Pauline McCleneghan was last month one of Ireland’s best performing fly fishers in her debut Ladies international in Snowdonia.
She marked her first cap with an impressive haul of four trout, helping Ireland to a third place finish in what proved an extremely close competition.
The Waterside resident - a native of Creggan originally - took time out from her day job supporting young parents at the Springtown-based Lifestart Foundation - to compete at the surreally beautiful Trawsfynydd lake in Wales, which as well as providing great trout-fishing, was once used to cool the Magnox reactors of a now-obsolete lakeside nuclear power station.
Pauline explains: “It’s a very interesting place. It was a nuclear power plant. The lake was constructed to cool the reactor. They flooded three Welsh valleys back in the sixties. It’s actually very beautiful.
“They’ve stocked it with rainbow trout. It’s in a very beautiful location with all the mountains.”
It’s been a fairly remarkable twelve months for Londonderry’s newest international, who until last year, hadn’t any experience whatsoever in the ‘loch-syle’ trout-fishing discipline.
It was only by happenstance, in fact, whilst searching for fly fishing tackle via the internet, that she stumbled across the Irish Ladies Flyfishing Association, and things evolved from there.
“I put in an email for further information and a girl called Susan Brown from Lisburn got in touch with me,” she says. “The type of fishing they do is called ‘loch-style,’ which is where you are out on the lake in a boat.”
“You have two people fishing and the boatman in the middle. Normally, when salmon fishing I’d be using a fourteen foot double-handed rod but this is single-handed, usually nine-and-a-half, ten foot rods,” she adds.
Susan, who is also a member of the Irish national team, suggested Pauline come along to a number of national competitions, which were due to be held in County Galway and County Antrim.
“So I did,” says Pauline. “I went along to one at Lough Corrib. I caught a couple of fish there, which gave me a number of points.
“Then they had another competition at Lough Straid, which is in County Antrim and I got a couple of fish there, including a four pound brown trout, which was good. I got more points there,” she continues.
Suddenly, Pauline - in her first year of ‘Loch-style’ competition - realised she was actually in the running for an international call-up despite doubts about her own adeptness at the new style.
“I find myself at the end of the year that I had sufficient points to qualify for the international team,” she says. “It struck me by surprise as I didn’t think I was all that proficient but it is catching fish that counts.”
Pauline has plenty of experience catching fish. Although a novice at ‘loch-style’ trout fishing, that’s far from the case when it comes to angling and fly-fishing generally.
She was originally introduced to the sport by her late father in the early 1990s and enjoyed a happy twelve years fishing the Dam stretch of the Faughan, as well as Moor Lough and Lough Ash in Donemana, when he was still fit for it following his retirement.
It was an unusual entry to the world of fly-fishing.
“When he was in his seventies he developed epilepsy,” Pauline recalls. “He was told he couldn’t drive and he was heartbroken. He says: ‘How am I going to get to the river and the lakes?’
“So, I was working at Magee university at the time. I taught there for about 25 years. I said to him: ‘Look Dad, I can drop you at the Faughan in the morning and pick you up when I’m leaving work in the evening,’” she adds.
This was all going grand until Pauline realised how the anglers of the Faughan are very much ruled by the vagaries of its moods and tempers.
“It seemed a good idea at the time. But the Faughan is a spate river, it floods and it fishes well after a flood. So, I’d go down to pick him up after work and he would say: ‘Och, conditions are just getting right. I can’t leave now.’
“Sometimes I’d find myself hanging about the river for a while. The following birthday he bought me a rod and that’s how it started.
“That’s really how I started fishing. He’s dead now these last thirteen years and I’m still fishing. It was in the Faughan I started.”
Two decades later and Pauline found herself gearing up for her first ever international fly-fishing competition and notwithstanding her familiarity with the solitary pursuit of the salmon on her home river, she reckoned she could do with a little bit of professional advice.
That’s where Ian Gamble and the Oaks Fishery in Enagh comes in.
“I thought, if I’m going to be competing internationally, maybe I should get some coaching,” she says. “Last October when the salmon season ended someone told me about the Oaks fishery down at Enagh, which is a lovely place.”
The fishery, located at Upper Enagh, is full of pike, tench, rainbow trout and wild brown trout. Mr Gamble is a qualified fishing coach who has a Master’s in coaching.
