Off Of Africa

Off Of Africa

The Seychelles Islands offer some of the world's best and most varied saltwater fishing

  • By: Charles Rangeley-Wilson
The lagoon is flat and quiet. There is a gentle ripple, a sucking noise as water fills dry holes. The water seeps in over young coral at the edge of the sand. Ten feet out mullet suck and swirl at the surface. Beyond, in a soft rush, the swell drops itself onto a reef at the edge of the lagoon. The sky is light blue overhead, fading paler above a bank of clouds stretched along the horizon. The top ridge of the clouds is pink. The clouds are another wave, an echo of the sea. The trailing edge of a storm that never happened rolls out to the east, leaving this clear sky behind it.We had weird weather all day and started fishing in a heavy shower, the wind at our backs, the flat submerged but the tide running off quickly, seeping off the crowns of sand into a maze of channels, where the water showed blue-green. We walked downwind with a small window of vision through the glare of dull light. A grey shape moved without moving, cutting an angle from the deeper channel across a sand bar and back, moving in and out of sight, lost in reflections or over patches of turtle grass that stain the sandy flat. I put a fly across its path. Too close. Without hurrying the fish slid back into the deeper water. Bonefish move without effort. I couldn't see any swimming action, just a transition across sand; sliding. Other fish followed. I led one well, let the fly settle then twitched it. The fish turned and moved quickly to the fly, following along the sand until it stopped and tipped up on the fulcrum of its snout. I set the hook with a long pull on the line, and the fish swam at me shaking his head until I tightened the line to catch him. That fish came off, but I stepped on another a moment later, a good one that I cast to anyway. The fish saw the fly and reduced the distance between us by half until it was directly under me. I could see its eyes, the dome of fluid over its eyes. I froze. If my shoe crunched the sand, that dome would tell the fish to leave. The fish swam to the fly. I stopped stripping, but the fly was over coral; I felt it snag. I could hear my heart. The fish was under the rod, trying to pick the fly up. Shook its head at it. I stripped the line, but it was solid to the coral. The bonefish saw my arm move, felt the fly, and fired off from under me, a whirl of disturbed sand tracing out behind. The line picked up and sucked across the surface, rising until it came in line with the tip of the rod and snapped it down, pointing it at the fading tracer of sand. Finally the running slowed, and the fish took the line in pulses, running into gray water under that massive bank of clouds that was building over us. The cyclone even had a name. I saw the shape of it on the satellite map the other fishing party had at breakfast. They drank coffee with long faces while the map lay on the table before them. One of the group took the time to show me where on the circulating mass of red our small atoll lay. We were under a feeder, not even the main cyclone, which lay 200 miles to the southwest, not moving, just throwing out squally weather fronts, one of which passed through last night, and another of which was rattling the palm trees right then, ripping cool air across the breakfast table. Out on the reef, big rollers blocked the horizon turning it into a roiling blue line. St. Francois is a horseshoe-shape atoll in the Seychelles archipelago, 10.000 acres, divided into kidney lagoons at its centre, each accessed by one or two small, mazy channels. At the southern end is the small island of St. Francois, curling around its southern shore, a smaller mirror image of the surrounding reef and flats. To the east is Bijoutier, just a crown of sand, coconut trees and a few birds. To the north is the arrowhead island of Alphonse, which is where we stay. I finally had the bonefish suspended across the palm of my right hand. Incongruously, the fish now seemed to be carved out of soapstone, incapable of movement. All around the horizon squalls and fronts beat across the Indian Ocean. At two in the afternoon the clouds darkened above us. But the rain never came, and the front finally peeled away to the east. I caught a lot of bonefish-more than I cared to count. A few came off on the coral, and one was taken by a shark. Afterward, I sat on the nose of the skiff and said to Vaughan that I'd hate to think what the place was like with good weather, and Vaughan laughed saying I'd find out soon enough. And as he said it the radio crackled on. Andrew was in the other skiff. We could see him on the horizon, over a mile away. He'd been there all day, staking out one channel he knew a big trevally would swim through. "What's up Vaughan?" I asked. "Andrew's into a big one. We better get down there." We buzzed the flat to find that Andrew's rod was bent right over. He was on the nose of the skiff, the rod tip against the water. As Vaughan shut down our engine, Andrew's rod bucked and line jumped off the reel in bursts, as if he was hooked to some boulder rolling down the reef to the sea floor. Vaughan jumped over into Andrew's skiff and stood waiting. Slowly Andrew stole back line, though the giant trevally kept turning. Our boats circled gently in the still water. None of us said a word. Andrew grunted and his feet squeaked on the skiff deck as he fought for leverage. His reel rasped out line or clicked