An Irish Anglers World

The Avoca Catchment, a Visionary View Of Irish Fisheries Management.

The Avoca catchment drains the Wicklow Mountains eastwards before meeting the sea at Arklow. Comprising the Avoca, Avonmore, Avonbeg, Derry Water, Ow, Glendasan, Glenealo, Gold mines, and Aughrim Rivers, the system bears unfairly a very negative tagline, “the most polluted river in Europe”. Effluent from now disused copper mines in the lower reaches coupled with ongoing pollution from the IFI, formerly Net Nitrate, factory (now closed) west of Arklow rendered an approximately eight mile stretch of the Avoca River uninhabitable for salmonids mainly due to large concentrations of dissolved heavy metals. However most of the system could be classed as pristine, certainly the Aughrim River and tributaries upstream of where it joins the Avoca at Woodenbridge, and the Avonmore upstream of the White Bridge in the Vale of Avoca to Lough Dan a distance of some thirty miles.

Ashley Hayden beside the weir at Aughrim, Co. Wicklow.

Both the Aughrim and Avonmore Rivers are noted trout streams flowing through beautiful scenic locations. Peter O’Reilly in his 1991 published book, “Trout and Salmon Rivers of Ireland”, spoke favourably of them. Describing the Avonmore O’Reilly writes that “it probably has too many trout”, while an average trout on the Aughrim River he put at half a pound. Would that both be the case today, for twenty years later wild trout fishing is suffering on both rivers and has been in steady decline since the early 1990’s. Within that 20 year period Dublin has grown closer and the membership of local fly fishing clubs has expanded, increasing rod and line pressure on both rivers.

This writer took up fly fishing around 1994 due mainly to the decline in Irish Sea white fish stocks. Wild trout fishing provided a new challenge and with the Avonmore only a short drive away I started to learn the trade. As a novice fly caster I did quite well catching good numbers of trout fishing downstream wet fly, the best and only trout outside of club competitions that I kept going 2.oz, a fine fish for this river system. Then as now the size limit was eight inches, approx 4.0 oz, which is ludicrously small. Knowing the biology of trout in acid streams (flowing off granite) as short lived, about five years, and slow growing, it became apparent that these eight inch trout were mature and laying eggs, the breeding stock were being removed.

A brace of mountain trout, Avonmore River, Co. Wicklow.

Over my 16 years fly fishing on both the Aughrim and Avonmore rivers I have witnessed a steady decline both in numbers and size of brown trout. Anecdotal is a word I despise, it should be removed from the English language. The word is repeatedly proffered by people who want to avoid doing anything. There is nothing anecdotal about my experience fishing both the Aughrim and Avonmore Rivers, yes they are lovely streams to cast a fly on, however catching immature trout and escapee rainbows does pale after a while. Living close to these streams I cast a line, even catch a few sea trout in season, but the fishing is really just time out in the air and nothing more, it could be so much better.

Forestry, agricultural and industrial pollution, climate change, fish farming, the construction boom, increases in population, and overfishing are some of the reasons put forward for declines in fish stocks. Because there are so many variables which due to present structures are the responsibilities of numerous organisations, unless priority is given nothing gets done. This writer has repeatedly asked at club and fisheries board level that a catch and release policy be introduced on the Avoca system with particular reference to the Avonmore and Aughrim rivers for an initial five year period (reviewable) as a precursor to a full scientific study. This at least would retain and protect the existing breeding stock. Logic would dictate an increase in size and numbers of trout within that five year period, to date this request has fallen on deaf and or impotent ears.

The weir at Aughrim village, Co. Wicklow.

A trip to Montana in late June early July of 2009 opened my eyes to the potential not only of the Avoca and its tributaries but Ireland’s fisheries as a whole. Montana is a state four times the size of Ireland with a population of only one million people, dominated by the Rockies along its western extent and the Great Plains to the north and east. In fly fishing circles Montana is renowned for its blue ribbon trout streams such as the Big Hole, Yellowstone, and Madison, waters which flow through wilderness landscapes of breath taking beauty made famous by Robert Redford’s, “A River Runs Through It”. Big wild trout, big skies, they are not lying, however what I experienced is the ongoing result of a battle which has been raging for 100 years pitting practical socio-economics, vested interests, a way of life, big business, environmentalists, and fly fishermen together in an effort to continue a modern way of life while restoring, maintaining, and preserving a unique heritage. That Montanans are achieving this goal albeit with great difficulty is testament to their resolve, belief, and ability to work together, Ireland can learn from them.