“I started working with him,” Pauline continues. “First of all to get proficient with a [single-handed] fly rod and then you have to take responsibility for managing a boat too using an engine and all that, because in the two national competitions the boats are managed by the boatman.
“I have to say I learned a great deal from Ian. He’s a very personable coach. He loves it himself.”
There followed a trip to the Courtlough fishery in Balbriggan for a national training day with the rest of the team and head coach Hubert Smith from Dundalk, who evaluated the team’s strengths and weaknesses and provided coaching tips and advice. By now the team were well prepared for the contest ahead.
Following months of preparations Pauline travelled to Wales for the international over May 20 - 22, when any other year she would normally be heading to the banks of the Faughan for the opening of the salmon season.
She says that whilst the contests consist of several Solheim Cup-style individual head-to-heads with an aggregate score resulting, it’s very much a team sport.
Tactics, she says, are integral and every last eventuality is considered and planned for down to the last detail with an almost military precision.
Three practice days in advance of the main event were exhausted to the full by the Irish team and coaching staff, Pauline explains.
“We arrived on Sunday (May 19) and then we had an unofficial team practice day. There were two official practice days and a competition day.
“But we had Monday as well. The other teams were already there and had been there before we arrived.
“Everyday we went out. We were up at 5.30am, we had breakfast at 6.30am. We were out on the lake for eight hours. We came back in. We had our coach, we had our flytyer with us - a guy called Mick McShane.
“We had another fellah, Kevin, who was an expert on stillwater fishing. Every team had a group of people with them. Some people had relatives with them as well.
“Every day, we were given flies to try. They had a big map of the lake and every night after eight hours fishing we would do a big analysis of what was caught, where they were caught, what they where caught on, so that we’d all be well-equipped. It’s like a military operation.”
Come May 22 and Pauline was drawn against the English national champion Rosemary Gunn.
“All I was thinking was: ‘If I could just catch one fish I’d be happy, so I could contribute to the team’s outcome,’” she reflects.
Thankfully she wasn’t waiting too long before the first rainbow trout rose.
“I caught a fish in the first twenty minutes and in the course of the day I caught three more and lost another three or four. So I had a good day and I was happy. I could relax and I did enjoy it,” she says.
“Overall Ireland came third but one girl Maddy [Madeleine] Kelly she got the heaviest catch for the whole contest.
“I got my four fish, so I finished amongst the top anglers in the Irish team so I was happy, for my first run out.
“I thought I did very well and we were delighted and I think everybody was happy with the result. The competition was very, very close indeed.”
Ireland, who were captained by Julie Gerry of Maynooth, won ‘bronze’ taking third place. The overall winners were Scotland, England finished second and Wales took fourth place.
It was one of the closest competitions ever held with Ireland and Wales each having 33 fish, just short of England’s 37, while the winners Scotland caught 44 overall.
Pauline was among four new caps on the Irish team alongside Cher McGrave, Lisa O’Hagan and Pat Byrne, who all thoroughly enjoyed their experience of international competition.
Following her success in this year’s competition Pauline says she’s now in line for the Irish team, which will compete at Grafham water in Cambridgeshire in 2015 and in Orkney in 2016.
“I think I’ve qualified for next year because of the performance this year,” she says.
Meanwhile, it’s back to the banks of her home river for the remainder of the salmon season, which opened last month.
“I fish that stretch from what’s called Lynch’s farm down to the dam,” she says. “It’s called the dam stretch really. And then I fish above and below the bridge at Campsie.”
Pauline says she hopes the continued success of the Irish team will encourage more women to take up the sport of flyfishing here.
For almost 25 years now the Irish Ladies Fly Fishing Association has been doing sterling work in this direction but we still lag behind other countries.
“It [ILFFA] was set up by a group of women who wanted to encourage women to get involved in fishing. In the United States, for example, 47 per cent of fishing licences are taken out by women. In Ireland it is four per cent.
“In England, Scotland and Wales there might be more women fishing but not comparable to the likes of the United States or elsewhere.”
Any ladies interested in joining the Irish Ladies Fly Fishing Association or competing for the Irish team competing in England in 2015 can visit www.irishladiesflyfishing.com or ring the Irish captain Julie Gerry on 0872055094.