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Glenda, the completed angler

Since the thrill of catching her first trout, fishing has defined Glenda Powell's life. The world champion tells Ciara Dwyer that the sport has provided her with so much, including her husband and a way of dealing with her traumas, that she'd prefer not to exist without it

When Glenda Powell was a young girl growing up in the small village of Comber, Co Down, she and her elder sister would walk through the streets, fishing rods in hand, off to the river. The season had started and they were hooked.

"We must have looked very strange," she tells me. "But nobody said that it was just for boys, and we were raised to believe that we could be anything we wanted to be if we worked hard enough."

Now Glenda is the proprietor of Blackwater Fishing Lodge which she runs with her husband Ian. A world champion fly-fisher, she spends her time giving fly fishing lessons there. She is the only female casting instructor in Ireland.

"Everything revolves around fishing," she says. "I have a very good husband and two beautiful children, but if you took the fishing away from me I would prefer not to be on this Earth."

Although fishing has defined her life, Glenda is not so obsessed with her trade that it has blinded her to the world. Rather it has enhanced her, and made her the warm woman that she is today. She has faith in God which gives her strength but this, too, is tied in with her passion.

"You can never be closer to God than when you're out on the river. It's about having that stillness."

Fishing has given her a lot. Through it she met her husband, and in times of despair, it is her solace. It also allowed her to contribute to the fight against cancer. The illness was something they experienced firsthand a few years ago, when Ian got a melanoma on his foot. He was treated for it and survived. In thanksgiving for her husband's recovery, she gave of her time and skill for a cancer charity.

I first met Glenda when I did a ladies' fly-fishing day in aid of breast cancer.

"When I started to do these days in aid of breast cancer, my aim was to get more women involved in fishing and to contribute to a cancer charity. (I chose breast cancer as it is particular to women.) But it never dawned on me that there might be some people doing the day course who actually had cancer. One woman was terminally ill. It was very important that she caught a fish that day. Not only did she catch a fish, but she was the first to catch one. She said that it was her dying wish. I remember driving home that evening and thinking, 'Yes, I am doing something worthwhile.'"

Glenda Powell seems to have accumulated far more wisdom than most 34-year-olds but perhaps that is because she has packed so much into her life.

Her father was a civil servant who dreamt of being a gamekeeper, but with four daughters to rear he knew that wasn't an economically viable option. Instead he indulged in his passion at weekends.

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"My mother would say: 'David, if you're going shooting, take the girls with you.' And so the four of us would traipse through the fields after him; off to shoot ducks and pheasants. We'd be sitting in bushes, hidden in our green clothes. It was a way of life. We always had dogs and we reared our own pheasants and ducks in the garage. Any good shooting person will protect the land and will rear the ducks or pheasants that they're going to be shooting. I was a useless shot but I loved fishing."

When Glenda was nine, her Uncle Michael died and left her his fishing rods.

"I remember going into his house and he'd be sitting at his table tying flies. I was fascinated by how he was putting together all these pieces of feathers and tinsel and fluff to make something which was supposed to be an insect."

Glenda headed off to the river with her sister and they tried their hand at fishing. After a while, her sister's interest waned but Glenda persisted. She and her dog would set off. After six months, she finally caught her first fish on her own.

"I can still remember the thrill of catching that trout. I had got up early in the morning before school. I was so excited. I ran home. My mam and dad were just getting up. I put it on a saucer. The head and tail hung over both sides of the saucer but to me it was huge. My parents said 'Yes, Glenda that's great. Now get dressed for school.'

"The initial feeling of something at the end of the rod is called 'the take'. It's when you realise that a fish is on the end and you have done something right. Once I knew that was possible, I kept going."

As she grew up, fishing was to form Glenda's character. "You learn patience through it. Fishing is about being able to stand still long enough to be able to take note of what's around you. It's about being close to nature and appreciating it. You have to think about what you are doing which gives you very little time to think about anything else. For me, it's not all about the playing of the fish or the killing of the fish. It's not the trophy anymore. Most of the fish I catch I would release, to live for another day. As I grew older it was a sociable thing where you would make friends on the river. And of course my friends were boys, because there weren't any girls on the river. Fishing also gave me guts."

