One of my favorite benefits of being in the fly fishing industry is having the opportunity to revisit epic fishing spots. In this case, my visit to Alphonse Island and the St. Francois Lagoon in Seychelles was my fourth. Unlike first-timers, the feeling of fresh exotic newness is replaced with a feeling of “home” that nostalgic guys like me cling to. Anyways, that was the case this year as well.
Our group of 10 anglers all set out from the USA on Thursday, March 26, 2009 bound for the tiny archipelago nation of Seychelles… 1,000 miles of the east coast of Africa deep in the guts of the gorgeous Indian Ocean. Included in our group of eager sports was a mix of guys and one gal as follows:
Some of the group booked their travel through Europe, while several of us elected to take the interesting route to Seychelles via Dubai, United Arab Emirates. After a hectic beginning with lousy weather in Texas (Cody, Julia, and Scott actually missed their connection — really long story), Brent and I departed Houston (IAH) on the 15 hour direct flight with Emirates Airlines to Dubai. Although I was fearful of going mad on such a long flight, the amazing in-flight entertainment system on the Emirates 777 kept me sane watching a couple of Bond flicks, Marley and Me, Revolutionary Road (terrible), Benjamin Button (pretty interesting), Yes Man, and a handful of others. Brent played Battleship a lot. I also sent a couple of emails to my girls and to my brother, John, as we flew over his home town of Vienna at 42,000 feet. I was even able to sort out (via email) a rescheduled charter flight for Scott, Julia, and Cody while on the Emirates flight to Dubai. The advent of email service on a trans-Atlantic airline flight was not as impressive as the fact that the flight attendants with Emirates speak Spanish, English, Arabic, Chinese, Hindu, German, Italian, and Dutch. Seriously?
We arrived Dubai around 7:00PM, met up with Jim and Stuart Cochran (father – son) who arrived a few minutes later with Delta, ate at the buffet in the hotel (curried chicken and Stella Artois), watched the Road Warrior with Arabic subtitles, and set off fast to sleep.
Dubai is sort of a microcosm of today’s world economy… grossly overleveraged real estate development, credit card millionaires in Italian sports cars, and over the top lavishness everywhere. I have never been to an Arabic land before, and I must say that Dubai is as far from home as I have ever felt. From the language to the dress to the flat sandy landscape, Dubai struck me as extremely bizarre. Brent summed it up well by saying, “Man, this is really some foreign shit. You know that?”.
The following morning we flew 4 hours to Victoria, Mahe Island, the capital of Seychelles. Other than wanting to drop kick the ugly French dude who cut in front of us in line during immigration, Mahe was very uneventful. Next was a quick connection on board a twin turbo Beechcraft for the 50 minute flight to Alphonse Island. The island is shaped like an arrow head with the runway running down the center. When you are on approach you can see the huge surrounding reef systems that protect Alphonse and the neighboring islands of Bijoutier and St. Francois. On the interior of the coral system are the flats that meld with the reef to create the ultimate habitat for the most incredible mix of marine life. There is nowhere on earth like it….I was told this year that there are over 300 species of fish that inhabit the lagoon. That does not include all the turtles, whales, dolphins, birds, eels, insects, crabs, etc.
The arrival into Alphonse is always a bit surreal. You are greeted by the head of the fishing program (this year it was the young and enthusiastic Devan v.d. Merwe) and the manager of the resort, Tonya. You cruise in a golf cart through dense palm and coconut trees, avoiding the occasional coconut or Giant Land Tortoise on your way to the central resort building for orientation. The property has been developed to meet very high standards and is super plush and polished. Having personally spent nearly a month on the island, I have decided Alphonse actually may be the inspiration for the Dharma Initiative from the TV show “Lost”. It is so strange to see such sophisticated infrastructure and accommodation on such a remote tiny little island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Truly the most impressive fishing operation anywhere. After getting situated and the gear rigged, we head for dinner and a night filled with sleepless anticipation for the first day in the greatest saltwater flats fishery in the world.
Before I hit the daily breakdown, it is worth noting that the long trek half way around the world is well worth it. The bonefishing here is by far the most impressive on earth, but it is the diversity of species and stunning beauty of the place that makes it so incredible. You just have to see it to believe it. Needless to say the folks in the travel department at Tailwaters can make that dream come true!
