An Irish Anglers World

A Ray of Light on the Avoca.

Sometimes you just have to stand back and smile at the way life works its magic. From mid July last rumour spread locally and on the internet about a large sea trout netted on the Avoca River in the vicinity of Arklow. Living close to Aughrim, Co. Wicklow for the last ten years, I have fly fished for and landed sea trout on the river more or less since I moved down. Not many in any given season but a few nonetheless, averaging three quarters of a pound with the biggest running close to two, my best haul being four fish on an evening session. So to hear reports of a big sea trout seemed feasible. Given also that I have seen photos of three pound plus sea trout, double figure salmon, and kelts taken from both the Avoca and Aughrim rivers in recent years, I knew that there was substance to the story.

Denis O'Toole cradles a magnificent fresh run sea trout caught while fly fishing the Avoca River, Co. Wicklow, Ireland.
Roll on a fortnight and in conversation with Mark Corps, game angling advisor with Inland Fisheries Ireland, I was asked, “had I heard about the sea trout from the Avoca”? Replying in the affirmative, but with no concrete evidence as yet forthcoming I was still dubious, Mark told me categorically that the fish was indeed caught by an angler on a fly and not as rumour had it in a net. That the person who captured the fine fish had weighed, photographed, and released the sea trout supplying scales and copies of the images to IFI. On the same day funnily enough I received a phone call from an angler enquiring about fishing. The conversation as can happen went off at a tangent, enter stage left the Avoca sea trout and within minutes I had acquired a name, of which more later.

Fast forward to August bank holiday Monday last, standing in the Woodenbridge Hotel car park I was approached by a chap who introduced himself as Denis O’Toole. Before he could utter another word I responded, “So you’re the man who caught the fish”. Eliciting a smile he nodded, “indeed I am”. “Well you’ll want to meet Chris McCully of Trout and Salmon”, says I, “he would be very interested in your story”.

Author and angling journalist Chris McCully (right) discusses tactics for sea trout with Denis O'Toole.
Chris McCully is a Yorkshire man and academic who lives and works in Holland. For the last three years he has been researching and writing, along with Dr. Ken Whelan, what I am sure will be the definitive book on Irish sea trout. On the last leg of what has been a marathon journey across the length and breadth of Ireland, visiting and fishing over sixty sea trout fisheries, IFI had asked me to help coordinate fishing for Chris on some south east rivers. Just about to head over to fish the Vartry River, talk about fate, you could not make it up. “Chris, meet Denis O’Toole the Irish fly caught sea trout record holder with a fish of 16.lbs caught three weeks ago very close to this spot”. With that I let them at it listening attentively as the story unfolded. I’ll let Denis continue in his own words:

“I and a fishing partner had been fly fishing on the Avoca one evening recently. We had caught several small sea trout and released them, and then this fish showed in the pool above where I was fishing before it was fully dark, so I marked the location but didn’t try him straight away.

I fished some other pools while I was waiting for darkness to fall, at this point I must say that I did not know it was a sea trout that I had spotted.

I had fished down one of the pools when my fishing partner walked up to me and I asked,” Did he want to go home or stay”? He said, “He would fish the pool that I had just been at as he had just changed his flies”.

Then I went down to the pool where I had previously seen the fish move (Lucky Boy). I put on a 1 1/2 inch aluminium tube coupled with a salar single hook (barb squeezed down) and started at the head of the pool. On my 4th cast while stripping the fly back he hit it with a BANG!! And all hell broke loose; all I could see was white foam on the water through the inky darkness. I thought I had hooked FREE WILLY, the fish’s 1st run tearing off 20 or more yards of line downstream, and he made 3 other big runs after this.

He was lying in only 3ft of water when he took and in total the fight lasted 20mins. My fishing partner Dean Kennedy netted the fish which was then carefully weighed, measured, and released back to spawn and produce more’ers.”

Sea trout flies suitable for the Avoca River, the Butcher and Kill Devil Spider.

I do not know who was more excited, Chris, Denis, or I. Scheduled to fish the Avoca with Chris the following evening I asked if Denis and his friend Dean would like to join us. Answering with a firm yes, Chris and I headed off towards the Vartry giddy with the significance of our encounter and our subsequent future appointment. Incredibly the surprises didn’t stop there. On meeting 24 hours later, a visibly moved Chris was quite taken by Denis’s generosity when being presented with a selection of salmon and sea trout flies hand tied by Denis himself, and also a number of photos of the great fish for which to use in a future T & S article.

