An Irish Anglers World

Shad Times at St. Mullins

The river Barrow meets the tide in a beautiful valley south of Graiguenamanagh, Co. Carlow, and inland from New Ross in Co. Wexford. Above the confluence sits the picturesque village of St Mullins, developed on what was originally the site of an early monastic settlement. Named after St Moling, a seventh century cleric who designed and built the original monastery, the settlement has had quite a history, being plundered by the Vikings, settled by the Normans, and becoming the final resting place to the former kings of Leinster, the MacMurrough Kavanaghs. Characterised by the village green in front of Blanchfields pub, an old Norman motte, and an ecclesiastical ruin, St Mullins today is peaceful, scenic, and atmospheric. It is also home to one of the top mixed fisheries in the country.

Bahana wood upstream of the weir at St Mullins is a fine coarse fishery with good stocks of Bream, Dace, Rudd, Hybrids, and Pike. Trout are plentiful above and below the weir, with the Island stretch being particularly productive for Brownies averaging 6 – 8 ounces. Although presently closed for Salmon and Sea trout, both species do still run the river, with September traditionally a good month. However pride of place must go to a unique species, rare in its distribution, but specific in its timing. Entering the river on its spawning run to coincide with the first spring tides in May, is the Twaite Shad (Alosa fallax), a small herring like fish which gives anglers great sport for two to three weeks, before disappearing once again to the sea whence it came.

The Twaite Shad, a member of the herring family is anadromous, that is it ascends rivers to spawn, where they seek out gravel beds. It has a deep body, and the line of its belly is saw edged. Silver with large opalescent scales, the Shad has a dark back, a forked tail, and a characteristic row of dark spots along its upper side. With a top weight in the region of 1.6 kgs, the average size of fish encountered is 0.5 – 1.0 kgs. The specimen weight presently is 1.1 kgs.

Twaite Shad

In the not to recent past, certainly up to the late sixties/early seventies, the records show that Twaite Shad ran the Rivers Slaney, Barrow, Nore, Suir, and Munster Blackwater. Records also show that they frequented the mouths of the Rivers Boyne, Liffey, and Ilen in West Cork. Today Twaite Shad appear only to ascend the River Barrow and are considered a threatened species. At sea, Twaite Shad have been encountered swimming alongside Mackerel shoals, and likewise they are known to eat plankton and small fish.

Shad herald the coming of summer, the land is in full bloom, all greens and gorse yellow. St Mullins, Co. Carlow in early May, under the shadow of Brandon Hill and the Blackstairs Mountains can be glorious. If the rain holds off (Shad do not like too much fresh water) Shad will enter the Barrow depending on the timing of the spring tides, either in the last few days of April or the first few days in May. Traditionally the run will peak with the second set of spring tides and then diminish rapidly after that.

Playing a Shad, St. Mullins, Co. Carlow

Their presence in the river is characterised by clumsy dashes to the fly and ringing dimpled rises. Shad like settled weather and take best at dawn and dusk. In fact Shad spawn during darkness. The locals say that dawn or dusk coinciding with low water, which will concentrate the shoals into pockets, is the best time to fish. The urge to spawn makes the fish more active and they are prone to attack a lure. Tasmanian devils (13.5grm) are the preferred bait, but Mepps or small silver lures will also catch their share. Light Trout spinning gear, with line breaking strain around is ideal. Some of the best holding areas at St Mullins are on the far side of the river up stream of the old mill. On light tackle Shad give a good account of themselves, even tail walking like their larger tropical cousins the Tarpon do. The general experience when lure fishing for Shad is, short periods of intense activity, followed by lulls as the various shoals pass through. Have a landing net ready, use barbless hooks, and practice catch and release.

The Shad season at St Mullins is a busy time. Tents appear on the village green and camper vans pull up in the car park beside the old mill. Blanchfields pub holds the annual Shad competition, and specimen hunters descend in the hope of claiming an award or better still, breaking the Irish Record. Anglers line the bank, and those in the know head for the hotspots. It has to be said though that when the Shad are running casting off the slip in front of the old mill, or the fisheries board platforms, can be just as productive as the more recognised holding areas further up stream.

Gerry Mitchell with Shad

Shad success at St Mullins means getting up early. There is no doubt that a key taking time is as the sun rises. In May this means being on the river bank for around six AM. Ideally the river will be low, with the making tide still to clear the scar. The scar is a set of rapids on the bend below the mill. This feature delays the rise of the tide by at least a couple of hours. So if Waterford high and low is the bench mark, allow for this natural feature in tidal calculations for St Mullins.

The banks of the River Barrow at St Mullins are high and muddy. The tidal fall can be six feet or more. In width the river could vary between 30 – 40 meters. The river bed is a combination of mud and stones. At low water it can be waded, but anglers wading should be careful, for when the tide clears the scar the river rises rapidly. At the first sign of rising water anglers should make for the safety of the bank. Wading is useful as it enables the angler to reach the pockets under the far bank where the Shad become concentrated. This is a very important consideration, for success is dependant on getting a light lure into the shoals.

Brian Cooke

To that end a Trout spinning rod of between 6 to 8 foot in length, coupled with a reel such as the Shimano Technium 2500 FA, loaded with 4 – 6 lb test should be ideal. Connect the lure via a size 12 link swivel, and position about two foot above the lure a standard size 12 swivel as an anti kink device, and one is ready to rock and roll. Cast at a ninety degree angle across to the far bank, engage the bail arm and reel a turn or two to get the lure into the current. Stop for a second or two to let the lure sink then work the lure, using a combination of turning the handle and the current.

On form the Shad could take immediately, but it is also common practice for them to follow the lure out from the main pod and hit at any point on the retrieve. During taking time a good average would be to connect about once in every three casts. Due to their bony mouths, the use of barbless hooks and the Shad’s ability to throw the hook, good numbers of fish will be lost before the net. Given the fragile nature of these fish a net is vitally important in terms of safe handling. Referring back to wading, this is where the Shad can really benefit, as the angler is close to the catch and can release it unharmed very quickly without the fish even having to leave the water. As the tide rises the shoals tend to disperse and fishing slows, the angler then would be well advised to switch to a different species or hop into Graiguenamanagh for the breakfast.

St Mullins in the spring is a trip worth taking and for those in the know has become a fixture in the angling calendar. There is a timeless quality about the place, set in a pastoral location at the head of the tide. A recurring memory is of a lone angler, the dawn chorus, and a tight line. Heaven on earth? Why not give it a go this coming May and find out…

Ashley Hayden 2009 ©

Further reading: Barrow Brace.