This summer of 2015 found us in a wet Co Kerry, joining old friends and extended family for the first time in a very long time just outside the village of Glenbeigh on the Iveagh Peninsula, part of the world-renowned Ring of Kerry. I spent many happy summers in Kerry as a child with a lot of these same people, more than a generation ago. It is old country, steeped in history, often with beehive huts of stone behind you while the Atlantic ocean rages in front. I had forgotten how beautiful it was. Beautiful but cantankerous, but still worth a kiss all the same.
We stayed in a row of 19th century military cottages that had been converted into one residence. It was higgledy-piggledy, rough around the edges, comfortable; the kind of place where you’re not afraid to break something, as long as it’s not one of your legs. It wasn’t precious, like some trumped up villa, but lived in like a holiday home should be. There was a maze of rooms, doors everywhere, attics galore, with quirky spaces to bruise foreheads. Furnishing were functional but sparse, with old fishing rods in the shed, long past their best, and rusting bicycles hanging from the rafters.
Built into the bottom of a steep hill, the house faced the sea, at least half the time, as a vast, muddy estuary transformed into a lake right in front of your eyes with every incoming tide, creating a haven for flat fish and wading birds. A unique pattern of currents has somehow created huge sand dunes that from above, resemble the sharp spurs on the legs of a fighting cock, with the current slaloming its way around them and dissipating by the time it reaches Castlemaine harbour at the heart of the bay, miles away from the open ocean.
To our left, the tall sand dunes that sheltered the mudflats from the ravages of the Atlantic, also helped form one of the finest beaches in Ireland, Rossbeigh Strand, famous for its golden sand and big bass. The year before a storm had threatened to sweep away the famous beach that curved down from the dunes, and that brought thousands of tourists there. In 2008 1,200ft of dunes were swallowed by the sea, and in 2011, the enigmatic Rossbeigh Strand Tower finally collapsed under pressure from the elements, and was lost. To our right, framing the estuary, the irregular boggy coastline was criss-crossed with a strange symmetry of crumbling dry-stone walls, their purpose long forgotten, but standing as a reminder that this is a constantly changing landscape, whether through the forces of nature, or the will of man.
At some stage in the past, men built a causeway of boulders between the sand dunes and the land, running straight across the shallow estuary, but not quite meeting in the middle. This forced the incoming tide through a narrow channel, which deepened it. I guess they ran a fishing net across it, but I could find nobody to confirm it. The channel wound its way across the flats and into the furthermost reaches of boggy marshland and creek right under the front window of the house, like hands gently finding their way into soft, silk gloves.
Just beyond this causeway was the small River Behy, an alluring little sea trout stream, and further along the peninsula was the larger Carragh River and the even bigger River Laune, home to purposeful salmon. It was desolate, lonely, romantic.
I wouldn’t have much time to fish on the trip but I had brought an 8# travel fly rod, which I knew I could use as a float rod if I had to. Yes, I enjoy fishing with cane most of the time, but I have no problem using carbon if I need to, and needs must. I had expected to be fly fishing for bass, or trout on the little river, but on seeing the tide creep inland, I instantly thought mullet.
I have a history with mullet, or rather, I have a history of not catching mullet. Despite my lack of success they continue to fascinate me. They’re frustratingly difficult to catch, but I have managed it, at least once. My mistake was to believe that this somehow qualified me as experienced.
That first evening I waited for the high tide that inconveniently arrived just before dinner, meaning I couldn’t fish it at its zenith. In the dreamy early evening light, I brought a bag of bread and three young lads with me to search for signs of feeding fish. We didn’t have to wait long; the tell-tail meandering of a mullet pushing the water in front of its head greeting us within earshot of the house, and as we watched the fish at work, we were accompanied by the distant dulcet tones of laughter coerced by generous pre-dinner drinks.
I scattered some bread well ahead of the feeding fish, and within seconds it was slurped down. Then I saw it and my heart started to race. Oh boy. It was a big mullet, at least six pounds. Its back was broad and flat like an ironing board, and it was accompanied by two smaller fish. Then the boys got excited and the fish felt our presence and were gone.
