We slowed for a crosswalk just after entering An Daingean, the small port town of Dingle, when we spotted our breakfast spot, Harrington’s.
It was a small, order-at-the-counter kind of place with seating in front and back rooms. Everyone there for an early breakfast chose tables in front by the windows where the morning sunlight poured in and provided a view of Dingle life getting started outside.
The menu offered both the Full Irish Breakfast and Half Irish Breakfast options, among other tasty items. Readers having traveled in Ireland may know, the Full Irish consists of eggs, bacon (two or more slices of ham), black and white blood sausages, baked beans, grilled tomatoes, and a hefty slice of bread. What readers may not know is, whether you’re into fishing or simply enjoy the beauty of valley loughs and streams, Ireland offers travelers some of the most picturesque and well-conserved rivers in Europe.
The Half Irish option seemed like plenty to my brother Don and me, so we got up from our coffee and placed an order at the counter. With a warm smile and small talk from the host, this hearty breakfast was cooked to order and served up for only a few euros. Harrington’s combo of full Irish hospitality and half Irish breakfast was a great way to start the day while on our fishing trip on the Dingle Peninsula.
It was still early when we arrived at the pull-off where we were to meet the Owenmore fishery manager. Don warned me that he wasn’t much of a fisherman and probably wouldn’t do any fishing himself but would happily come along for the scenery. He declined as warned but got up early anyway to come along and enjoy the Irish countryside. I give him a lot of credit for that.
The air coming in from Brandon Bay was cool and fresh. Standing outside the car, we could see the confluence of River Owenmore and Brandon Bay just beyond the tall grass of a sheep pasture that was not yet grazed in the spring season. River Owenmore flows into a shallow estuary next to the seaside village of Cloghane, on the north side of Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. It’s a small village that sits at the foot of Mt. Brandon where Irish is still spoken. A breeze blowing over the tall grass carried in fresh sea air, which made the warm cup of coffee I picked up at the grocery store on the way taste all the better.
Frank, the fishery manager, walked up as I was pulling on my wool socks and wellies. He was a tall, older man with white hair and wire-rim glasses. I have no idea where he lived. He had no car and there were no houses in sight. Although a few years older than Don and me, he stood tall and had a long stride – the stride of someone that hiked the length of River Owenmore more than a few times. He was prepared to spend a few hours with us as a guide but I assured him I was not that serious about catching fish and wouldn’t need a guide into the river valley. He smiled in agreement as he saw me for the beginner I am.
I stuffed my vest pockets with an assortment of tacklebox accessories while Frank sorted through the flies I brought to Ireland in my canvas bag. Working with a limited menu, he set up a small fly box with what he felt would be most appetizing to the local trout. With each choice, he named the species of fly and briefly explained why it would attract the fish. I enjoyed every word of it because he explained it in a deep Irish brogue. It was clear that Frank was quite knowledgeable. His lesson gave me a new level of respect for my humble assortment of flies.
Fully outfitted with vest, wellies, pole, and tackle, I was ready to fish. Well, at least I looked the part. The three of us strolled up the road to an ivy-covered stone bridge where, carefully peeking over the side, Frank showed us where trout gathered in a deep pool when not feeding. There they were! The water was crystal clear. It was reassuring to see that there were indeed trout in the Owenmore, but the spot where fish were not feeding was not exactly useful information. But Frank knew this river up and down and he told us about the pools and riffles where, with any luck, I could snag a brown trout or two. He suggested casting into the shadows of the trees and lower foliage along the riverbank when the sun gets high in the sky. The trout feel safe there. He also explained how the condition of the trail upstream would become increasingly difficult to transverse so we might want to limit our hike to a quarter mile or so. He showed us the box where fishermen leave a report of their catch along with the standard fee, then left on foot using that long stride to go who knows where.
Don and I began making our way along the riverbank, following a lightly worn trail, stepping over low muddy spots, onto rocks, and on top clumps of grass to keep our shoes clean. We passed a dilapidated stone cottage next to the trail. It was grown over with ivy, surrounded by shrubs, and sat perfectly in the rural setting. A little further up the trail, we came to the rusty gate that Frank mentioned. We followed his instructions and opened it, entered, and latched it behind us. Encountering a latched gate along a road or pathway in rural Ireland doesn’t necessarily mean that one is not welcome there. It usually means that there are sheep to be considered and minding the gate will help keep them in their pasture.
