Former World Silver Medallist and Irish team regular Willy Wheeler reflects on the changing face of Irish Festival fishing.
When you talk to a lot of English anglers about the things they associate with fishing in Ireland, you generally hear memories of rugged venues, big nets of bream and roach, and even bigger expanses of water.
In certain parts of the country, and on certain waters, the above is still very much a reality, and these vast waters still have their appeal and diehard fans. But there is also a new chapter in Irish angling, which is winning fans from all over the world.
Forget your big feeder rods, buckets of groundbait and tins of corn, the focus for these guys, and on these waters is getting bites – and lots of them!
Lough Muckno in the County Monaghan area has been a real hub for this style of fishing, and though some big bream weights have been recorded here, the festivals are generally dominated by the anglers who can catch a lot of roach and hybrids, reasonably quickly.
For the pole angler this is great news, as once the weather starts to warm up, the pole becomes the most dominant method, as it is by far and away the most efficient way of extracting a large number of fish quickly.
Again, though, careful thought is required as to how you approach this kind of pole fishing, as it is very different to the traditional ‘gung ho’ methods that many have come to associate with pole fishing in Ireland. Speed and efficiency is the name of the game, but this doesn’t mean you have to fish thick elastics, big hooks and throw bait everywhere. The key is to set your peg up so that you can get and keep a sensible number of feeding fish in your catching area, and use tackle that helps you get bites and land fish as quickly and efficiently as possible without spooking others in the area.
Let’s focus on feeding first – and with what I have said above in mind the key is to attract a volume of fish into your peg, and keep them there. The more fish you can get competing for bait in your peg, the faster and more readily they will accept your hook bait. However, if you feed too much, you run the risk of having fish all over the water column, leading to missed bites and other associated problems.
For sure, sometimes feeding aggressively with a catapult can be the right way to go – but I would argue that this is only really the case when you are looking to catch up in the water. There are signs you will get that will help you know when to come shallow, and I will come on to those later.
The groundbait mix that you choose to use is essential. I typically feed a mix of Sensas Black Magic, Black Roach, and Gros Gardons. Mixed dry, this is quite a sticky groundbait with a lot of attractive power. The aim is to create a carpet of bait that is packed with attractants, carrying a handful of the bait that I plan on fishing on the hook.I them aim to keep fish coming by either loose feeding, or potting in feed-rich balls of groundbait, depending on how the fish respond to my attack.
Three key groundbaits for Willy when tacklings big Irish loughs
Where possible, I like to ball in this mix of groundbait too. The key advantage of doing this is that you draw in fish from the surrounding water. Roach and hybrids, in particular, responded brilliantly to this, as they are drawn into the feed area that you have created by the noise, and held by the mass of particles on the bottom.
Again, when it comes to my tackle, the emphasis is firmly on catching a large number of fish as quickly and efficiently as possible. I like to set up three basic rigs, although in a match I will often set up duplicates of each too, in case of tangles.
The first is my ‘bulk-down’ rig. This is for catching fish hard on the bottom and comprises an olivette two feet from my hook, and three No9 or No10 droppers. Mainline choice on all my rigs is 0.12mm Sensas Feeling, and hooklength choice is generally 0.08mm of the same – though I will step up to 0.09mm and 0.10mm if I feel the fish are feeding sufficiently confidently to allow me to do so.
Sensas 3260s and the slightly finer 3210s are Willy's choice for roach when fishing with maggots and casters
Next up is my strung rig, which boasts the same pattern float as I use for fishing on the bottom, but with a shotting pattern comprising strung-out No8, No9 or No10 shot, depending on the size of float that I opt for. When the going is tough, early on in a session, or indeed when I want to try and find out whereabouts in the water column the fish are feeding, this is the rig that I turn to.
The only difference in terms of float pattern between this and my bulk-down rig is the stem material – I favour a carbon stem for fishing on the drop, as this allows my float to follow my rig as it falls, so I can read what is happening.
Finally, I set up a shallow rig. This is a rig that I may or may not pick up, depending on how the session progresses, but I always like to give myself the option. This is similar to my strung-out rig, but with a slightly lighter pattern float, and set 18 inches off the bottom. It is worth nothing, however, that even though I always start fishing shallow with a strung-out rig, when a really big weight is on the cards up in the water, I normally find a bulk pattern to work best – so I won’t hesitate in bunching the shots together if I am catching well.
These three float patterns do very different jobs for Willy
In terms of float size, it is all about matching depths and conditions. Today, I am faced with a swim around six feet deep, and there is a slight breeze on the water. I use a 1g float for fishing on the bottom, and a 4x14 rig for shallow.
Read The Swim
Now that I have explained the basis of my attack, I will try to outline how I go about reading the water to find the right way of feeding on a given day. A lot of the decisions that I take will be based on how the swim responds in the first hour of fishing, as knowing what species are in your peg, and how they want to feed is the aim of the game.
Today has perhaps been fairly typical of a ‘roach’ day. I waited around five minutes for my first bite, then caught small roach for the first hour. The fact that there were no hybrids or skimmers mixed in with them allowed me to narrow my vision – I knew that I was targeting small roach exclusively. I also found that the fish responded well to loose feed. By shipping out, loose feeding a pouch of casters, then dropping my rig on top of my bait I was able to catch a bigger stamp of roach. So quite quickly I had formulated a plan and found a way of catching quality roach.
Midway through the session, I felt that bites were dropping off, and my swim needed another boost. To accommodate this, I cupped in three balls of groundbait rich with casters, and after five minutes the peg was as strong as ever. Then, by loose feeding, as I was before, I was able to keep the fish coming until the end of the session.
This all probably sounds quite simple – and it is. You are after catching a large volume of fish, so the more simple and effective you can be, the better. I mentioned earlier that sometimes you may want to fish shallow – and your peg will tell you when to do this. If you get line bites after loose feeding, pick up your shallow rig and try it. If you catch well, you can then adapt your plan accordingly. However, if you catch a couple of fish then nothing, you are better off sticking to a more disciplined feeding regime and trying to keep the fish on the bottom.
It might not be the big baf of brea, that Ireland was once famous for, but with great nets of roach like this to be taken, there is no wonder the Emerald Isle has a new generation of followers!
At all times, there is one golden rule that you need to stick to, and that is to make sure you come back with a fish. Success on this type of venue is all about playing the numbers game, so never be tempted to ‘risk it’, unless of course, you can’t get any bites on the pole. In this scenario, fishing the feeder, is your best option, as it is probably the case that the fish simply don’t want to feed on your pole line.