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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Ireland’s Fishing Cultures Clash, Mesh with Ours

Note: I’m touring Ireland for 12 days to visit relatives and sightsee with my wife and two friends. I first visited Ireland in 2005, and fished with a cousin’s husband. I thought you might enjoy reading my reflections on that trip.

KENMARE, Ireland – All the fishing reels on the shop’s wall looked familiar, persuading me to wait until returning home to match an appropriate reel with the 10-foot “quiver” rod my “ghillie” Gordon Dickenson had given me a few days before.

The saleswoman in the tackle shop confirmed my suspicions, saying all the reels were imports. Did I detect a note of resignation? When I asked if she stocked any Irish-made tackle, she steered me to trout and salmon flies, and a lineup of Kilty casting/trolling spoons. I’m not a fly-fisherman, so I bought two Kiltys to try on Lake Michigan. I’ve since learned they’re great salmon lures, and bought more online.

That experience was common while fishing, and talking about fishing, during my two-week visit. Some gear and conversations were so familiar it seemed I had never left home, even if minutes before I couldn’t have felt more foreign to Ireland’s tackle and customs.

Then again, I’ve felt similar conflicts when among bass zealots, walleye worshipers and fly-fishing geeks back home. Although we share a love for fishing, we tend to think our personal passion is the most sensible and purest form of all pursuits.

But experience often proves us wrong, making the exotic suddenly familiar. And even when we strive to adapt another’s customs, we can’t escape the fact we’re still fishing with Chinese-made reels designed by Americans.

Either way, we’re left with the gentle disappointment of realizing cultural differences tend to wash away once we translate and define. The Irish might call a guide a “ghillie,” and they might call a rough fish a “coarse” fish -- and they might release it with the reverence we reserve for muskies -- but in the end the only thing certain is that nature herself doesn’t really care, as long as we do no harm.

That’s where things get interesting, because Ireland – like North America -- faces challenges to its fishing, both inland and at sea. For example, its once-renown sea trout fishery is at grave risk, probably because widespread salmon farms have spread a virulent strain of sea lice that attacks wild salmon and decimates native sea trout.

And, like North America, Ireland is coping with zebra mussels, a common pest whose roots trace to the Black, Aral and Caspian seas in western Asia and Eastern Europe.

But make no mistake; Ireland’s fishing boasts many distinctive pleasures. For one, it isn’t overrun by $55,000 fishing boats with 200-horsepower engines. Those wooden rowboats on Ireland’s postcards aren’t just nostalgia. Much of it is pure function. Boat landings aren’t standard, and access to most lakes is controlled more by soggy peat than trespass laws.

And even where surrounding lands are firm, few large homes plague the shorelines of Ireland’s legendary lakes and rivers. When I asked Dickenson if the government prohibits lakefront homes, I swear he glanced to see if I was joking. Then he said no, that people simply prefer not to build too close to the water and clutter the landscape.

I take his word for it. After all, two weeks of driving there taught me that the Irish trust people to figure things out for themselves. They post street names indifferently, if at all, and routinely post speed limits of 100 kilometers per hour on narrow, winding roads where centrifugal force ensures you’ll never top 40.

Much of Ireland’s fishing also seems self-regulating. One Irish publication even says its bigpike thrive on neglect. Ireland, after all, remains a pastoral country of farmland, mountains and peat bog, with a low population by European standards.

And by our standards, few people fish in Ireland, even if those who do say otherwise. The critics obviously don’t have Wisconsin as a reference point. Therefore, you won’t find tackle stores similar to our big retailers and North Woodsmusky-marts.

Something tells me that’s one cultural difference that won’t wash away soon, no matter how many rods, reels and tackle boxes some of us haul along to impress our Irish hosts.

Boat landings aren’t standard on Ireland’s lakes, and fishermen like Gordon Dickenson know that access is controlled more by soggy peat than trespass laws. – Patrick Durkin photo

Few large homes and other buildings clutter and plague the shorelines of Ireland’s legendary loughs (lakes) and rivers. – Patrick Durkin photo

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