Sea Fishing North West Donegal
(Fanad Head to Bloody Foreland)
Lough Swilly has been synonymous with quality tope fishing, almost since organised sea angling in Ireland, began . In the seventies and eighties, however, there was a marked decline in catches and anglers were blamed, as it was then the practise to kill virtually every tope caught to satisfy the requirements for a “weigh-in” at tournaments. As a result literally hundreds of dead tope would end up on the pier at the end of these events. Thankfully things have changed since then and all tope taken are now returned alive to the sea, many of them carrying a bright yellow Fisheries Board tag.
Tope normally appear in late May or early June and remain in the Lough or its environs until September. The vast majority of tope in Lough Swilly are male “pack” fish which seldom grow to over 18kg. Male fish over this weight are rarities in the North Atlantic, so any tope heavier than this are almost certainly female. Fish to over 20kg are however taken occasionally, early in the season or around the time the pack fish start to disappear in late September.
Tope are one of our more “toothy” sports fish so baits are best presented on a running ledger of approximately 13 kg multi-strand wire or heavy (circa 55kg) monofilament attached at the business end to a sharp 8/0 hook. Fresh, medium sized mackerel baits are the favoured tope attractors, and they should be cut in flapper style (the whole fish with tail and backbone removed) or fillet (cut length-wise keeping half the head and tail). Tope can be taken from either a drifting or anchored boat in the Lough and the use of a “rubby dubby” bag of fish oil and entrails held together with bran in an onion bag, is usually an irresistible attraction for these predatory fish. To work properly the bag should be hung over the side of the boat, and fixed so that it just touches the surface of the water. The natural wave motion will then dip the bag in and out of the water creating an oily slick (biodegradable of course) which should arouse the tope’s interest and bring it to the bait.
Tope are not the only fish available to boat anglers in Lough Swilly. The ray fishing is outstanding at times with thornback ray over 5.0kg and homelyn (spotted) ray to 2.0kg regularly taken. There is also good fishing for plaice and dabs in Ballymastocker Bay where drifting ragworm baited spoons downtide of the boat brings best returns. Small boats can be launched safely from the slipway in Rathmullan (1 see map below) and the adjacent car park can accommodate up to ten trailers.
Ray can also be caught by shore anglers fishing on slack tides, at night, from the pier at Rathmullan where ten fish in a session, to a single rod has been achieved. Occasionally a tope will also be hooked, but they are extremely difficult to bring ashore as it involves guiding them along the sides of the pier, keeping them away from the piles and metalwork, and negotiating them up onto the slipway on the northern side. Charter boats operate regularly from the pier mainly from May to September, or by special arrangement outside this period. Up to twenty species including cod, haddock, whiting, wrasse, dab and dogfish are regularly taken aboard boats fishing in water of depths from 25 to 40 metres. The entrance to Lough Swilly is bounded on the east by Dunaff Head and to the west by Fanad Head. All the gurnard family are present in the outer area with specimen greys to .80kg, reds to 1.40kg and tubs over 2.0kg turning up regularly to boat anglers. Lough Swilly is also well known as the starting point for vessels seeking offshore wrecks but it is one particular wreck which lies just 4km off Fanad Head for which the area is best known.
In 1917 the White Star Lines’, 15,000 ton liner “Laurentic” was sunk by mines laid at the mouth of the Lough by German submarine U80 resulting in the loss of some 350 lives.
Between 2001 and 2003, underwater photographers Leigh Bishop and Antonello Paone, took numerous pictures which showed that the still recognisable bow section, had broken away from the largely collapsed main body of the wreck. The “Laurentic” lies in about 35 metres of water, and over the years, has provided easily accessible and consistently good fishing for ling, conger, pollack, coalfish, pouting and wrasse. Despite its tragic history, there are many charter skippers who would just love to have a “Laurentic” on their doorstep.
Mackerel can be caught, in season, on spinning gear, from Portsalon Pier (2) while bottom fishing will result in dabs, plaice, flounder, dogfish and occasional ray. The pier is tidal and there is virtually no water there at low tide, so fishing is generally best in the hours around high water. As at Rathmullan, night fishing is most productive.
The rocky outcrops around Fanad Head (3) provide popular vantage points for ornithologists. Here guillemots, razorbills, puffins, skuas and eider ducks can all be seen and rarer birds turn up regularly, on passage. The same rocks also provide several platforms for shore anglers, and depths of up to 13 metres are within easy casting range. Spinning over very foul ground from the finger of rock to the north of the lighthouse yields pollack, coalfish, and mackerel during summer. From the rocks to the south, spinning accounts for similar species with the addition of an occasional seatrout. Fishing close to the rock produces wrasse to 2.0kg and small coalfish, while distance casting over sand in Pincher Bay takes dabs, codling, dogfish and occasional ray.
