In 2006, when my youngest daughter Allison was in Grade 12, my wife Goldie and I tagged along on a musical tour of Ireland.
I’d never imagined myself travelling on a tour bus with a bunch of musicians. My teenage attempts to master blistering Led Zeppelin riffs failed miserably.
Visions of playing in a rock band vanished like midsummer morning mist on the Humber River. I might as well have taken a shot at the Montreal Canadiens training camp, odds of success being about the same, I figure.
Notwithstanding my deficit in talent, I love, listen to and appreciate music of all sorts. And while I’m probably better at hockey than pentatonic scales, neither will I be remembered for, or pass Gretzky or Hendrix sort of genes on to my children and grandchildren.
Allison definitely did not get her musical talent from yours truly, outdoor writer, likely never to be published in Rolling Stone, unless I run into Eric Clapton or Steve Earle on a salmon river. They are both avid fly anglers and I would love to write about their fishing escapades some day.
I chatted with Steve about fly fishing when he was in St. John’s last year performing at the Holy Heart Auditorium. He said if not for his schedule being so tight, he’d have taken in a bit of fall seatrout fishing while he was here. I would have happily guided him to a few plump trout and snapped a few photos. Maybe another time.
A friend of mine from Iceland guided Clapton and his entourage for a full week of fishing on a river in his Viking homeland. Old Slowhand presents a fly with similar dexterity and precision that he dedicates to blending chords to create timeless guitar licks in tunes like “Cocaine,” “Lay Down Sally” and “Layla.”
Swinging the long rod is how these super busy talented individuals wind down from life in the fast lane.
So, I found myself amidst all manners of musical talent on the road in Ireland, playing to audiences in Cork, Killarney, Galway and Dublin. I certainly wasn’t on the stage myself; rather I was living the musically fantasies of my youth, vicariously, through Allison and her friends.
Ascension Collegiate musicians were touring Ireland and presenting Irish listeners with their renditions of Newfoundland/Irish favourites like “Let Me Fish off Cape St. Mary’s” and “The Belle of Belfast City.” There was much musical and cultural sharing. Our Newfoundland kids attended musical workshops delivered by some of the most talented fiddlers, vocalists and bodhran drum beaters in all of the Emerald Isle.
I found myself wondering if maybe I should have given just a bit more energy and devotion to my guitar lessons. Oh well, at least I’d have one week of life in the fast lane, on tour in a foreign land.
It wasn’t quite as intense as depicted by the Eagles on their Hotel California album, but I felt the stress. To fish was the only answer.
I might not be much on the tin whistle, but I could riffle a Blue Charm as good as most. I’d snag an Irish salmon on a fly I’d tied with Newfoundland moose hair. How’s that for cultural sharing?
Lugging along a duffel of fishing gear, I rode a bus from Cork to Fermoy, a small town built on the banks of River Blackwater, Ireland’s second largest river. Ian Powell, a retired chemist from Wales, picked me up in his aging Land Rover at the bus stop. Ian and his wife Glenda operate a salmon fishing lodge on the Blackwater.
Glenda, who hails from Belfast, is no ordinary fishing guide. She’s one of the top female fly casters in the world, and practises every day of the year, winter and summer. I fished and cast under her tutorage for most of the morning. It was my very first introduction to the two-handed spey style. I’ve never looked back.
Ian and I spent the afternoon on a more remote section of the river. He confided in me his wish to one day swing a fly rod with Glenda’s finesse and power. Most men would not say that about anything remotely related to the outdoors. But if you saw Glenda throw a wicked tight loop out to 150 feet, you’d fully understand.
My timing was poor on the Blackwater and I never hooked my Irish salmon, but I did see for the first time up close and personal world-class fly casting.
The musical tour moved westward, across the Cork and Kerry Mountains to Killarney, with Metallica’s rousing version of “Whiskey in the Jar” loudly celebrating the crossing. I had planned to night-fish for seatrout in an estuary just outside of town, but my guide’s aunt fell seriously ill and foiled our schedule. Seatrout in County Kerry would have to wait for another day.
Off to the castle
We travelled north along the west coast of Ireland, crossed the Shannon River near Limerick, and settled into a cozy youth hostel in Galway.
I had big plans for this stop. While the kids played their hearts out, I rented a car and drove to Balynahinch Castle, in Connemara. It was my first time driving on the left side of the road, and to make things just a little more interesting, the winding narrow blacktop was lined with sheep. The crazy roundabout intersections didn’t help either. Anyway, I made it to the castle in one piece.
The Balynahinch estate fishery is managed by Simon Ash, a very enthusiastic young man, originally a city boy from Dublin. He completed a four-year degree in environmental science and landed a dream job as Balynahinch’s fishery manager.
We exchanged salmon stories over strong coffee, in front of a grandiose stone fireplace, topped by a rough-sawed Irish Oak mantle. The smell of burning peat filled the air. The scene I’m sure relived countless times through the ages, men talking of fish, one story leading seamlessly into another. After all, this was primarily a fishing castle, my kind of castle for sure.
We eventually finished our chat and actually wetted a fly.
It was this day on Ballynahinch River that I would catch my first Irish salmon. In fact, it was the first salmon I’d ever caught outside of Newfoundland. And, as a bonus, I learned serious lessons about the ugly side of salmon aquaculture. I’ll tell you the details next week.
Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at email@example.com.