They're Fly in Fermanagh

Jenny Cathcart is introduced to fishing by top angler Patrick Trotter

It is the last Saturday before the trout fishing season opens on March 1 2006. Frankie McPhillips's shop in the Buttermarket at Enniskillen is busy with fishermen chatting animatedly about their plans for the new season.

Some are stocking up on the latest fly dressing materials, colourful strands of exotic feathers and silks mostly imported from China or India, while others are purchasing some of Frankie's renowned hand tied flies; lake flies with wonderful names like ‘Sooty Olive’ made with squirrel hair or the ‘Muddler’ made with deer hair; the ‘Wulff’, an imitation May fly tied with grey rabbit fur and angora wool; ‘French Partridge’, a wet fly that sinks in the water or ‘Erne Special’, a dry fly which floats on the surface.

Frankie's place is one of the most renowned shops in the country and his tied flies are sold in Harrods in London and Thomas & Thomas in New York.

For my part, as a complete ingenue, I need to get some of the basic facts straight before I even consider joining this enthusiastic band of fisher folk. It might be blindingly obvious but I had not realised that the word ‘angling’ describes the angle created between rod and line.

Once I acquire all the accoutrements: a spinning rod or a fly rod which can cost up to £1000, a reel which might set me back a cool £500, dead baits, dressed flies, nets, bags, in short the whole paraphernalia, I can go game fishing for trout and salmon or coarse fishing for pike, perch, rud, bream or roach.

When the mayfly season arrives in mid May I could be scouring the riverbanks for may flies. Dapping sounds just up my stream for it is conducted from a boat drifting down wind using a long, lightweight rod, set up so that the natural fly gently skims the surface of the water, a simple method that often entices the largest fish.

Before I go fishing I will need to buy a fishing license and a rod license so as not to fall foul of the water bailiff. During the trout season from March 1 to September 30 there is a six-trout bag limit and a 12 inch size limit. There is no closed season for pike fishing but there is a bag limit of two fish per angler per day and all those over four kilograms weight must be returned to the water alive.

I would do well to hire an experienced ghillie who will know that the waters of Lower Lough Erne offer brown trout or sea trout, while pike prefer the narrower reedy beds of Upper Lough Erne. With his local knowledge he will tell me when it is best to fish from the bank or take a boat to waters where fish will be plentiful. Pike like to swim near fodder fish for they can eat up to five times their own weight each year.

At one time the Erne was teeming with up to a quarter of a million salmon each year and was known to be one of the most prolific waters in Europe, but in the 1950s when the hydro electric power station was constructed at Ballyshannon a huge barrage inhibited the free flow of salmon from the sea to the lakes and back, despite the construction of a fish pass.

Thus in the Erne, salmon is a comparative rarity nowadays. On the other hand, the more agile eel, which breeds in the Sargasso Sea in the Gulf of Mexico, does make it through the fish pass and can even move overland along the river bank to arrive in the Erne. In recent years the zebra mussel has upset the ecology of the waterway for it feeds by filtering plankton from the water which clears it and encourages weed growth on the bed of the lake. This has led to an increasing population of perch and fewer of the roach and bream which are favoured by coarse fishermen.

There are some Fermanagh fishermen who prefer to practice their sport along riverbanks and on inland lakes. Should I decide I prefer that option then the best instructor I could have is Patrick Trotter.

The house in Main Street, Maguiresbridge where Patrick grew up backed onto the Colebrooke river. At the end of the garden was one of the best fishing rivers in Northern Ireland. Like other young boys, Patrick began catching sticklebacks with a hazel rod, a brown line, a penny hook and a cork supplied by the local publican. When he was seventeen he acquired his first fly rod and began fishing in earnest. Fifty years on Patrick is now the proud recipient of a Federation of Fly Fishers qualification, the highest and most prestigious in game angling instruction.

Listening to Patrick describe his passion for angling it is clear that his entire experience as a fisherman has been driven not by greed (he always puts the fish back) or pride (catching the biggest fish was never his goal) but the sport, the conquest and the ultimate catch.

Patrick, who ties his own flies, describes this type of fly fishing:

‘It is about the combination of fur, feather and steel that is the fly. Success depends on the way one creates the illusion of size, shape and colour and how it is presented to the fish so that it regards the fly as a living morsel,’

To better understand what that living morsel might be, Patrick has studied the basic entomology of the river Colebrooke to find out which tiny animals and vertebrates lie on the riverbed. It so happens there is a good biodiversity in the river which means that fish like living there. Each year the river is stocked with six-week fed fry and fingerlings obtained from a brood stock which have been identified as indigenous in the river.

Patrick gained such a wide reputation as a successful fly fisherman that others began asking how he did it, and so he decided to become an angling instructor. To this end he sat the Salmon and Trout National Instructor's Certificate (STANIC) exam and then he gained an Advanced Professional Game Angling Instructor (APGAI) certificate.

Not content with these awards, Patrick set his sights on the Federation of Fly Fishers exam in America which meant learning about angling techniques, terms and training, not only in Europe but in the Americas. Patrick managed to achieve what only one other European fisherman has done; he obtained both the FFF certificate and the FFF masters exam in one day.

The wily trout is clearly Patrick's favourite fish and more especially the wild mountain variety he finds in the Cooneen lake high up in the Fermanagh hills. A new scheme introduced by the Erne and Melvin Enhancement Company and the Fermanagh District Council aims to upgrade fishing facilities at six small loughs, stocking them with fish and providing fishing stands with wheelchair access for disabled anglers.

I am already relishing the fresh mountain air on my cheeks and the red glow of the late evening sunset as I stand skillfully casting off from one of these fishing stands, but I fancy I am a gatherer rather than a hunter and I wonder if I shall be as charitable as Patrick when it comes to throwing back my fish.