(An edited version of this piece appears in “Salmon of the River Lee”, a recently published ode to the river by Dan O’ Donovan. It’s a lovely book, with countless hours of research between the covers, and is available online
from www.anglebooks.com and www.rareandrecent.com.)
I’m a fair to middling (some might say mediocre) salmon angler. I tie my own flies to a reasonable standard, and can cast a decent line with a single-handed rod, or a fairly poor one with the double-hander. My father, Ger Mulcahy, known to friends and acquaintances in Cork as Gerald, was (I have been told) by contrast, an excellent fly-fisher of salmon. My first salmon on the fly on the River Lee in Cork was on a stretch of water he knew well and fished often, and I felt he was there on the Graveyard stretch that day.
My father died when I was two years of age, and my mother, then pregnant with my younger brother, moved with my older brother (then four years old) and I to Co. Wicklow to live near her brother.
As a result I have no memory of my father, and my mental image of him is a composite of old photos, vignettes and character sketches that others have kindly given me over the years.
Dad has been described as a character, full of life and fun. He always had treats for my cousins in his pockets, and they trailed him like puppies. His car had the trappings of a countryman in it, with rods, shotgun shells and waders piled willy-nilly. My mother is still very much in love with him, 44 years after his passing, and my younger brother is probably closest to his spiritual heir, having a wonderful way with people and an impish sense of humour. I’ve been reliably informed that it was a rare year that Dad didn’t catch over a hundred salmon on his beloved River Lee.
Before he died, he enrolled my brother and me into Cork Salmon Angler’s Association, something I have been very grateful for over the years. That single act opened up a wealth of interaction, history and fishing for me during my late teens and early adulthood.
Dad was a founding member of the Company, and the membership he enrolled me in has meant that I have fished on the Lee on and off for the last 25 years. I have a family of my own now, and don’t have as much time to fish as I would like, which in part accounts for my middling skills. Whenever I get a chance to visit though, I go down to the river. Like all addicts, I always have the supporting paraphernalia of my addiction to hand – the car has trout and salmon gear in it, and I can’t pass a flow of water without craning my head or stopping to look over a bridge parapet.
The day I caught my first salmon on the Lee was one that didn’t hold a lot of promise for salmon fishing, being overly bright, but a friendly wind helped ruffle the surface. I stepped into the river in chest waders, armed with a double-handed Vision rod loaded with a floating line and a sink tip. The stretch I chose that day at the top of the Graveyard was the long pool below a croy across from where the River Bride enters on the opposite bank. I was fishing with a Flamethrower on a Salar double that I had tied myself, and once I got my arm in was casting reasonably well, and stepping down the pool.
I’ve read a lot of angling books, and watched a lot of videos, including a wonderful piece by Hugh Falkus on salmon angling and reading the water. I’ve also had great advice from very generous teachers, like Dan O’ Donovan, and Betty and Michael Phelan. I’ve gotten better over the years at “sensing” where a fish might take, and on this day, against the odds, the fish hit the fly just where I expected it to.
The line stopped, and I let the loop of line I keep trapped against the rod run out, and gave a small strip-strike to set the hook. The fish was on solidly, and ran first across and then down the pool, hooping the top of the rod well over. I started to slowly walk the fish back up the pool, letting it run when it needed to. I wasn’t too concerned about the hold – I’d put enough of the Salars into my hands when tying flies to know just how sharp they are, and while I’d crimped the barbs, I was feeling fairly confident. And then the fish started to shake its head, and my confidence levels dropped.
What followed was a nerve-wracking experience that felt like it went on for hours, and left me shaking in my waders, but probably only lasted for six or seven minutes. The fish never jumped, and it was only towards the end when it started to tire that I saw broad flashes of silver in the slightly coloured water. At the last, a purplish-grey back broke the surface, and the salmon rolled to show its belly.
It was a beautiful, fresh fish, and the Flamethrower was neatly in the scissors. I supported it in the water, unhooked it, and then spent an equally nerve-wracking several minutes reviving it before sending it back to continue on its journey.
I’ve kept very few fish over my salmon fishing career. That said, I love the taste of wild salmon, and it was with mixed emotions that my first salmon on the fly from the Lee went back to fight another day.
I thanked my father that day, for the fish I believed he nudged towards my fly, and for the connections he made for me that gave me the opportunity to fish the Lee, when my family home is far away. In my mind’s eye, I see him step-casting his way down the Graveyard stretch, the light winking between the trees on the ridge, fishing his way forever to Inniscarra Bridge.