A strangely lunar landscape of exposed limestone outcrops covers a large area of mainland County Clare known as The Burren. A finger of the rocky Burren extends west into the Atlantic Ocean where it breaks the surface three times to form the rugged Aran Islands, 25 miles off the coast in GalwayBay.
Steeped in tradition, the three islands of Inisheer, Inishmaan and Inishmore are a Gaelic stronghold where Irish is the common language. The sea has always been central to the island folk who still fish the unpolluted waters on their doorstep. To some extent tourism has become part of the island life, but the culture remains largely unchanged. The islanders still weave their own fabrics and make pampooties — a kind of heel-less hide slipper.
This is probably where Val Doonican gets his jumpers — Aran knitwear sweaters which originated here. To the islanders each pattern is symbolic and among the traditional stitches used are those representing good luck and safe fishing.
Tourists waiting for the Doolin ferry wave as Sharkhunter heads northwards out of the harbour and, hugging the coast, passes the small, rocky Crab Island. A green mantelpiece of mainland dotted with white cottages becomes gradually smaller, and in the distance the impressive Cliffs of Moher rise up out of the swirling Atlantic.
Skipper Kieran O’Driscoll, while not a man of Aran, is very much a local man — he lives in Fanore, a bit farther up the mainland coast from Doolin where Sharkhunter is based. The sea is in his blood and he knows these waters like the back of his hand. Bertie Cunningham from Kilkee and Reg Wild from Stoke-on-Trent are along for the crack. Charlie Melvyn from Hastings, New York joins them. A student of English at Dickinson College Pennsylvania, he’s finishing off his European tour with a jaunt to Ireland. A reporter from The Art of Fishing and a photographer make up the full pollack-hunting quota on board.
After just five minutes we stop to try for mackerel with coloured feathers. Kieran has seen fish on the fishfinder but nobody catches. He reckons it could be jellyfish and then a couple of whitish spectres appear near the surface to confirm the suspicion. Hooking a jelly doesn’t appeal so we move farther on to the Craigmore Patch, an area of rough ground near the mainland fringe, beneath 35m (120ft) of Atlantic.
A trio of razorbills flap hilariously across the prow as a salvo of leads hits the water. This mark is usually good for a few pollack and cod. But there’s not a single tug from below. Jellyfish are sighted again. The artificials fail to come up with anything and it’s time to move out.
With no sign of mackerel Sharkhunter moves in closer to Inisheer, the smallest of the three islands. There’s a blue sky with a few puffy clouds and a light mist around the mainland.
Kieran sets us up on a drift course and we start fishing again. The boat moves in to about 6m (20ft) of water over very rough ground known as the Finish Rock. The fishfinder sends out a morse of blips. ‘That’s fish now,’ says the skipper. Sure enough, Bertie immediately responds to a lively dance performed by his rod tip as he hauls in a pollack of around the pound (0.45kg) mark. We seem to have hit on a shoal as everyone starts catching small pollack and a few small coalies too.
Under a hot sun Kieran sets up a 12lb (5.4kg) class rod with a multiplier filled with 12lb (5.4kg) mono. The other anglers are fishing feathers and muppets on 20lb (9kg) class rods and 18lb (8.1kg) mono. Keeping his eye on the boat’s position, fishfmder and depth clues, Kieran drops down his team of Hokkai artificials. When the 2oz (56g) lead hits the bottom he winds up a little, jigs the lures then makes a couple of turns of the reel. Gradually he draws up the baits, covering water at different depths. ‘It’s hard to believe you’re only fishing in twenty feet of water,’ he says.
He’s soon in with a double header of pollack. ‘It’s some fun fishing over the rock when the surf is breaking.’ But just now the tide is starting to rise. Everybody is into pollack and the odd coalie, then Reg brings in a black and amber ballan wrasse which couldn’t resist his feathers.
Kieran resets the drift and decides a big black rubber eel fished on a long trace at the back of the boat might draw the bigger pollack. The drift starts in 30m (100ft) of water then, as Sharkhunter moves over the rock, it shallows out to about 7.5m (25ft) deep with the tide coming in. ‘You can’t fish over this in rough weather,’ says Kieran. But generally he welcomes a bit of rough water because it stirs up food and encourages fish to feed. When it’s flat the fishing is not usually good. Nearby on the shore of Inisheer a shell of a wreck rides high and dry on the rocks, where 20 years or so ago it was unceremoniously dumped by stormy seas – a rusty reminder of how rough it can get round here.