We secured the gate and hiked further into the River Owenmore valley. It wasn’t long before the path became overgrown and the terrain too rough to continue. The valley moor became a wild landscape that fed this crystal-clear river. It would be where we stopped hiking. We sat on some rocks for a moment to look out across the moor toward Mt. Brandon and enjoy the scenery. Don took it all in with his binoculars. I worked my way down to the river. It was time to cast a fly.
I stepped out of the weeds on the riverbank and onto a rocky outcrop. It was a beautiful spot on the freestone river, just above a natural dam. The river was 60 to 70 feet wide. By this time, the sun was high in the sky. There were plenty of bushy overhangs to shade the water but I held off a bit on Frank’s advice and cast my line into the flows between the larger rocks. Water rushed through the wider spaces and pooled into the pocket waters behind rocks that were more closely aligned. I cast first into the rushing water to let the current carry my fly downstream where the riffles settled but maintained enough movement to support an active feeding spot at depth. Then, taking advantage of the pool before me, I cast the fly upstream to let it drift along with a few leaves. The flow required more frequent casts, keeping my arm movement shallow to avoid tangling in the brush behind me, which I was apt to do.
Looking up the valley, the bog was strewn with large rocks and patched with low shrubs. It was the last week of April and the vista was vibrant green. The patchy bog stretched about two miles until it eased onto the slopes of Mt. Brandon. Snow that usually caps the mountain was mostly gone but the water from snowmelt continued to flow down its gullies and into streams that made their way through the bog and into River Owenmore.
It was getting to be late afternoon. Don joined me at the clearing down by the bridge. There was still a lot of beautiful day left; not a cloud in the sky so we explored the area a bit, driving on through Cloghane, on to Teer Cross, and past the village of Brandon where at the very end of the road we discovered Murphy’s Pub. The red clapboard pub sat across from a concrete pier that extended into the Bay. There was a blue wooden rowboat laying in the yard next to picnic tables on the patio outside. After taking in the seaside view and soaking in some sun, we stepped inside for a beer.
Murphy’s was a small family-owned pub. The proprietor said it had been in the family for decades. She was a young woman that recently returned to Brandon Bay from a hectic life in Boston as a hospital nurse. Her father, who ran the pub before her, wanted to retire so she came home about a year ago to continue the family business. Like every other pub I have visited on the Dingle Peninsula, it was a warm and friendly atmosphere. There was a warm greeting when we entered and a warm place to sit next to the fireplace. A woodfire crackled beneath a large mural of fishermen in a workboat painted on the plaster wall just above the mantle. Don and I sat down with our beer by the fire on stools across from Kenneth and Diane.
Since it was late afternoon, the four of us were the only customers in the place, not counting their shaggy, well-behaved dog. So we struck up a conversation. Like us, Kenneth and Diane discovered Murphy’s Pub while exploring the area. They were about our age, from the London area, and had come across the Irish Sea on a ferry with no reservations and no real travel plans. They were simply following their curiosity about various regions and sites in Ireland, booking their lodging as they traveled. Sounded pretty good to me. They told us about their kids, and their kids’ marriages, as if we were old friends. We told them about ours. It was the kind of stuff old folks talk about in pubs, I suppose.
The day was getting long and the sun was shining more directly through the windows adjacent to the bar, glinting off the bottles and framed photographs on the back wall. The photos held the history of her family, the pub, and the many friends that gathered there. The daughter who came home from Boston and was now the owner shared a little of that history with us. We finished our beer, the couple from London finished theirs, and we went our separate ways. It’s surprising how well you can get to know someone in an old Irish pub, having a pint together in a room with a crackling fire. Strangers there can be generous that way. It may sound corny to say, but I think the first line of Auld Lang Syne was meant to speak to such occasions. These are the old acquaintances we connect with, never to see again but enrich our lives.
Most evenings during this fishing trip were spent at the pubs of Dingle, listening to traditional music, having a pint or two, and enjoying a surprisingly good meal. There are several pubs along Main Street that offer live music whether it's tourist season or not. Our choice that night was The Dingle Pub. There was a sandwich board at the doorway advertising a featured entertainer but we paid it little attention. It was a bit crowded because this pub was also the choice of a tour bus that night. The fiddle was fiddling, the guitar was strumming, and the bodhran was drumming. I ordered our pints at the bar. There’s little I enjoy more than buying my brother a beer, and I had to act quickly before he did the same.
