Fishing Lines: Cunning trout in deep water

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THE fire that we started in Ireland last week while making a cup of tea was still burning away merrily days later when I packed up my tackle and headed back for England. I found the whole thing hugely embarrassing, and the American eye surgeon who joined me as we drank our tea standing in the lake (it was impossible to do so on solid ground because of the clouds of smoke) speculated nervously on what would have happened if it had been near his Californian home. But John, my gillie, was quite unperturbed.

He almost got excited on my final day as we pottered round the 27-mile lake in the vague hope of catching one of its legendary ferox. These giant trout live in the deepest parts (John, who has been fishing them for 52 years, swears it is 200 feet in places).

On the walls of fishing hotels round Corrib, you will see the occasional stuffed ferox, glass eyes staring as if they have been hypnotised. They are never under 7lb, and usually over 10lb. The biggest John has seen weighed 21lb, but one of 39lb 8oz has been caught from Loch Awe in Scotland, and several 40-pounders recorded from the large glacial lakes in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Ferox are true supertrout. But they are rarely caught. In Scotland, it is reckoned that more than a million brown trout are caught each year of which fewer than five are ferox.

So you can imagine my chagrin when twice during the day, the rod lurched towards the depths as some unseen monster grabbed the dead trout bait, but each time let go before being hooked. One take from a ferox is a good day, two is exceptional. John has sometimes fished for three weeks and not had a bite.

Pottering slowly round a lake with not very much happening for hours is exactly the sort of thing that leaves non-anglers wondering what the hell fishermen see in the sport. But I had an arsonist guide to regale me with unlikely tales, and I was lucky enough to see that rare event, a hatch of mayfly.

Thousands of these beautiful creatures with their huge, delicate wings were landing, drifting, skipping across the water. This rising, falling dance is the male's way of attracting a female, and mating takes place in the air, after which the females float on the water and expel batches of eggs. These sink to the bottom and will reappear in a year as the next mayfly generation.

It was too calm for trout fishing, and anyway the fish were spoilt for choice, so we just watched the yellow-green flies dancing their short life of love and death. But the previous day I had witnessed just how much the trout love them.

Hundreds of anglers come to Corrib and nearby Mask for the mayfly hatch, and the opportunity to use a method from which all fly-fishing has developed. It is called blowline fishing or dapping, and it works like this. You use a very long rod, 14ft or more, and tie six feet of floss between the main line and hook length. This is allowed to drift in the wind, keeping the hook, baited with a live mayfly, dancing across the surface.

It requires a reasonable wind so the floss will float out in the breeze. It also demands constant alertness, for the second you look away (perhaps to see if the island is still burning) a trout will inevitably steal your mayfly. They are also harder to catch if you try to do so with 100-year-old tackle. I discovered an ancient dapping rod in a sale, added an old wooden reel and persisted with this heavyweight outfit, though John caught more than me on more modern tackle. So much for tradition.

However, there is one tradition he still preserves. Every lunchtime, as his father before him, he stops fishing and lands on one of the many islands to heat a smoke-blackened kettle over a small fire of twigs. At least, it was a small fire when he started. But the undergrowth was dry, and our efforts to damp the nearby gorse made no difference. Soon the whole island was ablaze. Huge clouds of smoke filled the air and drifted far out into the lake.

Then came one of those unforgettable moments that make Ireland so special. Through the smoke and flames, we could make out a rowing boat with three people in it. It landed nearby, and the rower coughed his way towards us.

'Hello there,' he said. 'Can you tell me the way to Mann Bay?'

After getting directions, he headed back to his boat but then, as an afterthought, turned round.

'You've got a bit of a fire going here,' he said.