on its ratchet. The fish was deep and quietly powerful. Suddenly Vaughan saw it: A broad pewter hull broke the surface then lunged again for the shade of the boat. But Vaughan grabbed its tail, held on, then hauled the fish aboard. It was massive. We motored to the nearest flat to weigh it, but it bottomed out the scale. "It's over 40 anyway," said Andrew, shrugging. It was the largest trevally I'd ever seen. He held it for a few pictures, then pushed it away into the lagoon. By nighttime the tide had dropped again, and there was no wind or breeze at all. The weather report in the bar said our cyclone was moving away. It was a full moon, too bright to look at, and the sky has cleared. I couldn't even locate the part of me that came here nerve-wracked and stressed out by the endless chatter and displacement activity of life-in-the-machine. It was gone. I dropped my head back, and made an angel in the sand, fanning my arms up and down, telling myself, I've got six more days of this. Tuesday dawned blue. We were on the flat by eight, and into bonefish by five past. At times the sea was grey with bones, phalanxes of them running down the "gravy train" channel, in shoals of 50 and a hundred, or the bigger fish in ones and twos. That night when I closed my eyes I saw a shimmering sand flat with grey shapes moving across it. The place was burned into my retina. I told Vaughan we'd go for the big fish from now on, and he laughed and said he'd take me over to the ocean side-his medicine for saturated appetites. The bonefish over there would pull my string, he said. The triggers too-I ought to try the triggers. He said all his guys gave up on bones once they've hooked a triggerfish. I'd hooked a small one early that day, and the fish took off for the reef edge with speed and grinding power out of all proportion to its size. The little fish broke the leader, and the rest of the day was lost. I saw another good one pirouette in a wave. They'll hang nose down, their big blousy tail wafting in the current like knickerbockers on the line. This one rolled, his nose glued to the same spot, pulling a crab out of a hole in the coral. I put a cast nearby to get his attention. Left, right; it's a lottery with a trigger, as they rotate haphazardly. The first cast was behind his belly-a blindspot. The second just right. His fins flickered offbeat. The trigger ambled over, dragging his fat belly across the floor, no problem with body image. Very few of the triggers we saw followed; most of them spooked on the cast, or when they saw the fly. I was ready for this fish to scram. But up went the tail, knock, knock went the line. Vaughan told me to wait for a solid pull. I could feel the fish chewing the fly. "He won't even notice the hook," said Vaughan. "You should see his teeth." Suddenly the line pulled away. I drew back hard. The trigger morphed from the idle salad-dodger we'd cast to into a bug-eye sprite with fins in fourth gear, looking for the red-line. The fish was gone. I saw smoke come out of the water. "He'll go for the reef edge. That's where he's heading. You've got 30 yards…20…10. Turn that sucker before he gets there. Turn that sucker or you're smoked. Jeez, that's a big trigger. 12 pounds. He's a bus. You're smoked. He's there, man. He's gone." I had the drag up full but the trigger just kept going, over the reef edge, then nothing. The line dropped dead. I reeled in. He'd chewed the hook into a circle. There are three types of trigger: blue margin, yellow margin, and Picasso. The yellow margins are impossible, and the Picassos hard to find. I was going to be happy just catching one. More refusals, evaporations and spookings followed, until at last we found a trigger in a taking mood. He followed my fly three times, turning away each time to chew on something more interesting. We switched to a Merkin Crab, and he traveled four feet to take it on the first cast. I pulled the hook home, and he took off like the last fish, straight for the coral heads at the far side of the lagoon. The reef edge was farther away, and this time I turned him, though I had to pull so hard I thought the leader would break. He grunted like a baby pig when finally I dragged him up across the turtle grass, and spat water at me when I lifted him to remove the hook. A crazy fish: a fat, distended belly, teeth like steel plates and a streamlined, triangular face with eyes like the headlights on a Citroen 2CV. There were three powerful fins at the back end, and sickle spikes top and bottom, anchors for holes in the coral. It was seven pounds on the nose. A good size, but small compared to the bus. The following days rolled past, with a routine of two big bonefish to walk off breakfast, and then trigger hunting. GT's and bluefin if we see them. It's hard to imagine fishing any better than this. But we hadn't yet tried for a milkfish. Milkfish are folklore. An air of secrecy surrounds them, and they don't actually feed on anything you can represent with a fly. Everyone is skeptical, including the rival fishing-tour operator, who feels the whole business might be hokum. Vaughan's co-guide, Arno, was bullish on them, though, and there were pictures of him holding milkfish all over the guides' hut. He was secretive about what fly he used and where he went. But my money was on Arno, and I waited the week through for an invite, and by Thursday Arno's channel was full of them. We got a call on the radio-in code because it was a public frequency-and left the triggerfish