The musicians took a break. Next up was the host that seated us for dinner, David Geaney, the featured entertainer posted on the sandwich board outside, who won five world championships in Irish stepdance. It turns out that Mr. Geaney works at The Dingle Pub when he’s not competing and he devotes a little of his work shift to entertaining the guests. What an unexpected treat! He performed his high-energy stepdance to patrons clapping and cheering in time. A world champion dancer entertaining in this humble Dingle pub. What luck! In a world where so little is authentic, our evening’s choice for dinner, music, and beer happened to be the venue where patrons were treated to some world-class Irish dancing. There was no spotlight. No stage. He simply spread out his small wooden dance floor and made it real.
Up early and on my way back to River Owenmore the next morning, I grabbed a cup of coffee at Garvey’s Supervalu grocery store and headed over the mountain. The road through Conor Pass toward Cloghane is narrow and winding, mostly a single lane, and if you encounter a driver approaching from the other direction you or they will have to back up to a place where one can pull over. The mountain was fogged over in patches of low-lying clouds. I steered the narrow road on the downhill side with coffee in one hand and my steering wheel in the other in a white-knuckle grip.
Arriving at the River Owenmore, I parked at the same pull-over just beyond the stone bridge and put on my gear from the back of the rental car, including waders this time. I put on my vest and flat cap, grabbed my rod and fly box, and with net slung over my shoulder, hiked up the trail that we followed into the valley the day before. It’s important for the reader to understand that, for a beginner, the scene is part of the dream. It’s something the new angler thinks about. Anyone who takes up fly fishing knows. He or she imagines the perfect river and himself or herself casting a fly while standing up to the hips in cool water, taking in nature’s beauty and having a solitary place within it. Who can fault a new angler for living the dream?
It was another beautiful morning. The air was crisp and fresh, and the water was ice cold. The water flowed at the same rate as the day before, flowing down from Mt. Brandon snowmelt, past the rocks, through patches of sunlight and under the overhanging brush. The river slowed in long pools as it approached the estuary in Cloghane Bay.
Getting into a freestone river can be tricky. Unless one can find a nice sandbar to enter from, it is likely that the placement of your feet will be a negotiation with the boulders beneath. They can be slippery or loose, or both. Once you have solid footing with one foot, then it’s a matter of finding solid footing with the next without losing your balance. It’s best not to rush, lest you find yourself sitting in that ice-cold water and filling your waders.
I fished with a few of the flies hand-picked by Frank the day before. They included a Grizzly King-like pattern thought to have descended from the famous Scottish loch pattern, a Wooly Worm nymph ideal for early-season bottom searching, a Red Tag – one of the oldest fly patterns stretching back at least 150 years and known as “lady of the stream,” and the Irish Mallard & Claret – an effective sea-trout pattern for the evening and shady side of the stream.
Casting was made easier with waders than fishing off the riverbank. A few extra feet away from the trees and bushes along the bank make a huge difference. Out of the water, my waders are hot and awkward. In the water, they’re just clumsy. But there’s nothing like standing waste-high in cold water with feet firmly planted while throwing the perfect cast. And mine was nothing like the perfect cast. More practice is definitely needed. No fish were caught. But I’m learning the artform and will fish another Irish stream soon because, for me, it’s much less about fly casting or catching the fish and more about spending a bright day on a freestone river that runs out of the mountains and bogs of a western Irish peninsula.
After some fish and chips for dinner down by the harbor that evening, Don and I walked up to Neligan’s Bar on Main Street, just across the street from Foxy John’s Pub and Hardware Store. It was a small place inside with a wood-burning stove and bench seating along the walls. In front, next to the windows, was a local and very talented squeeze box performer accompanied by a guitar player we heard earlier in the week at John Benny Moriarty’s. The two were excellent together. Although the night was cold and a little rainy outside, the small venue with a small crowd warmed by the stove provided an ideal setting for the chanteys and jigs performed on our last night in Dingle.
One of the things I enjoyed most about fly fishing on the Dingle Peninsula was the company of my older brother – the fishing was almost as great as our time spent in the pubs. There couldn’t have been a better choice than Neligan’s to end our last day. The duo in front played the best chanteys I ever heard. My brother bought me a beer. It was the best beer I ever had.
For more information about the River Owenmore fishery, go to OwenmoreFishery.ie.
For more information about fly fishing in Ireland, I recommend the classic book by Peter O’Reilly titled, “Rivers of Ireland,” Merlin Unwin Books.
For more information about Dingle Peninsula pubs, go to Dingle-Peninsula.ie.
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