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I like to write and I like to party, but mostly just the writing. Disclaimer: A lot of these stories are true ones. The memory of growing-up in and around Killybegs. When you hold a mirror up to small communities, sometimes there are those who don't like the reflection. Capote knew this only too well. If you find the refraction just a little too much and would like the angle of incidence changed in your favor, please email me at georgevial@hotmail.com and I will be happy to make a name change here or there.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Shark Fishing

Shark fishing is something most people only read about in National Geographic or see on the Discovery Channel in some exotic location like the Caribbean, South Africa or The Great Barrier Reef. It’s never somewhere average and plain such as the tepid waters of Great Britain and Ireland in the North Atlantic. With only the mid-Atlantic drift giving any warmth to those waters in the summer months. All the same, this is exactly where I’ve seen my fair share of shark fishing, deep-sea angling and all the life that goes with those watery sports.

The first memories I have of shark fishing are from when I was about eight-years-old during the Killybegs International Sea Angling Festival. The festival, held every year in either July or August, depending on the mood of the committee in residence at the time, is the absolute pinnacle of the calendar for any boy over the age of five and under eighteen in the Killybegs area. Hundreds of people enter the competition from Ireland and abroad. You’ll find English, Welsh, Scotch, German, Swedish, even the odd Yank and Aussie along with young boys, young girls, old men and old women and every demographic in between. The variety of competitors leads to an even greater variety of categories you are able to contest in.

When we were children we use to stare, mouths wide open, drooling, in the window of Michael Quinn’s electric shop at the prizes. There were new Penn fishing rods and reels, tackle boxes, silver trophies, crystal, china, boat equipment, cash and many other amazing treasures. Our little finger prints greased over the glass and we could only imagine what it must be like to win one of those treasures and get your name engraved on the silver trophies.

That first year I was not a competitor, either was my brother Derek and cousin Paddy, merely spectators, under the supposedly watchful eyes of my Dad and Uncle Aidan. We’d have to wait another year or two before we could actively take part in the events.

I remember the boat was large and green, perhaps a sixty-footer, with wooden planks splitting the deck up into many sections, which we never tired of climbing over. There were nets piled up on the side of the deck, ideal for a rest and a place to lie down if you were getting a bit wheezy and feeling the need to get on ‘the big white telephone to God.’ There was a fair few people allotted to our boat, as I remember dozens of rods dangling over the edge of the boat, their taut lines disappearing down into the deep blue-green waters of the Atlantic.

Boat allocations are maybe something I should explain because you can’t just pick your boat, that would be an unfair advantage. First of all there is a deadline each year for entries, usually a day or two before the Sea Angling Festival, which always started on a Friday. Then a specific number of boats, usually with one or two in reserve just in case the numbers exceeded expectations, were designated for the competition. Individual names and group names were allotted to certain boats with a maximum number depending upon the size of the vessel. Like everything else in life, not all boats are created equal and sometimes it is the physical ability of the boat that holds the advantage and sometimes it’s the human element, the skipper himself. Skippers with names like Enda O’Callaghan, Smithy Campbell, Jim Parkinson, Tony Boyle, Brian McGilloway and vessels like The Bangor Crest, Persistence, Sinbad and The Girl Naoife. These were all names that held a certain amount of magic and if you were allotted to any one of these skippers or one of the boats, your chances just tripled of earning a prize.

Many sharks were caught on our boat and in others over the three days of the festival that year. Paddy and I found ourselves brave and ventured across the deck to touch the sharks. Their skin was surprisingly rough, it had always looked velvety in the water. We got quite a fright when one of the supposedly dead blues opened its mouth revealing an amazing array of razor sharp teeth. We both jumped back and found ourselves not so brave. Sharks can live out of water for a long time, just like their little cousin the dog fish that is often found dangling out of some fish box in the auction hall hours after a boat has landed.

