Tussle in paradise

Big-game fishing has always been the definitive challenge, but now the stakes are even higher with a new species on the block. Sebastian Hope reports

Casting to a school of bonefish in St François Lagoon
Casting to a school of bonefish in St François Lagoon | Image: Sebastian Hope

I’m waiting in Frankfurt airport for my connection to the Seychelles when a friend e-mails me a photo that makes me go cold. It’s a picture of a giant trevally (GT) chasing a streamer. The mouth is open. The mouth is very big. It has pushed its head above the level of the surface, but sheer speed keeps it covered with a film of water. Its eyes are swivelled forward to fix on the quarry. It is what happens next that is giving me palpitations.

At the lodge, Scott Keller’s introductory briefing on how to catch a GT does not help, either. It seems impossible to talk about the fish without using the language of violence. In the soft light of the open-sided bar of Alphonse Island Resort, the night breeze in the palm leaves, Scott’s Californian delivery does little to disguise the fact that this is a very tough fish.

Guide Wayne Haselau with a giant trevally
Guide Wayne Haselau with a giant trevally

“So when you see one, I want you to slap that big fly down hard, like a challenge, and strip real fast.” Scott mimes how to strip the fly, in long fast strokes. “He’ll come a long way to attack. He’ll lock on and charge and then you’ve got to strip even faster.” He adopts a pose as if braced for impact, feet apart, upper body bent forward. “Once he eats your fly, keep right on stripping and hold on to set the hook. Then you’re going to find yourself in a hand fight while you try to keep him out of those coral heads. If we’re in the boat or near it, we’ll follow. If we’re on a surf walk, you better hold on or he’ll clean you up.”

Getting “cleaned up” is what happens when the fish takes all 250m of backing line and breaks the last knot holding it to the reel. And, I learn, getting cleaned up happens rather frequently.

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As the mother ship crosses the channel between Alphonse Island and the St François Lagoon, there’s a nervousness in the group of anglers. Sunscreen is applied and protective clothing is adjusted in preparation for eight hours in the equatorial sun. Robin is my fishing partner for the day and we are to be guided by Scott. Each angler has at least three rods standing in the racks at the stern of the catamaran: a light rig for bonefish, a heavier one for permit and triggerfish, and a big rod for the trevallies. We locate ours in the thicket of carbon fibre and transfer into the skiff.

The lagoon, stretching between Bijoutier and St François Islands, is a tear-shaped sapphire. The ineffably blue water sparkles in the morning sun. Palm trees lean out over golden beaches. This area is also a war zone where fish eat fish and everything eats crustaceans. The tide is still falling on the large sand flat known as Morning Traffic and, as the water drains away, all the bonefish that have been feeding around St François stream off the flats into deeper water. We start wading towards the island and Robin hooks the first fish, but then the traffic gets really heavy and we stand still as the fish come to us.

St François Atoll near Alphonse Island
St François Atoll near Alphonse Island

I have never seen so many bonefish. The small ones come first, schools of fish of 1.5lb, competing for my shrimp imitation hopping along the bottom. Then the bigger fish start moving off the flats and we are casting to pairs and singles in the 3lb range. The Seychelles are not known for large bonefish (though the best for the week touched 7lb), but if there were no other species of game fish here, St François would still be a world-class bonefish destination.

There were no GT encounters on the first day, but I’m fishing with Graham on the second, and Serge Samson, the big-fish specialist, is our guide. We warm up on the bonefish before Serge takes us to a special spot on the west side of the lagoon. He anchors and sets us to work casting with the big rods out towards a large coral head rising up beyond the drop-off. Graham is up first and catches a bluefin trevally, smaller cousin to the giant, and then it’s my turn to be put to work.

