Matt Harris discovers an angling paradise in the Indian Ocean, and ends up setting his sights on the seemingly unstoppable milkfish.
The whole fabulous week had been extraordinary, but now, even by the standards of this magical little island, things had become more than a little surreal. After yet another day of superb fishing, a few of us had decided to head off to watch the sunset. The best view is, naturally, at the western tip of the island, situated at the far end of the airstrip, and the way to get there is by pushbike. How often does someone pass you an ice-cold beer as you ride a bicycle down a runway and try to watch the sun sliding into the Indian Ocean? Weaving dangerously and laughing hard as my newfound friends raised their frosty bottles of 'Seybrew' in an erratically executed toast, it was more than a little tempting to pinch myself.
Perhaps I was dreaming...
I remembered the relentless hordes of gleaming bonefish that came flooding off the flats on the falling tide, and the big, brawling giant trevally charging to beat each other to the huge surface popper fly I'd thrown at them. I thought of the stunning, jewel-like triggerfish that had pounced on my flies as I waded between the fabulous corals, and, best of all, I thought of the gorgeous lemon-finned Indo-Pacific permit that had capped my week. Fishing from beyond my wildest dreams.
So why wasn't I satisfied?
Simple: I'd hooked a fish on the very first day of the week that had so captured my imagination that everything else - even my beloved permit - suddenly seemed irrelevant. Now I was utterly fixated on catching one. As one guide said to me wistfully one evening: "Hooking one of those things is dangerous... it's like opening Pandora's box."
Far out in the Indian Ocean is a stunning little jewel of an island that offers perhaps the most diverse flats fishing on the planet. Alphonse is technically part of the Seychelles, but it's a million miles from the serried ranks of sun-seekers that carpet the sands of Mahe and Praslin. Discovered on January 28, 1730, by Chevalier Alphonse de Pontevez, commanding the French frigate Le Lys, this exquisite little atoll, along with its small sisters St Francois and Bijoutier, sits way out to the west of the main Seychelles archipelago. The sparkling waters are just about as pristine as the day Pontavez blundered into them, and they are absolutely stiff with fish: a kaleidoscope of flats species that offer something for every type of saltwater fly angler, from the absolute novice to the seasoned veteran.
Beginners can cut their teeth on the legions of small to medium-sized bonefish that come pouring onto the pristine white sand flats in astonishing numbers. Huge schools of young, obliging fish make accuracy and presentation far less crucial than might be the case elsewhere. Practice makes perfect, and there is perhaps nowhere else on earth where genuine newbies can practise their double-haul and master strip striking to their heart's content, while they amass an almost absurd tally of fish.
Other, more experienced bone-heads might prefer to target the larger, solitary fish that are often found high up on the flats, in the very shallowest water. These fish offer a real challenge: the skinny water makes presenting a fly to the fish without spooking them tough, and will keep even the most accomplished bone-fisher on their toes. However, if you get it right and manage to hook one of the larger fish, hang on tight and enjoy the sizzling drag race of a fight that a big bonefish in shallow water can deliver.
Okay, so we've done that. What's next? Well, if you want something a little more testing, wade one of the coral flats for triggerfish. These stunningly beautiful creatures are extremely cagey, and really take some catching. Throw a small crab or shrimp pattern at them, but land it oh so gently if you don't want your quarry to rocket off into the maze of spangled corals. Triggerfish are reputed to be the only fish able to swim backwards, and watching them cautiously investigating your fly, backing off and then coming back to re-examine your offering is genuinely intriguing. The various triggers are all precious, but the exquisite little Picasso triggerfish is almost impossibly beautiful, splashed in a vivid riot of fabulous impasto shades that would make even the old Spanish master himself blush.
Tougher still are the Indo-Pacific permit - every bit as wary and neurotic as their Caribbean cousins, and perhaps even more beautiful in their stunning silver and yellow livery. Cautious, delicate casts are the way to go, preferably with one of brilliant fly-tyer and guide James Christmas's cunningly devised sand prawn flies. These ingenious little flies will give you a chance, but don't beat yourself up if your quarry takes a contemptuous look at your offering before ambling off into the deeps... they're permit, right?
If all this tricky, technical stuff starts to drive you nuts, take some time off and go and let your hair down - giant trevally possess none of the subtleties of the triggerfish or the permit, but who cares? These things are big and nasty, and they offer about as much rabid mayhem as you could wish for. For extra thrills, employ James's other proven killer - the NYAP popper fly. Nothing beats a dry fly for visual kicks, and that's what you're dealing with here. NYAP stands for 'Not Your Average Popper' and you had better believe it! Unlike most popping flies, James's big foam beast is an aerodynamic work of art that is a snap to cast - even on an 8/0 hook - yet it causes enough top-water commotion to whistle up every fish in the sea. Pitch James's creation out into the turquoise waters and watch as these psychotic mobsters battle each other to gobble it off of the surface. Then dig your heels in and fight with all your might - your savage adversary is more than capable of smashing up all your precious kit, not to mention your knuckles and your morale. A fight with a large GT will leave you shaking, and there are few bigger kicks in fly-fishing. And yet I know of one...
The milkfish isn't an obvious contender for the undisputed title of 'wildest thing on the flats'. It is, after all, a harmless herbivore that spends its days hoovering up the masses of green algae that drift on the surface-currents that wash around the atolls. Watching a shoal of these benign, bovine-looking creatures living out their lazy lives of tranquil, sub-surface grazing, it's hard to imagine them as a sought-after sport-fish. Yet evolution has taken good care of Chanos chanos - these sleek, silver creatures grow to 40 pounds and more, and as such, they must potentially represent a hefty and enticing meal for all those huge barracuda and tiger sharks that prowl menacingly along the drop-offs. Milkfish don't possess any poisonous spines or spots on their tail or any of the other evolutionary tricks-of-the-trade that normally help most prey-fish to get through the day. Instead, Mother Nature has equipped them with a ludicrous, outsized tail and a rock-hard, muscle-packed fuselage that puts them in a speed-class all of their own. While this is bad news for all those big, vicious would-be predators, it provides an absolutely solid gold adrenaline rush for any flats angler lucky enough to put a hook in one. Forget the rest. This thing is - pound for pound - the most demented, knuckle-busting barrel of madness you can hook with a fly rod.
