The King of Fish

There is no greater struggle than that of the fly fisher and salmon, as Seáneen Sullivan finds out
By Seáneen Sullivan
I feel like I am amidst an Enid Blyton story. We are perched on the bank of the Blackwater River eating a lunch of hard boiled eggs and roast chicken with chutney washed down with cups of strong tea from a stainless steel flask –Barry’s of course, we are in Cork after all. Beyond the bank the surface of the river is a shimmering illusion, a taut veneer broken by whorls of shadowy current. Norman our ghillie carefully and deliberately assembles the rods, two the deep purple of a perfectly ripened plum, the other lumescent green. In a sturdy box he carries with care the flies, a carnivalesque explosion of feathers, threads and beads.

A short splosh of water catches my attention. "Probably a trout," sniffs Norman. "Do you ever fish for trout?" I ask. He pauses, before declining and I feel slightly foolish for asking. He speaks with passion about his craft. A quiet, purposed fervour. "Only for the king of fish" he pronounces. That is our quarry. We are here to fish salmon. The Blackwater’s inky depths teem with them, nestled beneath the shifting surface. Watching the water, you can almost sense them.

The river feels alive, brooding. We don our waders and head in.

There are three rules of fly fishing, explains Norman. The first is that gravity is downwards. There is a lot to remember. "Accelerate until vertical." "Make sure the line is taut before casting; slack is our great enemy." "When the line stops it will go in the direction where the rod has been pointing." When I lean over to detangle a spratling from my line, Norman adds another: "Never bow to a fish."

The hours pass and the gentle languid elegance of fishing takes over and everything slows down. This should be mandated therapy. I forget time, deadlines, my half completed winter menu. The rhythm of fishing is syncopated with the ebb and flow of the river, as it holds me, waist deep, feet firmly on the rocky bed. The fishing line arches overhead in lazy loops and swirls as the river rushes by visceral and animated. There is nothing other than me and the river and the steady beat of pull, pause, cast.

We are staying at Ballyvolane House, a fairy tale of a country house owned by Jenny and Justin Green. It is there I will later return (I fancy victorious and fish laden) for a whiskey in the drawing room to share tales of the day on the beat with other guests. Ballyvolane is magical. The trees on the property dance adorned with twinkling lights, bees buzz in the glade each morning, and there are four metre bell tents for ‘glamping’ replete with tea light chandeliers. I could happily live out my days there, whiling away the hours feasting on Jenny’s outstanding seasonal cooking served family-style in the grand Edwardian dining room, singing songs with other guests by the heat of the open fire accompanied by Justin on the bohdran drum, and religiously observing cocktail hour where homemade syrups and cordials mix with whiskey from the nearby Midleton distillery in vintage cut crystal tumblers.

Jenny and Justin’s attention to detail is surpassed only by their passion for fishing. Justin explains that his mother was fanatical about angling and that all childhood family holidays circulated around fishing. "I remember being woken up at 3am by my parents and handed a spinning rod when the river was in flood which was when the salmon would run. As the river dropped and cleared enough for fly fishing, we would continue fishing all day and every now and then we would experience the ecstasy of landing salmon. We ate everything we caught."

Ballyvolane shares a special relationship with the Blackwater. The river stretches across the southern most counties of Ireland, emptying into the sea forty kilometres away at Youghal. Four generations of Justin’s family have fished the river and the house has been hosting fishing groups for almost 30 years. It is obvious that salmon fishing, and indeed the Blackwater River are the lifeblood of this grand Irish house. Justin shows me around the quaint outbuilding dedicated to the issuing of state licenses, rod and wader hire and boasting an impressive plumage of flies. His passion for the river and his pride in his land is humbling. He kindly shares some of his advice of how to get the best from the wild salmon flesh, explaining that salmon from the Blackwater is more flavoursome and the meat more robust lacking the mealiness of farmed salmon. I chatter away about ideas for salmon recipes, including a plan to use Irish whiskey in a cure and then old barrel ends for smoking. He agrees that local whiskey is a happy accompaniment to the king of fish. He says to keep it simple. It is good advice.

Back at the riverbank, Norman casts his eye over his river. The soft rain from earlier has cleared and every now and then a fish pops up from its lie, breaking the surface of the water with a gentle gurgle. The river changes, the seasons change, the weather changes but the salmon return each year. They spawn where they were born. They come back here, to the Blackwater, the river that gave them life. The light is starting to fall, angling along the water, causing the shadows to dance on the river. There is something comforting about the salmon’s annual pilgrimage, a heavy handed metaphor for a desire for homecoming. There is a tug on my line breaking my reverie. I start to reel in. The salmon escapes, slipping off the fly and I start again: pull, pause, cast.

The recipe

This is more of a method than a recipe, but one that is new to me as of last salmon season.

I used to cook salmon fairly quickly, by poaching or pan frying to prevent the proteins stiffening and becoming dry and tough, but this method works perfectly with firmer wild salmon, available from your fishmonger now that the season is open.

Serves 2


  • 500g Wild Salmon Fillets

  • A good measure of Irish Whiskey (I used 50ml of Jameson Black Barrel)

  • 50ml of rapeseed/canola oil

  • Pinch of sea salt flakes

  • Two floury potatoes

  • Seasonal vegetables to serve

1. Half an hour before starting, remove the salmon from the fridge to come to room temperature.
2. Cut the potatoes into chunks and par-boil for ten minutes. Strain.
3. Preheat oven to 100 degrees Celsius (212 Fahrenheit).
4. Arrange par-boiled potatoes in a small baking tray and position the salmon fillets on top. No part of the salmon should be touching the pan.
5. Mix together the whiskey, oil and salt and baste salmon generously.
6. Place in oven for 25-30 minutes, basting several times with the whiskey and oil mix.
7. Remove from oven and carefully set the salmon aside on a plate to rest momentarily before serving.
8. I served this with fresh steamed carrots, and champ, which is the floury potatoes (now filled with whiskey and saucy loveliness) mashed with scallions, milk and plenty of salt and pepper.


Salmon season runs February to September on the Blackwater and fishing can be arranged through Ballyvolane House

The house itself has six gorgeous guest rooms, and a fun glamping option for couples and families that includes a real bed!

Ballyvolane House is located in East County Cork in Ireland between the townlands of Britway and Castlelyons and 20 mins from Midleton Distillery.
Tel: +353 225 236 349