Matt Harris's 10 most memorable fish
Globetrotting fly fisher Matt Harris lists his 10 most memorable fish so far.
I've been lucky enough to fly fish all over the world, and I've caught some wonderful fish in locations stretching from the Arctic circle to the Amazon jungle. When editor Marcus Janssen asked me to name the 10 fish I have most enjoyed catching, I knew I would have more than a few headaches in trying to whittle a million golden memories down to such a short list.
There are a lot of glaring omissions – two 20lb peacock bass in the Brazilian rainforest, a 25lb sea trout from Tierra del Fuego, a double-figure tigerfish in Zambia, monster bumphead parrotfish in the Seychelles, stunningly beautiful mahseer in northern India… and perhaps most important of all, that first 6oz perch in the London suburbs that got things started all those years ago. In spite of all the wonderful fish I couldn't include, here's an attempt to list my favourite captures over the years...
Few fish can match Megalops atlanticus for sheer thrills and spills. You couldn't design a more exciting fly rod fish. Found in clear, shallow water where sight-fishing provides maximum kicks, these things are everything you could want – they eat well-presented flies, they leap like lunatics, and best of all, they are ENORMOUS!
I've caught plenty of these wonderful fish, but perhaps my favourite was a relatively modest 80-pounder that was my first. I caught it with my great friend and undisputed king of tarpon fly fishing, Andy Mill. Andy is a wizard and has taught me so much about tackling these peerless fish – my days out fishing with him and his hugely likeable and talented son Nicky in the Florida Keys are golden memories, and watching a pod of big tarpon rolling the gleaming silver waters of the dawn is still just about as exciting as it gets.
Some people will tell you that ‘tease-and-switch' fly fishing for sailfish isn't ‘proper' fly fishing. They'll also tell you that it's easy. Ignore them. Casting a fly to a lit-up sailfish, full of rage and fully 8ft-long takes nerves of steel and there are a million ways to screw it up, believe me. It's also about as much fun as you can have standing up.
Fishing with my old pal Jake Jordan at Casa Vieja Lodge, on Guatemala's Pacific coast, catching 120lb pacific sailfish that light-up like a neon sign and repeatedly jump 15ft into the air just yards from the boat is not for the faint-hearted. I love it! Utter, unforgettable mayhem!
Bonefish are the most iconic fly rod quarry in saltwater. I've managed four bones over 10lb – all caught with my friend and brilliant guide, Leroy, at North Riding Point in Grand Bahama – but my favourite bonefish was unquestionably my first.
After a disastrous start to my bonefishing career with a novice guide who insisted on taking me into water about 15ft deep – hopeless for bonefishing – a hugely generous fellow angler, Tim Marks, offered me his guide for the following day. That guide was Victor Morales Gonzales – the inimitable ‘Coki' who has since taught me to catch not just bonefish, but also tarpon, permit, and just about anything else that swims in the magical waters around his home in Cuba.
Our first morning on the sand flats of Las Auras, at Jardinas de la Reina was one of the most special in my fly fishing life. Under a perfect, cloudless Caribbean sky, wading ankle-deep, I caught 12 bonefish to 8lb, and have never been happier. My first, while Coki was still anchoring the boat, is a fish
I will never forget – a sleek, silver beauty of 7lb that came gliding over the white sand to inhale my fly before setting off on a knuckle-busting run that all but emptied my reel in the blink of an eye. Both Tim Marks and Coki are both now lifelong friends, and I cannot thank either of them enough.
Jardinas de la Reina, Cuba: www.cubanfishingcenters.com
North Riding Point, Grand Bahama: www.aardvarkmcleod.com
Permit are the toughest fish I've ever fished for – impossibly capricious creatures that will break your heart time and again. Occasionally – just occasionally – they will make a mistake, and those times will stay with you forever. No other form of fly fishing is as intense or as unforgiving. It took me a long time to catch my first permit, and I can still remember that magical moment at Jardines de la Reina when I set the hook and realised that I had finally persuaded one of these infuriating fish to eat my fly.
Since then, I've managed to catch 20 permit, several in excess of 20lb. I can remember every last detail involved in the capture of each one of them. Every one has given me a massive thrill, but the impossibly long and gut-wrenchingly anxious fight, and the final rush of elation and relief I experienced when my guide Bemba's hands closed around the tail of that first, stunningly beautiful fish will surely never be bettered.
Fly fishing starts and ends with trout, and brown trout are still the most beguiling and undoubtedly the toughest out there. I've had some magical days fishing for browns in locations stretching from the chalkstreams of the UK to the rivers of the Western USA, Patagonia and beyond. My great friend Nick Zoll helped me catch a spectacular wild brownie of 10lb 4oz here in the UK, but my favourite destination has to be the South Island of New Zealand.
