An Insight Into Festival Fishing

What an exciting place Ireland is for the match angler at the moment. The fishing on these huge, wild, natural waters, is being opened up toall anglers by various agencies across the island and the fishing is brilliant.

Although the days of finding huge shoals of bream virtually everywhere, or timing the competitions to coincide with the mass migrations of spawning fish onto the match lengths,  are largely a thing of the past. However, the consistency of the fishing has never been better than it is now.

Dernaferst 29
The bag up or bust matches have been replaced with competitions where large numbers of smaller fish seem to be the norm and the hard working match angler can make something happen in most pegs.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of Bream and Skimmers around, but as always they are not in every peg and instead of being simply spectators, those anglers not lucky enough to draw on a shoal can now catch a weight of Roach, Perch or Hybrids from virtually anywhere.

The beauty of festival fishing is that it is about making a weight each day in order to build up enough to be in the fray at the end of the week. Often those extra couple of kilos winkled out of that dodgy draw early on in the festival are worth their weight in gold when it comes to the final total. This gives every angler a reason to work as hard at an average peg as he would at a flier and with the vast numbers of fish now present, there is always the opportunity to make a contribution to the weekly total.

I travel with Roy Marshall and Graham Frith and we have found that the fishing around Arvagh and Gowna suits us down to the ground; this area has also become a Mecca for many other anglers and is the venue for some of the biggest festivals taking place in Ireland. The build up to a trip is a real buzz in itself: throughout the year in England I have a tendency to just turn up at matches, rummage through a bucket of winders to find something half suitable and get on with it. This level of complacency however has no place on the Irish festival scene and my gear gets a real going over before each trip. Scores of winders are made up for all of the variety of methods and conditions to be faced, pole elastics are changed, reels serviced etc etc.

Mark Downes 01Unfortunately I found very early on in my Irish match fishing career that lack of preparation can lead to the chance of a real battering - courtesy of Mark Downes. And it still hurts!!!

As the festivals approach we begin to realise how lucky we are to participate in a sport which can create such wonderful levels of anticipation, very much like waiting for the start of the fishing season in the old days, or as kids, looking forward to Christmas.

This year I have already had two quite successful trips, one to Inniscarra in May, which was followed in June by my favourite couple of weeks of the year, to Arvagh to fish the Over 50,s Classic run by Irvine Baines a real character and a man I always look forward to seeing and the Breffni Challenge (formerly the Stenna).Unfortunately the weather was too good to be true this year and the fishing suffered as the Roach were spawning for the first week, there were plenty of bites to be had however, albeit the weights were somewhat lower than normal.

This particular trip begins with a week in County Cork on the huge and Roach filled Inniscarra reservoir. This is a wonderful venue and although I have only fished it for a couple of weeks before, I have managed to do reasonably well by adopting up in the water tactics; this time however a certain Dutchman by the name of Aire Roubos really put us all in our place by winning 6 out of the 8 matches with over 20k of Roach each time. Aire adopted a simple approach with a 5m whip, using groundbait to keep the fish on the deck and but for one poor result in the first festival, I am sure he would have had back to back wins. I fished in his rota for both events and feel that I have made another good friend, which is what festival fishing is all about, he is a lovely guy and very modest with it. I finished a poor second to Aire in the second festival and realised that a few practise sessions are required in order to get to grips with this water.

One of my travelling companions, Roy Marshall has been fishing the Gowna Festival during this same week and I have been getting daily reports which suggest that the fishing in Cavan is on fire, with pole anglers winning what is normally a feeder dominated festival.
I have planned to set off up to Arvagh on the Sunday prior to the Arvagh International Festival.

Along with the Gowna and the King of Clubs Festivals, which are all run back to back, this is one of the big ones, with really top notch competitors taking part. As well as an array of English and Irish internationals and former internationals, including world champions Kevin Ashurst, Bob Nudd and Tommy Pickering, there are some of the best Silverfish anglers from the UK and the continent competing, many of whom are currently right at the top of their game.