Two men from Inisheer are fishing in a currach nearby. ‘It’s a good area for lobster because the ground’s so rough,’ Kieran explains. The locals are checking their markers and pots.
For sport angling in the waters round here, the normal methods are feathers, rubber eels, Hokkais and other artificials baited or unadorned. So that’s what we decide to stick with. ‘The bigger cod and ling will take on the eels if they’re there, but really they might take anything we’re offering,’ Kieran advises.
The fish aren’t coming in as fast now so Kieran decides to move the boat slightly. ‘We’ll give this place a shot and then we’ll move round the island. There’s a very good spot at the back of Inishmaan where the pollack are as long as the box,’ he says temptingly — referring to the storage box on deck which is already starting to fill with pollack not quite as long.
Kieran’s eel seems to do the trick and a couple of decent fish of about 4lb (1.8kg) fall to it. Then he snags up in the rocks and loses the eel, so he switches back to Hokkais. ‘On a clear day you can see the rocks. It’s the same sort of ground as the Craigmore. The only thing is the Craigmore is a bigger area of ground.’
Small pollack are regularly taking Kieran’s Hokkais now, and even a couple of mackerel show. Reg and Bertie get a few launce and another wrasse. They consider fishing the fresh sandeels as bait but Kieran has his doubts. ‘I think that system might work if the ground was a bit less rough.’
Sharkhunter steams out past Inisheer and into the Foul Sound. This is very rough ground which is well plundered by Inisheer lobster men. The area used to be very good for pollack and cod but the fishing declined after a huge storm blew sand in on both sides of the sound. We stop and have a go, just in case. ‘I think the fish go out of here when there’s a high tide,’ warns Kieran. The odd fish appears on the screen, but Kieran is not really confident here. Bertie gets caught up and Kieran quickly responds – ‘That’s the Foul Sound!’
A pair of dolphins arch in the water 12m (40ft) away as Sharkhunter belts out for the back of Inishmaan. It’s a thrilling sight, although they are quite common around these parts, along with seals and basking sharks and the occasional turtle that comes in on the gulf stream.
Fulmars – stocky seagulls – turn their heads as they hear the boat approach Inishmaan. There’s a bigger swell and it’s a bit bouncier. Kieran taps in to mackerel. ‘They came right near the top,’ he says. A tern squeaks as everyone on deck starts to catch mackerel of about 1lb (0.45kg). It’s a quick rush of mackerel followed by a 21/Qb (1.2kg) pollack for Kieran and one for
Charlie. Then it slows down. Rounding the corner the boat begins to rock on the swell between Inishmaan and Inishmore. It’s 20-30m (65-100ft) deep just off the cliffs of Inishmaan which are undercut and stained with green and white seabird signatures and drop down sheer into the water.
As he baits his lures with fresh strips of mackerel, Kieran’s confidence is building all the time. It’s justified optimism, too, as the pollack start to hit. There’s a mix of smaller ones – double headers and full houses all round then some superb pollack around the 4-5lb (1.8-2.3kg) mark – nearly as long as the box.
Kieran takes the helm to manoeuvre out a bit from the cliffs and sets the boat on a drift back to Inishmaan. As Sharkhunter comes into the hot area he has two pollack’one after the other – 5lb (2.3kg) apiece.
Still on the baited Hokkai lures he feels a distinct thud and a weighty scrap ensues. On the light gear he is led a merry dance until he swings in a surprise codling of about 5lb (2.3kg). ‘They catch some good cod round here but at this time of the year you don’t see many – but you never know.’
The cod gives Kieran a taste for more, so he baits a pirk with mackerel and lobs it out. He adds baited muppets and feathers to his pirk to create a kind of Killer Gear rig. When the pirk-cum-muppet-cum-mackerel special next emerges there’s a ling attached. The greedy ling went for the pirk even though it was already half way through a prawn appetizer.
For half an hour, only a few small pollack show. It’s time to head back or we’ll miss the tide and won’t be able to dock at Doolin. Steaming off toward the mainland we pass Inisheer as the sky turns black. An eerie light shrouds Inishmaan and a thunderstorm breaks out, followed by heavy rain. An islander in a red dinghy waves and Kieran slows down as he comes alongside. ‘I thought you were Paddy Mullin – have you seen him?’ asks the fisherman. Kieran doesn’t know where Paddy is but tells the man where we had our pollack. He’s got the hotspot all right, but he’ll need the right sort of sweater to fish in this weather.