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Gardiner Mitchell joins Marc Petitjean and Ian Gamble for a day’s salmon fishing in Donegal, to discuss and test the Magic Head.

For those who don’t know Marc Petitjean is, he is the internationally acclaimed Swiss fly fisherman who introduced cul de canard (CDC) into fly tying in recent times. He also produces his own range of rods, flies, innovative clothing and top-quality fly tying vices. The latest product from the Petitjean stable is the Magic Head, a transparent cone which, when added to the hook during tying, makes the fly or lure shimmy and wiggle in the water, creating a movement that is very enticing to fish.

He was keen to see how they would work on grilse, as he had already tried them with great success on a wide of species, including tropical saltwater species, pike, rainbow trout and even the humble Irish Pollack and coalies.

I was told that Marc would be fishing the River Finn in Donegal. Guiding and fishing with him for the day would be full-time fishing professional Ian Gamble, who is not only a guide but also a casting instructor and owner of a fish farm and rainbow trout fishery.

Passing the River Mourne on our way, Ian noticed that the river was to dirty for fly as there had been rain for the previous two days. The advantage of the Finn is that this spate river, after any substantial quantity of rain, can produce a quick rise in the water level and then just as swiftly fall back to its normal level. This is because the catchment area of the river is mainly steep, rocky valleys with little soil and well drained forestry.

As we stopped on the first bridge over the River Finn, Ian anxiously looked at the water level and shook his head. Tight-lipped, he looked back to us and said: «I certainly wouldn’t fish it today, as the flood water has run off and it’s really low again but, since we’re here and Marc wants to fish it, we’ll give it a go. »

There are a couple of things worth noting about the River Finn. Firstly, it is very rocky with sharp, jagged rocks, se, hard wearing tippet material is essential. Due to its abrasion resistance Seaguar fluorocarbon is an excellent choice, otherwise a hooked fish could easily be lost on the jagged underwater rocks.

Secondly, the water in the river is a very dark, almost brown black, colour. As a result, the flies that work best are very bright, with patterns incorporating mainly orange and yellow. This was very apparent when Marc had a look at Ian’s fly box earlier in the morning. In the hotel he tied his patterns for the day on Magic Heads with yellow bodies and hot orange wings. He tested his flies before the trip in the bath, which beats playing with a rubber duck any day, and we both agreed that die action was very lifelike and most impressive.

On arriving at the Glenmore area of the river, Ian pointed out to Marc the salmon lies in the stream he was about to fish, and also any holes that could have made wading dangerous. He also mentioned that he had been asked to guide at short notice, and would have preferred to have found where the main run of fish were in advance, because the few days of flood had allowed fish to move on.

As the water level decreases, so do the positions that the salmon hold in their lies, which can make guiding even harder when you fish a river where die water is usually much higher. Working the flies in the traditional down and across method, the orangeand yellow Magic Head certainly looked good in the water and was easily cast by Mares single handed rod. Even though the prospects weren’t good, Marc remained focused. When he was in the water, apart from when taking guiding advice from Ian, he was totally engrossed in watching the fly and feeling for the take.

Talking to other anglers on the bank, it turned out that only a few fish had been taken on this stretch of river all day. This reinforced Ian’s feeling that the vast majority of the grilse had moved with the floodwater. After a few hours of focused flashing, Ian suggested that the flies that Marc had tied, in anticipation of higher water, were too large for the conditions. He asked Marc to select the lightest dressed fly and make the shaggy, mobile body somewhat finer, with less bulk. After some emergency surgery with scissors the fly was back in the water, still moving correctly in the way the Magic Head intended, but somewhat slimmer in profile.

Another hour passed and, just where Ian had said a fish could be lying, a grilse hit Mares fly hard with a splashy rise and he was in. Following a brief struggle, the tired fish was quickly landed and carefully released. Afterwards, Marc commented: « It’s surprising how violent takes can be when fish are taking this style of fly. They seem to really want it. »

He suggested that, had the fishing been good, the effect of the Magic Head’s movement would still have induced salmon to take. Unfortunately, one fish was no reason to switch so, to prove the point the hard way, the orange and yellow pattern was kept on.

Ian decided to move further downstream, where he knew there were a few good stretches that hold fish. By now the banks were getting busy and Marc had to wait his turn to get into one of the best pools. Starting off in the stream he fished slowly down the run with a pace between casts, as etiquette suggests, as others were waiting to enter the stream behind him. Just before he came within casting range of the hotspot area at a fallen tree, where Ian had picked up numerous fish before, two local fly anglers came straight down from the bank and cut in, 10 metres downstream. This was bad enough, but they then held the spot without moving.

After 15 minutes, and with no sign of them moving, Ian apologised to Marc for the bad manners of the anglers and suggested we head further upstream to a tributary of the Finn, the Reelan. This we did, as there was the possibility that fewer anglers and more fish would be in the area.

