ASHFORD CASTLE Cong, Ireland
An Ancient Form Of Hunting
In addition to fishing, Ashford Castle also offers falconry, an ancient form of hunting dating back to 2,000 B.C. Falconry, defined as "taking wild quarry in its natural state or habitat using trained hawks or falcons," is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia or the Far East and was brought to Europe in the 4th century.
My wife and I partook, and Jodie loved it even more than I did. I've sat in a duck blind with birds as the target, but to walk the woods with a bird as my ally––for it to be released into the treetops to search for prey, then return to my arm as my comrade––was truly something else.
Watching the lead falconer interact with the hawk was akin to watching a pheasant hunter work a field with his best dog. I felt like an outsider watching two old friends who knew each other's every thought.
Falconry is but one of the many activities guests can enjoy. Horseback riding, bicycle tours, clay shooting, archery and more are available.
What To Bring
I packed a 7½-foot, light-action Eagle Claw Trailmaster four-piece pack rod and a Shimano spinning reel spooled with 10-pound monofilament. It was perfect for the trout, but I would have benefitted from a slightly beefier stick for the salmon. That said I paid $50 for the rod so if it got damaged in transport I wouldn't be out too much. For those who love to fly fish, this is an idyllic place to do so. Pack your hip boots and a medium-weight rod, and get baptized in the Cong River.
Fishing the river, a ½-ounce silver or gold spoon works well. In the lake, size 2 and 3 in-line spinners give you the best shot at trout, salmon or pike. Fly fishermen can email Ashford Castle directly to learn about the seasonally hot fly patterns. These guys live for customer service and emailed me all sorts of advice weeks before my trip.
The "Oh My God!" corner: Where the Cong River makes its final bend before flowing into Lough Corrib.
LITTLE PALM ISLAND Atlantic Ocean
Meet The Mayor
Meet Spencer, a 15-year-old great blue heron the camp staff has dubbed the "Mayor" of Little Palm because he's reigned over the resort for most of his life. He has firm yet fair political policies, although his No. 1 agenda is: No other herons allowed on the island. He aggressively protects his turf from interlopers.
Absolute power has gone to Spencer's head, too, as he fully expects you to let him wet his beak with your fish. I gave him a few on the first day and we became fast friends. By Day 2, he stalked along behind me as I walked the shore catching snapper and mackerel. He swallowed four fish in 15 minutes and he still wanted more. When I caught and released a small shark without offering it to him, Spencer gave me the stink eye.
Be prepared to pay the mayor's "fish tax" if you visit this tropical paradise.
What To Bring
Little Palm Island Resort provides everything need you for fishing at no extra cost, including 13-foot Boston Whalers with 25-horsepower outboards. There's a rack of medium- to light-action spinning combos strung with 8- to 12-pound monofilament, and an unlimited supply of free, frozen shrimp, which is by far the best bait for fishing from shore.
You'll want to pack a dozen or so size 3, 5 and 7 octopus hooks and some size 2 split shot to have on reserve, especially if you take out one of the Whalers (which I'd definitely encourage). I also brought a number of and crankbaits for trolling for larger fish, and strongly recommend Rapala X-Rap Magnums. If you go this route––or if you plan on targeting sharks, which you can do with the shrimp provided––I would also bring a couple steel leaders and a spinning reel loaded with a heavy-duty superline.
Another angling option: pursuing the elusive bonefish.
SAN DIEGO BAY California
Pass the Butter Capt. James Nelson has been fishing the San Diego area for over 35 years. As you might expect after all those years on the water––Nelson led 214 charter trips in 2012 alone––he's got a few tricks up his sleeve. Some things are so subtle and ingrained in him that they're barely perceptible, but you can definitely smell one of his tricks.
He frequently dips his jigs in UniButter, a scented dip made locally from the remains of sea urchins. The stuff stinks. And works. What's cool is that Nelson's buddy, Tommy Gomes, began selling the product commercially only after his friends kept begging him to sell them a jar for their personal use. To this day, a portion of every UniButter sale goes to San Diego youth charities. UniGoop.com
A natural attractant made by local anglers who know what works.