The Avoca River has many connections with Montana; visually it would not be out of place flowing through wooded valleys in a mountainous region. Mining though is where the connection really takes hold and copper mining in particular. Sixteen percent of Montanans share Irish ancestry many emigrating to work in the mines around the town of Butte, home to one of the largest open cast copper mines in the world. Montana’s streams were decimated by water abstraction, dams, effluent and silting from mines, smelting, over fishing, land reclamation, and poor agricultural practices. The Avoca as we know has been damaged by mining, and in recent years has sat centre stage while an ongoing restoration project produced pertinent reports offering real solutions but unfortunately no physical progress.

The Derry Water at Annacurra Bridge, a small river within the Avoca catchment.

Why should this be? Here we have a river flowing through the largest National Park in Ireland, within close proximity to our largest centre of population Dublin, serviced by National primary routes and four major points of entry to the state, Dublin port and airport, Dunlaoghaire, and Rosslare. A socio-economic honey pot with added tourism potential, that in 2007 could have been put on the road to recovery with a cost to the state of €3.5 million plus €500,000 annual running costs, a pittance in real terms. The returns from fishing related tourism then were put at €750,000. Factor in related activity tourism such as canoeing, walking, and heritage, even just the fact of a clean river and it is obvious that restoration would have paid for itself inside 5 years, to include capital and running costs, yet with all this knowledge we instead invested money in a further analysis, WHY?

Why, because there is no coordinated management plan for the Avoca system. Here in a country of 4.5 million people, remember Montana has one million, we cannot reach agreement due to nobody making real decisions because there are too many bodies, agencies, and associations with links to the river, working on its behalf but achieving no end result. The Avoca system supports two active clubs, and is overseen to some degree or other by Inland Fisheries Ireland (research and development), Wicklow County Council (water framework directive), Wicklow Rural Development (tourism projects) and Wicklow National Parks (fresh water pearl mussel), the brackets indicating key areas of interest. All beavering away but to what end? The mine tailings still pollute and the brown trout population diminishes annually. Until there is fine tuning of the inputs and real resolve the status quo will continue.

David Armstrong with a large Avonmore brownie caught czech nymphing below Rathdrum bridge.

Presently Inland Fisheries Ireland has only five staff on the ground to look after Wicklow and Wexford whose duties cover amongst others protection, research, and development. Funding is limited and they are obviously overstretched. The clubs are responsible for fishing rights, plus rules and regulations relating to brown trout angling. They also take responsibility for permits, bank clearance, access, etc, and are committed to the river. Wicklow County Council is primarily interested in water quality, the National Parks in preserving the habitat for fresh water pearl mussels, while Wicklow Rural Development fund and develop community and private tourism projects and small business’s.

The Avoca system has the potential to reach blue ribbon status if all the above organisations and agencies came together to produce and implement a management plan to encompass the bigger picture instead of concentrating on their own particular brief. Only by joining up the dots will real progress be made. An Irish version of Trout Unlimited,, or the Clark Fork Coalition,, would be a major step forward. These non profit organisations create consensus, provide staff, a knowledge base, educate, and coordinate fisheries and catchment management. They pull the disparate threads together.

Rathdrum Trout Anglers notice on the Avonmore River.

This writer in recent times has questioned and discussed at length locally and at fisheries board level the Avoca River and it’s tributaries past, present, and future. After 17 years filled with good work and intentions from many people the river is still going backwards in terms of fishing. This is recognised by key people many of whom are volunteers putting in the hours on top of work and raising families. They want a more vibrant river but do not know where to start, time, manpower, and money always raising their heads. The answer as stated above is to appoint and trust in a coordinator who has a vision for the catchment, the ability to develop consensus, and leadership qualities to see the project through.

The Avoca system today needs visionary people who see not just a river in Co. Wicklow in need of help, not just a river that they fish and feel ownership over, but a river belonging to a fly fisher whom they have never met but has an equal affinity to the stream that they love. Fishing clubs are guardians of streams, they have been granted a deep honour which goes beyond the needs of their members, and they need to understand this. They are custodians of the fishery looking after its welfare for the good of all whether from Ireland or abroad.

Equally, Inland Fisheries Ireland needs to take more responsibility by providing leadership and direction even if that means taking a hard line. If these entities cannot provide the necessary vision and leadership then they should have the honesty to look elsewhere or recognise the fact when it is presented to them. Ironically in November 2009 €22 million was allocated by then Finance Minister the late Brian Lenihan for infrastructural projects relating to tourism. Waterford City received €9 million of this for its “Viking Triangle” project; the Avoca only needed four million. A case for a visionary with the ability to think outside the box and deliver a coordinated approach, I think so……

Ashley Hayden © March 2011

Angling Guide: The Avoca River System.

Further reading: A Ray of Light on the Avoca.