Updated: Jul 24
You can plan for weeks, months, or even years in advance for a destination fly fishing trip. Knowing the best time of year to put yourself at the right place at the right time can be a great path to success on the water. However, the best laid plans can quickly fall to the wayside if Mother Nature has a different idea in mind. Knowing how to pivot or endure these obstacles separates the great anglers from the rest of the pack. Being able to put aside prior fishing success and history and focusing on the current conditions at hand are important is and excellent skill that will pay off when times are tough.
Fly Fishing Ireland
I never would have imagined sunny and 75 would be the toughest conditions I’d ever face as a fly fisherman, but that was certainly the case on a late spring trip to Ireland. Late May and early June often bring healthy hatches of several mayfly species to the northern part of the country, making my target trout species of the Gillaroo and Sonaghan (close relatives of the brown trout found only in Lough Melvin on the Northern Ireland border) a seemingly simple achievement. These fish thrive in the dreary overcast, and rainy climate that is found throughout the island for a vast majority of the year. The gillaroo will adapt better to the bright and sunny conditions as they often occupy the shallows of the lake along with the upper section of the Drowes River below the lake outlet.
Drowes River Fly Fishing
The beginning of my trip began on the Drowes. Nymphing was productive in the late morning and I manage to land several nice brown trout and even lost a couple in the 20” range. I also landed my first gillaroo along with several more in small sizes. I returned later that evening to a phenomenal dry fly bite. The tandem dry fly rig I threw saw no less that 100 rises on 75 casts. While not all of these rises ended in landed trout, plenty of gillaroo and browns came to hand throughout the evening. Many of the other anglers on the river were opting to chase the light run of Atlantic Salmon over the incredible dry fly fishing, which nearly left the river to myself.
Sonaghan Trout Fishing
Unlike the Gillaroo, the Sonaghan are pelagic roamers of the lake that primarily feed on clouds of daphnia and other crustaceous zooplankton over deep water, only moving to the surface for the best of insect hatches. The high sun pushes these daphnia down deeper and with it the Sonaghan. This makes for incredibly tough conditions as feeding slows and trout become lethargic. Traditional patterns used for these roaming fish become next to useless.
Jackie Mahon, a local ghillie and Ireland Fly Fishing Guide, agreed to join me on the lake and take on the daunting task of finding these Sonaghan in the poor conditions. Early June is typically one of his busiest seasons of the year, when dreary weather and excellent hatches make for excellent fishing. This year, the forecast called for bright and warm conditions forcing him to cancel many trips. Day one on the water (9-10 hours) was highlighted by one short strike while stripping small flies on everything from a floating down to a sink 5 line. With a sore arm and light sun burn, we planned to meet earlier on day 2 to take advantage of the low light in the early morning hours when some more active Sonaghan might breach the upper part of the water column.
Day two began at 4:30am with a follow from a Sonaghan on a small booby fly fished high in the water. This elevated our hopes for the day as a strong eastern breeze created some better conditions on the lake. By 7am we had not seen any additional success and the wind was beginning to die. The normal hatch of mayfly drakes seemed to be nonexistent but we began seeing signs of some feeding activity on small caenis mayflies along the flat calm water on the wind protected side of the lake. This action lead only to success for a couple course fish and some Atlantic salmon smolt. We transitioned from deep to shallow, and back to deep throughout the day with no success. A massive blue green algae began to cover the lake by early afternoon rendering the western side of the lake completely unfishable and even dangerous for the resident fish stocks. Day 2 turned out to be another failure and we left the lake very sun burnt and were once again forced to refine our plans for day 3 which would be the make or break day for the trip.
Day three began at the first glow of light around 3:30 AM. A fair breeze was already beginning to dissipate lowering our hopes for a prolonged offshore bite. By 6:30-7 the water had calmed considerably and we remained fishless. We found some short-lived rises to caenis flies on the upper portion of the lakes that were killed by what little breeze remained. By 9 the lake was dead calm. We knew the caenis bite would be our only hope as the fish feeding on daphnia would be pushed deep and out of reach. The lake was glass and it seemed any rowing of the oars put what little fish were rising down. Several small groups of Sonaghan passed at a distance lightly sipping on emergents and spent caenis. Already planning my next visit to Ireland to finish my task of landing the Sonaghan, a slight breeze rippled the the surface enough for a small group of fish to move closer to the boat. Several refusals later we made the decision to dial our fly sizes down to a size 20 adams and a size 20 kebari emerger. By the time this change was made the water had completely calmed and the trout were again spooky. Since the oars seemed to be out of play we sat in the middle of the flat bay over 25-30ft of water contemplating our next step. Nursing my aching sunburn and cramped, calloused hands, a trout rose about 40 feet off the side of the boat. A scramble to clear the excess line from my rod tip seemed to take an eternity. The fish rose again and my cast landed ahead of the path the trout was trending in. Another brief rise and the trout was stuck. A frantic fight brought the beautiful Sonaghan to the net and a massive relief for both Jackie and myself. A 12” rarely yields this much excitement but sometimes the smallest fish are the most rewarding.
Ireland Fly Fishing Grand Slam
What should have been a slam dunk and easy catch turned into a knock down, drag out brawl between me and the Sonaghan. Even though Jackie is an accomplished guide, competition fly angler and and master of Stillwater and Loch style fly fishing, both of us learned plenty of lessons on our days on the water which are certain to pay off in the future. Jackie targets every species of the Irish Salmo Grand Slam (Brown trout, Sonaghan, Gillaroo, and Atlantic Salmon) on several lakes across Ireland which is an excellent challenge for all fly anglers. Pray for rain in the forecast during your if you put Ireland on your bucket list.
For more Fly Fishing Lessons learned the hard way and other Fly Fishing Stories, check out the Georgia Wild Trout website where you can read more articles as well as anything you want to know about Fly Fishing North Georgia. Our stories cover the dozens of salmonid (trout, char, salmon, and taimen) species around the world and the lessons we have learned when in the pursuit of them. These lessons changed our perspectives on fly fishing and evolved our methods on how we approach trout on different waters across the world.