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The Ephemeral Dance: Triumph and Tribulation on an Irish River

Green fields rolled past the car window with a blur of broken cloud and bursts of sunlight. Inside, this fish crazed angler gripped the steering wheel, knuckles white. Mayfly season was kicking off. The holy grail of Irish trout fishing. 

My heart thumped in anticipation, a counterpoint to the rhythmic hum of the tires. It had been a long, wet winter and spring, and a river that last year yielded a fish over 6lbs for me, had become an obsession. 

Many nights were spent tying beautiful mayfly imitations – spent gnats, duns and emergers.

 

Reaching the river, the air buzzed with anticipation. The water was very low and clear, a mirror reflecting the cotton-ball clouds. The airflow was easterly, not ideal. No mayflies yet. 

I walked the fields scanning for fly and the rings of the rise, my boots sinking into the marsh with a satisfying squelch. Every step was a silent prayer that conditions, fly and fish would all converge to provide an opportunity to cast at the large fish I’d dreamt of all winter. Time stretched, I stood hiding behind a tree and measured it by the lengthening of my shadow as the sun slowly went down and off the water. 

Watching the evening develop it cleared my mind of everything apart from the prospect of a large rising trout. Phone calls to my two friends on other stretches were frequent to discuss how the evening was developing and trying to reassure myself that the dead low water and easterly breeze wouldn’t matter. 

Then, a flicker. A single black and white Mayfly, began to dance and wait for a mate, Slowly, the air came alive with dancing Mayflies gliding on the breeze as far as the eye could see. I resisted putting on a jacket. The river’s surface dimpled with rising roach who struggled to take the large flies from the surface. 

One rise form was different though. A leviathan, broke the surface with a greedy slurp. It was clumsy, like he didn’t really know what he was doing and his body a mottled bronze against the sun-dappled water sent rings lapping up against the banks.

I was suddenly in stealth mode, staying well back from the river, I snuck into position and kneeled down behind tall grass. 

I waited, the fish began cruising and took three natural flies quickly in succession under a tree. I moved above the tree and chose what appeared to be the best opportunity. 

A satisfactory cast landed softly and the para-glider mayfly above and to the right of the swirl. Sometimes you know when you have done everything right and a response from the fish is a given. 

The take was instantaneous,  the heavy weight of the trout pulled the rod into a perfect arc. The big trout sat under the rod tip and held deep. 

My first thoughts where about what to do when the trout ran downstream as the tree below us would prevent me following.

After about 2 minutes the line went limp and sickenly the fly returned to the surface. 

The big fish was gone, leaving heartache and frustration in its wake.

Evening after evening I made the long drive returning to see if the fish would rise again. The river offered glimpses of brilliance – two evenings later a large fish began to rise vigorously while cruising a beat on a deep pool, the fish took the well presented fly and when I lifted I felt nothing. 

I was on a familiar rollercoaster, going from tremendous excitement to despair in an instant. 

The following night I sat above the tree at the spot where the previous short battle had occurred and the fish appeared. The fish began to feed heavily and I readied myself to get it right this time.

As I began to lengthen out the line a loud whooping sound approached quickly as six swans landed right on the little pool where the fish was rising. The swans began fighting and whipped the water to a foam! The large trout didn’t appear again and one of the swans swam alongside me on the long walk back to the car, as if to escort me out. 

There were many long, tough days where the river remained silent, the sky devoid of dancing mayflies. Days blurred into one another. Some of the mayfly hatches were spectacular, the frustration equally so. More missed targets, flies snagged in the thick weedy banks, and heart-stopping near misses. 

Each empty-handed return was a blow, the long drives home filled with the silence of defeat.

One evening, as twilight painted the river in hues of burnt orange, the hatch came alive. The wind was north easterly but there was still some hope in the air. A maelstrom of mayflies turned the river surface into a shimmering, undulating haze. And then a large beak broke the surface taking a number of flies in quick succession. 

A well placed cast resulted in solid resistance. The rod bent double, the reel singing. The battle raged and I got stuck knee deep in mud chasing the fish downstream. Finally, a magnificent brown trout of five and a half pounds, lay gasping in the net. Relief and exhilaration washed over me, a sweet reward for persistence or what most people would see as madness.

All of the waiting, watching and walking had for a moment faded into insignificance. I had witnessed nature at it’s most beautiful and on this evening, the magic of the mayfly hatch had smiled upon me. 

The river, ever the fickle mistress, offered one last gift. Another brown trout, this one a stunning hen trout, took my fly with a delicate grace. As I released it back into the water, a sense of calm came over me. The long drives, the missed opportunities, they were all part of the tapestry, the price of witnessing nature’s breathtaking spectacle. 

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