After a few busy weekends of fly casting workshops, game fairs and a fly fair where I was giving fly tying and fly casting demonstrations I was finally able to get a few more days fishing on my local river the Sixmilewater in Co. Antrim, (I get withdrawal symptoms if I can't get out at least twice a week). This is the river I guide on and one I have fished since I was a boy, having been introduced to it by my father George Munn who was also an avid fly angler and fly dresser. It is the river where, for me, it all began. It is the first place I hooked and landed a brown trout on a dry fly.
I remember that momentous event as if it was yesterday. The trout took a badger quill dressed on a size 14, that I had cast upstream onto a little fast run just below a stretch of the river called Summerhill. To my amazement I hooked the fish but then in my excitement I stumbled backwards, tripped over some rocks on the bank and ending up sitting on my backside, while I hauled the 10’’ brownie onto the sandy bank. I then pounced on it like some wild cat catching a sparrow - so not the most graceful of angling feats. I remember staring at that wonderful creature as its heavily spotted flanks glistened in the morning sunlight and the surge of pride welled inside me as I held it in my hands, I was just 6 or 7 years of age and that was me hooked for a lifetime of fly angling.
Sorry about the reminiscing but for me great angling and fly fishing is all about memories and this river after a lifetime of fishing holds many for me. One of the wonderful things about my river is it is part of the Lough Neagh system and one of the rivers that gets a run of lough trout called Dollaghan - a migratory species that travels up our rivers from the lough in the summer until the end of the season to spawn. We fish for them during the day normally with traditional wet flies and nymphs and then in the evening we use hair wing flies normally dressed on doubles and fished on a slow sinking line or a sink tip or intermediate line, very similar to fishing for sea trout on a river. Most Dollaghan average 2 - 5lb which are grand wild trout anywhere in the world but many are bigger. My largest to date was taken just last year and was estimated at around 13 - 14lb, I say estimated as we put almost all our fish back. As the famous American angler Lee Wulff once said “Gamefish are too valuable to be caught only once”. The biggest I heard landed was a fish of a friend of mine, Bobby Bryan’s as he landed a colossal 20lb. Some truly marvellous trout, I know guys that travel the world to capture fish like these and we have it on our doorstep. We are simply blessed and if managed right we would without doubt have one of the best wild trout fisheries in Europe.
Tactics for Dollaghan vary slightly from river to river. You can have good sport during the day if the conditions are right, normally just before or just after a flood or fresh when the water has a hint of colour and looks like a dark fine Irish whiskey. However the most successful time for the big fish is the evening and night fishing, unfortunately if it’s a moonlit night it is often very slow, but strangely that’s often a good night for an occasional salmon that can make your night worthwhile. The best conditions for night fishing are normally a cloudy sky a day or two after a flood, when the water is gin clear. If you know where the fish are it can be super stuff, and this fishing can compete with any fly fishing that I have done in many countries and you can often land some fantastic fish, but like all fishing it also depends on your luck.
Now whether Dollaghan feed on their return to the river is a point of speculation and I generally practice catch and release so, there are not too many stomach contents to inspect. However in those that I have looked at there is no evidence to suggest that these trout are gorging themselves. Perhaps like sea trout they do take the odd invertebrate. Certainly the Dollaghan do not eat lots when they are in the river and take like the salmon at times probably due to pure aggression. Dollaghan, like salmon, have certain lies you will find them throughout the river system, but like any large trout they like a bit of cover - overhanging trees, undercut banks and so on. They will also lie around rocks and in deep runs and pools.
I love fly fishing at night, to me there is almost something magical about it, it’s the realm not only of Dollaghan but of bats, otters and owls. The stillness and the sounds of the river and the sights that you see, for me is wonderful. But a warning - make sure if you're doing this that you know where you are walking, believe me you don't want to end up swimming in a river at night! For first timers I'd recommend hiring a qualified guide, yes someone like me, and I make no apology for the obvious plug. I learnt by growing up on the rivers, fishing with my father and trial and error. If you are on holiday or just visiting and want to maximise your chances of hooking a Dollaghan, a guide who knows the water and the tactics will help. If you're not used to the rivers and have never fished them at night, a guide can help from a safety point of view as well to tell you where to step. Believe me I have seen many big men get quite unsettled or even frightened while night fishing, sometimes the mind can play tricks at night, and things sometimes do go bump in the night so if you are new to night fishing it’s nice to have company, although I must say I love night fishing on my own, but I’m used to it.
At home Dollaghan fishing has become a lot more popular with local anglers, and I think the attraction of these wonderful and unique brown trout is their size and that they are truly wild. While fishing in the dusk and into the darkness the excitement you feel if you get a take, not knowing if it’s going to be a 1lb or 10lb fish, or even a salmon which happens quite often, just keeps bringing me back night after night. In fact, the last few months of the season when the Dollaghan fishing is at its peak, it is almost like being on the night shift. I normally feel very tired during the day and then at night become alive and totally awake. This can take its toll on your body as it messes up your body clock, but it’s worth it, it’s all over by the end of October and there is a long winter to recover where you can spend your evenings tying flies, relaxing and remembering all those late night battles.
Anyway i must say, in my job I have been lucky to fish in many places around the world, on many rivers and lakes. This is great and I hope to continue doing it, as there are so many places i still want to fish and write about, but it has also made me realize that what I have locally in the north of Ireland is wonderful and somewhat unique. Growing up on these local rivers at times I may have taken them and their fish for granted and I think a lot of the local anglers I know still do. Probably anglers the world over that have something a little special do the same, sometimes we just don’t realise what we have, but to be honest some of us are simply blessed. Now it’s not all good news, we do have some problems in N.Ireland, there’s too many houses being built along rivers, pollution from time to time and illegal netting just to name a few, but that said we still have good fishing and the Dollaghan so far still survive. If we could get the problems stopped we without doubt would have one of the world’s finest brown trout fisheries. There are very few places in the world where you will catch quite a few wild brown trout over 6lb pounds and think nice fish but it’s not a monster.
We need to start treasuring these wonderful fish, their rivers and their unique home, the Lough.
Six main inflowing rivers to Lough Neagh which, going anti-clockwise from the northern most river are the river Maine and tributaries , Moyola, Ballinderry, Blackwater, Upper Bann and my local Six-Mile-Water. The right time can be from the end of June after a spate, through to the end of the season on the 31st of October. The biggest fish are normally caught in the rivers during September and October but normally only when conditions are right, and Dollaghan are perhaps the hardest to catch of all game fish due to the conditions in Ireland.