There is a tale told that one year someone caught a small blue and when she was being weighed in the judges found her too small and had her thrown in the tide. The shark revived herself and swam around the bay for a long time, feeding on discarded fish from fishing boats and didn’t leave the harbor until she was big enough to face the open sea again. If this is true or not I don’t know, but I could well believe such a fisherman’s tale. Coastal town’s like Killybegs are rich in a special folklore all to themselves, unknown to inland towns and cities.

Some foreigner on our boat caught the biggest shark, a nine-foot blue. He had a wild time getting it on board, and the skipper had to gaff her a few times before it stuck. It wasn’t the best looking shark as it was rather skinny, but very long and its color was a gray-blue instead of the rich azure of the other sharks. After the weighing in of that fish, my first sea angling expedition was over.

A shark-fishing trip starts long before you ever set a land-lubberingDonegal Town to Dogherty’s was in order. Dogherty’s was a tackle shop with a twist. He sold all the things you needed for a deep sea-fishing trip, but also had the best array of pocketknives and torches for sale anywhere in County Donegal and all for under a fiver.

Granda Sharkey often brought us up there and while he would talk to Mr. Dogherty about something or other for eons, we would busy ourselves getting lost in dreams of owning this knife or that. Calculating at fifty pence a week pocket money, how many weeks it would take us to save up for it. All the time in hope that Granda would see how much we really wanted it and buy it for us as a little present. He was always giving us little presents that made our day, our week, our lives.

On our visit to Dogherty’s, Dad fitted Derek and I out with our own deep sea rod and reel, yards upon yards of eighty pound test and hooks that could have landed Jaws. Two of the most important things to take with you deep-sea fishing are feathers and lead weights. Without feathers you can’t jig for your bait and without lead weight you’re never going to get your hook to the bottom for the nice points fish.

Dad let us know that this first year we would not be fishing for shark ourselves, although he might have a wee go, but there were plenty of ling and congers, dogs and pollock to keep us busy. Considering I was only ten, I had no objection. Derek and I ended up with the same rod, but he got the better reel and I was in tears most of the way home, ‘cause mine looked like a giant fly reel and his was the proper shark fishing kind by Mitchell.

Next stop was to one of the chandlers in Killybegs to get our dappers or oilskins. These were to keep us dry while at sea. As these were our first ever set of oilskins it was really important because for years we had watched all the men down the pier wearing them and they were a sign of adulthood. My green pair dwarfed me and felt very heavy, Dad laughed saying I would grow into them. With that done, we had everything we needed for the sea angling festival, all we could do now was wait.

On Friday morning of the contest we were up at about seven a.m., God knows when Dad had risen. He was a real early bird and was fond of saying “when you’ve the name of an earlier riser you can sleep all day.” A great debate emerged between Derek and I as to whether or not we should eat a big breakfast. Dad was in the mind that we should, as a full stomach would keep us from getting seasick. I had never been seasick and knew not the pain or misery of it. Derek did and he would rather have less in his belly to throw up. Dad was in charge of making a flask of tea and putting the lunch together: ham sandwiches, egg sandwiches and smoked salmon, off course, was the fair de jour and a few pieces of fruit completed the seagoing picnic.

After registering and finding our birth, The Sinbad, we had a few minutes to kill and this was spent running back up the town to Gallagher’s to buy chocolate and sweets and the last few bits of tackle that suddenly came to mind. Paddy was with us, but he was not going fishing this year, as his aul fella was in the pub. We begged Dad to let him come along and reluctantly he agreed. His dad sobered up the next day and came out with us for the last two.

Our boat was birthed alongside a few others and as the clock slowly ticked towards eleven we got to know our boat mates and skipper. Jim Parkinson was the skipper, we knew him since we were very little and this put us at a great ease. Our mates were mostly Northerners and English lads and one fella from Finner Camp, the army training camp between Bundoran and Ballyshannon that we passed every time we went to Sligo with Granny and Granda to do the shopping.