I can remember Tony Kersley once saying that in the old days he used to look around at the draw to see who he had to beat but nowadays he looks around to see if there is anyone he can beat, coming from an angler of Tony’s class, this underlines the quality of the field.

With many of the competitors having already fished the Gowna, I am expecting to get a real tonking this week as I play catch up, but the main aim is to get ready for the King of Clubs. This is a festival I have won twice before in the past along with Neil Parkinson and Dave Swain and I would dearly love to be the first person to win it three times. The one thing that I am looking forward to, is meeting all of the anglers again, the level of camaraderie at these festivals is incredible and it is impossible not to make new friends when you spend a week on the same rota with the same group of people. These same “friends” will be waiting in the pub at night however, to remind you of the battering you got from unexpected quarters on those days when things don’t go exactly to plan, be warned.

Some of my best memories will be of sitting drinking in the Breffni with legends such as Roy Toulson and Wayne Swinscoe and prising out of them how they took the match angling world apart back in the day, listening to other household names talking about their days fishing and my favourite, hearing Leeds based Kevin Hartley explaining how easy it is to cast the top section of his rod into the Lake (which he has done on a number of occasions) and then still having the brass necked cheek to ridicule everyone else who walks past for lesser failings. With so many like minded people out at night, it is an endless telling of often hilarious stories, usually relating to previous fishing experiences.

When I arrive at Arvagh, it is necessary to get quickly up to speed with what is happening and there is talk of large numbers of small fish on all of the sections with an apparent swarm of tiny perch, or bumble bees as they are being nicknamed, virtually everywhere. This will ensure plenty of bites, but not necessarily good weights and will require a lot of sorting out.

The rotation for the week is drawn on Sunday Night and there is a great atmosphere, the fishing is exceptionally good and everyone is in a really positive frame of mind. Sadly, it is here that I find out that my old friend Billy Dodds has passed away, Billy was an ever present competitor and will be sadly missed, he was a really nice man and regularly featured in the prizes. Once the draw has been made, it is back to the bar to find out where everyone is going and then to bed.

I drew peg four at Tessa’s on the first day and with peg three not drawn I have found an end peg, always an advantage when the pegging is a bit close as it is at Tessa’s. Micky Vials turns up on peg 5 and suggests that he is in for a battering, I am not too sure about that as I haven’t got a clue how to approach it after plumbing up and finding that it is a top 5 deep at 4 metres.

One amazing thing is the number of plucks I am getting from the small Perch on the plummet; I use a piece of red catapult elastic glued to a bomb as a plummet and the Perch are attacking the elastic, I take one up to Micky’s peg and it is the same for him. I decide to loose feed casters close in and see if the fish will come up in the water, no chopped worm today, the last thing I need is to attract more bumblebees into the peg. The fish don’t come up but I do get regular bites from small Roach from 1oz to 4oz, occasional Perch and a fairly steady run of 4 to 10 ounce hybrids, double caster fished over depth being the best way to catch the stamp fish.

I think I might have 10k at the end and walk up to watch the weigh in. Fred McDwyer, who would be the first to say that he is an outside bet to win any section is leading with 14k, beating none other than Bob Nudd at the next peg by a country mile, “Skimmers on the tip” says Fred, “bet you’ve got twenty kilos haven’t you?” for some reason I say 5-6K, which is about the average weight for everyone else in the section. When I weigh in 15k, which is enough to win the shoreline, the abuse begins and continues when I get back to the pub, I must think before speaking next time.

This isn’t a problem for the next three days when I find myself struggling to sort out the better fish from the millions of small Roach and Perch which seem to love my loose fed casters. 7.5 K at Kevin’s, 11.5K at Corfree and 8K at Dernaferst, where I attacked the peg too hard and overfed it. This see’s me wallowing in mid table and wishing that I had been here last week in order to get to grips with it. I am starting to see things more clearly by now though and know that at least two of my pegs were worth quite a few more kilos each.

On Friday morning Wayne Swinscoe puts his arm around my shoulder and tells me that he is pleased to see that he is not the only one struggling, this is a bit of a consolation as Wayne is an angler of stellar ability and the fishing is obviously taking a lot of sorting out. Today I am at either Gulladoo Steps, where the peg at the bottom of the Steps has produced the match winner for three days running, including a 25k win for my mate Roy Marshall, who has been grinning like a Cheshire cat ever since.

