Gone Fishing In Belfast

Lagan River in Belfast

There’s just enough wind out of the east this morning that it’s making it difficult to cast. I’ve been out on the River Lagan for three hours already, and burned through half a can of worms. So far, I haven’t even gotten a nibble.

Full disclosure: I’m writing this, longhand, with a fair amount of dirt under my fingernails. I will also need to put my notebook down periodically to check that my bait hasn’t fallen off the hook. This is the first sunny day we’ve had since I arrived in Belfast, and I’ve resolved not to spend it inside tapping out a blog post. Please try to bear with me.

That said, the river is not an altogether bad place to reflect on the first quarter of my Mitchell year. Fishing has always been a deliberative enterprise for me (it’s certainly not a practical one), and when you’re getting to know a new city, you can do worse than to start by diving into the history of its main waterways.

So in between stints in the Queen’s University library — where my research on Sudan and South Sudan has taken me up and down another majestic river, the Nile — I’ve been learning a little bit about the one that meanders through the heart of Belfast. The Lagan’s fortunes, it turns out, have not always marched in lock-step with those of the city. But in recent years, both have experienced something of a renaissance.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Lagan was Belfast’s main industrial artery. Thousands of tons of cargo moved along it every day, while the dry docks carved out of its embankment powered the rise of the British Empire’s third most important shipbuilding center.

The industrial churn predictably took it’s toll on the river’s ecosystem, as did the rapid population growth that accompanied it. Photos from around the turn of the century reveal putrid mudflats littered with rusting scrap metal and other detritus. In one image that’s now displayed near the Queen Victoria Bridge, a car can be seen half-submerged in the shallows.

The river began to gradually recover with the rapid decline of manufacturing in the mid-1970’s, but it wasn’t until two decades later that wildlife started to reappear in significant numbers. In 1994, a weir was completed just above the Belfast harbor and in subsequent years much of the river upstream was dredged in order to reduce the level of pollution.

Lagan Weir

Around the same time, a major urban renewal project in the area of the old dry docks gave the riverfront a much-needed facelift.

By 1997 — and now I’m finally getting to the point — an estimated 400 Atlantic salmon had returned to the Lagan to spawn. In the decade and a half since, with the exception of a bad chemical spill in 2006, things have only looked up for the angler.

I still haven’t caught anything, but online angling guides tell me I’m liable to hook a salmon, pike, perch, bream or gudgeon (an unsightly little bottom feeder that looks more or less like it sounds) or even a sea trout or flounder if I’m fishing on the stretch of the river between the Lagan and Stranmillis weirs. Considering that a fish survey carried out in the 1970’s found that there were no fish at all in the portion of the river flowing through the city, that’s a pretty significant improvement.

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