Swapping Wheels for Reels - The Bert Cory Story
As he approaches 80 years of age, Bert Cory is trying to convince himself that the time has come after 30 years to dry dock the boat on his beloved Lough Mask, don the waders and settle into the calmer waters of the Corrib River. Adrian Cory relates how Bert swapped a career in the British motor trade for fishing and made a new life in Ireland.
Bert Cory gingerly touches a recent wound on the bridge of his nose. “Bloody rocks !” he tuts and smiles whimsically, “they’ll be the death of me.”
The rocks in question are those of Lough Mask, the 22,000 acre limestone lake in Ireland’s north western county of Mayo. Its excellent stock of wild brown trout gives ‘the Mask’ a strong reputation for wet-fly fishing which extends for most of the season. With the Atlantic coast a mere twelve miles to the west however, the prevailing weather conditions can turn the lough into a bubbling cauldron and challenge even the most experienced boatman.
“I just lost concentration at the wrong time,” Bert explains “and then BANG! The boat topped the rocks and I kissed the seat…took me the best part of an hour to get the damn thing back in the water !”
Bert is a prominent figure in the community having both fished and ghillied on the Mask for almost thirty years. Born in London in 1933, he was a WWII evacuee and settled on a career in the motor trade after completing his National Service. Following an apprenticeship and an early taste of management with Ford, Bert left the company to set up a chain of his own motor spare shops and ran a successful business for over twenty years. The recession of the late 80’s and the advent of superstore motor retailers such as Halfords, however, saw Bert’s company go into decline and eventually fail.
“I was completely disillusioned with the attitude towards small businesses in the UK and decided it was time for move,” says Bert, strangely echoing the many entrepreneurs struggling in today’s economic climate. By the middle of 1984, disenfranchised by this commercial small-mindedness – and also secretly hankering the need to pursue his passion for fly-fishing, Bert and his wife, Anne, decided to up sticks and start over in Ireland’s wild west.
They settled in the compact town of Ballinrobe which lies within touching distance of the popular fishing waters of Loughs Corrib and Mask. With the money raised from the sale of their home in England, Bert invested in a sizeable, dilapidated lodge house formerly owned by Lord Lucan’s estate manager. He set up a small garage and motor parts business in the town and, over the ensuing years toward retirement, this operation would help fund his two great loves: house renovation and fishing the Mask. With Anne supplanting her husband in the garage at weekends, Bert was soon engaged in the local fishing scene and making his mark.
“I was introduced to the local fishing club by the assistant manager of the town’s Ulster Bank, a keen fisherman himself,” the garage owner recalls. “The membership fee was only five Punts at the time and I joined immediately.”
Bert describes how the set up was very basic at the time and the clubhouse was unsuitable for club meetings. “The club membership was largely made up of local tradesmen and farmers,” he explains, “and we would all squeeze into this tiny room in the Christian Brothers’ School…it was very cosy !”
Bert was quickly and warmly welcomed into the group and soon put his new friendships to the test by winning the Best Catch and Heaviest Fish competitions at his first annual match. “All the lads were genuinely pleased for me,” the Englishman coyly suggests with a broad grin.
His introduction to fishing in Ireland – the camaraderie and the early success, was proving a real joy for Bert and was further enhanced by the lack of licence fees or charges for the fishing. “It was a breath of fresh air from how expensive game fishing was in England and Scotland,” says the devoted Irish angler.
The World Cup Trout Fly Fishing Competition’s inaugural event was over the Easter weekend in 1953 and has proved a popular fixture on the fishing calendar to this day attracting around 800 anglers from the British Isles and the continent.
It is a wet fly competition on the Mask’s Cushlough Bay and is strictly policed; any trolling or dapping is met with instant disqualification. The Englishman made an impact in the event after a few seasons by securing fourth place overall in 1988. “It was quite a sight arriving at the Lough and seeing all the competitors gearing up, exchanging views on which flies to use and waiting to see which ghillie they’d be assigned,” says Bert all wide-eyed.
“After Father Thomas’ blessing at 11am, the start gun went off and we raced away,” he remembers, smiling again. “Lunch was taken on one of the many islands on the lough and how long you were stuck there depended on how long the ghillie’s Jameson lasted !”
“I was using a ten foot fibreglass rod with a No.7 sinking line,” says Bert, “and there were a few scoffs at my choice of wet flies…but they seemed to do the trick.” After five days solid fishing, Ballinrobe’s motor man missed out on the 19ft fibreglass boat first prize by the odd trout. His prize for fourth was a 14” television. “Not a bad return for the fifty Punts entrance fee, eh ?” he suggests.