This peg is solid with with a big shoal of Perch which seem determined not to move, or I will be at Gulladoo Cross which has fished moderately in comparison. Lee Klimczuk has drawn at the bottom of the steps with Fred Mc Dwyer next door. Fred doesn’t fish the pole so Lee looks like being able to do a demolition job on the rest of us.

I draw in the middle of Gulladoo Cross. Not filled with enthusiasm but determined to learn something ready for next week I set up to try and catch a few Hybrids shallow and possibly some Perch close in. My pairs partner Graham Frith won the top end of this section with 14 K of Perch earlier in the week.

After six drops in on the pole I realise that there are a lot of Perch feeding and that I don’t have a rig set up for bagging. I get off my box, go back to the truck and set up something suitable; it takes about 10 minutes to get the fish going properly again on chopped worm or maggot and suddenly I am really motoring, I soon get up to a 100 fish per hour catch rate until a Pike decides to get in the way. After 3 hours I have 250 fish in the net but after three Pike strikes in succession the Perch have gone and suddenly I am trying to catch Roach. Twenty fish in the next hour would suggest the day is done but by chasing in and out with various rigs, I find that the Perch have dropped down the peg and moved further out. By short lining at 5-6m, I manage to start catching a few and they come stronger and stronger and 80 fish in the last 45 minutes takes me over the 400 mark.  I have had a brilliant day and finish with 29k.

Bob Nudd 01Amazingly enough, Lee, who is a real danger man on any peg let alone a flier, has had a bad day, the Perch have finally moved and Bob Nudd has won the section from the downstream end peg at Steps with 12k. My partner Graham Frith has fished his usual brilliant festival but came up against an in form Simon Stott who pips him for first place overall by less than a pound, both weighing over 74k. The good news is that I have moved up to 5th place, 4k behind the winner and our combined total has won us the pairs.

The organisation and running of the Arvagh and The King of Clubs is taken on by Eammon and Philomena Gray (who own the Breffni Arms where we stay), together with a number of other hard working townspeople and the team of fisheries department staff who are on hand every day to assist the anglers with the weigh in. All of this work is provided on a voluntary basis by some truly genuine people. One of the benefits of this as anglers is that we get to meet some of the locals and we have been able to see at first hand how friendly and generous with their time they are. They also get to see and hear some of the merciless mickey taking that goes on, especially around weighing in times and this situation has generated some real friendships over the years.

We are particularly indebted to Emanon and Philomena who put their hands in their pockets to keep the King of Clubs and the Stenna going when the original sponsors fell by the way side.

The King of Clubs entry suffered last year due to coinciding with the newly formed World Pairs competition, however, this year attendances are back up to those of two years ago and such is the interest for next year that there has been a limit of 80 competitors set.

This limit on numbers will mean that anglers will benefit from well spaced pegs on all of the best sections, a formula which has produced tremendous catches over recent years, with Nigel Houldsworth an expat yorkshireman who seems to know just about everyone in Ireland and who works tirelessly behind the scenes to thank.

After looking at the weights produced on each section on the Arvagh and after much discussion, Roy Marshall, Nigel and I arrange to do the pegging. I am to meet Fergal Smith at Killykeen where he has fished a festival the previous week. The pegs here are ridiculously close together and we give everyone two pegs each, as this seemed to work well last year. The section has fished brilliantly in areas according to Fergal and it looks really good and I stop on for a couple of hours to fish and get completely drenched as the heavens open. Some huge hybrids can be caught close in and Roach and Perch are feeding at any depth and on any bait.

A practise match is arranged for Sunday and on the morning I draw the hot peg from last week, right at the bottom of Gulladoo Steps. Talk about the right peg on the wrong day, this was definitely one to get when it would matter i.e. in the festival itself. I know that Lee struggled on Friday, but the section has had a rest and I am confident of a good days fishing.