The needs of holidaying children took precedent that week, but most days I managed to fish that spot, and when I wasn’t fishing it—often because it was pouring with rain, as it can do in Kerry—I would watch it from the window of the house, spying through the long lens of the camera, longing to fish it. As the tide times rotated around the clock so did my fishing, but never for longer than an hour. I regularly saw the mullet but couldn’t for the life of me coerce them to take.
Curious to better understand their environment, I explored it on foot, jogging around the sand dunes and through the marram grasses, walking across the estuary at low tide, exploring the causeway, slippery with seaweed that dried to a thin crust in the occasional sun, but which remained treacherous underneath. The estuary was a strange dimpled landscape of countless minuscule mounds of mud, the casts of myriad lugworms, endless bait for any angler with a shovel and a strong arm. The dunes once again reminded me that the sea is king here, as it revealed the skeletal timbers of the 19th Century schooner Sunbeam, which was washed ashore on the coast of County Kerry more than 100 years ago with no loss of life, but which had, until last year, remained largely buried in the sand until that fierce storm decided it was time to release it. But the best view came from the top of the hill overlooking the bay, when you could see all the way across to Inch strand on the opposite peninsula, and it felt like you were peering into paradise from above. I will have to come back here one day, just to fish. With beach casting and rock fishing on one side, and float and fly fishing on the other, and with several good trout lakes only a short hop inland, it is an angler’s paradise.
All this promise without reward continued to frustrated me, and on my penultimate day we once again stayed indoors, away from the wind and rain that continued to soak the world outside, so I had plenty of time to contemplate the challenge. I knew my short sessions were not helping, but I didn’t really have a choice. Mullet spook easily so once they knew I was there they swiftly fled for open water, not returning for some time, forcing me to turn for home, the proverbial tail between my legs. Every day I left that house in hope, only to return looking hopeless. My fellow holiday makers initially greeted my returns with the enthusiastic “Catch anything?”, but by the week’s end they didn’t even ask anymore. I had become a joke, the only boy at the disco not to get a kiss, despite trying it on with every girl.
I decided that the key was getting into position early, lying in ambush, before the mullet swam into the creek, but I never had the time to get there early enough to beat the tide. I theorised that mullet knew a fishing rod when they saw one too. So the following day, the last of my holidays, I kept it low and parallel to the ground, and approached the water as if I were walking on cling film. I could see the mullet patrolling the more open water beyond the creek. I knew heavy feet sent vibrations through the ground and into the water, but the bog underfoot—which sprung like a sponge—was magnifying them like a superwoofer, and the mullet could hear you approaching in stereo. So I hugged the grass and crawled slowly into position. What a sight I must have been to anybody walking the road behind; some mad ejit—probably drunk—sneaking around the bog like a feckin fox.
But it worked, and I got close to a wide turn in the channel where a clear path through the seaweed passed under the near bank, meaning a gentle lob of the float, rather than a splashing and frightening cast, would get one into position. The mullet usually followed this route, so I carefully tossed some bread in before crawling back on wet knees, and lowered the float silently into the swim. I watched the gentle, hypnotic ripples of the wind on the water and calmed to the mellifluous lapping of the incoming tide, a peace occasionally pierced by the shrill call of seagulls, while to my right, past the dunes, the wash of the waves on the rocks at high tide played its incessant beat. I forgot where I was, got caught in the moment, then I saw them.
The smaller fish came first and fast, before doubling back to join the others. Then the middle fish broke away and came even closer before it too returned to the ranks. Finally, the big fish twisted and turned its way towards me, and my heart started thumping against the ground. I couldn’t clearly see the fish but I could follow the bow wave as it pushed towards me with intent. Closer and closer it came, gradually nearing the float that was gently carried by the tide in a cloud of slowly sinking bread. When the fish was about three yards away it suddenly changed course and went around the bait—giving it a suspiciously wide berth—and over to the other side of the channel, swimming right behind me. I thought my chance had gone until it changed course again and swam back directly at the bait. I could see it now. It was a very good fish indeed.
The distance narrowed further. Surely now? The fish paused, the float passed its head without disturbance, and that old mullet bolted out of the swim in a frightening show of power. The others joined it as it raced past them. I stood up and watched them streak into the distance like zephyrs of wind, fast as bullets, away from danger and out of my life. I was beaten. But I will be back.