TAKE all the pastimes in all the world and fishing trumps them all.
Can there be any better way to pass an afternoon than at the side of a gently flowing, tree-lined river while you try to outsmart an invisible foe?
Dúlra spent a decade of his life doing just that. He'd rarely go into the Belfast Hills without a fishing rod. And he and his mates always loved it, even camping overnight to get the dusk and dawn ‘rise’.
But the return in fish for the hours invested was simply farcical. Dúlra caught so few that he can still recall every single success (including a bat (but that’s a story for another day). When he went fishing, it’s safe to say that the local trout had little to worry about.
But the magic of those days is still palpable. Today if he ever wants his mind to go to a happy place, it’s to the quarry pool at the back of Colin Glen or the Y-Bridge at Glenavy River. Spend an afternoon there and the cares of the world would disappear, carried away by the flowing river. The fish were always too wily around the Belfast Hills for they’d experienced generations of West Belfast kids trying their luck with worms and spinners. The problem was always the noise that we inevitably made – the trout would hear us literally a mile off. But occasionally, just occasionally, the stars would align and, whether by luck or design, a trout would take the bait. And then it was all worth it.
Those nostalgic thoughts flooded back into Dúlra’s mind this week as he was leafing through a beautiful new book, ‘Fly-Fishing for Trout and Salmon on the Faughan’. The River Faughan – An Fhochaine – is a lovely 30-mile course that flows from the slopes of the Sperrins to the coast near Derry City.
It’s remained a healthy river while all around it is developed and farmed. Two migratory fish – the sea trout, (known here as white trout) and the famous salmon – have attracted generations of anglers.
And one famous angler in particular devoted much of his life to trying to outsmart those famous fish. Derry cobbler Clarkie Heaney put all his knowledge down in writing in 1947 in a book – ‘Flyfishing for Trout and Salmon on the Faughan’ – an angline bible that was to become one of the most sought-after Irish fishing books.
Clarkie explained in detail the flies he used to lure the fish here and told readers how to make them. His expertise was unrivalled. Today, the material for those flies can be artificially manufactured, but in those days they all came from nature. One of his favourites was the Waterhen Bloa, considered to be the best ever made, he writes. However, Dúlra wouldn’t like to be the one to be tasked with gathering up the material needed for it as fur from the water rat is included. Other materials for anglers' flies were imported from across the globe including exotic furs, or taken from rare birds like the corncrake.
That rare 1947 book has now been republished in full as a book within a book by River Faughan Anglers as a tribute to the manager of the anglers' office, Heather Diamond, a remarkable woman who died tragically in a house fire in 2021. The pictures in the new edition of Heather’s amazing worldwide travels to mountaintops and remote jungles reveal just how special she was.
Unfortunately, the fishing enjoyed by Clarkie is much diminished today. The population of sea trout collapsed in the 1980s and has never recovered.
One of the anglers behind the new book, Gerard Quinn, writes how numerous developments have damaged the river’s ecosystem. Fish numbers have never returned to the abundance Faughan anglers enjoyed in Clarkie’s day. Road-building projects, dam-building and river-straightening have taken a toll.
But the River Faughan Anglers are determined to help their famous river flourish once more. And this new book is a credit to them.
Reading it, Dúlra wanted to once more be at the river’s edge surrounded by wildlife and a world away from the busy city. Maybe it’s time to dust down that old rod that’s gathering dust in the garden shed.
Fly-Fishing for Trout and Salmon on the Faughan is available at bookshops and online.
• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.