Like Desroches, Alphonse is one of the Amirantes island group, about 250 miles south of the main island of Mahé. Alphonse Island itself has a large circular reef, within which is a shallow lagoon of finest talcum powder coral sand.
The Alphonse hotel complex is a recently-built collection of ‘A’ frame chalets on short stilts. About a minute away, if you’re strolling at Seychelles pace, which is to say, drunken tortoise speed, is a central lounge area, and extensive dining facilities. This is a seriously luxurious bolt-hole, with sumptuous furnishings, high quality cuisine, and a guest list that includes pop-stars, titled folks from oh-so-nice families, jet setters, and lottery winners various.
There are two highly professional guide companies on the island: U.S.Fly, and Seyfly. I was booked out with the U.S.Fly lot, who proved to be an outstanding outfit.
In the short time that fishing has been available on Alphonse, and the nearby St.Francois atoll, this has become the most sought-after bone-fishing destination in the world, with a waiting list (I’m afraid) to be one of the twelve rods allowed on these reefs and flats at any one time.
If all this sounds exclusive, difficult to obtain, expensive, and out of reach for many, then you’re reading me correctly. I report about it here because this is quite simply the best you can get. If you’ve won the lottery, or the old sofa that aunt Matilda left to you proves to be stuffed with £50 notes, then look no further for the ultimate destination. You’ll still need to beg pathetically, and pull a string or two with the guiding company, but it will be worth it. Start your quest today. Here lies Paradise, and VERY big fish.
Again, my time was limited. Knowing what I know now, I realise that I should have booked a whole week, or better still a whole life-time, on Alphonse. In order to be able to experience what Alphonse and St. Francois had to offer, I was going to have to move around very quickly, and be prepared to walk away from feeding fish.
My U.S.Fly guide was a South African fly-fishing nut-case named Arno Mathee. Arno fishes 364 days a year: 365 on leap years. He ties flies while eating his supper, and in the short time he sleeps each night, he dreams about 20 lb bonefish. Arno is the sort of chap who deserves to own his own island, complete with reef and bonefish flats.
We set off at first light to the Alphonse lagoon. Arno wanted to try for giant trevally while the tide was right. I’d never caught any sort of trevally, I admitted. Arno looked at me with a wicked sort of smile. ‘Oh! Really,’ he said. Then he gave a rather terrifying snigger behind his hand, like Dick Dastardly’s dog Muttley.
Off we went in Arno’s purpose-made flats skiff. With my one-to-one guide, and me sitting there all la-de-dah as he wafted me across the mirror surface in a gleaming dawn, I felt just as grand as a moustachioed Brigadier in the days of the Raj, off to shoot tigers in the gathering early light.
As we reached the reef the sun peeped over the eastern horizon flashing golden highlights off our ship’s wake. Stepping into 12" of warm crystal water was bliss. The air temperature was around 80°: wonderful.
Trevally are strong. This much I knew. I set up a butch #11 weight outfit, with big side-whiskered surface poppers in mind. ‘What weight of leader you got there?’ asked Arno. I replied that it was 25 lb. He smiled that knowing smile again, and taking my outfit, replaced my expensive tapered leader with 6’ of 60 lb mono, and added ‘you may find that more useful.’ It seems that apart from being extremely strong, trevally have a line of sharp cutting scales on the lateral line, near the tail. The 60 lb mono was about minimum to avoid cut-offs.
The big poppers took some throwing, but the T&T Vector was just the job for this work. Forty yards out a vast shoal of little baitfish erupted from the surface with a collective roar that sounded like a substantial Brighton beach surf. ‘The trevally are on the hunt,’ said Arno, and so-saying there was a vast boil under his popper, and his #12 weight rod took on the look of a boiled Chinese noodle as the trevally stripped off sixty yards of line and backing on its way to a coral head, which cut the leader like a razor. Arno could do nothing. His Orvis reel’s drag was screwed up as tight as it could be, and he braked the spool with his a gloved hand for all he was worth, but the fish just ……. went. ‘Big bugger,’ said Arno, in a philosophical sort of way.
My first cast was perhaps a bit fevered, and therefore a bit short. All the same, I stripped back quickly, as instructed. ‘Faster, faster,’ shouted Arno. So I stripped like a madman until the fly was right in front of me. Behind, was a ravaging hoard of giant trevally chasing but not taking, and they were bloody gigantic. ‘Cast quickly,’ shouted Arno, ‘there’s a forty pounder in with that lot.’ His suggestion was totally unnecessary, because I’d seen the thing, and was already in frantic mid cast.