This success threw up the opportunity for this increasingly popular ‘visitor’ to join the 1989 Partry fly team: a bunch of mavericks based in the small village at the Mask’s northern end named after the rolling mountains that flank the lough’s western edge.
The Englishman was to prove a profitable addition to the squad as the Partry boys won the right to represent County Mayo at the All Ireland finals after storming the divisional heat. This meant a trip down country to Lough Leane in Killarney and the chance of trout and glory! The team barely made it. “I drove us down in my old Cortina Mark 3 and the Irish roads were taking their toll,” Bert says. “I managed to patch up a detached exhaust and keep the ignition firing with a gallon of WD-40…I just managed to nurse the bloody thing into the lough car park about a half hour before the start !” You can take the boy out of Ford’s…
It appeared this team of Bert Cory, Martin and Patrick Feerick and Peter Hefernan hadn’t received the memo on appropriate attire for the competition. “You can imagine our surprise when we all bowled up in jumpers and work trousers and were summarily introduced to our blazer-and-tie bedecked opposition,” there’s a mischievous look in Bert’s eyes, “we must have looked like a right motley crew!”
But this didn’t stop the Partry team ripping the competition apart. The boys knew that, at 10”, the minimum take size (2” less than on the Mask) would give them ample opportunity to score and after seven hours fishing they delivered the All Ireland to Mayo’s most unassuming village. “The Whitegates Hotel hosted the prize giving,” the conquering hero says, “and despite our rather shabby appearance, we received an ecstatic reception from one and all and the celebrations went well into the night.”
Bert had a hip replaced in August 2011 and that, as he contemplates missing the start of a new season for the first time since 1985, has given him time to reflect on how the sport has changed in the county he’s grown to love.
“I think the loss of interest in the sport, particularly with the local anglers, is the most disappointing thing,” he explains. “Numbers on the lake are definitely down and that’s either due to the over-governance of the sport or, what’s more likely, the over-governance of life.” The veteran of great fishing – and even greater socialising at the end of a fine day’s angling, points to the arrival of the smoking ban; the introduction of the Euro and the hike in alcohol tax and VAT as to reasons why the ‘craic’ has disappeared from the pubs and bars which the anglers would regularly frequent. “The fun seems to have dried up,” he says almost in a whisper.
For the last ten years, however, the Englishman has concentrated on ghillie duties and prefers to fish for pleasure now rather than compete. As a boatman, his customers come in all shapes and sizes; and all personalities.
“One day, I can have my favourite group of Westport lads who are fanatical fisherman and amazing company,” he explains. “The next, I can have a couple of blokes in the boat who spend more time on the phone than they do on the rod, spend a ridiculous amount of time over lunch and can’t cast a fly for toffee !” Bert heaves a huge sigh. “The boathouse is a welcome sight on days like these.”
Ghillie fees have trebled since Bert began boating anglers around the Mask’s elegant fishing waters. He sees payment for working the lough as danger money, however. “The Mask has teeth,” the boatman warns sincerely, “the best piece of advice I ever took was always keep a close eye on what the weather is up to.” He touches the scar on his nose again. “It can be a terrifying experience when the wind whips up and catches you out…you’ve got to know what you’re doing out there.”
The lough isn’t the only unpredictable element.
“I was a ghillie for the World Cup about nine years ago and I took the competitors across to Chintilla,” Bert recalls. “About midday, the outboard packs up. With a single fish in the boat we decided to head to Cahir and borrow a new engine from the Water Board office.” The veteran explains how he, a seventy-year-old man, proceeded to row for the best part of an hour into a northerly, force five gale.
“On the way to Cahir, the guys in the boat missed about eight to ten fish,” Bert’s face is etched in pain from the memory. “I got the engine replaced and slumped back into the boat exhausted.” Bert got them underway again and the angler with the earlier catch picked up two more and by 4pm his haul was around the 7lb mark. “Despite being shattered, I knew this chap was in with a shout for the World Cup and I ‘boated’ him all over Cahir Bay for another two hours with no luck…he missed first place by two ounces !” The upside? Second place was a 10hp outboard which the angler kindly donated to his committed and knackered ghillie!
So as he approaches 80 years of age, Bert Cory is trying to convince himself that the time has come to dry dock the boat, don the waders and settle into the calmer waters of the Corrib River.
“It’s a compromise,” Bert smiles and looks wistfully at his wife, Anne, who is clearly keen for him to come off the water. “As long as I’ve got the thrill of the fly being taken and the power of the trout on the end of that line…I guess it doesn’t really matter where I fish.”
Many will suspect, however, there may still be a few bumps and grazes in the old lough-dog yet.