The River Shannon, massive and majestic, runs its emerald course over 160 miles. As it winds through the Irish countryside it swells in three places, forming Lough Allen, then Lough Ree and Lough Derg. Here bream, pike, perch and rudd offer splendid coarse sport – but as the river nears its estuary close to Limerick, things get very interesting for the salmon angler.
The village of Castleconnell is just seven miles from the city of Limerick. It is blessed with a stretch of the Shannon which has always been regarded as one of the most beautiful and productive salmon fisheries in the entire British Isles.
In the early 1900s it was not uncommon for a Castleconnell angler to take a couple of dozen salmon, averaging 25-30 lb (11.3-13.6kg), in a season.
In the 1920s and 1930s the world famous Greenheart salmon rods were made in Castleconnell by the world long-distance fly casting champion John Enright. These rods were usually between 16 and 18ft (4.8-5.4m) long and it took tremendous stamina to fish with them for a full day. It was with one of these rods that John Enright caught his famous 53 lb (24kg) salmon on a fly at Castleconnell. The average size of a spring salmon these days is 12 lb (5.4kg).
In the late 1920s a dam was built at O’Brien’s Bridge, three miles upriver of Castleconnell. The river was harnessed to supply a hydro-electric power station. The effect of this dam on the character of the river downstream was enormous. The reduced flow of water was not conducive to a big run of salmon and the fishing suffered.
The Electricity Supply Board (ESB) later acquired the fishing rights on the river and were faced with the task of restoring the fishery to its former glory.
The first job was to redesign the river to make the most of the reduced water flow. New weirs were built and streams created, old pools were retained and new ones formed. The whole exercise was intended to renovate the fishery and develop suitable conditions for salmon to run upstream again to spawn. The problem of getting the fish back was tackled by establishing a hatchery in the dam upstream of the fishery. Today it restocks the river with hatchlings to top up the native stock of wild salmon spawning again at Castleconnell.
Some of the old spawning grounds were left high and dry when the water level fell. A large former spawning area next to The Gravel is now bogland covered with irises and a few trees. But channels were cut, the flow diverted, and the old river bed was given a fresh topping of gravel to create a spawning stream. It’s a breeding hit with salmon. In fact there are now several spawning streams and over 100 redds at Castleconnell.
Michael Murtagh, development officer for ESB fisheries, is responsible for the continuing work of maintaining the fishery and developing the spawning and angling at Castleconnell. Under his guidance the ESB has achieved many of its targets – restoring the river, banks and fish stocks to make the fishery once again one of the most beautiful in Europe.
The work done on the river not only alters the character and scenery of the fishery but influences the salmon fishing in a number of ways.
Weirs Some of the original, natural weirs remain on the river but many more have been constructed over the years. The weirs effectively slow down the flow and retain water in pools above them.
Salmon moving upstream tend to gather in the deeper pools below the weirs, waiting to continue their journey. The salmon don’t just run right into them, they tend to wait and size things up first. If the weather is bright and the water low, for instance, the fish may wait before trying to leap over the weirs. Just under the lip of a weir is a good spot to cast a fly. Or cover the whole pool with a spinner.
Flow The reshaping of the river banks and the general narrowing of the channel by man-made batteries and walls ensure a good flow of water at the right level down through the beats. When the fish are not moving they tend to He in the faster water
Now the sport
Castleconnell has two runs of fish. Abigrui of spring fish provides sport from earl; March until May. Then the grilse (youni salmon running upriver after only abou one year at sea) start to move in May and b; June they are in full swing. The grilse rui exceeds the spring run in numbers but th springers are larger fish.
In February, March and April large lure such as Tobies, Flying Condoms and Orkla are successful.
The lack of weed at this time of the yea means you can fish these lures deep am slow – getting down to the bed of the rive where the big spring salmon lie.
From May onwards the fly comes into it own. Although the water level on th fishery hardly varies because the flow I which gives a sense of security. Access The Shannon at Castleconnell was in the past a vast, wide river. Before the alterations you could fish from the bank but now the fishing is concentrated in pools and channels where the flow is diverted and the pace stepped up. The productive spots are not always easily accessible -you can’t just set up on the bank and cast out willy nilly. You need to reach the main flow where the salmon are. Sometimes this is easy to do from the bank, but often you need to walk along rocky batteries constructed across the current to reach the pools. The batteries also increase the flow in the main pools.
Stepping stones give access to stone spits and walks that run down the length of a swim, giving good access to pools where salmon may be mere feet away.
On a few beats the main pools are reached by boat. The boats at Castleconnell are a rum sort of craft – long and narrow and propelled by a single paddle – they are not at all easy to handle and are best left to the locals to manoeuvre. controlled by the dam, the weed growth prevents the use of lures in certain runs.
For grilse fishing, flies in sizes 10 or 12, such as the Garry Dog, Goldfinch, General Practitioner and Stoat’s Tail tied on trebles, are effective. Grilse tend to be playful and follow baits. For bigger salmon you may have to bring a bait round low in front of the fish’s nose to get a take.
When the water is heavy and slightly coloured after rain, spinning and worm fishing are the most effective ways of catching – especially in spring. But on dull and overcast days, when the water is clear and there’s a hint of wind, fly fishing is preferable. Bright and sunny weather in summer Balls for an early start. Fish from 6am-9am and return for a session at 6pm until dusk.
Each beat and pool has very distinct features of its own.
Beat number eight is the last one on the Castleconnnell fishery. It’s a short stretch featuring a pool known as The Gravel. As the fish come up from the deep water below the beats, this is the first fast water they encounter.
There’s usually a large concentration of fish in the deep water and they can easily be seen throwing themselves about before deciding to move up the river.
As you approach The Gravel, the first thing to look for is the tell-tale sign of a salmon’s dorsal fin showing in the fast water. This tells you that fish are moving up the system. Once they’ve decided to head upstream they become extremely excited and are liable to take a bait or fly quicker than a lodged or resident fish.
If there are no visible signs of salmon, concentrate your efforts on the deep water at the bottom of the run. There are always fish here, but they are more difficult to catch than fish farther up the river.
At the top end of the fishery on beat one there is a pool called The Pantry. The fish tend to rest here after negotiating an obstacle course of weirs and features. It’s a deep pool with fast water. Large stepping stones give access to a stony spit or walk that runs down the centre of the river.
As you approach the pool along the walk stay well back from the water and begin to fish the fly first on a short line. If you walk straight out on to the walkway you may scare the fish lying close to the edge. It’s better to start fishing the near edge, slowly extending the cast to cover the entire pool.
Moving down from the deep pool there are large submerged rocks churning up the water — areas of turbulence and broken water indicate their position. These rocks provide excellent cover for resting fish. Use this to your advantage and make sure you fish the stretch carefully, probing round the back of the rocks with a fly on a sunk fine or bait to tempt the fish.
Polaroid glasses are helpful when fly fishing at Castleconnell. They allow you to see a fish approach the fly and turn with it, helping you time your strike successfully.
If you get a take and the hook pulls free, rest the pool for about 10 minutes or so before trying the fish again. Sometimes a salmon strikes again – try using another colour lure or fly. If you don’t get any more takes after covering the area, move on to the next pool or feature.