188lb skate was a 'hell of a fish' says Keith Arthur

As age creeps up on me the chance to catch special fish is taken with every opportunity. A couple of years ago I met with a lady who promised me that, one day, she would put me on a ‘special’ fish. That day arrived and Mary Gavin Hughes, Europe’s only woman charter boat skipper, kept her word.

Thanks to my old pal

Paul Harris, who used to be the UK voice of Tourism Ireland, and now runs a wonderful guest house in Co Cork, Tight Lines was put in touch with the person who could make this particular dream come true.

A small crew of cameraman, producer and myself flew to West Ireland Knock airport on Sunday afternoon. The flight is only 90 minutes and we were soon driving through the real Ireland, somewhere I’ve not visited for too long.

On arriving at The Quay, Westport, our shoot producer Ross Melvin was staggered by the beauty of the views over Clew Bay and its 365 islands. The weather was perfect – just a gentle breeze blowing in from the Atlantic at the far end of the bay – and the sun was ‘cracking the flags’ as they say.

Our accommodation at the Harbour Mill was first-class but self-catering, and we certainly didn’t have time to cook anything, least of all breakfast. But Vinnie Keogh and his son Shane at The Helm – one of Ireland’s great fishing pubs – looked after us regally in both the breakfast and dinner departments.

I think they sell drink there too but my memory is slightly blurred, even though I can see, through the haze, an old boy who should know better joining in the evening entertainment, singing The Beatles classic ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ Vinnie, you have much to answer for.

As for the fishing, well the first two days were to be with Mary, the remainder of the
trip with my old pal Geoff Cooper on Lough Allen – one of the ‘secrets’ he keeps for his special guests.

Day 1 with Mary saw flat calm seas, which ruffled slightly in an afternoon breeze, and blazing sun. I was truly grateful for my sunscreen!

We had fish virtually every drop but the wrong kind – dogfish in an abundance that I have never previously encountered, and some beautifully-patterned thornback rays, which were tagged for a conservation programme Mary takes very seriously, and this lady doesn’t take too much too seriously, except her angling.

On the way out to the marks we were trailed by a pod of dolphins, while huge numbers of gannets, diving spectacularly into the sea, gave away the mackerel shoals’ position and sealed the fate of 40 or 50, used for bait.

Day 2 was breezier but we soon feathered up some extra mackerel to augment those left from the day before and resumed the attack on the resident thornback and doggie population, including a couple of dogs that weren’t hooked but came up from nearly 100ft just refusing to let go of the bait!

Then my ‘big reel’, a TLD50 2-speed, let out a short ‘rat-tat-tat’ of drag and it all went very quiet. Mary felt the line and said, in her lovely, soft Irish voice: “Keith, there is something heavier here – please take up the rod and wind down slowly.”

When I took the rod from the holder it honestly felt like I’d hooked an anchor rope. I could lift whatever was down there so far but after a few feet it just sank back down.

Then I managed to wind maybe 10 yards of line on to the reel, thanks to ‘changing down’ to the low gear setting but, for my pains, I was dragged almost to my knees by a surge of power. Whatever was on the end returned to the bottom and stayed there.

This game of give-and-take went on for exactly 27 minutes before a massive grey-brown shape appeared off the stern. Mary and her crewman George gently gaffed each wing of the mighty fish and lifted her – with my and Ross’s help – over the transom and on to the deck.

This was a huge fish and an old friend of Mary’s, as one of her tags was set in the tiny front dorsal fin. On checking it indicated that the fish had been tagged by Mary in 2006.

She, like my old-friend-barbel a couple of weeks back, had grown a tad, putting four inches on her wingspan and length, taping out at 66ins wide and 82.5ins to the start of the tail. Using the most accurate weight-for-size charts, that makes the fish around 188lb.

The fish had her old tag replaced with a brand new one and was lovingly returned, held at the boat until she tugged away from Mary’s grasp.

We did have a jar or two in The Helm to celebrate - Vinnie and Shane seemed as pleased as I was, in fact nearly as pleased as the crew. But none of our joy compared to that of Mary Gavin Hughes – she was simply ecstatic. And an ageing angler has another ticked box.

Then it was off to Leitrim and Drumshanbo, to fish the mighty Lough Allen. Geoff Cooper sorted us out a boat, bait, tackle and as many fish as you could shake a stick at.

We caught some of the most beautiful roach I have ever seen – not huge fish, but the colours, taken from the peaty stain of the lough, were magnificent.

Dark red fins and an overall gold appearance made the orange eye flare even brighter than normal, and that’s bright!

Add to those some hard-fighting hybrids and bream that think they are tench, so powerfully do they pull, and you will possibly understand why I came home feeling like I’d done a few laps of the London Marathon course.

Geoff told me that things have changed in Ireland but in many ways the fishing is better than it ever was, as long as you ask and then listen to the answer.

And do you know, I believe him. He’s been living in Ireland for 20 years but of course, as a Yorkshireman, he’s immune to the blarney.