I make sure that I have a few bagging rigs set up for the Perch this time, with replacement winders to hand in case of breakages.
What a start, everything works out according to plan and after 3 hours, 300 Perch are in the net for around 50lbs, the last 3 hours however are a lot steadier, which was the pattern last week apparently, but I still manage another 150 fish for a whopping 36.6k, my best pole weight in a match in Cavan and an easy win on the day. Two wins in two matches, things are looking better and better for next week.

Leonards Shore 02
Sunday Night at the Breffni sees the rotation draw and I find myself in A section which means that I go back to Gulladoo tomorrow and finish at Dernaferst on Friday. The good news is that I have Roy Marshall and Nigel Houldsworth among others for company so there should be plenty of laughs, especially as I hear that Nigel, who is a very very good tip angler has taken up whip fishing this year, something I thought I would never see.

The draw on the morning of a festival is one of those occasions when a heart monitor would be interesting, we all think that we know where we would like to be and the pulse rate soars as the hand goes in the bag every morning and today is no different. I don,t know why I am getting so excited, there are only 3 pegs left when I draw and the fliers at the bottom of the steps are all gone. I pull out peg one, this is at the far end of the Steps section and produced a 10k catch of Roach yesterday; it was moderate all last week apart from “Nuddy” winning the section from it on the last day but I was quite pleased not to be at Gulladoo Cross, the other half of the section, despite last Friday, s big catch.

To cut a long story short, I enjoyed another really good day on Perch, Roach and Hybrids, despite a strong facing wind, the fish came up in the water and I persuaded 370 into the net for 30k, wow, what a start, the only downer was to lose two big hybrids at the net right at the end, hopefully this won’t prove to be too costly. When the results come in, my partner in the mystery pairs, Jason Orwin from Wakefield has drawn the same peg that he was on at Killykeen in the practise match and has pipped me on the day by 120g with a brilliant 30k catch of Hybrids and Roach.

As I am at Killykeen next I begin asking around about the fishing there in order to get some information as to how to fish it, this is a section I have only been to once before, unfortunately I tried Tight Lips Tony Hopkins first, which was like trying to milk a brick, I then moved on to Jason who was much more forthcoming and I found myself really looking forward to the day. I draw peg nine, which on paper is at the wrong end of the section and was the lowest weight yesterday, so I am not exactly jumping for joy and as it turned out rightly so.

I spend the day struggling to make anything work except for chopped worm close in, which was good for 2-3oz Perch every cast. The main line of attack on this section is to feed a small ball of groundbait every cast in 5m of water which appeared to work for everyone to my right, but not for me, they all caught decent Hybrids and Roach, but all I can put together are a few bites and then nothing. I must have looked like a windmill, constantly picking up different rigs to try to get something working, but to no avail. I established a pattern of catching 20 Perch and then having 5 minutes on various other methods, none of which produced anything to mean anything. I came to the conclusion that the peg was very uneven in depth, or had some large boulders in it; I came back with clumps of Zebra Mussels half way up the rig on several occasions.

It became obvious that it was Perch or bust, but when I went for them properly, they decided to back off. All in all a very frustrating day, but when the Eamonn arrived to help us weigh in, the scales showed 22K, which was good enough for 3rd in the section and also in the match; I was mightily relieved, disaster had been averted. It was apparent at the weigh in that Killykeen is home to some really big Hybrids and the stamp of fish caught by Roy Toulson and Paul Smith in the early pegs was particularly impressive. These are real weight builders and it was not surprising to see this section producing the individual winner every day, Sheffield’s John Gunn was top rod today with 23K

By now I have established a fairly healthy lead in the festival and with one of my favourite sections to come, Kevins Shore at Rossduff, I am actually beginning to fancy my chances of winning. There are loads of fish being caught and weights are continuing in the same vein as in the previous two weeks. What a fantastic experience this is proving to be, for everyone it seems, apart from Kevin Hartley. Kevin normally does quite well here, but for whatever reason, there appears to be a black cloud hanging over every peg he draws. He continues however to be the joker and as I was walking into the hotel in the morning I heard him shout from the bedroom window above “quick, get that brick ready, he is just coming past”. 