The Avoca at Woodenbridge is a beautiful river, winding down through a wide steep tree lined valley, bisecting the local golf course alongside which runs also the Aughrim river, both merging at a point where the Avoca takes a dog leg left under a high wooded bank before flowing the few miles into Arklow and the tide. It bears all the hallmarks of a Welsh sea trout river, and funnily enough a theory already abounds that Denis’s fish is in fact a Welsh fish that got lost. Certainly if it had been captured in the open sea the hypothesis in my opinion could have merit, but this fish was hooked in freshwater many miles from the sea, surely this fine specimen of salmo trutta holds an Irish passport and was on its spawning run. Historically, the Dargle River a short distance up the coast held the Irish sea trout record, and personally I have caught sea trout to over 5.lbs in the sea locally when spinning for bass, while rivers in the vicinity produce large sea trout every season. So lets be open minded and positive towards this fine catch.

Evening fly fishing on the Avoca River below Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

Why indeed do we have to be so sceptical, the Avoca might be dubbed “the most polluted river in Europe”, but in the last number of years, in particular since Irish Fertilizer Industries was closed, the river has cleaned up dramatically below the confluence with the Aughrim River, and increasingly migratory fish are showing more of a presence. The stones along the river bed, stained red by the mine leachate, now contrast with green weed in places where five years ago there was nothing. Trout and salmon parr frequent the runs, and shoals of fry swim around your feet in the shallows, visible signs that the river is truly coming alive again.

Subsequent to the drift net buy out, certainly from evidence that I have come across, there are more salmon and sea trout returning to the Avoca and its tributaries then we give credit for. I have written previously that a catchment management plan should be drawn up for the whole Avoca river system, and I think in light of this great fish coupled with the Celtic Sea Trout Project, the time has come to give the idea serious consideration. Such a plan would benefit not only anglers, but also tourism and local heritage interests as well.

The Avoca river system drains a catchment of some 650 km2, a goodly chunk of east Wicklow stretching from the Sally Gap to Glenmalure, Aughavanagh, and Knockananna close to Tinahely. The main river channel lengths add up to approximately 90 km by my calculation before side tributaries are taken into account, of this just 11.5 km is affected by mine tailings run off. Unfortunately this 11.5 km section acts like a plug, stymieing the river systems potential as a game fishery of note while also limiting the areas tourism capability. Much has been written about the Avoca restoration plan and the missed opportunity after the Unipure report in 2007, and again in 2009 when the late Brian Lenihan made available €22 million for infrastructural projects relating to tourism, so I am not going to add more to the mix.

The fly, designed by Denis O'Toole, called "The Lava Tail" which tempted the record Avoca sea trout.

Instead, four years on from Unipure the mine tailings still leave their poisonous imprint on the river, while nature performs a little understood miracle with migratory salmon and sea trout negotiating the toxic soup. Shops and pubs have closed in the general area and tourist numbers are down. Restoration of the Avoca will unshackle this beautiful and historic corner of Wicklow. By far it is the single most important local project in waiting.

A river is a living entity no section or element can be taken in isolation. Sea trout and brown trout are one in the same it is just that sea trout decide at some point to go to sea. Science has proven that brown trout are an essential component of a healthy sea trout fishery, certainly helping recruitment. So it is very important to the Avoca catchment that we give the brown trout population every chance, and devote research to understanding their place and role within the overall Avoca ecosystem. A five year moratorium on taking brown trout from the system endorsed by all stakeholders, allied to a full study linked into the Celtic Sea Trout Project would be an ideal starting point.

Let Denis O’Toole’s wonderful sea trout, hopefully by now close to or on its redd, be the catalyst for all interested parties to come together and create the grand plan which will be the blue print for a game fishery of International renown, and the catalyst for a plethora of interlinked local tourism projects still waiting for the starting gun to go off.

Four to five million euro (Unipure’s 2007 figure being €3.5 million) to put the river right, weighed up against the 150 – 200 billion that this country presently owes is small change, considering the revenue return and new jobs which will undoubtedly follow. For those that love the river and east Wicklow, and there are many, look at the bigger picture. The Avoca catchment is like a tree, the main river channels being the trunk and boughs, the tributaries branches, the surrounding land foliage, each interdependent on the other. Denis’s great fish was a sign to all that the time is now to free the Avoca from the yoke of mine pollution, and allow this great waterway to blossom and contribute in a way that none of us can even imagine. I’m looking forward to helping in the process and finding out though, aren’t you?

Footnote to the above article: Scale samples taken from Denis’s great fish show that she was returning for the seventh time to the Avoca River to spawn. An incredible statistic and one which should be taken seriously, for she is definitely not the only multi sea winter sea trout whose home is the Avoca.

Ashley Hayden © August 2011

Further reading: The Avoca Catchment, a Visionary View of Irish Fisheries Management.

Click on: Salmo Spero Elite Salmon and Sea Trout Flies.