In the relative cool of the early morning Arno and I waded silently across the glassy shallows of the lagoon, eyes peeled for sting rays under our feet, and bones shadowing into range. Away from the surf on the outer reef, it was deathly quiet. Anything more than a whisper would have been quite out of place. Arno hissed, ‘Two bones at 3 o/c, moving left to right, twenty-five yards. The first one is about seven pounds, the second one might be ten. Cast ten feet in front of them.’ So I did, and of course, the smaller fish nailed the fly. The bone did its usual exit stage left at a pace, and my reel howled rudely into the silence. It easy to understand how anglers, bitten by the bone-fishing bug, find themselves drawn to tropical flats, year after year. Really hard-bitten types have been known to give up their jobs to follow the bonefish shoals. Junkies. Like surfers (‘Man’) and Himalayan wanderers in search of Nirvana (‘Man’).
Several rocket-driven wonders later we found ourselves at the edge of the reef, with hundreds of bones streaking past us in very thin water as the last of the tide drained off the lagoon. It was hard to see them in time to cast ahead, as they headed off to the deep water, but we had quite a few: some of them undeserved, as the long-gone target fish was replaced by the unseen one in the queue behind it.
And then, I got onto the receiving end of a once-in-a-lifetime happening. It’s the sort of thing that is listed at the Vatican as a genuine miracle, deserving and demanding of the canonisation of someone, maybe me, although I can’t quite imagine how it must feel to be known as St. John. As a saint, does one automatically get a seat in the House of Lords? There’s this mythical fish, you see, called a milkfish.
Sane people don’t actually fish for milkfish, because they don’t actually eat anything that we can throw at them with a flyrod. They show themselves often enough, with their great scimitar forked tails sticking above the surface. The tails are attached to ‘milkies’ that range from a pound to well over 50 lbs. As the fish waffle past in their imperious way, foolish anglers chuck at them, more in hope than expectation. They cast whatever fly is on their leader, knowing in their heart-of-hearts that the fish doesn’t in any way fancy anything they can offer, but nevertheless wondering whether one of them may just get religion. The milkies just swim on by casting a disdainful blind-eye at the poor anglers’ morsels. Occasionally, and I mean really occasionally, one has a bit of a look, and very, very, occasionally a fish gets hooked as it brushes past. Milkfish get hooked in the mouth every time a blue moon coincides with the assassination of an American President: that is to say, rarely. Well, I did it.
As I said, the bonefish were streaming off the St. Francois flats as the tide eased out the last few inches of water. A really big bone streaked past me and into a deep, sandy channel leading to the edge of the reef, so I threw a dark-coloured little Crazy Charlie about ten yards ahead of him: blind fishing. When I thought the bone was about the right place, I tweaked the fly, and it was taken immediately. A firm pull-strike encountered a solid resistance. The ‘bone’ then melted a hundred and fifty yards of line and backing off my reel – just like that – peeow! Pace it out if you want to know how far a hundred and fifty yards is. It’s a ruddy long way. They all go like hell, do bonefish, but I reckoned that to rocket off like that, this fish had to be well into double figures. I wound in a turn or two, then whoosh, the thing took another fifty yards: unreal, man. Arno waded over to see what was going on. ‘Big fish,’ he said, rather unnecessarily.
So I pulled a bit on the very powerful #9 weight Vector, and the fish came, grudgingly. It came a bit, but at the same time kiting round towards the drop-off. This was a worry, because of all the big trevally and sharks that might be lurking there, and only too delighted to make a meal of my tethered fish. I leaned harder and harder, and the fish gave way, by hard-won degrees. Twenty minutes later Arno said something seriously sacrilegious as the fish came grudgingly into the shallow water. I wouldn’t dream of repeating such profanity, but the last word was …… milkfish. ‘You’ve snagged a bloody milkfish. I don’t ……. believe it.’
It was certainly no Behemoth of a fish, but it just wouldn’t give up. I leaned one way, and it sort of leaned the other. The rod strained, and the fish went round us in circles. Arno landed it eventually, by gripping it round the wrist of its tail. I couldn’t believe that this little fish, of maybe four pounds, had led me such a merry dance. Its huge eye looked quite vacant, defying my stare of incredulity. Then Arno said something even more sacrilegious, because he saw that the milkfish had taken the fly fair-and-square in the mouth. Poor Arno was incredulous.
We took some pictures, and returned the milkie into a little gully, in the hope that it would get its breath back before having to deal with something large, fast, and hungry. The little fish faded slowly into the depths.
So there it was – a genuine ‘loaves and fishes’ miracle. I’m expecting a letter from the Pope any day now.
