Henry Gilbey packs his most serious fly rods and heads for the Seychelles where he pits his skills against the turbo-charged milkfish.
The sheer tropical intensity of the sun lights the vast flats up like a homing beacon. Searing heat, outrageous humidity levels and utter desolation combine to produce some of the most magical saltwater fly fishing conditions on this earth. But what on earth are these strange looking fish that, from a distance, appear to be a cross between a giant bonefish and a mullet, but with massively oversized forked tails and solid profiles obviously built for serious speed?
Have you ever heard of the milkfish (chanos chanos)? If you fish the right areas with the right guides, then you are in with a real chance of connecting with one of fishing's newest quarries - and these creatures will take your breath away. Power, speed, cunning and an inbuilt mistrust of strangers on the flats, these milkfish are a very serious proposition indeed.
As this vast lagoon begins to fill with warm ocean water, we are cruising the edges of some stunning looking flats in the tender boat. Dark shapes move menacingly over the hard sand, but we are steeling ourselves to ignore these rampaging giant trevally that so typify these wild atolls, so many miles from any kind of civilisation out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. To stand there and cast big 6/0 flies at a black-backed monster GT as it charges you down has reduced many a grown fly fisherman to a quivering wreck of an angler, but today we are after the milkfish, or milkies, as they are affectionately known. Just the day before, Keith Rose-Innes, one of the FlyCastaway guides, had put his clients onto some good fish right on the edge of these hard sand flats. Seeing milkfish moving around the flats is a common occurrence, but the trick with these fish is to find them in a feeding mood. For many years they were believed to be virtually uncatchable, until a switched-on South African guide called Arno Matthee worked out how to nail them. So it was a huge thrill to be with Arno on the tender as he enjoyed a very rare day off. But what do these guys do on their day off? They go fishing, of course.
In time we come across some good shoals of milkfish, but we have to find out if they are feeding or simply cruising. Tempting though it is to cast at any milkfish you might see, if they are not feeding then they'll drive you mad with their ability to utterly ignore your fly every single frustrating time. As we drift closer on the gentle breeze and try hard not to spook these wary fish, it becomes gleefully apparent that they are actually feeding. A number are surfacing with open mouths to eat the algae that is collecting in tide and wind lines on the edge of the flat as the water floods in. This is what we need to see to really have a chance at catching these milkfish, for whilst Arno might well have figured out how to take them on a fly, by no means are they easy to hook. The best chance you have is when they are sipping algae on or just below the surface. The fly of choice is in fact a cleverly designed algae imitation that is allowed to dead drift into the feeding fish. The theory is that one of them is eventually going to make a mistake and engulf it.
While we would really like to chase the fish on foot on the flats, for some reason the milkies today are more content to hang just in the deeper water and sip algae. A number of coral bombs littered the lagoon and provided a useful bit of camouflage as we brought the boat around to cast at the fish, but still these fish seem to spook at will. Up one minute and feeding happily away, then disappearing momentarily, only to reappear 50 yards away. They know we're here, of that I am sure.
But as Arno sends his first cast out to lie just in front of a pod of feeding milkfish, I admit to being totally and utterly stunned when he suddenly strikes and connects with one. First cast on his first day off for ages, and the Milkfish Man has only gone and hooked one. The sheer turn of speed this fish possesses as it feels the steel and charges off makes the reel scream in protest and the line rush through the rings with that unmistakable snickering sound. Long, sustained runs that drive the fish ever closer to the maze of coral bombs and potential sanctuary, but Arno knows exactly what he is doing and exerts maximum pressure with his beloved Loomis #10 GLX CrossCurrent. I have a theory in fact that these FlyCastaway guys so love their Loomis rods that their hands are virtually welded to the well-worn cork handles. No doubt their future children will be born with the distinctive Loomis logo already tattooed on their casting arms.
To see Arno cradling his prize after a tough, protracted fight was a real pleasure, and I could sense his pride as I rattled off some photos. A modest and quietly spoken man who asks for no recognition, I am sure that in time his name will be written into saltwater fly fishing history as the man who decoded the milkfish. Arno spent many years guiding on the Seychelles atoll of Alphonse before he set up with FlyCastaway with some good friends, and while there he set himself the task of taking milkies on the fly. Many frustrating sessions both on the flats and behind the tying vice led to the fly now generously known as Arno's Milky Dream and an angler with a frightening amount of knowledge about these magnificent fish.
Mix the speed of a bonefish with the sheer bloody-mindedness of a GT, and then blend with some of the permit's cunning and you are close to the milkfish. If you've done the bonefish thing in various fantastic locations around the world, you really owe it to yourself to head for the remote Seychelles atolls such as Cosmoledo and Providence and set yourself the ultimate challenge of landing a big milkfish on the fly. Plus of course you can smash huge GTs, monster bonefish, bluefin trevally and even bumphead parrotfish.
Cradling 20lb+ of Indian Ocean milkie perfection is surely the pinnacle of anybody's saltwater fly fishing career; indeed there is still much to learn. What better excuse could there be for repeated trips to these unspoilt waters?
* A #9 fly outfit is probably too light for decent milkfish, so step up to a #10 rod and reel, plus decent tropical floating fly line. Bonefish leaders are fine for milkfish
* A #9 outfit is ideal for the numerous and very large bonefish, while a #12 is essential to stand a chance with the rampaging GTs.
* THE milkfish fly is Arno's Milky Dream - size 2 Gamakatsu SL12 hook, chartreuse thread, underwing of chartreuse and white calf's tail, overwing of a loop of chartreuse glow-bug yarn.
* Very good polarised sunglasses are vital, see www.mauijim.com.
* Drink as much water as you can - it is vital out here. Most guys carry a small backpack with a bladder system.
* Standard tropical fishing clothing - long-sleeved shirt, shorts, cycling shorts underneath (to prevent chafing), flat boots (Simms, Patagonia), Buff, suncream, etc.