What To Bring
If you go fishing with Capt. Nelson you don't have to bring a thing––even drinks and food are covered. In the land of lawyers and liability, guides aren't allowed to offer a traditional shore lunch. Instead, Nelson pioneered the "Dock and Dine" where he treats his clients to lunch at an on-the-water restaurant.
That said the gear required to do it on your own is relatively basic. Go with a light-action rod at least 7 feet long and a small spinning reel with 8-pound monofilament and you'll have a blast catching bass on live shrimp, which you can buy anywhere in the area. For sharks and rays, bulk up with a medium- to heavy-action rod and 30- to 40-pound braided line. Don't forget some heavier lead for this (at least 1 ounce), to keep your bait on the bottom.
San Diego Bay teems with spotted bay bass that can grow to 17 inches.
AIKENS LAKE LODGE Manitoba
A CLASS-ic Fishing Guide
Dave Smith, our guide for several days at Aikens, is in many ways the embodiment of a classic Canadian outdoorsman: he sports a scruffy beard, guides by day then fishes with friends at night, hunts anything that's legal to kill, uses his teeth instead of clippers to part mono, and chews and smokes while complaining about the outlandish price of tobacco. He was also once a great hockey player, and eagerly describes every on-ice brawl in which he participated (Note: he didn't lose many of them).
In other ways, Dave is anything but the typical bush-man. He's into archeology and anthropology, and is passionate about European history. He knows more about U.S. politics than most Americans, philosophizes about Chernobyl's nuclear disaster, and speaks at length about travelling in Italy and marveling over Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.
"My favorite thing about guiding here is getting to know people from all over the place," says the man who averages 800 hours on the water per season. "By spending 8 hours in a boat with people, three or four days in a row, I have a chance to get to know them and develop a friendship with them."
Dave Smith: fishing guide, hockey brawler and Renaissance man.
What To Bring
For $95 a person, Aikens will provide rods, reels and tackle so you don't have to worry about packing it all into a bundle that will fit into a floatplane.
For many anglers, it may be worth it.
If, however, you prefer fishing your own gear, pack two 6- to 6 ½-foot medium-light jigging rods strung with 6- to 8-pound monofilament, as well as a 7-foot baitcasting rod with 17- or 20-pound superline. For walleyes, you'll mainly be jigging, so pack plenty of 1/16- to 3/8-ounce leadheads in assorted colors, as well as at least nine crankbaits: three shallow divers, three mid-range and three deep divers. A handful of spoons and size 5 in-line spinners will also serve you well when chasing northern pike. You can buy frozen minnows at the aptly named "Tackle, Bait and Bullshit Shack." No live bait is allowed on the lake.
If you're not fishing with a guide, don't forget your fillet knife or your daily shore lunch just won't be the same.
Pike here can reach gator proportions. Make sure steel leaders are part of your arsenal.
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK Florida
When Capt. Willcox and I noticed a flock of birds circling a small area in the Gulf of Mexico, we decided to pull in for some fast food. "Looks like they're hovering over baitfish," he said as he expertly tossed a weighted castnet. When he pulled it in a few seconds later the net overflowed with baitfish, and was so heavy he could barely hoist it aboard.
We used the freshly caught pilchards the rest of the day, along with the shrimp we'd brought along. Sometimes we tipped our pre-purchased shrimp with the native baitfish. How's that for organic fast food?
Anglers who travel to South Florida's inshore waters shouldn't expect to fish without first catching the day's bait.
What To Bring
Variety is the name of the game when fishing the Everglades, so I recommend going with a versatile setup. A 6½- to 7-foot medium-action spinning rod, along with an appropriate reel spooled with 12-pound braided line is a solid choice. For bait, you can't beat live shrimp.
I would also bring a lighter rod-and-reel loaded with 6- to 8-pound mono if you know you'll be targeting snapper for a meal. They're a blast to catch on light gear, and a blast to eat, too. For $15 a person the Lazy Days restaurant in Islamorada will prepare your fish four different, delicious ways if you bring in your fillets.
Backwaters here are shallow and turbid, and big redfish battle like bulls.