I’ve even heard it said too that because fish are cold-blooded they feel no pain.

In my experience, hen and cock salmon seem monogamous. I once hooked a fish on the Owenea in Donegal and its partner went mad jumping in apparent protest. I first heard of this from reading a Walter Macken short story, I think. Monogamous they may be but they seem to have no fun at sex, the cock remotely fertilising the eggs the hen lays on small stones at their up-river destination.

All this is prompted by reading of the current dispute between Eamon Ryan, Minister for the Environment, and Charlie McConalogue’s Department of the Marine, where Ryan and others are arguing that salmon-farmed fish can infect and damage the wild ones.

I have no idea whether the farmed or wild varieties have more feelings. But I imagine that the farmed ones could be glummer in that they have no big adventurous journey to make to lay their eggs for the survival of the species – except to the other end of the cage. Maybe that’s why the wild ones are supposed better to eat.

Now the reason I have not fished for almost two years has nothing to do with my qualms but Covid and my need of cataract surgery, to facilitate driving to distant rivers or lakes. But when these difficulties pass, I have no doubt I will find the lack of courage of conviction to return to the mesmerising water. Maybe I’ll just torture them. In places, it’s a mandatory and fashionable conservation measure called “catch and release”. Because of it, my Slaney friend misses the pleasure of bringing home a salmon to his family.