Friday, 30 July 2021

Lost Salmon of the Erne

River Erne at Belleek, County Fermanagh


"FOR six months of the year Lough Erne is in County Fermanagh and for the other six months County Fermanagh is in Lough Erne" is an old saying.

For thousands of years, possibly all the way back to the last Ice Age, the River Erne has run from its source, 653 feet above sea-level in County Cavan, for more than 64 miles to the Atlantic Ocean at Ballyshannon, County Donegal.

It spreads out to form the Upper Lough (closer to Dublin) and the Lower Lough (closer to God), south and north respectively of Enniskillen.

Its total water catchment area is 1,669 square miles.

Before its first drainage scheme was introduced in the 1840s some 18,000 acres of farmland were flooded every winter, reducing to 4,000 acres as recently as 1960. 

James Greatorex wrote in 1834 that,
Lough Erne abounds in fish of many kinds, affording a cheap and nutritious article of diet to the poor peasantry, inhabiting the shores of the lough and islands – salmon, trout, pike, perch, eels, bream and roach are in great dominance... 
The pike reach very great size, having been seen in Lisnakea weighing 40 lbs. 
Eels are often caught weighing 4 lbs. and bream of like weight. The perch and roach rarely exceed 1 lb. 
These fish are caught by line and net in vast quantities and during the season furnish the principal item of diet to the peasants living in the vicinity of the lake.
The Irish Times reported in 1884 that, after nine years’ work at a cost of £211,823, the largest set of gates in the world had been built across the River Erne at Belleek, and about 4 miles of the river above Belleek had been dredged and canalised, destroying many well-known salmon ‘throws’.

It wrote that,
Fears are expressed that the present drainage to the Erne will destroy the fisheries. Already the sport has fallen off because of dredging. 
At the same time one gentleman last week landed four salmon averaging 15 lbs….Already regular visitors from England have ceased to come to their favourite haunts and the sport is sure to be deteriorating. 
The price of fishing has hitherto been £4 per week for each rod, having the right to keep two fish… 
In 1881, 53 anglers in 151 weeks killed no fewer than 904 salmon, weighing 8,300 lbs. 
Last year Mr. Bates, a famous angler, caught 114 salmon weighing 1,100 lbs. in 5 weeks. The average angled fish is 9 lbs. 
The biggest fish ever taken was 52 lbs.
At the same time as the river was being fished by rod and line, nets were being used in the river at Ballyshannon.

On one day in June, 1883, 800 salmon were netted.

In the pool below the Assaroe Falls, the last waterfall in the river where fish would have waited for enough flood water to swim and jump up and over the falls, 241 fish were captured in a single draw of the net. 

A land surveyor named Sidney Wilkinson had come over from England in 1867 and spent the next 50 years living and working in the north-west of Ireland.

He developed an enthusiasm for salmon fishing, became a friend of the MARQUESS OF ELY (who owned much of the land south of Lower Lough Erne), and married Miss Alice Munn of Cliff House, Belleek (whose family owned fishing rights on the River Erne between Belleek and Ballyshannon).

Cliff House and Salmon Throw on the River Erne, Belleek

In his privately published book Sport in Ireland he records that on one day in 1881, he caught on the Erne five salmon weighing respectively 25 lbs., 16 lbs., 14 lbs., 13 lbs. and 12 lbs.

His great regret in life was that he never landed a fish of more than 25 lbs. weight, although several times he had much larger salmon on his line which escaped by tearing away from the hook, breaking the leader or, once, a knot at the fly came undone as an estimated 40 lb. fish was about to be gaffed. 

Later in that same year, he fished the streams above Cathaleen's Fall in Ballyshannon for two days, hooked 18 salmon and landed 13 of them weighing from 14 lbs. to 25 lbs.

He wrote "I never saw so many fish; they must have literally paved the bottom of the river below the bridge at Ballyshannon."

Wilkinson wrote of the drainage schemes on the Erne that,
No doubt the farmers … have benefited, but there is no room for any doubt whatever as to the harm it did to the angling between Roscor and Belleek. 
On that splendid stretch of water all the fords were cut away and a canal made, and places where I have killed fish are now dry land! 
Well, one must only be thankful that one knew this glorious river before the angling catastrophe took place.
Although the Erne lost a lot of its finest fishing to the 1880s drainage scheme, it survived as a salmon river.