I’ve got a problem here, because I’ve got another tale to tell next month, and I need to
save a few superlatives for that. I conclude that English requires more words from which to choose when resorting to hyperbole. Mr Crabtree’s gushing young son cornered the market when he said ‘it’s going like a train Dad.’ We’ve all struggled since then. I’ve got to put over to you what I felt like when the first trevally grabbed my popper. Some rotter’s already said that being attached to a big carp is like ‘hooking the Queen Mary.’ So you see my problem. Anyway, it went something like this ……
I merrily popped, the trevally slurped in the popper, my #11 weight rod straightened out down the fast disappearing line, and in the absence of any possible way of stopping it, the fish took me for a quick sixty yard dash round Arno’s coral-head. That was that. I was left with legs like jelly, and a total lack of spit in my mouth. Arno gave that awful grin again, and said ‘might have been forty, might have been twenty.’ I was reminded of Chief Brody’s comment when he first saw Jaws: ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’
‘You’d better hold hard onto the next one,’ said Arno. ‘What, like you did?’ retorted I.
Arno hooked the next one, which true to his own advice, he hung onto like grim death. Still the reel spun, rapping his knuckles, but within ten minutes the fish was ready to be tailed in the shallows. That was ten minutes of the water being beaten to a foam, and the rod bent in silly ways, and sweat beading on poor Arno’s forehead. The trevally was about ten pounds.
Then I caught a little one of about three pounds, which came in with the whole shoal following it, trying to snatch the popper from its mouth. The biggest of these giant trevally looked big enough to swallow my three-pounder whole. Awesome!
Arno hooked another good fish, and after a lot of puffing and blowing it looked as though he might just land it. Then there was a great boil around the fish, and Arno’s rod jumped straight, causing Arno to stumble backwards. ‘F------ shark,’ said Arno, reeling in just the head of his trevally. Not just the sort of thing I wanted to see or hear, whilst standing up to my knees in water. This happened about ten yards out, in clear water. It was quite a sobering experience. Reef-dwelling fish are seldom far from the next world. ‘Time to move,’ said Arno.
We used the skiff to slip into a narrow gap in the reef. Water from inside the lagoon was pouring out, as the tide receded. Arno suggested I try inside the lagoon, in the back-eddy caused by a big coral head. It occurred to me that the razor-like coral would make very short work of my leader, but I went for a long throw to a particularly inviting spot. Needless to say, the effort of the big chuck caused me to throw coils of line all over the place, so I stopped to sort myself out. Caught by rush of tide pouring through the channel, line and popper were swept along, with me frantically untangling the mess of fly-line. As the last loop was freed, the popper disappeared in a great whoosh, and the weight on the loose line set the hook on something very strong, which tore off ‘upstream’ into the lagoon. Pure skill, of course, and I followed up with a bit luck, because the although the fish had whisked off about two hundred yards of line and backing while I was all at sixes and sevens, it was in open, relatively snag-free water.
Even with a meaty #11 weight saltwater rod, there’s only so much you can do to persuade a big bruising trevally at 200 yards range, that it should step ashore to have its picture taken. It kited to my right. Bad, because if it bored into the coral on the other side of the channel, I wouldn’t be able to get to it before the line was cut. The trevally must have taken pity on me, because it then veered left, with the rod all the time bucking up and down, and my arm beginning to hurt. It took fifteen very full and anxious minutes to land that fish, and by that time I felt as if I’d been through a carwash. I’m not saying I deserved to hook it, but, by God, I deserved to land it.
As a bonus, the near twenty pound fish proved to be one of the rare melanistic (black coloured) forms of the giant trevally. The ‘black’ GT is found in any numbers only in the Seychelles, and only a few are landed each year. It’s perhaps not as pretty as the usual silver form, but it’s a mighty impressive creature to behold in the tropical sunshine. The only problem was to hold it up for the camera, with my battle-weary arms.
With the sun beating down upon us, we retreated under the skiff’s Bimini hood for break.
In the shade of the hood I looked out over the flat, and saw that there was movement on a dry mound. Arno and I walked across to see what was going on, and found a turtle, high and dry – cooking slowly in the sun. We picked him up and took him to the water’s edge, where he swam off strongly. That was our good deed for the day. By the time the tide came back to him, he’d have been a very dead, and very overdone turtle.
A snack, and two litres of water later, we headed into the thinning water of the lagoon, to search for a bonefish.
