Growing up my fishing was limited to one species and that was it. We spent the Summer and Autumn targeting bass in Castlegregory, County Kerry. We employed very little in the way of complicated tactics: a simple two hook flapper, grip lead and a bucket of big lugworm was all that was required. Hooks were 2/0 or 4/0, with anything under that being referred to as ‘trout hooks’. When I returned to match fishing, the various ‘new’ species that were now routine targets was a concept that I initially found overwhelming. Distance casting with pulley rigs for ray in the Shannon Estuary was alien to me but something that I was keen to learn.
I remember being a part of the Irish youth team in Youghal (a massive learning curve) where, on one occasion, our conversation turned to species, with us all listing out favourites. The consensus among the east coast lads was that the smoothhound was one of the best shore fish to target during the summer. When I piped up that I’d love it if we had them in Tralee Bay, I was immediately shut down, ‘Ye have everything else, leave us the hounds.’
It would be a further eight or nine years before the hounds and Tralee Bay entered my mind again. One day, while on my way to Union Hall in County Cork for a day of skate fishing with Tom Collins and a few mates, my phone buzzed with a WhatsApp message from Terry O Donovan, John Joyce and a gang from Cork. They had made the pilgrimage in the opposite direction and had landed a fine fish weighing in at 15lb. At first they thought it was a tope because, well, to put it bluntly, there are no hounds in Kerry (or Cork either for that matter).
I showed the lads on the boat the pic and they all agreed it was a fine sized lady smoothie. Since that morning, there has been a trickle of hounds each year – all large 8lb plus fish, with John Joyce from Cork still having the best at 15lbs to my knowledge. Fast forward five years and they can now actually be targeted in the right conditions.
With more and more hounds showing now, the temptation is to fish more crab baits in an effort to offer the visitors their main natural food source. Most of the fish caught this year, however, have come to mackerel baits. Now I bet you’re thinking, ‘Crab, rag or squid, mate,’ but it’s the truth: here,mackerel is a killer bait. After speaking to a number of more experienced hound anglers, they all agreed that the hounds must be feeding on the hardback crabs attracted by these fresh mackerel offerings.
I’d been on two trips recently where specimen sized hounds were caught, so we decided it was time to get in on the act ourselves. The team on this trip would be my father Connie, nephew Finn and, of course, myself. We fished for tope down to low water but unfortunately didn’t connect with any (although we did encounter an awful amount of weed). The first fish of the day was a fine table-sized turbot for Connie, followed quickly by a nice undulate ray for myself. Finn was persevering with three quarters of a mackerel for bait and although he had a few fish have a go, none were the big tope he wanted.
As low water approached, we moved to another spot and with that came a change in focus. No more 8/0 monster hooks and slabs of mackerel, instead we switched over to 2/0s and neat crab offerings. With the more streamlined baits, we were able to hit the channel outside of us and almost as soon as the tide began to run we got into the fish. First off, I managed a wall of seaweed that would hurt your soul but then things picked up and a screaming ratchet sounded the alert. I knew I was into a better fish and this had some fight in it.
After several short runs and a good scrap, the moment I had waited for came when a lovely hound of around a meter broke the surface. From here I proceeded to do my absolute best to lose the fish, underestimating the power of the hound. Unfortunately, it was all on camera and despite trying to edit it, I can’t make myself look good. Excitement and adrenaline pumping, I finally managed a hound of 100cm, narrowly missing out on the new 103cm Irish specimen size.
Finn was next on the board with a hound of around 7lb. His whole crab bait was smashed up and, using the ever strengthening tide, the hound brought him well down along the bank before being landed. What followed next was an hour of hound madness, with ten fish brought ashore before the weed returned to spoil a great day. The total stood at two undulate ray, a lovely shore caught turbot and a heap of doggies and smoothhounds.
These hounds are a new but extremely welcome addition to the bay – but for how long?
While trying to find out a bit of background on the bay and the various species, I spoke to Mike Wall from Derrymore near Tralee, the current Irish record stingray holder. Mike explained that he had caught smoothhounds in the early ‘90s for a few summers but that they then disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Speaking to Richard Kelter, president of Tralee Bay SAC, revealed that the stingrays only really started to arrive in the bay in the ‘80s and this coincided with declining numbers of monkfish (angel shark) until the stingrays took over. Is this what is happening again? Will the smoothhounds continue to populate the area and become increasingly common over the next few years? Who knows, but it will be an extremely exciting time for the fishing in the bay while we are all finding out.