New angling facilities can hook tourists in and boost local economy

More visitors means more (high quality) accommodation will be required. There is an onus on the local business community to recognise the investment by the state and give it their own vote of confidence by also investing heavily

Over the last few weeks, I have been meeting with people involved in the whole area of social enterprise and community development throughout Roscommon and catching up on some of the fantastic projects that are underway around the county – despite the efforts of Covid-19 to scupper an improvement in facilities and infrastructure.

The official opening of the new marina and angling facilities at Lake O’Flynn in Ballinlough was a real eye-opener for me. In the height of the second lockdown, I had occasion to go to that part of the county to interview a local lady. We agreed on the lakeside as a location where we could meet and do the recording in a good safe outdoor space. I hadn’t been in that area for some time and have to say I was quite stunned by the comprehensive nature of the new development underway.

The marina, which was developed by Ballinlough Development Association, includes berths for 24 angling boats, a floating jetty, a fishing stand which includes access for those with reduced mobility, a lovely playground, ample parking space and toilet facilities.

It’s an absolutely superb and very well designed piece of work. I think it’s going to be the catalyst for a huge economic boost in that area. It also provides the rest of us with a challenge to build on the new infrastructure already put in for the angling tourism industry locally –and to plan for even more in the years to come.

In the last few weeks, we have seen huge numbers of anglers from around the country and abroad arrive in County Roscommon to take part in major fishing festivals again. It’s a breath of fresh air after all the Covid cancellations. In Strokestown, the local development committee and Andy Burnett and his team staged a fine coarse fishing event in local lakes, and our own Lough Ree Angling hub hosted the International Pike Angling classic. Both events were hugely successful, with very decent numbers taking part, giving both towns and the surrounding area a real boost.

I have been deeply involved in angling tourism since 2015 when we set up the Lough Ree Angling hub in Ballyleague-Lanesborough. I can vouch for the economic boost these festivals and their associated knock-on events have on a community. I am not a fishing expert so my interest at the beginning was based around restoring just some of the angling tourism that people like the late Hugh Baxter in Ballyleague and the hard-working Dessie Watts in Lanesborough established when they worked on developing fishing in the 1960s and 1970s.

This was pioneering work for angling tourism in Ireland. Those involved came together to take advantage of the healthy UK interest in fishing, the strength of the English pound, and the popularity of the old ESB power station hot water stretch – which brought visitors in their thousands.

The result was a strong economic boost for Baxter’s hotel and the old Anchor hotel, the Lough Ree Arms, the Strokestown Arms and dozens of privately owned B&Bs and guesthouses all around the Shannon. I remember the era very well. All summer the hot water stretch had huge numbers of visitors. They all stayed locally too. We became accustomed to a wide range of Yorkshire and other accents every year.

Regrettably, that business faded away in the ‘80s and ‘90s when the euro replaced the pound. Some anglers thought they were not getting as much value for money on their trips. The quality of the angling also declined, for various reasons.

Against that background, we were thrilled in 2015 to win the right to stage the World Predator boat championships in Ballyleague. The 2016 event still brings back terrific memories of international visitors, economic investment, and a really great fortnight around Lough Ree.

The exploits of the Russian team and their opponents from Ukraine stand out. The Russians, who had a very large budget, decided they would bring their snazzy fishing boat to Ballyleague a full four weeks ahead of the actual competition. They drove into town in the first week of September and moved into accommodation which they had booked for a month.

When I met their team the next day, I was pretty stunned by what they had actually done because it emerged they had driven their very expensive looking angling boats, complete with massively powered engines, over on trailers pulled by even more expensive looking jeeps – a journey of over 3000 miles. They meant business! Over the next two weeks they were out on Lough Ree every day doing a bit of a ‘recce’ for the world championships. They asked angler after angler about where the really big pike were to be found. Then, after their two weeks was up, they parked up the boats and trailers at their accommodation and flew back to Russia to work in their day jobs for a fortnight before flying back again in early October 2016 to take part in the World Championships. It was obvious they had lots of money to spend on the fishing and wouldn’t be found wanting in the cash department.

Two weeks later, the situation couldn’t have been more contrasting when many of the other teams arrived in Ballyleague. At least three countries had no boats at all with them. After arriving in a bus at the Hodson Bay Hotel, some teams more or less thumbed over to Ballyleague to see if they could rent a couple of boats locally (which they did).

When the Ukrainian team arrived, it was pretty clear they too were on a fairly tight budget – but here the story takes a rather interesting turn. After four days of great fishing in the World Championships on Lough Ree, the Russian team did not enjoy too many high quality catches and were significantly down the leaderboard. At the top were Ukraine – a feat which they enjoyed greatly when they won the championships and celebrated wildly in the local pubs that weekend! The moral of the story is that fishing is not a predictable sport. Success certainly can’t be bought. Those who enjoy it most know that weather and all sorts of other factors play into the equation. The other thing I learnt was that the angling tourism business was alive and well and that if the right organisation was done, international tourists would come back time and time again.

This backdrop came to mind when I looked at some of the new facilities in Ballinlough. Through my own involvement with the Lough Ree Angling hub, I know there are also very hard-working committees down the years in Boyle and along the Suck Valley Way – and that was one reason why I recently suggested that a specific investment by the tourism authorities at national and regional level might be a good strategic economic move in the next five years in order to build on the potential of the new facilities.

Everybody knows that high quality venues such as Lough Key Forest Park and Bay Sports at Hodson Bay will always bring in higher numbers when it comes to mass tourism. They deserve support – but there must be a place in the new vision for high quality seasonal tourism attractions such as Lake O’Flynn and Lough Ree. It would be nice to see Fáilte Ireland investing more in those areas over the next few years.

Of course locals have a part to play too. More visitors means more (high quality) accommodation will be required. There is an onus on the local business community to recognise the investment by the state and give it their own vote of confidence by also investing heavily. Over to you!