At 2pm I received a phone call - we had to board by 4.30. I hurriedly phoned my friend at work to see if he could leave straight away. It was difficult, but he managed it, and soon we were racing down the M4 hoping there would be no traffic jams. We made the ferry with just ten minutes to spare. This route is the longest crossing, sailing through the night All the sleeping berths were booked but we had managed to book two sleeper chairs, strange contraptions on an upper deck, looking like barber's chairs. Having seen them we didn't much fancy the idea of sleeping on them so once we had set sail we sought an alternative. We were in luck - someone had cancelled their booking on a 4-berth cabin. If we paid a small premium, over and above the price of a 2-berth cabin, we could have the 4-berth. It seemed a small price to pay for what we hoped would be a good night's sleep.
We put our small overnight bags into the cabin and went out on deck for an hour or so before looking for the bar. We found there were two, and investigated both. The first was the cocktail bar, very plush, almost empty and looking very clean and clinical. The few people drinking there were dressed very smartly, and were drinking, I suppose, cocktails. We asked the barman if he served Guinness, and got a very condescending "No sir" We went off in search of the Guinness bar. What a contrast that was! It was noisy, smoky and heaving. We fought our way to the bar and after a few minutes were served two pints of the black stuff. There weren't many seats but we managed to squeeze in at a long table at the far end, next to an Irishman who had quite obviously been there for some time. My friend Dave, a salesman by profession, is a very chatty type. He has, though he hates people to say it of him, the gift of the gab. He sat down opposite the Irishman who was obviously in his cups. After a few seconds silence, and by way of being friendly, Dave looked across and said in the way English people do:
"Hello, you alright?".
The Irishman stared suspiciously across the table.
"I know you" he said in a loud voice more than slightly tinged with a Northern Irish accent, "You're a copper!".
Dave and I looked at each other.
"You're a copper" continued our new friend, "I can smell 'em!"
This was attracting a bit of attention from some of the other drinkers in the bar. Dave tried to convince him that he wasn't a "copper", but to no avail.
"You're a copper", he kept saying.
We looked around at the other people in the bar, smiling, trying to convey the message that our new friend had had rather too much to drink. But they too had begun to eye us suspiciously; some of them had even stopped drinking. This was at the height of the troubles, and the last thing you wanted was to have someone announcing that you were a copper in a bar full of drunken Irishmen on a boat bound for the Emerald Isle. It was time to leave. We hastily finished our pints and made our way back to the cabin. Almost. It was quite a big boat, and the small narrow corridors all looked the same. We managed to get lost, and to make matters worse, our Irish friend had also left the bar, and seemed to be around every corner. There followed a quite hilarious ten minutes during which we seemed to be forever bumping into him, then turning tail and running down the gangways followed by "You're a bloody copper! I can smell 'em".
Eventually we reached the safety of our cabin.
We arrived off the Irish coast just after dawn. We went up onto the deck to watch the sun rise over the port and were forced to draw our coats around us as we felt the chill of the early morning. Going through customs at Cork we were pulled to one side and had our bags searched. As we stood there the Irishman came towards us. We wondered what he would say. But he walked straight past us, and didn't even seem to recognise us. I blamed Dave for all of this, telling him he looked very suspicious as his eyebrows were too close together…
The drive through Ireland was uneventful, though gave us a few tantalising glimpses of rivers and streams. At last we pulled up at the hotel. Walking inside we immediately met our host, the Englishman who owned the Blackwater Lodge at that time. It wasn't the friendliest of welcomes. Perhaps he too thought we were coppers. We were told where our rooms were, where the bar was, what time it closed and directed to the beat rota pinned to the wall. We were also told in no uncertain terms that fishing tackle wasn't allowed in the bedrooms. Hmmm… was this a fishing hotel or not? I then ventured to ask what he thought were the chances of a salmon that week. The reply caught us completely unawares.
"If you think you're just going to come here and catch a salmon then you would be better off going to another hotel and playing golf. Don't think you can just come here and catch a salmon. If you catch a salmon I'll give you a bottle of champagne!"
We were gob-smacked. Never before or since have I had a reception like that at a fishing hotel. Feeling somewhat chastised, but not a little annoyed, we went to our room. To get a little of our own back we immediately started setting up rods and reels, in the bedroom! That would teach him…
On the first day we decided it would be a good idea to have a ghillie with us, so hired the services of one of the local experts, quite a well known angler who was writing for the English angling press at that time. Dave and I aren't snobbish about things like this. We don't expect the ghillie to set up or carry our tackle, or any of the things some people expect of them. We drove to the beat allocated for the morning of the first day, Upper Balleyhooley, and parked the car. Expecting our ghillie to immediately offer to carry our bags, and ready to give a firm refusal we were just a little taken aback when he asked us if he could put his tackle in our bags. Ah well, this was Ireland after all!
We walked to the river and, having been shown the lies, commenced to fish. The morning wore on with no sign of a salmon, and at midday we moved to another beat, Ballylevane, a rather bland stretch of water that we came to dislike. Here we made the mistake of asking our ghillie, an obvious expert caster, about double-handed fly rods. He immediately took my rod and began demonstrating thirty-yard casts in the field by the river. He became quite carried away with this and I couldn't get my rod back. After about an hour of this impressive but rather monotonous demonstration Dave said, very tellingly: "I might not know much about salmon fishing, but one thing I do know - you won't catch any salmon in that field".
This did the trick, and I got my rod back. We fished through the afternoon but all I caught were some lovely perch, to about a pound, these on the single-handed fly rod.
The next day we decided to dispense with the services of the ghillie. We fished a beat that had a small narrow island about a third of the way down. Below the island there were two beats depending on which bank you fished. The right bank was Maxwells, the left Kilmurry. You fished Maxwells from the bank. Kilmurry you fished by getting onto the island, then wading down the middle of the river on a slowly shelving sandbar which had formed in the lee of the island and which stretched for about eighty yards downstream. If no one was fishing Maxwell's then you could make a cast to either side of you as you waded down. I elected to fly-fish this stretch while Dave went upstream to fish the Lugg pool with shrimp, an accepted method in the deeper water there. It took about half-an-hour to fish down the bar, before the water became too deep to continue and you had to backtrack and start again. I caught some fish first time down - two or three, which gave a real hearty tug at the fly. Unfortunately they weren't salmon, but dace, fish to about three-quarters of a pound that had taken the size 6 salmon flies tied on Drury trebles to a 10lb point with gay abandon. To think I spend the winter fishing for dace with size 18's and 2lb hook-links!
Second time down the pool, and about halfway along the sandbar something more substantial grabbed the fly. I'll tell you about it next month.