My favourite fish? I've had five double-figure browns, but undoubtedly the most special was the fin-perfect 12lb beauty that my great friend and peerless New Zealand guide Craig Simpson helped me catch from the Nunya River in New Zealand, just two hours after catching an 11lb fish from the same river. “Where's the Nunya?” I hear you ask. Nunya flippin' business!
Pete Rippin at Flyfisher Group knows New Zealand really well, and will happily organise tailor-made trips to this trout fishing paradise.
On the day that I caught my first permit, I also caught a gorgeous lemon-finned snook. It wasn't my first, and at 8lb it wasn't my biggest. But, along with my permit, a bonefish and a big tarpon, it completed the first and, as far as I know, only Super Grand Slam ever caught in Jardinas de la Reina in Cuba in over 25 years. My guide Bemba was ecstatic, hugging me repeatedly as I thrust an icy beer into his hand. Celebrating with Bemba and my boat partner Martin Webster, drinking that delicious ice-cold beer in the Cuban sunshine, is one of my all-time favourite fly fishing memories.
Rainbows have none of the brown trout's sophistication, but what they lack in cunning, they more than make up for in high-flying exuberance and joie de vivre. There is one place on earth that stands head and shoulders above all others as the place to catch a monster wild rainbow, and that is Lago Strobel in Southern Patagonia. Hunting these cartwheeling leviathans in the aquamarine waters of this legendary lake with my great friend Luciano Alba, who runs the wonderful Estancia Laguna Verde Lodge, just minutes from the banks of this wonderful fishery, has given me some of my most exciting fly fishing experiences. My 16-pounder with Lucio on the last day of a wind-blasted week spent prowling the shores of this fly fishing wonderland is a treasured memory, although I'm determined to beat it on my next visit!
My trip to Estancia Laguna Verde was organised by Tarquin Millington Drake at Frontiers UK.
Salmon fishing is the perfect antidote to trout fishing – all that cerebral, match-the-hatch detective work goes out the window, and is replaced with other, more instinctive skills: studying the water, slowing the fly into those likely looking pockets and keeping an eye on the barometer for that magic moment when it starts to climb. I like to hunt salmon rather than mechanically cover the water, and my favourite waters are those where reading the river and using your brains offers the greatest rewards.
The mighty Yokanga in northern Russia is such a river – a maelstrom of boulder-strewn rapids and wild whitewater where making the effort to wade out to fish tiny, three-cast pockets can bring spectacular rewards. I've had six Atlantic salmon over 30lb, every one a special highlight of my fly fishing life. My biggest – a 35lb silver monster that I finally wrestled from the icy waters of the early-season waters of the Yokanga after an epic battle – is still perhaps the fish I treasure above all others.
My trip to Bolivia's Secure River and its tributaries in the far south-western corner of the Amazon watershed was one of the most exhilarating and most memorable of my life. A blizzard of astonishing sights and sounds assaults the senses in this Garden of Eden paradise, and the fish are everything you could want from a fly rod quarry: clearly visible in the clear waters of the Secure's tributaries, they can be spooky and hard to fool, and then suddenly, particularly after rain, they become dementedly aggressive, smashing flies with arm-wrenching force, before catapulting their muscular 24-carat frames into the crackling heat of the jungle with impossible power.
My talented boat-partner Fabian Forget and I enjoyed one particularly astonishing day when, after two days of high water, the fish went utterly berserk. We caught some stunning fish that day, and one – a 27lb whopper that crashed around the river like a maniac while I looked on in astonishment – is right up there with any fish I've ever caught in my life.
Few fish are more ferocious than Caranx ignobilis, the notorious giant trevally.
In 2005, I was lucky enough to fish the relatively virgin waters of Cosmoledo and Astove in the far western Seychelles, and the fishing was astonishing. In one day alone, wading the shallows around Astove with my friend and brilliant guide, Keith Rose-Innes, I caught no fewer than 27 GTs. My fishing partner Tim Marks caught a similar number in one of the most exhilarating – and exhausting! – day's fishing imaginable.
On another day, fishing with my pal Pete Pearman and our guide Tim Babich, one particular GT attacked me, fortunately only taking a big chunk out of my trouser-leg before I thrashed the huge, 10" fly at it in an attempt to scare it away. Needless to say, the fish ate the fly instantly, and when the hook pulled out five minutes later, the same fish turned around and wolfed the fly down a second time. That fish – a 50-pounder – still glares down at me from a photographic print hanging on the wall in my office and reminds me of one of the wildest and most unforgettable trips of my life.