22nd September

Shad magic in May

Brendan Connolly

St Mullins is a beauty spot and ancient ecclesiastical site where the Barrow River forms the boundary between counties Carlow and Kilkenny. Here the river valley is steep sided and covered in mature woods.  Despite being more than 50 km from the sea the tide reaches St. Mullins. It is this last section of tidal water that is the best known shad fishing stretch in Ireland.

Brian Lowth with a fine 1 kg Twaite Shad he caught at St Mullins. Photo Brendan Connolly

Twaite Shad (Alosa fallax) is a member of the herring and sprat family; however unlike its smaller cousins, it enters freshwater via a number of rivers along the south coast to spawn from the end of April and during May. This ‘anadromous’ migration (from sea to freshwater) makes St Mullins the hotspot in Ireland for shad fishing.

Genetic analysis

The specimen weight for Twaite Shad is currently 1.2 kg (Irish record 1.54 kg), and year-on-year, most Irish specimens are caught at St Mullins. Twaite Shad are a species under pressure, so returning them alive is important.

To claim a specimen you take three scales from the fish for genetic analysis, put them in a paper envelope and allow to dry before sending off accompanied by the Irish Specimen Fish Committee claim form (www.irish-trophy-fish.com).

Genetic analysis has shown that the Twaite is not the only shad to come as far as St Mullins. Allis Shad (Alosa alosa) is also caught at this spot. Previously you could only tell them apart by counting the gill rakers; however from the genetic analysis is seems that not only do Allis Shad occur at St. Mullins, the Twaite and Allis Shads can interbreed to give hybrids.

The Shad experience
Driving through the picturesque village of St Mullins, the road turns steeply down to the river with yew trees creating an archway. As the river Barrow comes into view, you see the quay side, neat and well maintained. The towpath towards the lock has concrete stands on the bank for fishing.

Most specimen shad are caught on the Tasmanian Devil, but one angler planned to try the blue and white Parson Tom seatrout fly.

Twaite Shad are predatory fish that will snap at lures such as silver spoons, Tasmanian Devils and the like. The best shad fishing is generally around high tide; however that particular evening the tide was low. Nevertheless, a blue and silver ‘Tas’ was chosen and fishing commenced.

Shad were seen swirling at the surface but no fish was hooked, so the fly rod was rigged up with the Parson Tom. A sinking fly line was cast across the river, reaching about half way. Giving the line time to sink the fly was then retrieved with fast resolute pulls to imitate a small fish.
Five casts in, a sudden sharp pull stopped the line in the water and a solid thumping force was felt at the end of the line. Raising the tip of the flyrod, the fish came closer to the surface, and the flash of a deep silver side could be seen.

The power of the shad was impressive, indicating a bigger fish than it actually was as it dived out of view again, bending the flyrod into a strong arch. Once more it surfaced, shaking its head and sending spray into the air, and turned down again.

Then, suddenly, the fish was gone, and the Parson Tom fly came effortlessly to the surface. Twaite Shad have a hard mouth, and loosing them because the hook comes out is not unusual.

This was promising however, and the fly fishing resumed. Different seatrout flies were tried, and a tandem Peter Ross enticed a shad to follow it to the surface and taking a careful nip, just a pluck was felt but it was not hooked. By this time the light was failing and fishing stopped.

The next day high-tide was shortly after midday, and the rising tide was fished during the morning with Tasmanian Devils as well as the Parson Tom seatrout fly. The occasional fish was seen swirling at the surface but none was hooked.

Another angler had caught a shad earlier and halfway through the morning, delighted shouts accompanied the netting of his second fish. Photos were quickly taken before the fine 1 kg Twaite Shad was returned live to the water. As the tide rose, no more fish were hooked and the fishing was stopped.

St Mullins and its mysterious shad is certainly one angling spot that warrants a repeat visit; it’s just a pity that the shad season coincides with the mayfly.

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