In Ireland, a haven of fly-fishing, golf and solitude
The Washington Post News Service
July 14, 2015 Special to The Washington Post.
Some years back, a fishing guide acquaintance of mine led pro golfers Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara out on Oregon's Deschutes River for a day of fly-fishing for steelhead. As my friend recounted this special day, it struck me that many golfers I know fly-fish — and vice versa. Perhaps it's the outdoor setting, pitting man against obstacles (be they finicky trout or gaping bunkers). Perhaps it's the similitude of the swinging/casting motion, and the fact that the ball and the fly go farther when you move smoothly.
Or perhaps it's the fact that in your average round of golf, the time you spend actually swinging a club amounts to about three minutes. The rest of the time you're gauging distances, checking the wind, selecting clubs and reading greens. When fly-fishing a river, even the best day involves minutes — not hours — of actually fighting fish. The rest of the time is spent gauging currents, checking for rises, selecting flies and reading the water. For both sports, it's what happens "between the ears" that separates relative success and failure.
I've assembled several trips in the past along the golf/fly-fishing theme, mostly around my stomping grounds in the Pacific Northwest. The ultimate adventure, however, lay further afield. Back in the old country, on the west coast of Ireland. Where wild and woolly links courses lie on peninsulas formed by rivers brimming with Atlantic salmon and sea trout.
So I embarked on what might be the ultimate golf and fishing adventure: a barnstorming tour of County Mayo that included sessions on famed links courses, world-renowned salmon waters and a few pints of Guinness along the way.
After checking in at Mount Falcon Estate — a castlelike hotel just outside the town of Ballina — I made my way to Enniscrone Golf Club. Dating to 1918, Enniscrone rests on a spit of land that juts into Killala Bay, near where the River Moy meets the Atlantic. It is on true links land, defined by Enniscrone General Manager Pat Sweeney as the land that connects or links pasture land to the beach; in other words, land that's too sandy to grow anything, marginal for grazing sheep, and not much good for anything else ... except a golf course.
If your vision of golf includes finely manicured fairways lined with stately oaks, sleek golf carts and beverage girls slinging overpriced Coors Lights, you might not recognize Enniscrone - or many of Ireland's other links - as golf courses. The links are marked by immense dunes, gaping waste bunkers and knee-deep rough; at times your aiming point is a small white stone, as the green is not visible; there are no golf carts in sight, because you're expected to walk. It's a style of golf that encourages creative shot-making, as the wild undulations of the fairways and green often render an A-to-B approach ineffective, if not impossible.
Sweeney's style of play captured the spirit of links golf's bump-and-run philosophy (to keep the ball out of the wind) to its logical end: He likes to putt ... pretty much from anywhere within 150 yards of the green. "A bad putt is better than a bad chip," is one of many bon mots he offered in the course of our round, as he wound up his putter to waist height to unleash another 100-yard approach putt along the hard, rolling fairway. To prove a point, he played the par-5, 514-yard 16th with a driver and a putter. After hitting his drive 225 yards down the left side of the fairway, he putt, then putt, then putt again. His fourth and final putt dropped into the cup for par. Playing with my fairway wood and irons, I lost a ball in the rough and managed a double-bogey.
After lunch at the clubhouse, I swapped golf shoes and club for waders and a fly rod and headed to the River Moy to cast for Atlantic salmon. The River Moy rises in the Ox Mountains of County Sligo, in northwest Ireland, and flows 62 miles before entering the Atlantic. Its perpetually tea-colored waters — thanks to the presence of peat deposits along much of its course — host impressive numbers of returning Atlantic salmon each spring and summer. On a good year, fisheries managers estimate, 75,000 salmon return to the Moy, making it one of Ireland's most prolific salmon rivers. Atlantic salmon have long had a strong pull for anglers, in part for their beauty and fine table presentation, in part for their proclivity for long, leaping battles and in part for their inscrutable ways. Sometimes they will take a fly, sometimes they won't; this unpredictable behavior has a perverse appeal for fly-fishers who like a challenge ... although the number of fish in the Moy improve one's odds. (Atlantic salmon on some rivers can reach over 50 pounds; on the Moy, fish average closer to eight.)
Most Atlantic salmon rivers — be they in northern Norway, Iceland or the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador — are situated far from population centers, often in the wilderness. The River Moy is an exception to this rule; the river's most fecund stretches, including the Ridge Pool, rest smack in the middle of town. Instead of granitic canyons or deep boreal forests, the right bank of the Moy backs up to a stone wall, above which is Ridge Pool Road, with assorted storefronts (including two tackle shops) and a promenade where passers-by may pause to critique your casting form.
The left bank is skirted by a neatly cobbled sidewalk, the office of Inland Fisheries Ireland (where local ghillies — fishing guides — might grab a cup of coffee as they assess your tackle), the Ballina Manor Hotel and, finally, V.J. Doherty's Ridge Pool Bar by Upper Bridge, which bears cars and pedestrians across the river. I asked Declan Cooke, who manages the River Moy for Inland Fisheries Ireland, about the oddest urban activity he'd ever witnessed in the environs surrounding the Ridge Pool. "Sex, violence, triathlons, street carnivals — take your pick," he replied.