We caught bonefish all right. Lots of them. At some bonefish destinations around the world you hunt for single fish, and you might think that you’ve done well to throw at a dozen fish in a day. Each bungled cast results in the fish disappearing at light speed over the horizon. It’s not at all like that on Alphonse. Often, the bones come through in shoals of ten, twenty, thirty, or a hundred fish. The bones compete for the fly. Maybe it’s too easy for die-hard bone fisherman who need to feel that they have shed blood for their fish. But I loved it, and felt that my short time on the flats was being well-filled. Big fish specialists (oh I HATE that expression) can choose to ignore the run-of-the-mill fish, and spy for the biggies. There are plenty of those on the Alphonse and St.Francois flats too.
Look at the pictures. Imagine the utter bliss of slipping through bath-warm shallows with a fly rod in hand. Imagine the first sight of the bones as they approach, the cast, the strike, the disappearing backing, and the banshee shriek of the reel. It’s wonderful stuff - and easy or not, it’s a wonderful alternative to the life-threatening gloom of a north European winter.
Bonefishing requires a modicum of competence with a fly-rod. Reservoir trouters will have no problems at all, but short range stream fishers would do well to spend a few hours on the lawn, perfecting their double haul. Bones can be taken at short range, but a long chuck is required occasionally.
At a pinch, any 8’ – 10’ #7 - #10 weight will do the job, but a purpose-made saltwater fly-rod offers many advantages. I took Thomas & Thomas’ brilliant Vectors #9 for the bones, and #11 for throwing albatross-sized flies at giant trevally, and similarly-inclined bruisers. The Vectors performed magnificently.
Reels really do have to be specialist saltwater models. When Mr. Bone heads for the horizon, anything less than a perfect drag mechanism will fail very quickly. I took the British-made Young’s Sea Venture for the bones, and the mega-quality, American-made, Tibor ‘Riptide’ for the #11 weight outfit. Both were tested outrageously, and both performed perfectly. (See the review section for reports on my Seychelles equipment).
Trevally and reef fly-fishing
I think my tale says it all. You need an #11 weight, and if there’s any doubt, make that a #12. Take at least 50 big streamers/poppers, and 100 yards of 60 lb. straight leader material.
Tropical flats and reef fishing require some serious preparation. Defence against the ravages of the tropical sun is priority number one. You need a wide-brimmed hat for preference, and a super-lightweight UV protection long-sleeved shirt (Orvis’ Bonefish Scrubbs shirt is the best I know). You need lightweight long trousers, and really good flats wading boots to protect against coral cuts (again, Orvis make the best).
Factor 50 sun-screen is mandatory. In spite of my high level of defence, I still managed to loose the skin off the backs of my hands. I intend to buy proper flats ‘skin’ gloves before my next expedition.
Dehydration is a serious problem. Whatever the weight, take at least 4 litres of water for a day on the flats. Better still, take 8 litres. If you’re not peeing regularly throughout the day, you’re not drinking enough. Dehydration can kill, or lead to renal colic: I’ve had that, and trust me, you don’t want it. It’s as close as a man can get to the pain of childbirth. I noticed that smart guides in the Seychelles were carrying back-packs with over the shoulder tubes to large reservoirs of water. I’m going to get one of those. Don’t be tempted by beer and fizzy drinks: you need water to stay hydrated.
The kit you carry
The ubiquitous fly-fishers’ vest is too hot and cumbersome for flats fishing. What you need is a good sized angler’s hip-pack (Patagonia make a good one) which should contain …
Lots and lots of water.
Factor 50 sunscreen.
A box of (say) 40 bonefish flies of various types, sizes, and colours.
A box of (say – at least) 25 poppers and deceivers, for the trevally, etc.
Saltwater-proof long-nosed pliers.
A ‘Leatherman’ type multi-tool.
Extra leaders (say 5 of each) 10 lb., 12 lb., 17 lb. and straight 60 lb. for the trevally.
Flourocarbon tippet materials to suit.
Toothy critter wire leaders in 30 lb b/s.
Food enough to keep you going.
…… and don’t forget the camera
At base-camp you should have back-up stocks of fly-lines, backing, and the heavier-weight kit you just don’t want to haul around all day.
I hope that helps to get you going, but for better information, and despite what I said earlier, that Bonefishing book by Randall Kaufman, is exactly what you need to set you in the right direction, and make your blood race.
Essential contacts information
Air Seychelles Phone 01293 596691
Seychelles Travel Phone 01202 877330
Alphonse Island Resort Phone 248 229 030
Fax 248 229 034