When Glenda wanted to take the day off school on the first of March, the first day of the fishing season (the most significant one where everyone appears), she asked her father for permission. He said it was fine by him, as long as she asked the headmaster.

"I was a timid child. I was 11 years old. Headmasters are very scary when you're that age. When I asked him for the day off and told him why, he said, 'Does your father know about this?' I told him what my dad had said. He was taken aback by this but he could see that I was passionate about it. He gave me permission on the condition that I didn't tell anyone else and that I would catch up with my work."

For the next five years, as the fishing season loomed, Glenda would knock on the headmaster's door and ask for the day off. Finally he would say, "Just go".

By the time Glenda finished school, she knew that she wanted to spend the rest of her life fishing. She just had to figure out how to do it. This was not what her father had in mind for her, but she was determined. She set off to Scotland which was renowned for its fishing but once she got there it was far from easy. She ended up working in an old folk's home as a nurse's aid and just about paying her rent. Her dream of fishing was getting further away from her. An elderly woman in the home nagged her to enter a fishing competition, which she duly did. She was successful at it but still she had to pay her bills. Finally, she found a way around it. While still working, she began to teach fishing in a local hotel and soon she was renting part of a river, and teaching on that patch.

When her father had a heart attack, she came home to be close to him. Family has always been of paramount importance to her. She got a job as a sales rep selling fishing gear to shops all over Ireland, and she started to write a fishing column for a magazine, Ireland's Equestrian Life and Country Times. It was while doing the latter that she met Ian. She was about to visit Blackwater Fishing Lodge, a family-run business, but when she got there Ian was alone. His wife and children had gone, the marriage having disintegrated. Glenda stayed there and wrote her article about the lodge. She and Ian had got on well. Even though nothing had happened between them, she knew there was something going on when she didn't want to go home to her boyfriend, Tom, with whom she was living in the North. Shortly afterwards, she moved out.

Growing up in the North of Ireland, she had obviously been aware of the Troubles, but she didn't realise how much it affected her until she saw it with fresh eyes on her return from Scotland. Also, an atmosphere of impending violence was not conducive to attracting tourists to come for fishing trips. She had had enough. One day she decided that she was leaving. Perhaps she would go to Galway or Mayo. Ian invited her to come down to Blackwater Lodge.

"I was 22 to his 52. I was saying -- wise up, Glenda, this guy is older than your father. And yet from the moment we met, we got on very well. Ian is very calm and he loves fun, as I do. I would never have got involved with anyone who wasn't into fishing because then they wouldn't understand the passion in me."

Glenda joined him and stayed. They married and now they have two children -- Anna, 8, and Ian, 6.

"Ian wanted kids as well and he realised that a very big part of my future life would be to have children. I would find an emptiness if I didn't have children and I knew that from an early age."

When the children were two and one, Ian got a melanoma. "That was a very scary point in my life. I felt very vulnerable with two small children. You always think that cancer is going to happen to someone else but when it hits your own doorstep it's a wake-up call. It makes you realise that life is very precious and short, so get on with it."

Thankfully, with treatment, Ian recovered.

When I ask Glenda if the age difference between her and Ian is a big factor, she is very pragmatic about it.

"Many a parent would be really upset if their daughter was involved with someone 30 years older. (My father was fine about it.) I'm not saying that if my daughter came home with someone 30 years older that I wouldn't be upset because you can see the problems later on in life. But I would always prefer to have 20 years of happiness than 50 years of misery and I have been very happy with Ian for the last 12 years."

When Glenda's father died of a sudden heart attack last summer, she was numb with grief. She went to the river to mourn him and while there she caught a 14lb salmon, the largest fish she had ever caught. She felt it was a sign from him.

It was less than two months after that when I met her on the ladies' fly-fishing day. She laughed about life, talked about her father's death and was inspired by the women around her.

"Some of these women know that they're dying and they stand there and look adversity in the face and say, 'I'm not going to give in to you.' They are smiling and laughing and telling me that they're not afraid of dying. Why can't we learn from people like this?"

And so she does.

Blackwater Lodge and Salmon Fishery, Upper Ballyduff, Co Waterford offers both guesthouse and self-catering cottage accommodation. Call 058-60235; email info@ireland-salmon-fishing.net or visit www. ireland-salmon-fishing.net


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