Moyola memories live on in Canada

Story and Photography By Peter McMullan

As we get older our reflections on past fishing adventures become ever more selective. The disappointing days, for the most part, slip off the memory shelf never to be recalled. The good days grow in stature, the clarity of the images forever shining bright along with the hope that there is still time left to add to the collection.
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Admittedly, I have to be one of the lucky ones for I have been fishing seriously for close on 60 years, first in my native Northern Ireland and, since 1971 in British Columbia, Canada. For the most obvious of reasons, it’s good to be able to report no significant decline in effort or enthusiasm.

An early riser, by both nature and habit, I can still wake well before dawn, ahead of the alarm clock’s raucous call, grab a quick breakfast and then drive dark roads swept with wind and rain, and sometimes even snow, before making my way down to the river hoping for a chance at an elusive winter-run steelhead.

Or, as spring gives way to summer, I can have my boat in the water and the rods rigged and fishing for feisty Pacific chinook salmon long before 6.30 a.m. That’s when the first ferry pulls away from home town Nanaimo’s Departure Bay on its 95-minute trip, across the Strait of Georgia, from Vancouver Island to Horseshoe Bay and mainland British Columbia.

Only weeks back such an effort, timed to meet a low slack tide, was rewarded with a chinook of just over 18 lbs, one of those prime, early run fish, fattened through the winter on mature herring with flesh that was neither white nor red but rather showing varying subtle tones of pink. Grilled with butter it made for superb eating.

One more for the book of memories so many of us keep, some mentally, some in diary form, others through carefully recorded notes, perhaps now computer-based, supported by lots of photos of people and places, of fish and fishermen.

In my case there are also the treasured clippings from a long ago career with the Belfast Telegraph, one encouraged by then editor Jack Sayers and sports editor Malcolm Brodie to write about a passion for fish and fishing. Of course, not all that early work has survived but some fading examples remain at the bottom of a desk drawer, precious reminders of a time when I fished at every opportunity for brown trout and for the salmon that come back each year to such rivers as the Mourne and the Strule, the Lower Bann, the Glenarm, the Ballinderry, the Maine and the Moyola..

My very first day as a cub reporter was January 1, or perhaps January 2, 1955 so, for the second half of the 1950s, the young reporter, in his late teens and early twenties, was finding his way in a strange, exciting new world. Budgetary restraints meant most of my fishing was on unrestricted waters, free from the constraints, and expense, of private beats and angling club memberships.

Those doors opened later, and the quality of my fishing improved accordingly, but it was still the River Moyola that gave me my very first Atlantic salmon, a bright 10 lb fish that holds a very special place in my heart to this day. Of course, it would be nice to recall how it was taken on a self-tied fly, fished on a venerable, handed-down split cane rod, but the truth is altogether more prosaic.

No one in my family had the slightest interest in fishing or fish, beyond what ended up on the table, so there was no heirloom tackle to cherish, no tradition of fly-fishing to be passed on from father to son. Happily, my own consuming love of the sport now lives on in our two sons with more recently arrived grandson Finn a sure recruit for the future.

Eldest son Richard caught his first trout off Lower Lough Erne’s Eagle Point at a very young age, nearer three than four, so it should not be too long before Finn is being encouraged to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, his uncle and Conor, his father. That should help to keep us all young at heart.

Now turn back the clock an exact half century, to the Moyola, the river falling and clearing following a mid-week spate. It was a Sunday in late June, 1955 and my 350 cc Royal Enfield motorcycle had made quick work of the dawn run over all but deserted roads from Belfast through Antrim, Randalstown and Toomebridge to the pool at New Bridge. I was weeks away from my 20th birthday and salmon fishing was a challenge for the future. This was a day for brown trout, nothing more, and I had yet to invest in my first fly rod.

Small blue and silver Devon minnows, an older Mitchell spinning reel loaded with 5lb (breaking strain) nylon, and a fibre glass rod seemed more than adequate and, inevitably, no landing net, no sharp-pointed gaff. The pool below the bridge proved unproductive so I clambered back up the sloping rock sill, the flow threatening to top my thigh boots, and began to cast upstream into the deeper water.

And that was where I hooked, played and eventually managed to secure - the word ‘land’ hardly works in the circumstances - my very first Atlantic salmon as it made a final, tiring dash for the lower pool.

At the time I wrote for the Telegraph features page: "As I floundered after it, the fish caught behind a projecting rock half way down the slope and I was able to dive on it before getting my finger through its gills.

"Not pretty by any means and certainly not enough to impress the bystander, leaning over the parapet of the bridge, who later remarked, in the broadest of accents and to no one in particular: ‘Man, there was somebody watching over him the day’ ".

Needless to say salmon fishing became a defining priority from then on and, as the 1960s went their way, I had the good fortune to learn to fish with a fly for salmon and to enjoy some of the best of the local waters, notably the River Mourne and the River Finn, just across the Border in Co. Donegal, and Lough Melvin, in Co. Fermanagh, where we could fish for, and occasionally take salmon off the Garrison shore in February and March.

Then there was the early season brown trout fishing on the Sixmilewater, a river dear to my heart to this day since it was on the stretch above Templepatrick Bridge that I began to work seriously with the dry fly, often accompanied by close friends Moore Anketell and Jimmy Telford. The olives begin to hatch around noon in March and April and there were days when a few hours snatched from journalistic duties were rewarded with three or four handsome fish.