Although my milkie was a little chap, they do grow to prodigious sizes, and anglers occasionally hook and land them in one way or another, especially if they can follow them with a boat. Quite what I’d have done if I’d hooked a twenty pounder, I can’t imagine. I wondered whether some of the huge ‘bonefish’ that spool-out anglers with such consummate ease, might just be milkfish. Having had a four-pounder make a cack-handed monkey out of me for so long, I reckon a big milkie would simply disappear off to the next ocean with a nonchalant single sweep of its tail.
A note from Arno:
It is certainly quite something that John has done. A lot of anglers have tried to catch milkfish, but only a handful of people have ever landed one. This was a small fish, but it must be one of the very few that have actually taken a fly properly. This also puts me into the very exclusive club of guides who have had a client hook and land a milkfish.
There are a lot of these fish in the Seychelles, but fishing for them as a serious pursuit is likely to prove unrewarding for most anglers. Having seen this fish take a little dark coloured Charlie, I’m going to tie up some ‘flies’ that look like fragments of turtle grass. I don’t really hold out much hope that the milkfish will select my turtle grass fly from amongst all the millions of bits of real turtle grass that are swirling around the flats, but it’s worth a try.
US Fly, Alphonse Island, Seychelles
I’ve just looked at the pictures of the fish, and it looks even less prepossessing than it did in the flesh, so to speak. I don’t care. This was one of the best ‘accidents’ I’ve ever been involved with.
Arno was even more excited about the milkie than I was. If he’d had a radio, he would have been putting the news out to the other guides all afternoon. As it was, with a few hours left to us, he suggested that we try a spot he knew to for the very beautiful bluefin trevally. ‘The most stunning fish on the reef,’ said Arno.
Like his bigger cousin the Giant Trevally, the bluefin is a shoal fish, and like the GT he is a highly competitive bully-boy.
With Arno looking out for sharks, we waded into slightly deeper water on the edge of the reef, and began searching for these iridescent muggers. A shower of panic-stricken mullet along the reef suggested that trevally of one sort or another were about their business. The #11 weight Vector threw a lovely line.
My first strike came as I was chugging my popper along the edge of a coral head. Whoosh, slam, bang, gone. Good grief! It has taken me longer to type those words than it did for the trevally to demolish me. ‘Big?,’ I asked Arno. ‘Not necessarily,’ he replied. I re-tackled and set to again. Ten minutes later the popper disappeared in a great swirl, and the trevally contemptuously whooshed me around a forty-yard-distant coral head.
The bluefin does not give one the feeling of overwhelming, and utter helplessness that the big giant trevally impose, but these fish were still reducing my stock of poppers and cast material with some ease.
The next fish was smaller, thank goodness. I saw the shoal coming at the lure from quite a distance. They streaked in, and I stripped the lure as fast as I could. The leading fish hit the lure within a yard of the reef under my feet.
This time I held on as tightly as I could, with full drag on the Tibor and a good handful of palm pressure. ‘Don’t let him get going,’ shouted Arno. I didn’t either, and the fish and I fought a slogging, bruising match that never allowed my quarry more than twenty-five yards of line. The trevally came over the edge of the reef with several companions, seemingly all ripping at its tail, to make it let go of the juicy morsel in its mouth. WHAT a stunning creature. Pictures just don’t do justice to the brilliant showman that is the bluefin trevally.
That afternoon we had five more of these rainbow-hued wonders, and lost an awful lot more to the coral. Arno lost a really big fish to an even bigger mugger; a giant grouper of about eighty pounds that head butted the bluefin as it came close to the reef. Arno’s heavy shock-leader parted like cotton.
That was that. Time was up. I had one last cast, which turned into a hundred last casts, each in anticipation of a wrench, and a scream from the big Tibor reel.
What next in life? I dunno. I suppose I can be thankful that trouting, and Avon roaching, are sufficiently different from Paradise fishing, not to be compared. I must tell myself that these are additional, rather than alternative pleasures.
I wonder if God allows anglers a year or two of fishing before he whisks them off to Celestial waters. If he does, then the reefs and flats of Alphonse are on my list.
Seduced by the wonder of it all, or not, this may all be quite academic, and quite out of reach for most anglers. It’s over-booked, and over there. Maybe you are happy in your own way to experience vicariously the heart-pounding events I’ve described. It’s quite the least expensive way of fishing the world.
I said earlier, I’m here to report. The comfortably-off can afford it. And for others too, if a second mortgage doesn’t seem too ridiculous, or you come up on the Pools, then this place is genuinely one of the world’s top angling destinations.
Be sensible if you absolutely must - but go there if you possibly can.
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 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.
Fluorocarbon 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