Angling can make you a happier, healthier person. Helen O’Callaghan looks at the benefits of getting into a river and reconnecting with nature
EVERY year, Glenda Powell asked the headmaster in her Co Down high school if she could be off school on March 1 — the day the season opened for brown trout angling on the River Inler that flows into Strangford Lough.
“My dad was strict — he’d say ‘you have to ask the headmaster’. The headmaster would say ‘yes, but don’t tell anyone’. On March 1, half the school would be missing! We’d all be down the river — everything revolved around it,” says Glenda, who qualified as a fly casting instructor at 19, later managing the Irish Ladies International Fly-Fishing Team.
Recalling those March mornings when she’d be up at 6am, sitting on the river bank in the pitch dark, she explains: “You’d be waiting in your spot before anyone else could get there, waiting for it to get light. I don’t remember torches or bottles of water but we survived.”
Glenda’s love of fishing began at game fairs her dad brought his four daughters to in the 1980s. She particularly remembers fairs at Shane’s Castle, Co Antrim, and Ballywalter, Co Down.
While big sister Hayley always won medals for clay pigeon shooting and her other sisters, Emma and Beverley, were quite good at shooting, Glenda always ended up with a huge bruise on her shoulder from not holding the gun properly. “It was at the trout pond — purposely stocked for children to have a go at fishing — that I spent my time. That whole experience of where food comes from, food you could catch yourself — the whole hunter-gatherer thing — was there from the start.”
Now one of the world’s leading fly casting instructors — she has been teaching fly casting and fishing for 23 years— she also vividly remembers watching the late Peter O’Reilly in the casting arena, wondering how he could cast his line out so effortlessly and wishing she was able to do the same.
MD of Glenda Powell Guiding and also of Blackwater Salmon Fishery, Glenda has been working and guiding on the same beats on the River Blackwater for 21 years. Known as the Irish Rhine, the Blackwater’s a wide river and one of the best in Ireland to fish, says Glenda, adding that, for her, it’s not about catching fish.
“It’s about the unspoilt places that fishing takes me. I have a love of nature and closeness with the earth. It’s being aware of the seasons — the wonder of plants growing and insects living on the bank of the river. I know exactly what time of year it is and what should come next.”
Glenda speaks about a fellowship of anglers (“I have yet to meet a genuine angler who’s not of the kind and patient type”), describing them as great conservationists.
“If there’s a problem in the river — pollution, invasive species — anglers will see it first. We protect fish from pollution and the environment. Salmon need to go upriver to spawn and they need shingle to do it — if there’s a problem with silt in the river, the salmon can’t spawn efficiently.
“Anglers want there to be fish in the river. Many of us have become very careful about how many salmon we kill each year for the table — many are totally ‘catch and release’. I don’t agree with it completely because I think it’s nice to catch a fish to cook and eat with your family.”
With 2019 the International Year of the Salmon, Glenda finds the salmon’s life cycle inspiring. “Salmon, [starting] off their life in the Blackwater, live here for a couple of years until big enough to leave the river and go in search of food in the open sea. They can swim as far as Iceland and Greenland, where they stay for a year or two depending on food and the call to reproduce. They then swim back to the river they were born in to spawn — it’s an incredible story of hardship and persistence.”
Mum to Anna, 17, and Ian, 16, Glenda believes children can learn a lot from fishing. “There’s a life lesson in a river that keeps on moving over all the obstacles, turning and twisting on its way to the sea. It finds its path, though it might have to take a few bends — but that’s life.”
Angling isn’t as popular among young people as Glenda would like. And yet, she says, fishing brings them outdoors and — especially if in a club — in contact with others who share their interest.
“Angling’s one of the greatest teachers of patience. We’re fishing for wild fish — they won’t be jumping on the line. There’s effort required — time, persistence — it’s not a given that it’s going to happen. You learn to experience disappointment and also success.
“For children it’s grounding — sitting still long enough to experience the beauty around them. They get to feel wind in their face, rain in their hair, to experience what it’s like to be too cold or too hot. We’ve put kids in blankets [today] so they don’t know, as we did, what it is to experience discomfort. It’s about improving wellbeing and health.”
From Ballymacoda, Tadhg Collins, an 18-year-old Leaving Cert student, has been fishing with dad Denis since he was a toddler.
“When I was three, I asked for a fishing rod for my birthday. Catching my first fish — a small brown trout — the excitement of that stuck with me. I was maybe four. I was the only person in my class who went fly-fishing.
“Fishing for me is time out, a bit of stress-free time to zone out, relax and not think about having to get the maths assignment in or the Irish revision done.
“When I’m fishing I stay away from the technological world — I turn off my phone or put it on silent. I might check it at lunchtime or turn it on in the evening before I go home.
“Fishing teaches you patience. You could be waiting hours — to get a fish is a bonus. Learning patience is the biggest thing when you’re young and eager to get going.”
Dad-of-three Denis says: “Within a couple of months of Tadhg starting walking, he wanted to go fishing with me. When the day was over, he’d be crying at the riverside, wanting to keep going. By the time he was five he was fishing with me and my dad, Donie, in Lough Currane in Kerry. He was one of the gang.
“Fishing has given Tadhg a lot of patience. Certainly, with salmon fishing, the result at the end of the day is often a blank. The modern world, where things can be done in an instant, has got people very impatient.
“Tadhg accepts things for what they are. He has huge interest in nature. The wild, remote places are very humbling — knowing they’ve been there all this time and our own lives are so short a passage of time.
“Even when the season’s closed, Tadhg always has something to do — he’ll be reading a book about fishing or tying his own flies.
“It’s more than a hobby — it’s a way of life.
“Aside from being father and son, we have a great friendship.
“We’ll very often be in the boat, fishing for two hours, and we won’t have spoken for an hour because we’ll be so engrossed.
“We understand each other. Often, when we arrive back in the evening, we dissect the day — ‘would it have been better if we’d done this?’ or ‘let’s try this next time’.”
A ‘Young Person’s Day’ – educational, fun-filled introduction to fishing – takes place on Saturday, June 22. Topics will include safety around water, salmon life cycle and why clean water’s important to us/the fish. There’ll be a barbeque and opportunities to try fishing. To book a space, phone 087-2351 260 or email Glenda@blackwatersalmonfishery.com. Visit www.blackwatersalmonfishery.com.