Never mind the pollocks – Frank McNally on the ups and downs of sea fishing
Frank McNally with someone else’s fish
I picked an auspicious date – Wednesday last – for my latest attempt at sea-fishing. It was July 25th, feast-day of St James the Apostle, one of the most famous fishermen in the Bible. You’ll remember he and his brother John (the “sons of Zebedee”) had been out all night, catching nothing, until Jesus told them to cast their nets again, whereupon they caught so much it nearly sank the boat.
That was on the Sea of Galilee, of course, whereas my trip was out of Killala. And at time of sailing, there were no rumours of a messiah anywhere.
But on the plus side, the skipper of our boat was a James: Jimmy Gallagher, a veteran fisherman from Donegal. For added luck, we also had a pair of brothers on board, called Steve and John (albeit neither of them a son of Zebedee).
So the signs were broadly positive.
Mind you, we would not be casting biblical nets: only rod-and-line.
Furthermore, since some of us didn’t have even that much by way of equipment, we would have to depend on the supply of basic tackle Jimmy kept in his cabin for neophyte day-trippers.
That was among the reasons why he wasn’t predicting any miracles. Jimmy is a man of boundless ichthyological knowledge, salted with dry wit and a Donegal accent that refuses to go native despite 60 years in Mayo. Asked about our prospects, he commented: “Ah now. When you see lads coming without their own rods, there won’t be much fish caught.”
He wasn’t far wrong, in my case at least, although it took several hours for the optimism to wear off.
On my sea-angling debut, last summer on the same boat, I had caught a ling: a fine, metre-long specimen of the kind for which the other crewmates, all more experienced and with bigger bags of tricks, had been hoping.
It was the only ling landed that day. So naturally, I attributed this to my innate genius for the sport, even though I had never previously held a fishing rod until Jimmy handed me one from general issue.
I now know it was the classic beginner’s luck. During six or seven hours on Wednesday, by contrast, I landed nothing bigger than mackerel, that most sympathetic and undiscriminating of fish, which will give itself up to any damn fool.
All around me, meanwhile, the larger species (mostly pollock) were surrendering themselves only to specialist fishermen.
There was one big ling again, but this one had the consolation of being taken by one of the most skilled anglers on board. It’s the way he would have wanted to go.
For one exciting moment late in the afternoon, when my rod suddenly bent double, it looked as if I too had something big at the end of the line. And in fact I had. It was “Ireland”, as the old hands say. “You caught the ground”, explained Jimmy, yanking the line free of the sea-floor for me, minus hook and bait.
Oh well, it’s a glorious thing for a land-lubber to spend all day on a boat, breathing clean air, and communing with the gulls.
As a bonus, the trip also had a historical sub-theme, pointed out by local historian Steve in the intervals when he wasn’t landing bigger fish than mine. “The French are on the sea” is one of the great, mostly unfulfilled, promises of Irish history. But they did hit land here in 1798, first at Kilcummin (where the waters were deepest, which is also why we were fishing there), before marching south to Killala.
Landing at Killala itself would have been altogether more hazardous.
When we returned there later, with the tide already dropping, you could see the sand banks to the left and exposed rocks to the right that made this a tricky approach even for smaller boats. Off Bartragh island, nearby, were the visible remains of two vessels that read the local waters wrong.
One of the boat skipper’s stories, by the way, is of a feat of navigation he used to make daily back as a child on Owey Island. Owey was also home to Daniel O’Donnell’s mother’s people.
And when Jimmy was growing up, their house was a shortcut to school. He would go in the front door and out the back, every morning.
Negotiating a path through Killala Harbour was not so easy. The channel is well marked now and lit at night. But when he first came to Mayo, in the late 1950s, Jimmy used often to have to do it in darkness, hoping someone had left a light on as a line to pilot himself in.