The diesel engine cranked over loudly and the fumes were making us a little wheezy even at the harbor. Dad showed us a basic knot to tie our hooks and clips, we called it the double hoop and under, it was easily achieved and held with great strength. With our clips attached we jigged at the edge of the boat, sheans gathered around our hooks, but much too little to take a bite. We were suppose to draw for places around the boat but it seemed like it had become a first come first served basis and all the Juniors ended up with the places nobody else wanted.

At the stroke of eleven all the boats began their exodus of the pier towards the open ocean and into the Atlantic. Soon, we were passing Mooney’s Boat Yard, with the fishing boat graveyard beside, where several boats Dad had fished on as a young man lay wasting in skeletal decay, up to their keels in green sludge, lying at embarrassing angles to their once glorious and dangerous lives as fishing vessels in the Irish fleet. The town was growing smaller behind us and the mountain of Conerad began to come into view, the constant sentential of Killybegs. The town always looked so much smaller from the water. Nature seemed to cradle her on both sides, protecting her in a little pocket where man was allowed to be civilized and not disturb her peace.

We watched Dad and the other men get their gear ready and imitated them the best we could. I think we had Dad’s head wrecked with questions about fishing, and the how far, how long, what time, when, how many? Basically all the annoying questions ten and eleven-year-olds can ask. This was a whole new part of life for us; no longer just the quiet observers of our childhood’s, we had become cogs in the machinery that made our community a living, breathing entity.

Once past the Smooth Point and Rotten Island lighthouse we were into the open sea with St. John’s Point on our port side and Drumanoo Head on the starboard. We looked to the land, picking out the spots were we had fished off the rocks in the past and looking out for the house at Scottish Hill, it was haunted and once lived in by the Murphy’s, our cousins. Soon Fintragh beach was in sight, looking like a golden streak between the land and the sea. Many birds had begun to follow us, but there was nothing for them to scavenge yet, until we caught our first mackerel.

The Sinbad was a steel hauled vessel, about twenty-five feet in length that Jim used for piloting in larger vessels to the harbor and diving for wrecks and salvage. She was making great steam out the bay and easily overtook the boats that had set out a few minutes before us, with a nice steady cruise of 13 knots according to Dad. She wasn’t ideal for angling as her sides were very low and had few places to get a comfortable seat. Fish boxes were annexed into seats and one beside for your catch. This was The Sinbad’s first trip as an angling vessel and Derek, Paddy and I were disappointed that we were not in one of the sixty-footers like we had been in before.

The engines slowed and Dad let us know Jim picked up some fish on the sonar and it was time to start jigging for mackerel. I was amazed how quickly the fish began to hit. Usually on land you could be fishing for hours before anything even smelled your hook. Now we had six feathers attached and all around the boat people were pulling in full jigs. Mackerel give a great fight and when you have four or five on at time you feel like you’re about to land a great fish, not the little mackerel that you eventually pull of your hook and toss absentmindedly into the bait box. A few gannets now joined the gulls as if they knew we were into some good fish. When we had enough mackerel for bait it was decided we would steam ahead just a little and anchor off Inish Duff, where Paul Callaghan caught the thirteen-foot conger last year.

I was afraid of using a wire trace and felt comfortable with my feathers. So Dad helped me bait the feathers and showed me how to lower them all the way down, feel the bottom with the lead weight and then take her up about a fathom and keep her there.

Paddy with nothing to do was just bounding all over the place, taking it all in for when he got his rod and reel. Derek on the other hand was already beginning to get seasick and was hardly taking any notice of his rod in the water.

I felt my first real bite and the line got heavy. I wound my giant fly reel with all my might, making sure to guide the line on evenly as not to have it bank up and fall and after what felt like a life time I landed my first points fish in the 1988 Killybegs International Sea Angling Festival. It was a dogfish, a lesser spotted one to be precise, or jimmy-dog as all the adults called it.