The bays at Glashagh (4) and Ballyhieran (5) seldom see a rod and line but can produce excellent sport for the angler who visits at the right time. Glashagh is a steep-to beach made up of sand and shingle with water up to 7 metres deep, close at hand. Ballyhieran has a less steep gradient but contains fewer stones and rock in the middle of the beach. Both beaches however, have high rocks on their eastern ends and are cleaner and show most sand to the west. Shore fishing in autumn is best at both venues (particularly after a northern gale) for codling, flounder, dab, coalfish and seatrout. Bass also occur occasionally in surf conditions.
The upper reaches of Mulroy Bay are a bait gatherers paradise. Lugworm, small white ragworm, and clam are plentiful on the mudflats to the north of the caravan park on the eastern shore, and below the R246 road at Carrowkeel (A) and on the western side, just north of R245 road in Carrigart (B) lugworm can be dug in the estuary and some crab uncovered in the weedy margins. There is a sheltered anchorage and slipway in Fanny’s Bay (6) which is reached by taking the second turn to the right off the R248 Carrigart /Downings Road and driving down to the car park at the boat yard. Small boats can be launched there for fishing in Mulroy Bay where there are several deep holes in the main channel with depths over 20 metres in places. Ray, dogfish and occasional tope can be taken, particularly when the boat is at anchor on a flooding tide. A whole range of species can be targeted at the mouth of the Lough between Ballyhoorisky Point and Melmore Head where Hoi Koi type lures baited with mackerel strip and worm or similarly baited ledger rigs work exceptionally well. In a typical days fishing, boat anglers can expect coalfish, pollack, wrasse, gurnards, dabs, dogfish, whiting and codling.
At Melmore Head (7) spinning from the rock ledges on the western side of the point will produce pollack, coalfish and mackerel in season. There is also exceptional wrasse fishing from the Head with fish over 2.25kg reported. Great care should be taken on these rocks, particularly after gales which cause large sea swells and occasional rogue waves. In calm conditions, however, the long walk from the car park can be very worthwhile.
About halfway round the Atlantic Drive on Rosguill Peninsula, and several hundred feet below the narrow road is Tra na Rossan Bay (8) which is possibly one of the most spectacular, shore angling locations in Ireland. When viewed from above, even on a dull day, the water in the bay appears to be almost crystal clear and of an aquamarine hue. This is backed by a half moon beach of pure, golden sand.
From rock platforms on both the northern and southern shores the bay affords bottom fishing into deep water. The southern side tends to be better but the long hike down the steep fern covered hillside, loaded down with fishing tackle, and not forgetting the energy sapping climb up again, deters all but the keenest (and fittest) of anglers. The Bay fishes best on a flooding tide in summer for ray, dab, dogfish and gurnard on bottom baits, while spinning accounts for seatrout, mackerel, pollack and launce. The beach which has a large car park behind it, can be accessed by road from Atlantic Drive, and is best fished at night when huge shoals of immature coalfish are usually present. Dabs and flounder are also common, while occasional ray and dogfish can be taken by distance casting.
Wrasse, pollack, mackerel, dogfish and occasional conger can be expected from the rock marks at Dooey (9) and Pollmore (10) but the ground is very patchy at both locations and tackle losses are almost certain.
Derrycassin (11) is a popular mark with local anglers, on a summers evening. Mackerel are the main quarry but pollack, coalfish, launce and even an occasional seatrout can be taken on spinning tackle. Bottom fishing is also possible, but distance casting is required to put baits out over sand where dab, plaice, dogfish and ray are possible.
The village of Downings (12) with its vast expanse of sandy shore is popular with all sorts of holiday makers including campers and visitors towing caravans. Several large sites are within walking distance of the beach and there is a wealth of good hotel and guesthouse accommodation in the vicinity. Shore anglers will find that the pier is quite productive for a number of species during the summer. Casting out and fishing over sand, should yield dogfish, flounder, dab, and occasional plaice. Fishing close to the pier wall at night should produce conger to bottom baits while float-fished mid water baits will attract mullet, coalfish and small wrasse. Spinning from the pier head, particularly in July and August, will be rewarded with mackerel, launce and occasional garfish. There is a fine slipway at the quay from which small boats can be launched to fish on Sheephaven Bay where plaice, dabs, dogfish, ray, whiting and codling can all be expected.
There are several charter boats based at the quay and virtually every species known to inhabit Irish waters has been caught at some time or other aboard them. The largest fish ever landed at Downings was a bluefin tuna of 230kgs but some of the other specimen fish captures included common skate to 68kg, blue shark to 65kg, pollack to 6.12kg, spurdog to 5.60kg, torsk to 4.80kg, tub gurnard to 4.30kg, ballan wrasse to 2.38kg, lesser spotted dogfish to 1.53kg, red gurnard to 1.09kg, grey gurnard to .87kg, cuckoo wrasse to .75kg and dab to .72kg.