No trip to the Finn for a first time angler would be complete without a visit to the Leap at Cloghan Lodge, a series of naturally occurring, stepped waterfalls.1 decided to take a break there for 15 minutes, so that Marc could watch the salmon. But first we applied a liberal amount of midge repellent, which is always good advice on the Finn!

The most incredible sight in angling, for me, has to be the determined struggle displayed by salmon and sea trout, as they attempt to leap waterfalls. They are repeatedly washed down by the raging torrents of flood water, but their instinct tells them that time is of the essence to get upstream and spawn, so they fling themselves at it with all their might time and time again. Every few minutes we could clearly hear, above the roar of the waterfall, the sound of a jumping fish smacking headfirst into the rocks.

This experience leaves those who witness it amazed as to how the salmon survives. The water level was too low to allow them to clear the waterfall and all but the fish knew that it was a waste of time and effort. Over 100 fish jumped in the time we were there and not one cleared the leap. Eventually you start subconsciously willing them to get over the falls and even start wondering whether it’s right knocking them on the head with a priest. Marc was most impressed with the spectacle and 15 minutes became closer to an hour, with a lot of photographs taken in between. He was totally mesmerised.

Eventually, we went back to the car and headed up the river to the Reelan. Arriving at the Reelan Bar, we parked beside the bridge and were greeted by the welcoming sight of a grilse leaping in one of the pools upstream. This was quickly followed by the bow wave of a fish cruising around the tail of a pool – a good start.

The Reelan is a beautiful little river in the Blue Stack Mountains, and is an excellent fly water. It was certainly a lot quieter than the Finn, as Ian had expected. In a mile of river we only encountered two other anglers, who were bait fishing on one of the best pools, with only one small grilse to show for their day’s angling.

Ian recommended that Marc fish down this stretch, so the bait anglers obliged and reeled in for him. In anticipation, we watched as the fly swung round in the water, but to no avail. Ian told me that Marc wasn’t fishing the stretch far enough down to cover the lay, as he probably didn’t want to disturb the bait anglers too much.

In the meantime, I had spotted some sea trout rising tight under bushes downstream around the next corner. Ian thought he would give them a go with tiny spider patterns, as he is a sea trout fanatic and catches an incredible amount annually while night fishing on Foyle system rivers. With his 6-wt rod and lighter trout tippet material he delicately placed the flies over the noses of the trout again and again. Guess what… yes, nothing happened. Back to the salmon!

The next few hours’ fishing was interspersed with the sight of the odd salmon but no takes. That’s salmon fishing for you some days they just won’t play hall so we decided to call it a day. On the way back down to the bridge and the car we noticed that the bait anglers had left, so Ian advised Marc to fish the short stretch again, but further down into the pool this time. Just as Marc covered the best lie, where Ian had indicated, a salmon turned for the Magic Head with a determined swirl, but was not hooked.

Unfortunately, hook contact had been made and, as it had been jagged, it was now almost certainly spooked by the fly. A further 10 minutes of casting produced nothing and our stomachs pleaded with us to get back to the car and go home for dinner. Don’t Swiss anglers ever eat or drink?

Magic Heads

The Magic Heads come in a variety of sizes, for flies from small nymphs to pike and large saltwater lures. When tying the fly it is essential to keep the proportions so that the fly swims on an even keel. Therefore, before you tie a batch, make sure that it will have the desired effect by testing the first fly. The Magic Head works in flowing water and stillwaters. We will endeavour to find a distrilxrtor or retalier of Magic Heads in time for next month’s tackle review.

Finn Details

The breakdown of fishing beats, stretches and prices for the River Finn is very complicated, and would fill another article. Some stretches allow worm and spinning while others are strictly fly only. The Annick and lvy Bridge beats are booked by the hour and have a limited number of rods fishing at any one time. These beats range in price as the salmon run intenses, whereas other stretches are as cheap as £10 per day. All anglers must also have a Loughs Agency Licence.

For further details and booking contact

Cloghan Lodge Estate,

tel: 00 353 (0) 74 9133003


Gienmore fisheries, tel: 00 353 (0) 74 9190216

E mail: Bookings@glenmore or info@glenmore

Getting there:

Travel to Ballybofey on the N15 then tum at the forked junction and follow the 8252. Capri House, which sells permits for Glenmore Fsheries, is one mile on the right. To get to Cloghan Lodge, continue along the 8252 and cross the bridge that has a spired church baside it. Travel approximately four miles and, alter the cemetery and sports grounds, the Lodge turn off is on the left. The Lodge lane is then the first tum on the right and is well signposted.

lan Gamble’s contact details:

lan is available for guiding on most of the Foyle System rivers Level 2 casting instructor National angling guide level 3

Tel: 0 44 (0) 2871283576

Mob:07754 030009