The Sinbad bobbed up and down all afternoon and I had a great time fishing off Inish Duff. When it was decided to go on a little further and put out some rubby-dubby, I had a full box of dogs and two good sized pollock. I was feeling very pleased with myself and even more so when one of the other young fellas on the boat came to me for advice on where to catch the fish. I gave him the same advice that Dad had given me, but off course making those words sound like mine and not his.

I didn’t do so well further out, but was very intrigued with the baiting of the shark hooks, the blowing up of the balloons as floats and the importance of not running over your rubby-dubby trail. Rubby-dubby is a mixture of mashed mackerel and fish oil that is poured overboard to attract any sharks in the area to our boat. It smelled terrible and looked even worse. It had the effect of turning Derek’s stomach even more and soon he was lying down sleeping the rest of the day away. We fished for shark off Slieve League for a few hours without landing any. Lying there in the water off such beautiful cliffs more than made up for the lack of sport. The cliffs rose nearly two thousand feet out of the water and falls of spring water could be seen dashing off into the sea below. When you are this far out into the Atlantic you can look off into the distant horizon and see the curvature of the world. Your mind runs and you can imagine that if you kept going straight for thousands of miles you’d eventually reach Nova Scotia in north eastern Canada. You realize that we are not separated by oceans, but merely connected by a constantly changing liquid.

We commenced our steam home when Jim announced “Lines up, six o’clock.” There were a few grumbles to be heard from the Germans, then all lines were in. We ate the rest of our lunch on the way home feeling at ease, even Derek was revitalized by the turn about in our direction. We began to play and feel like children again, throwing the guts of mackerel at the gulls and watching the gannets diving for whole mackerel. We even looked at the sea and surrounding coastline like tourist, noticing houses near Bunglass and people climbing the cliff-face. We even remembered the stories Granda would tell us about Ben Bulbin way off in the distance towards County Sligo. Stories about Finn and the Fianna, Witch de Vanny and Queen Maeve’s grave.

As the town came in to view I felt a great feeling of home and joy. A feeling of coming back after being away a very long time, even though it had been only eight or so hours since we left.

Jim let us stow our gear on the boat until the next day, so we didn’t have to drag much back onto the pier. My first few steps on dry land were funny, it felt as if the earth was still swaying like the deck of the boat out on the ocean. Dad helped me weigh-in my fish and with all my dogs and two pollock, I managed to amass forty-five points. I found out the next morning forty-five points placed me in first position in the Junior category.

I slept well that night and was eager to get out on the boat again. However, my luck was to change and after getting my feathers stuck on the bottom with my first drop, I lost heart. Seasickness took over and I spent the next two days as a sick bystander.

Our boat managed to land two blue sharks and lost another “must have been a fair size” as it snapped the rod belonging the army fella from Finner adding to the proverbial one that got away. I had great empathy with Derek during those two days as we shared in the miseries of seasickness, probably the most I ever had with him in my life. And when the last line was hauled in on Sunday evening I was the happiest lad in Ireland.

That night we went to the prize giving in Fawlty’s Bar and I received twenty pounds for Best Junior on Friday. I had hoped for one of the bigger prizes that had been in Quinn’s Window, but was very content with the money. Dad didn’t go to the prize giving as he didn’t drink anymore, but Uncle Aidan was there to check on us.

I repeated the ritual of the Angling Festival for many years changing boats and skippers, always hoping to catch a shark myself, but the best I ever did was just more dogs and pollock. I did manage to win a big silver trophy for the heaviest whiting one year, but that’s not an exciting fish you can brag about. The best thing about the festival is there is always next year and the dream of landing your shark.

Now that I live twelve hundred miles from the nearest coast, I miss the sea; its feel and its smell and its unique way of life. Right now I’d give anything for a good dose of seasickness, mackerel guts and the feel of a fish biting at my line twenty fathoms below in the dark, unknown depths of the Atlantic Ocean. To see that curvature once more and feel the mystery of a world yet discovered.

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