Along the edge of the merciless Nubian Desert in Sudan lies the Red Sea and its blue-blue water. It's not a palm-fringed, postcard coastline, but beneath the surface is a near pristine wonderland offering wild opportunities to explore with rod and reel, as Edward Truter discovered.
There's a barren, jagged lump of fossilised coral and limestone somewhere along the Sudanese coast called Snake Island. I stood on its peak, surrounded by bleached snake skeletons and looked north across an expanse of sand flats that I could not see the end of. And I wondered how long it would take to come to know such a place. To the west, the Red Sea Hills were mountainous, heat-baked slabs of rock stabbing at the sky. Obscured by mirage and desert dust, I concluded that if anyone ever got lost there, vultures would be pecking at their corpses within a few hours. From a distance, it's a strange place to be standing with a fly rod.
The basic two ingredients one needs for good fishing these days is a productive aquatic environment, and a lack of negative human impact. With this in mind, Sudan has been on my ‘to do list' for more than 20 years. The final prompt came in the form of a photo I received from fishing journalist Nicola Zingarelli, showing a wading angler posing with a small dogtooth tuna. A dogtooth! The deepwater devil of drop-offs and distant atolls – on foot? That got my attention. Even though Nicola explained to me that the fish was caught while spinning over the edge of the flat, it was confirmation that Sudan is a must.
Between trolling the internet and pitching questions to some of my network of travel-savvy fellow explorers, I made a lucky-strike early on and was put in contact with a trio of young, dynamic (or clinically certified, depending on your own balance), Italian anglers. The most pazzo of the three, also named Nicola, quickly proved to me that Sudan offered excellent fishing, jigging/popping style. Nicola sent me photos, charts, and highly entertaining email descriptions of the fishing action in the Red Sea. The gist of it was that the mass of random coral reefs and islands are a nightmare for boat navigation, but a dream for fish like giant trevally (GT), doggies, barracuda, bluefin trevally, bohar snapper, various coral trouts, grouper species, and with an ever-present promise of happy surprises that have included golden trevally, queenfish, cobia, monster mangrove snapper, and trophy-class sailfish. Nicola told story after story of “massacre satanico” sessions with dogtooth tuna on vertical jigs, snapper and coral trout going silly for stickbaits, baitfish blitzes with schooling bluefin, etc., etc. ad infinitum. He also said that his real “perversione” was to attempt to tackle GTs on the fly and that he'd consider me a severe disappointment if I didn't come and try help him.
And that is what we've done. We've covered territory and visited at different times of the year, but we still feel as though we are just beginning. We've seen a lot and been confused by a lot. Nature has some weird quirks in the strange Red Sea. You too would be confused if you saw the tide stay high for one week and then low for the next (note: drinking alcohol is forbidden in Sudan). We've thrilled ourselves with consistent successes, even to the point we consider GTs old hat. There have been experiences with the flats classics – bonefish and permit – but the classic flats fishing in Sudan is more about triggerfish than anything else. Right now, the Nubian coast is probably the best place in the world to fly fish for yellowmargin and titan triggerfish.
Triggers are tough. It takes the stealth of the closing seconds of a deer stalk to sneak up on them tailing in shin-deep shallows. The presentation needs to be that of a dry fly trout fisherman on a chalk stream, followed by the patience of a pole-match angler to watch and wait for the right moment to set the hook. Triggerfish also require a drill sergeant's vocabulary to blow off the frustration when it all goes to pot.
Triggers are neurotics; they're spooky and maddeningly selective. Their masticating maw of grinding, hillbilly teeth makes them hard to hook and difficult to keep hold of. They bite through Japanese steel like a gingersnap in grandma's new dentures. They're like goblins, colourful and ugly, comically weird and nastily wicked all at the same time. Once on the line you'll soon hear your backing knot ticking through the guides followed by a dogged tussle with a fish with calculated purpose.
If you take a shot at a trigger, and assuming you're on-target and feather the fly down with just enough buggy shrimpiness, chances are the fish will scoot over to take a look. If the fish doesn't bolt, it will typically undergo a personality transformation and morph into a reckless fly addict that is blind to everything but what's knotted to your tippet.
Triggerfish have difficulty getting flies into their mouths. They appear to repeatedly try to curl their lips around the fly like a toothless drunk gumming a stale baguette. The trick is to give the fish a little time and when one suspects that it has the fly, to do a testing strip-strike. This will often just prick the fish and the fly will be pulled from the fish's mouth. Luckily, triggers eat food that pricks or bites back, like urchins and crabs, and are thus not at all discouraged by a hook jab. They will keep attacking the fly until they are solidly hooked or until they spook. The latter regularly happens once they've constantly chewed on the fly all the way in until the leader knot jams in the rod tip. In the hand they can be dangerous; a triggerfish will try to bite you; a bite that makes a dog bite feel like a day-old lamb sucking on a teat. I'm lucky to have got a digit back from inside a trigger's mouth with only three holes through my finger and a lost fingernail. Other folks have left chunks of flesh at their exotic fishing destination.
A yellow margined triggerfish taken in shallow, crystal clear water
When it comes to a fly rod fish, the milkfish (Chanos chanos) in its opening gambit makes all other fish look like they're looking for parking. Milkfish are built like rockets, rockets with an engine at the back that appears to be five times too big. A fish that eats algae and plankton to be designed like that is like a sewerage lorry built by Scuderia Ferrari.