Day 1 – “Milky Dream”
Here is the daily routine: Wake up at 5:30AM… eat breakfast at 6:00AM, board the mothership, TAM TAM, at 7:00AM, and sail 45 minutes to the skiff moorings inside the St. Francois Lagoon. The boat ride out to St. Francois is one of the most memorable parts of the trip. Everyone is strapping on gear, rigging equipment, and game planning while caffeine and beautiful ocean wake you up. Often you will encounter yellowfin tuna or milkfish feeding, whales, manta rays, dolphins, or other sea creatures on the way out past Bijoutier (“Gilligan’s Island”) and into the lagoon. St. Francois Lagoon is a labyrinth of flats, reef, coral heads, channels, etc…. tailor made habitat for bonefish, permit, trevally, milkfish, triggerfish, sharks, rays, turtles, etc. After a full day of fishing you return to Tam Tam at 4:00PM, arrive at Alphonse at 5:00PM, dinner at 7:00PM, and off to bed at 9-10. This regimented routine makes the week fly by.
One of the most sought after species on the flats is called the Milkfish (Chanos chanos). Although we have learned a lot about how to effectively hook and land these brutes, Milks still have lore about them. There is a common misnomer that they are herbivores or vegetarians exclusively. They feed on tiny invertebrates such as plankton as well as algae. They are not filter feeders, but they do skim along with mouths wide open inhaling their food (kind of like a whale shark). The hardest part about catching a milkfish is simply being in the right place at the right time for a predictable, surface feeding event with a large enough school of targets to increase the odds (which oftentimes won’t happen for months on end). Most often during large spring tides, milkfish will set up almost like trout feeding into the strong tidal currents flushing food off of the flats. Lucky anglers encounter them feeding on or near the surface with mouths wide almost mindlessly vacuuming everything in their path. Although they will certainly move to avoid your fly, they will definitely not move to eat your fly. Anglers fish with algae-like deer hair or craft fur patterns tied on a #2 Gamu hook and long slow strips through a school of milkfish. If the planets align, your fly will incidentally get sucked in and off to the races you go. Such was the case for lucky me on day one.
On the third or fourth presentation the line came taught, and one hour nine minutes later we brought this beautiful 25-30 pound specimen to hand. Pound for pound there is no stronger fish in the sea. It is almost like they a super evolved or are stuck in the Jurassic period. Either way, their physiology is different from all other fish I have encountered in that they simply do not ever get tired. Even when you land them, you must maintain a death grip in order to get a few photos. Our guide for the day, Mattieu Cosson, is from the Burgundy region of France and did a wonderful job for us. Matt is serious but was very amused by our silly American / Texan humor.
Day 2 – Mixed Bag
Brent and I fished with Devan v.d. Merwe today and had a little taste of everything. From chasing milks early to a nice bonefish session, to a walk to the reef looking for Triggerfish and GT. It was a fun day, but also most memorable for the education received on the politics, racial, and social issues that confront the continent of Africa today. Devon, a 23 year old from a small town in South Africa, is perhaps one of the most enthusiastic and optimistic guides I have ever been with. A good looking and capable outdoorsman, Devan and his equally attractive girlfriend, Ubre, have guided, hunted, and fished all over South-Central Africa together for their entire lives. He is the definition of a glass half full kind of guy… With 2 minutes left in the day, Devan would say something indicative of the eternal optimist such as, “Okay man… we’ve got 90 seconds left before we have to head back, but place a blind cast at 2 o’clock. I am absolutely certain that 80 pound Geet is going to be there”.
Devan provided an interesting take on the racial conflict in S.A., and painted a real clear picture of his childhood growing up in the gorgeous yet extremely raw and dangerous, Dark Continent. He also indulged us with his native tongue, Afrikaans (a mix of tribal mumbo jumbo and Dutch), as well as several tribal languages such as Swahili. I confirmed that the images from the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, ‘Blood Diamond’ are actually a very accurate portrayal of the diamond trade in southern Africa.
Although we had cloudy conditions today, Brent managed a nice 20 pound GT on the Lollipops Wreck a few minutes before we headed back to TAM TAM. The weather began to clear on the boat ride back, and we never saw any rainy clouds the rest of the trip.
Day 3 – “Oh Shit….. G.T.!!!!”
Today I fished with Scott Keller, an American who currently calls Sun Valley, Idaho home. Scott is a 49 year old veteran of the guiding profession, and is without question the worldliest angler I have ever encountered. He has guided in several countries with multiple seasons in places like Tierra del Fuego, Alaska, and Mongolia. His laid back charisma is very cool, and he oozes with confidence and experience. Scott has guided everyone from Jimmy Carter to Jack Nicklaus, and quietly tells interesting stories of his angling exploits. My fishing partner was Stuart Cochran, the 35 year old son of long time client and friend, Jim Cochran. Stuart is an extremely funny guy and I really enjoyed fishing with him. We predominantly cruised for GTs all morning before making a spur of the moment decision to head back out to the reef and to “Little Wreck”.