Other days we came home empty handed, convinced the trout we could see rising steadily along the straight glide above the bridge were just too well educated. No doubt that identical strain of brownies, generations removed, are still leaving dainty rise forms in the very same spot.

Truly that particular decade, the 1960s, was good to me in so many other ways, both professionally and in meeting and marrying Daphne Love, who has always understood my deep-seated love of fishing and who encouraged and supported me in our eventual family move to British Columbia at the start of the ‘70s.

Long before then, spinning tackle gave way to two split cane trout fly rods, both by R.C.Moore of Belfast, which I have to this day, and a 14 ft, three-piece, Hardy Wye split cane salmon rod. Heavy by today’s carbon fibre-based standards but still a beautifully finished rod that helped me to cover the distant lies on larger rivers like the Finn and the Mourne.

Moore’s shop, on Royal Avenue, was conveniently located opposite the Telegraph and it was the rare day when I did not drop in to talk with Bob Moore and Ken Rankin, two respected experts in their time, and their apprentice, Roy Graham, from Lough Erne’s Boa Island where his father, Jack, was a noted boatman, fisherman and real character.

The Erne days were another highlight with big brown trout to be caught on trolled lures in the spring before the annual May fly hatch brought old friends together to stay and fish from Brendan and Mamie Faughnan’s home further down the lakeshore. Schoolteacher Brendan could sing like a lark and was wonderful company on the water as we worked the drifts with wet flies and dapped naturals, always watching, hoping for the sudden splash of a rising fish.

Later in the day, the spent flies, easily seen dancing in the trees and above the shoreline bushes, would drop back onto the water to offer the chance of quite superb sport to the dry artificial.

Anketell and Telford, from Antrim, were regular visitors in those distant days along with Ballymena’s George McCartney, Omagh’s Bertie Anderson and Mike Murray, a Scot from Belfast who really cherished his fishing opportunities. Time moves on and, while so many of them are no longer with us, they will ever remain a part of my fishing life, fine companions on the water as well as later in the evening when the time came for another toast, another song, another story.

Then there was the earlier boyhood lure of Joseph Braddel’s, in Arthur Square, where the Clark brothers, Harry, Bobby and Jim, not forgetting young Jim, sold and repaired fishing tackle and shooting equipment under the watchful eye of their father. While his name escapes me, the essentially old-fashioned image remains of a small, elderly man in a dark jacket with a high wing collar.

The polished wood shop fittings were from a much earlier age, and this was in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, and I vaguely remember a central case displaying stuffed birds, rows of new rods in neat cloth bags, shining shot guns, drawer after partioned drawer of trout and salmon flies and a steady stream of familiar and regular faces, all ever willing to answer the questions of the boy who lived to fish.

For the most part their names are long forgotten but a few still come to mind: Finaghy mechanic Davie Moore, who later sold me my first motorcycle, Lex McVeigh, Billy Murphy, the only one of my own generation, Billy Armour, Wilbur Little and George Lough, a stalwart member of The Pickwick Angling Club ‘instituted 1911’.

My sense today is that this was an era when sinking fly lines were pretty much the norm for salmon fishing but, by then, my bookshelf included a copy of the classic Greased Line Fishing for Salmon, by "Jock Scott". It was this early 1950s title that encouraged me to try to sink tips and floating lines for what was, in the main, a summer and early autumn fishery. Later, much later, the same tactics, and flies, continue to serve me well for summer run steelhead on Vancouver Island.

Some great days Irish followed and I have the hand-written notes to remind me of hooking nine Mourne grilse and landing four to 6 lbs , all on shrimp flies tied by Newtownstewart’s John McAleer, on June 30, 1970, and of a 12 lb Lower Bann salmon caught on a No 12 – small indeed - claret and hare’s ear, at Movanagher on June 18, 1969.

That was most certainly another one for the memory book in that I was again after brown trout and was using the better of my cane trout rods. Today the rod hangs in virtual retirement on the wall of the room where I write, the set in the tip a reminder of a memorable catch. So does the lasting sense of a salmon that, for a while, was totally beyond my control as it charged downstream from the Flat below the weir, through the King’s Hill, a heavy, boulder-strewn run, eventually to be netted in the deeper waters of the Neck. What excitement

Then there was the autumn grilse from the River Strule, downstream from Omagh, that was eaten by a pig, at least all but the tail which was still visible in the corner of the animal’s mouth when I came along to collect it. What happened? Salmon grilse are dainty little fish. This one weighed around 5 lbs and the noosed cord, securing it to a branch, had slipped free of the slender wrist above the tail. And we all know pigs take no prisoners when it comes to an opportunistic meal!

To my way of thinking, that’s still what my fishing is all about. Not so much the taking but rather the whole essence of the sport, the anticipation, the day-to-day experiences, the friendships and the trips, the many and varied locations, the tackle, the traditions and always the golden memories left behind by those very special days, some long ago, others yet to be enjoyed.

In British Columbia we strongly support catch and release – in fact it’s mandatory on many streams and lakes - and, in fresh water, we use only single, barbless hooks. Again, it’s the law. This conservation-drive approach means there should still be plenty of salmon and trout for grandson Finn when he and his friends come of fishing age.

May their lines be tight, their fish bright and strong and their days on the water every bit as rewarding as mine have been.