Sebastian Hope with a sailfish caught on a fly in the deep waters off StFrançois Atoll
Sebastian Hope with a sailfish caught on a fly in the deep waters off StFrançois Atoll | Image: Sebastian Hope

The sun gets higher. The heat builds in the stillness. Nothing happens. The other two seem to be day-dreaming, so that when the giant trevally races out from the depths, turning on its side to smash my fly, I am the only one to see it. Nothing has prepared me for the brutality of the take and the first charge. The line burns a groove in my thumb as I set the hook. The drag on the Fortuna reel is turned way up and it is still pulling line out. Serge lets slip the anchor and we follow in the skiff. All it wants to do is go down, and I am putting more pressure on the Hardy Proaxis than a normal rod should bear as I start to pump and reel, hauling the fish up to the surface. It’s like arm-wrestling and my biceps are starting to burn, but finally the fish comes to the boat, a blunt-headed brute that Serge hauls aboard to measure. Over 1m long, 50lb, Serge reckons, and I can hardly lift it in my tired arms. I land another GT of 35lb in the afternoon and lose a third. That night in the bar, before one of many sensational meals, when people shake my hand, it hurts.

But the GT isn’t the only fish here that can reduce an angler’s arm to jelly. It isn’t often in the world of fly-fishing that a new species is added to the roster of game fish, but that is what has happened at Alphonse in recent years. A number of guides started experimenting with ways to catch milkfish on the fly, and Wayne Haselau was one of them. Wayne is guiding Bruce and me on a walk across the flats looking for triggerfish and permit, but our talk is all of milkfish. We watch as a school of seven milkfish feed on a bank of algae. They are big torpedo-shaped shadows circling in the shallows, but Wayne tells me these are small ones. “You can’t really hook them up here on the flats, but one of these would take about an hour to land. Big milks – fish of up to 50lb – they’d just clean you up on the first run.”

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The real challenge with milkfish, apart from their strength, is their diet. For the most part, they eat algae and plankton, so it is very difficult to induce them to take a fly. Wayne explains the ideal conditions for hooking one: clear and hot with a strong tidal flow outside the reef, where large schools of milkfish swim against the current with their mouths open scooping plankton at the surface. “They’re not going to move for the fly, you more or less have to float it into their mouth.” Later on we have a chance to put the tactics into action.

While we are having lunch from a little tower of tiffin boxes, Serge comes on the radio to say he has seen milkfish outside the lagoon. We’re on the move straight away. The visibility is phenomenal, and Wayne points out little specks of blue light hanging in the water – copepods that the milkfish like so much they’re known as Coco Pops. We find the school almost immediately feeding in the seam between two currents. The milkfish are moving slowly with their heads in the air. I get a cast into the thick of them. I strip to keep the fly high in the water and the line straight. Then I see rather than feel the line becoming taut. The fly is in a fish’s mouth. I tighten the line, and the fish is on. For an instant. Then it isn’t. “Mostly those stick,” says Wayne by way of consolation. We chase them for a little while longer, but neither of us manages to get another good shot at them. Nobody lands a milkfish that week.

On my last afternoon, Devan van der Merwe, Alphonse’s fishing manager, comes to pick me up and we head offshore in search of sailfish. The islands sit on the edge of the Amirante Trench. The blue water starts close in and we run out teasers straight away. Devan goes through the drill of what will happen when a sailfish hits a teaser; how he will lure it to the back of the boat, and how I will cast out the big foam squid, behind and to the side of the sailfish, while the teaser is whipped away so that the fish turns to take the fly.

Five minutes later we are doing it for real; it doesn’t go as smoothly. I put the fly in the right place but the sailfish misses it. Devan manages to tease it back, but in the melee of spray and adrenaline I cast (repeatedly) to the front of the sailfish and it just slashes at the fly with its bill. Finally, Devan’s shouting penetrates the mist and I manage to put the fly in the right place. The fish turns, takes and runs, and continues running. The first time it jumps it is achingly far away and I only think, “How can I get back all that line?” When I do and the fish is alongside the boat, its flanks look bronzed, its big sail fin flushed azure. I hold its rough bill as it revives and I realise I have landed a bonefish and a sailfish both in the space of an hour.

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