Fishing the Ridge Pool is not for the angler who craves solitude. Between the five other anglers spaced out along the pool, the ghillie on the bank and onlookers from Upper Bridge and the promenade, stepping into the Ridge Pool is not unlike stepping onto the first tee at Augusta National during the Masters. It's proper etiquette for each angler to cast, let the fly swing in the current until it's directly below you, take two steps, cast, let the fly swing below you, take two steps, etc. — until you've reached the bottom of the pool. Then you return to the top and do it again.
Salmon swirled near my line, occasionally clearing the water completely as I marched through the Ridge Pool once, and then again. None was interested in my Hairy Mary, a fly tied with brown squirrel tail and double hooks whose name summoned alternating images of a ravishing Irish lass with long red curls and a stout bearded lady. As I stepped out of the water near the foot of Upper Bridge, the sun dipped behind the Fisheries building. Glancing upstream at my fellow anglers, I decided that adjourning to V.J. Doherty's (established in 1913 by the current owner's great grandfather) for a pint of Guinness would be preferable to another rebuff by the Moy's salmon.
Mount Falcon Estate provides a sumptuous retreat after a day of putting and casting. The 100-acre estate includes a section of the Moy with several beats (stretches of river set aside for fishing) for guest use and lavish suites that would not seem out of place on Downton Abbey. (A non-golfing/non-fishing friend would not be disappointed if invited to County Mayo with a room booked at Mount Falcon!) There are also facilities for trap shooting and archery, a trout fishing pond and a resident falconer, should you wish to learn about this ancient form of hunting. Irish food has come a long way since my inaugural trip in 1989, when I subsisted on ever-more-mysterious renditions of shepherd's pie. The Kitchen Restaurant (which occupies the original kitchen of the estate) explores farm-to-table themes with a variety of local meats, produce and seafood.
Something else that's served up at Mount Falcon (and throughout County Mayo, for that matter) is good "craic" — Gaelic for good times, good fellowship and good camaraderie. It can (and often does) involve a pint, but it's more about people getting together and enjoying music or a tall tale. Ireland is a rather poor country, and the Irish people have learned over many generations to make their fun with what they have ... which is one another. The Irish seem hardwired for hospitality and fun, ever-ready to converse and sing a song ... that is, have some good craic.
Over the next few days, we swung flies on several different stretches ofthe Moy, visited the famed links at Rosses Point (which rest below the Ben Bulben Mountains, immortalized by William Butler Yeats), fished (but did not catch) on a lovely little river called the Owenmore and sampled Guinness Stout at more than a few clubhouses and country pubs. (Irish bartenders, I observed, understand that the goodness of Guinness cannot be rushed. The average pour takes longer than two minutes.) On my last morning, I visited Carne Golf Links, in the town of Belmullet. Alan Maloney, the proprietor of Mount Falcon, was driving, and he could not locate the course despite having spent a good part of his life in the region.
Belmullet is a hotbed of Gaelic language boosterism. Road signs feature Gaelic names in large, bold fonts and English names in more modest type below; in many cases, the English had been painted over. After several wrong turns, a mass of hilly dunes appeared on one of Ireland's most westerly spits of land — next stop, Newfoundland!
It was a cloudless sky and the wind was barely perceptible — not a common weather day. Yet Alan's Range Rover was the only car in the parking lot. "People here like to play a little later in the day," the young man in the pro shop had explained. As we prepared to tee off to a broad landing area between two immense hummocks, a border collie ran across the fairway. By the time we reached our drives, we could hear the gentle bleating of sheep from a nearby pasture, blocked from view by the hills.
For me, Carne (or Galf Chursa Chairn in Gaelic) captures the spirit of Irish golf. It has the blind drives, the convoluted approach shots and the greens that are nestled improbably onto tiny dune-side terraces that typify Irish links. But it also has groups of local ladies and children enjoying a quick round. At Carne, golf is still a community game, and the course — though included on many "must play lists" — exists first and foremost to serve the community. Visiting Americans with swollen billfolds are warmly welcomed, but the course is really there for the McIlroys of the future.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE TO STAY:
- Mount Falcon Estate
Foxford Rd., Ballina, County Mayo
Rooms start at about $83 per person. The lodge can help arrange fishing and golf excursions.
WHAT TO DO:
Fishing: You can find information about leasing beats (fishing spots) on the Moy, Owenmore and other County Mayo rivers at www.fishinginireland.info. Leases run from about $122 to $132.
Golf: Try Enniscrone (www.enniscronegolf.com), Rosses Point (www.countysligogolfclub.ie) and Carne (www.carnegolflinks.com). Green fees during the summer season range from about $77 to $213.