Lough Mask is 20,000 acres of the cleanest, natural water to be found anywhere in the world. It lies where the limestone central plains of Ireland meet the rugged sandstone mountains of West Mayo on Ireland's Atlantic coast. It's proximity to the Atlantic ensures that the area is never short of wind and rain and has a constant supply of fresh clean water. The complex geology under and around the Lough, and the rapidly changing weather and light levels, makes Mask a place of continuous variety.
Brown trout of up to two pounds come quite freely to the fly and three pounders are common. Bigger trout take the fly at various times, in fact I saw a five and a six pounder last week and every year some lucky sod lands a double figure trout on the fly. But these larger trout are more usually caught by trolling spoons and baits. The large ferox trout patrol the deeps and there are shoals of smaller trout in the deeps also. The trout of between one and six pounds are our target and they inhabit certain preferred areas of the lake.
There are vast areas of shallows, sandy bays, rocky shores, reed lined shores, river mouths and islands - all features that are potential trout holding areas. Indeed even the deep open water produces surface action for the fly fisherman. Therein lies the dilemma for the visitor to Lough Mask - where do you start fishing?
Without a doubt local knowledge is vital for success, but a short cut to this success is to hire the services of a local boatman (known in Ireland as a ghillie). Even if you are familiar with the flies and techniques to be used , you may not be able to find feeding trout without knowledge of the current feeding habits of the fish. The trout tend to stay in feeding areas for periods from a few hours to a few weeks. The intensity and frequency of their feeding depends upon the availability of their food. For example: Mayflies are available in large numbers in certain areas for periods of up to three weeks, and the trout (hopefully) will also be there. It is tempting to suggest that a beginner on Lough Mask should come at Mayfly time, but in reality good fishing depends more on weather conditions than on the trout's feeding habits, so either April or September can provide the wind and cloud required to ensure good daytime fly fishing.
The most popular (and effective) way to fish for trout on Lough Mask is with a floating or slow sinking line on a ten or eleven foot rod. A team of 2, 3 or 4 wet flies (size 8 - 10) dragged through a wave on a cloudy day usually gets a response from the trout feeding near the surface. In brighter or calmer conditions, smaller flies (size 12 -14) are used, or dry flies if fish are showing. Leaders can be from 6 to 10 pounds - use finer Ieaders for finer weather. The colour of the leader can also be important and clear or coloured leaders will both have their day depending on water clarity. The best way to find the correct combination of fly size, pattern and leader type is for angling partners to use different arrangements until one has proved itself by landing a fish or two.
Many Irish flies are impressionistic rather than imitative. For example the 'Bumbles' which have full body hackles (palmered). These, when dragged through a wave, represent the size and colour of a natural insect without looking at all like it when viewed dry. Other flies are downright lures, which look nothing like a natural but provoke a response when pulled fast past a feeding trout. These flies may have brightly coloured bodies or long hackles and we can only guess at what the trout think they are. But if they catch trout, who cares ?
Trout can be caught on the fly right from opening day on February 15th, although some trout may not be in good condition following the rigours of spawning. Sinking lines probably produce better results at this time of the year; because of the lack of surface life, the trout will be feeding on the bottom, or at best, in mid-water. Fishing very shallow water may give trout a better opportunity to see your flies - and lures and nymphs would be the preferred patterns.
In March and early April the first surface flies appear, the Duckfly being the most notable, and some good surface fishing can be had. The trout continue to feed sub-surface on shrimp and snail and the list of flies to use are topped by Bibio, Black Pennel and Sooty Olive. It is worth noting that shrimp and snail are found in all shallow water, and your chances of finding trout feeding on them are greater than finding trout feeding on surface flies.
In April, lake olives appear and the trout's interest in the surface increases. The list of flies grows and now includes Green Olive, Fiery Brown, Claret & Mallard and of course the Green Peter. This is probably Lough Mask's most popular fly and is fished by many anglers all through the season.
Mayflies appear in mid-May, and green and yellow Mayfly patterns are both effective. The Golden Olive Bumble is also highly rated. Dry fly and dapping are very popular when the trout are rising freely and, if conditions are right, it is easy to see why this is a busy fishing time. lf the weather is too bright or calm then evening fishing is the best option. Buzzer fishing (hatching chironomids) can produce trout if the Mayfly doesn't.
From June onwards sedges are on the water, especially in the evenings and, if the days are hot and bright, this is often the best time to fish. July can provide some very good dry fly fishing in the evening and even through the night for the very keen angler.
August sees the return to more daytime fishing, and terrestrials blown onto the water such as the Daddy Long Legs are big enough to bring up the already well fed trout. Daphnia (water fleas) can be found in the warmer months in all depths of water and, despite their size, can attract trout in large numbers and for long periods of time. This is because of the sheer quantity of fleas in the water and it's not unlike a whale eating Krill (shrimp) in vast quantities. Trout feeding on daphnia can be hard to find, because of the huge areas of water to search, but not hard to catch once you have found them because they will take a wide range of flies.
September sees an intensifying of the trout's feeding habits with a corresponding further improvement in fly fishing. The range of items on the trout's menu is now very big and includes fish fry and beetles. It is not necessary to know exactly what the trout is feeding on but, more important, where he is feeding. 1f you can get your team of traditional flies over his head while he is feeding you will get a response. Very often in September, this means going back to the shallows where you started the season in February and March.
It is Mayfly time here at the moment and a description of last Wednesdays fishing may be of interest to some readers. Another local boatman and myself decided that the conditions were perfect for a few hours fishing. A strong south westerly was blowing straight into the bay where we knew mayfly should be hatching, and there was good cloud cover. We found fish straight away and in the first two hours Martin had four trout to my one. 'I must be doing something wrong' I thought. We lunched on an island and I changed my leader from clear to coloured and put on some smaller flies. Martin had caught fish on all his flies so he didn't need to change. For the next three hours we repeated the mornings drifts, and a few more nearby. We both caught fish on all the flies we had on, which included a Green Mayfly, Sooty Olive, Bibio, Golden Olive, Bumble and a Wickhams. By six o'clock we had boated and released thirteen trout, averaging two pounds, up to three and a half pounds , and risen a few more. In the next few days the wind went to the north and decreased considerably and, although the trout were still there and active, the catch rate went down. This illustrates how important conditions are and, unfortunately, there is nothing you can do about the weather except watch the forecast and don't go unless the conditions are right.
For details of accommodation and boat hire on Lough Mask, you can contact me on:
Brian Joyce, Derrypark Lodge, Tourmakeady, Co.Mayo, Ireland.