The vast majority of offshore wrecks have never been fished and they hold great potential for the local charter fleet. One species which has been targeted recently by skipper’s who feel that there is specimen or even record possibilities, is the porbeagle shark which has been found around a number of these wrecks.
It is almost certain that records will fall at Downings in the future, further enhancing the good reputation which the area already enjoys.
On Trabeg Beach (C) large black lugworm can be dug at low tide. Single digging between the blow hole and cast is the most efficient way of taking worms there. Sandeel and razor-fish are also possible on spring tide lows.
On the eastern bank of the Lackagh River Estuary at Creevagh (D) lugworm can be dug and peeler crab gathered around the base of the rocks. To the west of the estuary the Lackagh River joins the Duntally River and where the channel passes Doe Castle (13) spinning or free lining sandeel from the rocks will produce seatrout. Bottom fishing with crab baits will yield flounder while ground baiting will draw in mullet to float fished bread or sweet corn baits. Two hours either side of low water is the optimum period.
On the eastern shore of the Fayemore River estuary, mullet, seatrout, and flounder can be taken from a small quay in the Ards Forest Park (14). Again ground baiting is necessary to hold mullet in the vicinity and two hours either side of low water is the most productive time.
The popular seaside village of Port-na-blagh (15) offers some pier fishing at high water for mackerel in season, small coalfish, wrasse and pollack. From the rocks to the north of the Carrownamaddy Estuary pollack and wrasse are also available at high tide. There is a tidal slipway in the harbour but the approach to it is difficult due to the sharp angle of entry and very narrow nature of the access road from the N56.
In most summer seasons one or occasionally two charter boats operate from the pier. Fishing is carried out over the same grounds for exactly the same species as the Downings vessels.
West of Port-na-blagh on the N56 road lies the village of Dunfanaghy (16). To the north east of the town, and running almost parallel to the main road, is a long stretch of beach backed by sand dunes. In summer the beach is very popular with swimmers and sun worshippers, leaving very few opportunities for fishing, except at night. In autumn, however seatrout, flounder and occasional bass have been caught, particularly after easterly winds have pushed up the surf. The hotspot is at the western end of the beach where the river channel meets the sea. To the north of the village are a number of accessible rock marks on the eastern side of Horn Head where ballan wrasse of over 2kg and pollack to 3kg have been recorded. Conger and coalfish have also been taken there in depths of up to 17 metres. This area is notoriously dangerous in wet or windy weather and local advice should always be sought before attempting to fish anywhere on Horn Head. Dunfanaghy Estuary (E) adjacent to the village provides excellent bait digging for lugworm and small white ragworm with trench digging being the preferred method.
West of Horn Head is the north west facing Tramore Strand (17) which is best fished in spring or autumn. Surf fishing produces flounder, seatrout, dab, codling, coalfish, and occasional bass. Sandeel, lugworm and white ragworm are the best baits there. In summer ray can also be found, at night, during calm spells, but baits will generally have to be cast over 100 metres to find fish.
At the western end of the beach is Doros Point (18) which is a bit of a misnomer because, in fact there are two points. Fishing is carried out from the eastern platform and spinning from the rock produces mackerel in season, pollack, coalfish and occasional seatrout. Baits cast out over sand can also yield dab, flounder, codling, dogfish and occasional ray. Mackerel strip and sandeel baits account for virtually every species there. Night tides are generally best.
The long north facing Ballyness Strand (19) is always worth a visit at any time of year when the surf is up. Flounder, dabs, seatrout, and coalfish can all be taken in suitable conditions with the added bonus of a possible bass in autumn. Where the River Ray cuts through the beach to enter the sea at the eastern end is the favoured location. Behind the beach lies the vast estuary of Ballyness Harbour (F) where lugworm are plentiful on the banks of the main channel. On spring tide lows, razor fish can also be dug or teased up to the surface by the ‘salt in the burrow’ method. The area around Ards Point is particularly productive.
Where the N56 swings south away from the coast below Gortahork it is met by the R257 which runs north-west around the southern shore of Ballyness Harbour. The road meets the sea at Maheroarty (20) where a charter boat operates from the “new pier”. This is the best setting off point for fishing the prolific grounds around Tory Island where anglers can expect quality fishing for a wide range of species. There is also a good chance of tangling with some of our more unusual fish because this area has in the past turned up hake to over 5.5kg, John Dory over 3kg, megrim to over 1kg and turbot to over 11.5kg!
There is a slipway beside the pier where small boats can be launched for fishing off Inishbofin Bay in 20 to 30 metres of water for gurnard, whiting, haddock, dabs, ray and dogfish.
The coastline between Maheroarty and Bloody Foreland is very broken and offers little sea angling prospect, although small boat anglers may be able to launch at Curran’s Port. Local advice should be sought, however, as there are dangerous rocks in the area which break in high swells. Great care should therefore be taken even on apparently calm days.