THE United Kingdom’s only land frontier with the European Union skirts Derry City and runs for 300 miles along the Foyle estuary then up the Finn valley before climbing Croaghnameal mountain and crossing the head waters of the Mourne Beg and Derg rivers to Lough Derg, where legend has it Saint Patrick discovered the gates of purgatory.
From there it glances off lower Lough Erne, cuts through loughs Melvin and MacNean into limestone country at the foot of the Iron Mountains and into Europe’s first geopark. After crossing upper Lough Erne, on the Earl of Erne’s Crom Estate, it wriggles over rivers, lakes, bogs and battlefields to the Irish Sea at Carlingford in the shadow of the Mourne and the Cooley Mountains.
During the Troubles of the 20th century the border was considered a lawless ‘bandit country’ and the heartland of the outlawed provisional Irish Republican Army. Roads and bridges were destroyed by the British army, in a bid to hamper the movement of determined Irish gunmen, and traffic was forced through heavily fortified border forts manned by soldiers supplied by helicopter.
Today the border country is at peace thanks to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 which persuaded the IRA to abandon its ‘armed struggle’ and enter government with unionists who wish to retain partition and remain in the United Kingdom. Roads and bridges have re-opened and lost fisheries made accessible for the first time in 45 years.
The salmon fishing is at its best on the Foyle system which includes the Mourne, Finn, Reelin, Derg, Glenelly and Owenkillew rivers that drain the Bluestack and Sperrin mountains into Lough Foyle. These are classic Irish spate streams that are managed by Ireland’s oldest cross-border body the Loughs Agency which patrols the waterway to keep poaching under control.
Lough Melvin offers good salmon fishing in spring and summer and holds unique sub species of trout, the sonaghan and gillaroo. There are good stocks of wild trout in Fermanagh’s lower lough Erne which is managed by Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The Mayfly hatch in June can be spectacular. Big bugs drop like snowflakes upon whiskey-coloured water from Eagle Point in the west to Muckross Bay on the eastern shore. In autumn the first floods bring big lake trout into the streams to spawn.
Lough Derg in Donegal also holds good stocks of wild trout up to about four pounds and is best fished from a boat. It is managed by Ireland’s oldest cross border body The Loughs Agency. Anglers must keep away from the Catholic basilica on Station Island. It draws thousands of pilgrims every summer. Further south in Cavan the limestone Lough Sheelin came close to extinction due to agricultural pollution in the 1980s but careful management by the Republic’s Inland Fisheries Ireland has restored it to its former glory and it is now widely regarded as one of Ireland’s premier trout fisheries alongside the big loughs of the west such as Corrib and Mask.
All along the border there are little rivers and dozens of small mountain lakes which are seldom fished. Every pool has a stock of greedy little brownies which are heroic fighters on a two-weight fly rod. Among the best of them is Lough Keenaghan in Fermanagh, which is managed by Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs, and the Fane which straddles the border between Monaghan and Armagh before entering the sea in Louth. It is managed by local clubs and is renowned for good hatches of large dark olives, blue-winged olives and fat sedges.
The sheltered estuary of the Erne holds good sea trout and can be fished from the shore or by boat. The fish cannot navigate past the hydro scheme at Ballyshannon but when the frequent rains bring a spate into the small streams they will run to feed and to spawn holding in the pools as the water drops. Sea trout numbers around Ireland have been damaged by salmon farming but the border area is free of the controversial fish cages to be found further south. The Irish record sea trout of 16lb 6oz was caught in in 1983 in the Shimna river, which flows from the Mourne Mountains into the Irish Sea at the eastern end of the border country.
In June 2016 the majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, though the majority in the UK decided to leave, and the future of the border country is high on the agenda for both the government of the Irish Republic and the Northern Ireland Executive at the Brexit negotiations scheduled to begin in Brussels in March. No one wishes to see road closures and customs posts return – least of all visiting anglers who are beginning to discover this forgotten sporting country for the first time in a generation – but a hard Brexit may mean there is no option.