Note: One night back in the 60s a bunch of Japanese commercial tuna fishermen wrecked three of their boats on the reef surrounding St. Francois. It is kind of odd fishing next to their massive rusted out hulls. (I think they are haunted by Japanese sailors feasting on their spoiled catch of yellowfin.)
As soon as we made it to the reef following the 45 minute walk, we began fishing for bonefish. After catching a few nice bones I decided to take my 12 weight from Scott as we waded closer to the surf and the likelihood of encountering a Giant Trevally. I had my 12 weight on my pack as I cast to a school of bonefish that spooked abnormally… What was that all about? Low and behold, the old bully GT presented himself at about 60 feet and closing. “Oh Shit…. GT!”. Hurriedly, I chunked down the bonefish stick, unhooked the 12 weight from my pack, stripped off some line, dropped the fly, and boom, he ate it.
Words cannot describe the power of a large Giant Trevally. The only way to appreciate it is to get your hands on an Abel Super 12 reel and crank down the drag to 100% and try manually to pull of some line. You are lucky to pull off one foot of line without breaking a finger. Now, consider that an 80 pound Trevally completely spooled Devan the day before with this same reel cranked down 100%. You fish for GTs with super heavy gear… 80-100 pound straight fluorocarbon for your leader, 5/0 – 8/0 gamugatsu hooks, and 50 pound gel spun backing is the norm. Devan’s monster took his fly line and 350 yards of backing in just a few seconds. Devan badly bruised his hand on the handle of his reel trying to palm the spool in vain trying to stop the beast. GTs over 50 pounds require you to be chasing them in a skiff as landing one of foot is nearly impossible without a 14 weight. They are incredible fish.
My fish cooperated nicely after a huge run into the backing (with an Abel Super 12 cranked down 100%) and we luckily avoided all the coral heads, sharks, and razor sharp reef. When he came to hand a few minutes later he tipped the scales at 45-50 pounds and 103 centimeters (40 inches). Poor Stuart was turned into a pack mule with our cameras, packs, rods, and gear while we chased him around. After some great photos we exchanged high fives.
The Giant Trevally (Caranx Ignobilis) is the true bad ass of all game fish in my opinion. His round head, monster shoulders, and elaborate fins are built for speed and power, and he has no predators other than large sharks and humans. He literally eats everything, and his incredible eye-sight combines with his quickness to make him a lethal hunter. While adults spend much of their life in deeper water, fish well over 100 pounds often feed on the flats in skinny water or cruise in riding the waves on the reef to ambush unsuspecting prey. There is nothing more impressive than watching through the face of a wave as a big GT surfs his way inside the reef. The combination of hurried panic to cast and huge dosage of adrenalin is very addictive. There is also no eat more impressive than the mighty G.T. The deliberate and crushing speed of the monster when he zeroes in on your fly is scary to the point where you almost don’t want him to eat it! Once you witness the spectacle that is the “GEET”, it gets in your blood, and you become obsessed with trying to find one a bit bigger than the last one.
Day 4 – “The Bataan Death March”
Today I fished with John Bass of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Brent and I met John in December 2007 at Casa Blanca Lodge in Mexico. We have become fast friends and he has booked a few trips with us, including his second trip back to Alphonse. “Big John” is a very tall man. A retired educator, John is also one of the most kind and humorous gents you will ever meet. The consummate story teller, John always has me rolling with laughter. He is a diehard University of Arkansas fan, and likes to reminisce about the glory days of the Longhorn / Razorback rivalry. John is a ton of fun…
Our guide today was James Christmas of South Africa, the pack mule of a guide who showed us the back side of St. Francois at low tide en route to the most remote reef section in the fishery. We caught several nice tailing bones in no more than 5 inches of water before trekking further to the reef. We also saw the home of “Boris” the 7 foot barracuda who resides on a very distinct coral head. (I like to think he was named after the Russian Mobster “Boris the Blade” from the Cohen brothers film, Snatch.) Although we saw a few nice geets in the surf, we had no viable shots. However, wading through the stunning aquarium-like tidal pools was worth the effort. Hundreds of species of fish, eels, rays, and turtles (not to mention lemon and nurse sharks) swarm around your feet.
Unfortunately, the walk back at dead low tide with a high sun was a lot less leisurely than the slow, fish filled easy wade out to the reef. Both John and I each felt the sun big time on the death march back to the boat.