Our success with milkfish came when we found schools of them filter-feeding across the surface of a glassy sea. The process we went through to work out what fly they might eat is a long story, but we hooked four fish. The first continued swimming with its schoolmates for a few minutes before it decided to go for a sprint. At the 180m mark, the hook pulled out. We landed one, though, and because it died we studied its digestive system and stomach contents. Among other items, it contained palolo worms, which is something we are excited about from a fly fishing, match-the-hatch angle. We have seen absolute monster milkfish on the flats – fish that are 1.5m or more in length – and though we've not worked out how to catch them yet, when we do, it could be the ultimate fly fishing experience on the planet. In the meantime, we're working on greater capacity reels. No jokes. No, really, no jokes.
Go on, tease me
When not stalking the flats in Sudan we like to go on the tease. This involves one person spinning with hookless hardware, usually a surface plug such as a pencil popper or a GT ice cream (a butt-heavy, pointed chunk of plastic that skips in the film). Flanked by two fly anglers, the teaser-man's job is to lure fish in from reef edges and coral bommies, either from shore or from a boat. GTs, bluefin trevally, bohar snapper, groupers, coral trout, and their assorted neighbours are suckers for the technique. If the teaser-dude plays it right, ravenous predators are brought to the fly anglers' feet, at which point the lure is ripped from the water and a large fly is splat down its place. It is a most entertaining team sport.
I remember well my first teasing cast in Sudan; it attracted a huge Napoleon wrasse that, when it lunged for the fly, seemed to part the entire Red Sea, à la Moses. Fortunately it missed the fly or else it would have resulted in the demolition of some expensive kit and the loss of maybe an arm and a leg. Two casts later, a bohar snapper came in so beside itself with enthusiasm that it swam onto the dry reef as a wave receded. I could have grabbed it with my hands. As the next wave came in and floated the snapper again, a fly was cast in front of it and it attacked instantly. It's these kinds of experiences that make teasing so much fun. There are those that regard this style of teasing as something to be frowned upon. I battle to align with their logic. As long as one is happy to accept teasing for what it is – fly anglers' evolution to make a situation workable – then I say revel in it.
One hears a lot of the word ‘extreme' these days, and it is mostly overused. But from what I have seen, teasing in Sudan is as extreme as fly fishing can get. We use single section, 180lb leaders, 70lb core fly lines and 8/0 flies fished on 12 – 14wt rods. The cast is limited to 10 – 15m to keep the fish on as short a line as possible. The entire experience is a bit hard-core, starting with the environment: the surf zone with the sea smashing into the reef. Then, when the fish show up there's the sustained excitement and anticipation as the teaser calls the species and the fly casters wait for their moment. Often the fish charging in are mixed-species groups and are so fired-up that they almost attack the teaser fisherman's wading boots and have to be fended off with the rod butt. When a fish actually takes the fly, it's a brutal, hand-to-hand tug of war. The strategy is to yield as little line as possible. The rod is pointed nearly directly at the fish with the drag cranked up, full-stop. An average size bohar snapper or bluefin trevally aiming for a hole in the reef will test the equipment and the resolve of the fisherman to the limits. GTs are even tougher – one needs to break their momentum and quell their spirit instantly or else the line will be cut on the coral. Yet, with the right focus, many battles are won.
Sudan is proving an exciting journey. There are many species we need a lot more practice on, fish that tail on the flats like bumphead parrotfish, giant sweetlips, the very enigmatic Sudanese bonefish, and other fish we've seen and aren't even sure what they are yet. Each island, flat, and shoreline we've visited has a unique character. Even islands that are in sight of each other have proven to be vastly different in the nature of their flats and their fish. Although we are still learning, we do know that catching a fish that can be seen and cast to, especially in some far-off frontier where the sun always shines, is one of the greatest thrills in fishing. Happily, there's so much water in Sudan and a sea of opportunity, and I am joyful that the end is nowhere in sight.
Safety and security
Sudan should not be confused with its neighbour, South Sudan, whose civil strife keeps it in the news. Sudan has its own problems in the Darfur region, but this area is 1,000 km from the Red Sea coast. Regarding piracy threats, Sudan is 1,500 km from any historical hot-spots and the Sudanese navy operates constant surveillance and has control procedures that all vessels in Sudanese waters must conform to. The Sudanese locals one meets in and around the Red Sea are very welcoming, friendly and gracious people. Sudan has a long-established, liveaboard, scuba diving industry and flights to Port Sudan are usually at 80 per cent capacity with dive tourists.
Sudan offers the closest tropical flats fishing to the UK by 1,500 miles. The only way to travel around the Red Sea is on a liveaboard vessel. Fishing guests are met at Port Sudan airport (easily reached from Dubai) and usually board their boat in Port Sudan or, depending on the planned route that will be fished, at another location not more than 90 minutes north or south by bus. The boat changes location three to five times during a typical fishing week, travelling over lunch/siesta, so that the visiting anglers get to experience numerous different fishing areas and scenarios.
One does not need many fly patterns for fishing in Sudan. For GTs, black and purple, and tan Sempers, black over white Poodles, natural coloured Flashy Profiles and NYAP poppers – all on 6/0 – 8/0, super-strong, tropical-grade/tarpon hooks – do the job. Very heavy leaders are required for the heavier fly fishing. The minimum is 1.2mm mono, better still are the specialised tough monos or fluorocarbon. Smaller poppers and chartreuse over white Clousers are good for many of the smaller fish on 0.75mm leaders.
For the flats species: Avalon shrimps (double keeled), James Christmas Sand Prawns, Tailer's Delights, and the more buggy crab patterns in natural colours to match turtle grass, coral, and sand bottoms respectively are best. Avoid flies with flash and any flouro orange colours for triggerfish. Leaders are usually 0.4 – 0.45mm.
It is also worth noting that walking on the flats and the reef requires some very robust wading boots.
Aardvark McLeod is the acting UK agent for anyone wishing to travel to the Red Sea to experience unique fly fishing and/or jigging/popping.
Tel. +44 (0)1980 847389