I'd set my heart on one of these fish. Alphonse guide and milkfish expert Wayne Haslau listened patiently as I bombarded him with questions on flies and techniques, but advised me not to hang my hat on one. Wayne listed the problems, the first of which is their algae-feeding. Milkfish don't chase their food; they just graze on the clouds of protein-packed micro-organisms that come bobbing down the wind lanes. As a result, only in a relatively flat calm can the fish be successfully targeted.
If you're lucky enough to get ideal conditions, your fly has to be put right in the milkfish's feeding path, and presented in a dead-drift presentation that mimics the algae's free movement. Ignore the fish feeding on the surface - there are dozens more below them and they are most likely feeding harder on the algae clouds washed around by the tails of the fish feeding higher in the water column. The trick is knowing when a fish has eaten your fly, so try to get as close as you can to the fish, and watch the end of your fly-line like a hawk.
Wayne listened tolerantly while I scoffed - I do a lot of nymph-fishing for trout and I like to think I can tell when a fish has eaten my fly. "I'll know alright," I asserted.
"OK, good," retorted Wayne, "but that's the easy bit - now you've got to land the thing". Wayne rattled off some daunting statistics - a luckless visitor had hooked and lost 15 on a recent trip. Another angler had hooked 10 before landing one. I thought of another fishing friend, Alistair Crawford, who described how one of his pals - an absolute milkfish addict - had landed just three from 42 hook-ups. In the face of such intimidating odds, I decided the best plan was to affect a big dose of bravado. "Bring 'em on!" I laughed, "they won't know what's hit 'em!"
Wayne just smiled.
Frustratingly, the weather conspired against me. Apart from a brief shot on the first morning, when I lost a fish after just a few high-flying seconds, high wind and waves meant that the milkfish weren't tempted to come looking for food up on the flats. Each day, I drove my guide up the proverbial wall by pleading that we look extensively for my coveted quarry, when the flats were awash with all sorts of other fabulous fish.
Finally, on the last day, the wind dropped a little. My guide Serge, a cool, dreadlocked Seychellois who knows Alphonse and her little sister islands like the back of his hand, took one look at the flats and predicted we would finally get a shot at the milkfish. So it proved.
We fished from the boat and my partner, Ian, an Alphonse veteran who had managed a fabulous milky of a little over 30 pounds, wading the flats on that first, relatively calm morning, was up first. He made any number of accurate casts at the fish that were roaming along the edge of the flats, but they clearly weren't eating. Then, finally, it was my shot. I'd decided to use a yarn indicator to help me spot the takes at range, but casting at the constant stream of fish ambling down the flats, it was clear that the fish were intent on moving rather than eating.
And then, suddenly, the fish were feeding. Instead of swimming aimlessly, they were now milling around in a purposeful, circling fashion, occasionally breaking the surface as they slurped the algae from the surface. I watched a daisy chain of feeding fish come into range and then, holding my breath, I pitched Wayne's algae fly into their midst. I focussed on the indicator and suddenly it seemed to shift subtly sideways in the drifting current. I set the hook and watched astonished as the line fizzed up off of the deck and went whistling up through the rings. I've hooked plenty of big, bruising fish on fly - big salmon, steelhead, tarpon, yellowfin tuna, giant trevally and so on - but NOTHING that has disappeared into the wide blue yonder at such an incredible rate of knots.
I'd come armed to the teeth with 600 metres of 50lb gelspun backing and one of Jack Charlton's superlative Mako reels, but I knew I was in trouble: one minute the fish was rocketing away from me, the next, it was leaping dementedly and then racing back towards me, towing a full fly line and acres of backing around. I reeled frantically to take up all the slack and then, inexplicably the fish was soaring wildly into the air, way off to my left, fully 300 yards from where I had expected it to be. Forget drinking beer and riding a bicycle down a runway - this was TRULY surreal. I'd stumbled into some absurd piscatorial magic show. "How could that happen?" I spluttered, and Serge just laughed his infectious laugh: "It's a milkfish, man," he offered.
I slowly started to gain some line and felt the impossible, muscular power of the fish, as it took a short breather. Then it was skipping off left, hurdling over the waves again in a series of insane, flying cartwheels that defied belief. It doubled back towards me again and then, as I reeled frantically, it changed direction and exploded into the air, popping the 30lb fluorocarbon like cotton.
I looked around at Serge and he just grinned and repeated his explanation "Thas' a milkfish!"
Do what you have to do. Sell what you have to. Beg, borrow or steal. Go to Alphonse, and when you do, forget all those big gleaming bonefish, the fabulous, jewel-like triggers and those stunning lemon-finned permit. Forget even those big nasty trevally that demolish your flies and try to pull you in.
Go and hook a milkfish. I'll see you there.
Fly Fish Seychelles
Address: Fly Fish Seychelles Ltd, Manor Barns, Southrop, Nr. Lechlade, Glos. GL7 3NX
I flew Air Seychelles and the flight was a real pleasure. Good food and champagne in Economy class was a particularly nice surprise. Web: www.airseychelles.com
After the long flight, spend a day getting over the jet lag and chilling out on the beach at this lovely boutique hotel at Glacis on the north shore of Mahe Web: www.bliss-hotel.com