Day 5 – “Stuck on Your Hard Drive” Bonefishing Session
My fishing partner on day five was Scott Matthews of Horseshoe Bay, Texas. Scott is the type of angler who simply enjoys catching bonefish with the proper conditions. He is self admittingly not interested in the trophy species, but would rather be entertained by racking up the numbers. More than once (in Alaska and in Louisiana) we have had the philosophical debate over the stages a fishermen goes through during his angling career. Stage one is to simply catch lots of fish… Stage two is to catch only big fish… Stage three is to simply go fishing. In my opinion, it is only when you reach stage three that the trophy fish become a more regular occurrence. It is almost like the fishing gods feel like you have paid enough dues so they put you in the right place at the right time to catch the big one as a result. Anyways, Scott will attest that he is still in stage one (despite having traveled the world throughout a very impressive angling career).
Day five presented perfect bonefishing conditions. Our tide for the week gave us three spring tide days (perfect for GTs and Milks) and three neap tide days (ideal for St. Francois bonefish). Scott and I just had one of those days where it all comes together. A light breeze was off the left shoulder, the sun was at our backs, and the bones were happy. This was the type of bonefishing session that earns Seychelles the title of “best bonefishing in the world”. For several hours we enjoyed the falling tide and thousands of bonefish coming into easy range. Although you will find schools of bones in St. Francois, the ideal bonefish sessions occur when singles, doubles, and triples funnel off the flat towards you at a steady pace. You have plenty of time to scan the hard, white sand for the biggest fish in view, and present the fly. As soon as you release him, all you have to do is look up and find another one. Absolutely incredible! This kind of day offers an opportunity for the most novice casters to have great success, and the more experienced anglers a time to hone skills and learn something new about bonefish behavior. These type of fishing experiences make you a better angler and are the most memorable. As the guide Devan said, “Today’s memories will be stuck on your hard drive for a long time”.
We wrapped up the day with a late lunch and a move to the “hologram flat”, named for the myriad of mixed water colors that converge there. We tagged a few more bones, had a run in with a 6 footer lemmon shark who nearly ate my foot as I cradled an exhausted bonefish (long story involving me stepping in a hole and falling down while Devan beat the shark away with the butt of my 12 weight), and had a lot of laughs. Our other goal at hologram was to find a permit. Although we did not land one, I had at least 50 good shots at interested (but not interested enough) permit in skinny water. We moved to TAM TAM flat (couple hundred yards from where the TAM TAM is moored) and Scott hooked a monster trigger with one minute left in the day. Even though he came unbuttoned, it was truly a great day… a day that will indeed by saved on my C: drive forever.
Day 6 – Why I will one day return to Seychelles….
The last day of our trip was not as epic as the previous, however Scott and I again enjoyed a nice morning bonefishing session before cruising over to a channel for lunch. The idea was to stake out and wait for a big GT cruising through on the falling tide while Scott and James waded around looking for bones and triggers on a nearby finger flat.
What was learned was never to question the guide when he suggests blind casting a bit… James indicated he had seen a “100+ pound” GT cruising said channel twice before at a similar tidal stage. Scott and I rolled our eyes simultaneously as we busted out the lunch. Not five minutes later, James exclaimed, “100 pound GT! On that Ray! Get Ready!”. I looked at him like he was pulling my chain when he said with his South African accent. “Dude, no shit… Get up he is right there!!!!”. A fire lit under my ass and I was on the deck ready to cast when we caught a glimpse of the beast cruising lazily off the flat disappearing into the depths. It was as if the bastard knew it was my last day and wanted to give me the bird as he sauntered away laughing. Needless to say, that is also an image I will never forget, and I will be back to stick him next year.
Coming Home… The trip home was uneventful. We made it back to Love Field as tired puppies.
A lot of the guides are new since my last trip in 2007, but the level of experienced competence exuded by the entire staff is as tip top as ever. It was very nice to see my old friends, Jude Morel and Sergio Samson, two of the saltiest Seychellois dudes you will ever meet. Both have been there since the “early days” of Alphonse starting back in 1999 — and each have 18 month old kids on the ground (Julius & Sergio Jr).
I regret I did not get to fish with the infamous guide, Wayne Maselau, during this trip. Wayne is also one of the fishiest and most interesting guys you will ever meet. Wayne helped pioneer the flies and techniques used for the milkfish, and helped name numerous landmarks in the infamous lagoon. He is close friends with many of the big trevally at St. Francois as well. Wayne is the poster boy for the “man crush”, and has the knowledge, experience, and South African machismo to back it up. Everyone loves him.
I raise my glass to the entire Alphonse crew of guides and staff… the old ones and the newer ones. Here’s to Vaughn, Devan, Scott, Jude, Sergio, James, Mattieu, Wayne, Tonya, Ubre, Sharon, Jusef (sp?) the bartender, the chef (cant remember his name) and everyone behind the scenes. Thank you for taking care of our group and the rest of our clients all season. You are fine people and I cannot wait to see you all again.