The draw bag provides me with peg 8 which is right in the middle of the straight, I am quite happy to go anywhere at Kevins Shore, as long as it is not on the deep pegs below the last fence. Indeed I have told my wife that I want my ashes spread on peg 5, my favourite peg in Ireland. I did however notice that she was looking at the dustbin and not the photograph of the peg when I was telling her (I must remember our wedding anniversary this year).

Nigel Houldsworth 01I had the best laugh of the week when I saw Nigel Houldsworth walking around at the start holding his two new whips up in the air; he looked like he was trying to get a signal for a television set. Indeed half of the people in the section gathered behind him before the start to see the new Nigel setting up. As he normally only rigs up one feeder rod per match, he looked a bit put out when he was labelled a tackle tart!  Sadly for Nigel, conditions were extremely windy and it was not a day to learn on the whip.

I have a good match, catching Roach and Hybrids steadily throughout and although I am certain that there was the potential for a big weight by fishing shallow had the conditions allowed, I am well pleased with the 15-750 at the end. Killykeen provided the winner with Ian Germaney on 23k, again Hybrids and Roach on the whip. The following day at Corfree sees me on peg 10 and it is a similar story, I weigh 18K of Hybrids and Roach, all caught shallow in very difficult conditions. It has been a really interesting and enjoyable day with odd Hybrids up to the 1lb mark in amongst the smaller fish adding plenty of excitement to the fishing, another bonus is that I have finished 2nd on the day behind John Jowett who has had 19k at Killykeen.

I am now 12.5K up on the man who has been dogging my heels all week. Manchester rod John Rogers is an angler I have never met before and it transpires that he has returned to Ireland after a long break, coming second in this festival twice before, I just hope that his bad luck holds out.  John had a great start at Dernaferst with 19.5K on the first day, a weight which no one has been able to get close to all week; the section has really gone off the boil since. He has also come off the bank with good weights on all of the other sections and it is obvious that he is a real talent. John is headed to Corfree on the last day and is going to get a good weight from wherever he draws. With this in mind, I am going to have to fish defensively at Dernaferst to try to put 10K to 12K in the net in order to finish the job off.

The theory sounds good, the practise was not so good. I draw one of the shallowest pegs on the length in very flat conditions. I struggle for 200 small fish for a total of 8.5K on a day when the dreaded bumble bees prove to be my saviour, although I realise that I have still possibly blown out. When we get back to the Breffni, it turns out that John has had a superb 20k and has finished just 160g behind me, both of us totalling over 94k of fish for the week.

Derries 16a weigh-in
Whilst I breathe a sigh of relief, I really feel for John, he has fished a brilliant festival and to find himself 2nd for the third time must be a real disappointment. When I speak to him, he is very upbeat however and say’s that he had a bit of luck along the way including a good sized Tench at Gulladoo. I am not so sure that I would have been quite so philosophical and would probably have needed a lot of Guinness to get over it. One of the best parts of the day was seeing the result sheet for Killykeen, Kevin Hartley has had a good match, coming 3rd overall with 23k. This means that we don’t have to keep hiding all of the sharp objects when he comes into a room now. Winner on the day was Andrew Lightbawn with 26k from the unfancied peg 11 also at Killykeen.

The presentation evening is a last chance to see everyone gathered together and to thank the organisers for their efforts, there is a wonderful array of Cavan Crystal for the prize winners and these are mementos which, along with the memories, will endure long after the winnings are spent and forgotten. As both of my pair’s partners have come up trumps, I have the embarrassment of winning the mystery pairs with Jason Orwin and the main pairs with Graham Frith who has once again had a terrific week, finishing third overall with 80k.

I can’t say how pleased I am to have won the festival, especially to have done it for the third time. The weights have been amazing, with 31 of the 56 competitors weighing over 50k and the top 10 all having over 70k for the week. To catch so many fish under such intense competition, in such beautiful surroundings and to enjoy such good company, this is about as good as it gets for a match angler.

Written by Kevin Johnson 2013

Photographs by Dave Houghton