Long ago, I learned a vital angling lesson: Never leave home without a fly rod. In my travels, I’ve often stumbled on fishable water by chance — in Nigeria, say, where as a Peace Corps teacher I hooked a carp-like creature fit for the television show River Monsters in a muddy creek. So when I moved to Ireland to pursue the woman who’s now my wife, I packed my four-piece travel rod in case the River Liffey, so dear to James Joyce, held trout.
I rented an apartment in the leafy Ballsbridge neighborhood of Dublin, not far from St. Stephen’s Green and the city center, and tried to work on a book I owed my publisher. Instead, I spent hours wandering around my new neighborhood, stopping as necessary for a refreshing Guinness at one of the many pubs along my route. You’re never far from a pint in Dublin.
One afternoon, I spotted the actual Ball’s Bridge. Built in 1791, it spans a sparkling little stream that all but shouted out to me, Hey, pal! Trout in here! Mesmerized, I walked to the bridge and stared at the dancing riffles below, hoping to glimpse a rise. The stream turned out to be the River Dodder, a tributary of the Liffey, which flows for 16 miles or so through Dublin’s southside suburbs.
I couldn’t reach the banks to investigate further. High stone walls to prevent flooding blocked the way, but I followed a path above the river to Ringsend, where the Dodder becomes tidal and a few sea trout are caught on summer evenings, I was told. I saw waterbirds everywhere, not only gulls but also mallards, dippers, cormorants and gray herons, a promising sign. Mute swans glided among them, foraging for small fish.
The Dodder is among Europe’s best-preserved urban streams. It offers fishing for wild and hatchery brown trout, although they seldom grow to any size. The trout are easily spooked and difficult to catch, but a few trophies to 3 or 4 pounds are taken each year. Fishing rights are privately held by the Dodder Anglers’ Club, so I sent a check for 10 euros to Redmond O’Hanlon of Churchtown and became a member.
Next, I walked to Rory’s Fishing Tackle in Temple Bar, the city’s most touristy district, to buy some flies. Amid the souvenir shops and panhandlers, Rory’s manages to survive, anchored to the ancient cobblestones since 1959. The interior is chock-full of gear, but you can also buy sweatshirts with such slogans as, “If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; for a week, get married; for life, go fishing.” Singer Amy Winehouse bought one, and Rory’s has the photo to prove it.
Rory himself was behind the counter. He gave me a curt nod. Maybe he figured me for a wayward tourist who’d mistaken the place for a pub, but I wasn’t put off. I took his serious demeanor as a sign of character. Here was a man who cared about fly-fishing.
He warmed up when I mentioned the Dodder. “Is it flies you’re after, then?” he asked, pulling a drawer from a cabinet. He lined up olive, black and brown midges sizes 18 to 22, virtual no-see-ums, given my eyesight. I chose some tiny caddis flies as well, known as sedges in Ireland, and some red spinners and Klinkhammers I’d never used. I decided to be a purist and fish only dries.
For easy access to the river, Rory pointed me to a park in Milltown, less than a mile from Ballsbridge. I checked it out in the morning but left my rod at home. This was to be a scouting trip. I needed to get the lay of the land before I wet a line.
There were two river paths in Milltown. One skirted the Dodder through the park’s greenery, and the other led through the woods. I chose the woodland path, and the city instantly dropped away. The traffic noise died, and I heard only songbirds and the babble of the stream. I felt as if I’d wandered into a 19th century landscape painting, a Corot or a Constable. The old stone bridges enhanced that feeling, as did the ancient weirs that once powered the Dodder’s mills.
It was July and warm for Dublin, in the 70s with a fair bit of sun. The river was very low and clear, and it had a greenish caste as it flowed over nutrient-rich limestone. It was configured like a classic trout stream — a smooth glide, some riffles and then a pool. I noticed a few mayflies on the wing, but the trout weren’t interested. They’d be down deep, avoiding the bright light and hiding beneath the undercut banks.
As I walked, I watched wagtails flit from rock to rock. In a shady cove, a heron was ready to pounce if a fingerling made a false move. There weren’t many good spots to fish. Those high stone walls impeded anglers, as did the lush canopy of trees and overhanging branches. I’d have to do some bushwhacking, but I noticed clearings and a nice run by The Dropping Well, a pub that served as a mortuary during the Great Famine. I decided to start fishing there the next day.
I keep an angling journal, and the entry for July 16 — my first morning on the Dodder — was brief: “An inauspicious start,” which itself was a half-truth. Actually, it was a god-awful start. I was used to the big rivers of the American West and couldn’t muster the finesse and light touch a small stream demands. My rod was all wrong, too: a 9-foot, 6-inch 7-weight made for America’s Madison or Snake rivers. I didn’t need all that power when conditions seldom required a cast of more than 20 feet.