From the 1890s onward, salmon continued to run in good numbers, the net fishery continued to take a large annual catch and there was excellent fly-fishing to be had on the eight miles between Belleek and Ballyshannon.

Augustus Grimble, writing in 1903, thought it was still the finest summer salmon fishery in the United Kingdom.

There were eight separate beats from Belleek Gates to Ballyshannon, and these were fished in the mornings in rotation, with rods free to go where they wished after 1pm with fierce competition for the best ‘throws’.

Written in the 1920s, The Angler’s Guide To The Irish Fisheries by Joseph Adams describes fishing the Erne’s Ballyshannon pools, probably the only fishing available to him as a casual visitor.

He caught the first spring salmon of the year, a fish of over 16 pounds in weight, which took 95 minutes to land: 
A beautiful fish with small head and deep shoulders, the sea parasites clinging to the silver sides … Spring salmon differ from grilse (i.e. one sea-winter fish) in the greater freedom with which they take the fly and their indomitable strength as fighters.
The following day he landed another 16 pound fish, again after a 95-minute fight, and on the third day he caught another fish: "I wandered down the rough bank seaward, wondering greatly at the enormous force of water that in a sharp inclined plane rushed madly down the descent and then plunged madly over the Assaroe Falls".

He cast his fly into the torrent and a salmon took it: "I felt as if I were holding a racehorse that had taken the bit in his teeth."

The fight up and down the rocky pool with water falls at either end lasted 70 minutes.

When the fish was landed it was found that the fly was in a bit of gristle protruding from the salmon’s mouth and it was moments from getting off.

One of the pleasures of reading the Angler’s Guide To The Irish Fisheries almost one hundred years after its publication is that, where rivers and loughs are substantially unchanged, one can recognise the descriptions of the pools and even experience taking a fish in the same piece of water.

However, the Erne has been changed drastically and no part of the Guide is still relevant.

In the late 1940s a hydro-electric system with twin dams below Belleek and above Ballyshannon was built, and the eight miles of salmon fishing became two newly-created lakes which, in the words of the fishing writer Colin Laurie McKelvie in 1987, "eventually combined to form what is now the dreary and virtually salmon-less Lough Assaroe…"

The Irish Government’s official Angling Guide, published in 1948, stated that “It is impossible at present to say what angling facilities these lakes are likely to afford”…History has provided the answer… the fabulous Erne salmon fishery had been wiped out."

All modern salmon fishers dream of the days when rivers which ran into the North Atlantic ocean were full of silver salmon, making their way back to the gravel beds where they were bred; before in-shore trawlers fished for the sand-eels which the young salmon feed on before their journey out to the deep ocean; before deep-sea trawlers off Greenland, using sonar, found the rich feeding grounds where some fish spent a winter before coming back as grilse of about 7 pounds weight, and others spent many years growing fat and strong, reaching 52 pounds in weight for one Erne salmon; before pollution; before climate change; before estuary netting; before water extraction; and before hydro-electric schemes destroyed their Eden.

Fishermen have often complained about the present and longed-for times past, but modern environmental conditions would have reduced the Erne’s salmon stock in any event.

Salmon are now so scarce in the rivers of Ireland that killing fish is limited where it is not banned.

The Erne would likely have suffered similar losses, but on nothing like the scale caused by the "canalisation" of the river between Roscor and Belleek in the 1880s; and the destruction of the surviving salmon fishery between Belleek and Ballyshannon, caused by the hydro-electric scheme in the 1940s.

This essay was written by a good friend of this blog, who wishes to remain anonymous.

First published in July, 2019.


Handelian said...

I never cease to be surprised and impressed by the depth and breadth of people’s knowledge of unusual interests.

Anonymous said...

What a great shame!
Still, it remains a beautiful part of the world.

Unknown said...

As a Dublin native who has come to live in Ballyshannon I was surprised to see an art installation provided by the ESB (or whoever runs the hydroelectric plant) this piece was a pyrotechnic sculpture depicting a waterfall and a leaping salmon both of which they have destroyed in the area. I felt like they where just taking the piss. I would loved to have seen Ballyshannon in its natural state but sadly it will never return..

Unknown said...

They should be made to correct the problem... it will never be the same but they need to protect the species.... that fish ladder doesn’t work

Anonymous said...

I've heard that eel stocks are severly diminished in the Upper Lough due to over-fishing.

Unknown said...

ESB have to held accountable…. A system has to be created to protect what minute migration there is left… a despicable wild life crime sickening to the core. Mans greed