I’d never fished in a public park, either, and that was an eye-opener. The Dodder offered an idyllic refuge from city life, and lots of folks took advantage of it. I fielded questions from sunbathers, elderly walkers and young mothers pushing strollers, the most common query being, “Catching any?” One guy even asked me to pose with him for a selfie — I’d been reduced to local color. The army of dog walkers were the worst, sometimes unleashing a mutt to frolic in the pool I was fishing.
I was tempted to hit The Dropping Well for a large Jameson, but it wasn’t yet noon. Instead, I packed up, headed straight to Rory’s for some therapy, and bought a lightweight 8-foot rod that would improve my chances considerably. I must’ve looked forlorn because Rory took pity and confirmed what I’d just learned: Fishing the Dodder by day was a mug’s game. I should focus on the evening hours when the trout are active. Evening hours in Dublin go on forever. In July it doesn’t get fully dark until 11 o’clock or so. The Dodder by twilight is a different world, where the nocturnal creatures emerge from their lairs. I’ve seen red foxes trot from the woods and otters swim by, off to do their own fishing. The trout become more visible, too, rising to dimple the surface and slurp at bugs.
There’s a weir near The Dropping Well, and below it a broad pool. That first evening, I fished the pool’s tail-out with a red spinner. In the fading light, I needed that spot of color to track the fly. My new rod worked wonders. The line and leader unfurled delicately, but I lost heart after a dozen fishless casts. I wrote myself off as a ham-handed American who’d never get the hang of fishing in Ireland.
Then I got a strike. The trout took my fly at the end of the drift and fought valiantly, considering how small it was. My pride far outweighed the size of the brown I released — no more than 6 inches long — but it was still a gorgeous wild fish. Browns can alter their body color to blend with their surroundings. This one had a pale yellow underbelly due to the limestone. In less-productive acidic water, browns are darker, almost golden. So it went through the summer. Two or three evenings a week, I fished the Dodder. Sometimes, Imelda, my wife, joined me and packed a picnic. After dark we often had a nightcap at The Dropping Well, sitting on the terrace to listen to the river. I could usually count on a decent hatch, especially of BWOs, and a trout or two, but they were on the small side, some just fingerlings.
That began to bother me. It wasn’t enough to enjoy the picnics and the pub, not after I saw an angler haul in a fat 2-pounder from a pool I’d fished earlier. I knew that pool held lunkers. I’d studied it by day, leaning over a wall to peer into its depths — and it was deep for the Dodder, 10 feet or more — at a limestone outcrop and the big browns that lurked beneath it.
To be honest, I became a little demented. I wanted a trophy trout and put all my efforts into the quest. I fished the pool obsessively on every outing. It wasn’t difficult to reach. I shimmied down a steep bank, then waded to the tail-out. If I created a single ripple, the little trout scurried and tipped off their elders to an intruder, and I’d have to stand still and rest the pool for 15 minutes or so before I cast.
Given such persistence, you’d think I’d have accomplished my goal, but August turned into September and I’d yet to succeed. I’d used every fly in my box and put each one in front of feeding fish, but the trout just ignored me. Once again I turned to Rory for advice. As it happened, he was gone for the day, and I threw myself on the mercy of a long-haired clerk. He listened to my sad story, which I told at mind-boggling length, and prescribed a new batch of olive Klinkhammers in sizes 16 to 20. “You won’t go wrong with those,” he said, gently guiding me out the door.
I accepted his word as gospel. That’s how far gone I was, grasping at straws. In the evening, newly hopeful, I waded to my choice spot at the tail-out. A monster brown soon flashed a dorsal fin as it moved into a feeding lane. BWOs were hatching, but I stuck with a No. 18 olive Klinkhammer, and sure enough, the trout socked it. I was into my trophy, already imagining the photo I’d transmit to my envious pals in California.
But it wasn’t to be. The struggle, if you could call it that, lasted only two minutes. The brown ran with the fly, I reeled in the slack and tightened up, and my leader snapped. To this day, I can hear the sharp ping and see my line drifting aimlessly with the current. It’s an old, old story, but I still hated to lose that fish.
All that happened 17 years ago. I continue to fish the Dodder, although not so obsessively. Some evenings I’m content to walk the woodland path and listen to the songbirds. In fact, I’ve caught a few trophies by now, but they came to me unexpectedly in the way of such things, when I wasn’t trying too hard. Fly-fishing shouldn’t be a goal-oriented contest, but I turned it into one and spoiled the fun for a while. That’s a mistake I won’t make again. Life presents enough challenges without us having to invent any.