for another day. The channel links one lagoon with another, and the tide was running. A shoal of 70 to 100 milkfish milled about in the cut at the head of the channel, waiting, moving randomly. Arno was anchored up on one side, not too bothered to cast just yet. He was waiting, too. We anchored opposite and sat in the sun. Waiting. The fish were huge, none smaller than 15 pounds, some over 30. A big fish moved up to the top, and speared across the surface, his forked tail contracting down as he accelerated, then opening again when he turned and rejoined the shoal. Another fish did the same. The restless and random holding slowly conformed into a line of fish, then broke, then formed again, until at some invisible signal of tidal pressure they lined up again and swam up and down the channel. The line joined, and the shoal became a circle. Arno stood at this and signaled for me to start. Vaughan showed me the fly. He told me to cast it to intercept a feeding fish. If the hook dropped to the right depth a fish might mistake it for the loose weed they were feeding on. It took 10 minutes. Maybe 20. Like fishing upriver with a nymph, I saw the leader move with the fish. Vaughan was behind me whispering. "Don't do anything till I get the motor started." My hearbeat shook the rod. Vaughan was at the back of the boat lifting the anchor as quickly as he could. Then I heard the motor cough and start. He gunned the engine, and shouted, "Hit it!" I drew back hard on the line, and the fly reel took off, zero to 10,000 rpm in about half a second. The milkfish left the channel for the lagoon to my right, ran 50 yards into it, then turned and came right back past me and through to the other lagoon, my flyline lost in the curve, still trailing in one lagoon when the fish had reached the other. Suddenly the line fizzed past, chasing a white trail across the water, chasing my fish. "Hold on. We've got to catch him or he'll spool you." The fish was heading across the lagoon, nearly to the finger flats on the far side, and if he crossed those we'd never keep up. Vaughan had us at full throttle until we came side on to the fish, and suddenly the fish sounded, pulling down as hard as he could, trying to reach the coral bed. I felt as if I was lifting a rock with my rod. We drifted under the hot sun. I swapped arms, moved the rod to change the pressure point, wondered if I could reach for a drink of water. We drifted and the fish pulled. My rod was too weak. A 9-weight designed for bonefish, this nautilus had it curved into a hoop and I couldn't move. Forty minutes in the milkfish surged and broke the leader. On my last day I had a 30-minute window. The tide wouldn't push until three, and I needed to hook a milkfish early on to stand any chance of landing it by four-the time boats are supposed to leave St Francois. Vaughn and Andrew and I waited in the boat until a pod of seven fish came in. I cast to them before they formed up, and I thought one might turn on it. But they swam past over and over again. One fish was much bigger than the others. Suddenly they started to daisy-chain in the channel. This was my last shot-and I got a take. The milkfish ran straight out of the channel, circling again, and running back through, leaving me reeling crazily at all the slack line. But I still had him as he headed out into the lagoon, running fast against the drag as I tightened on him, then suddenly leaping high out of the water, dumping back into it with a huge splash. "It's a bruiser man. A bus! It's the big one," Vaughan shouted from the back. Today we needed to keep the fish tight to the boat. We couldn't let him sound. I strained at the fish as hard as I could, pulling him sideways and backwards every time he changed direction. He was aboard in 20 minutes. Vaughan and Andrew threw me high fives, and started singing "I'm a believer." My fish weighed 28 pounds. They started calling me the milkman. Now I'm at the end of another awful November afternoon, drizzling time away, failing to write anything, looking out the window. The wind is picking up, chasing in a bank of clouds that rears over the fields behind like an impossibly massive wave. A wave of sorts I suppose, though not the warm swell of Alphonse and St. Francois. The air dampens, and my map on the wall buckles with the moisture. Yellow and white lights on the industrial estate blink on and off. Life is short and I'm wondering why the hell I live in England. Some of those islands have never been fished. Travel Notes The fishing is in the St. Francois Lagoon, which is accessed from Alphonse Island Resort, where anglers stay. Accommodation is in air-conditioned and luxurious beach-hut bungalows, each with shower, jacuzzi and a balcony overlooking the lagoon. The hotel restaurant serves excellent local seafood. It is a perfect place for non-fishing partners to relax-very quiet, and private. The Seychelles offer some of the best and most varied saltwater fishing in the world. The bonefish are plentiful, but it is also a wonderful, mixed fishery with several species of trevally, triggerfish, the occasional barracuda, and also the chance of a milkfish. Standard bonefish patterns work well: Crab patterns work on the triggerfish, big lures and poppers on the trevally. The guides tie and sell flies, including the pattern you'll need for milkfish. An 8- or 9-weight, nine-foot rod will be fine for bonefish and triggerfish, a 10-weight or heavier for trevally and milkfish. For tippets, take monofilament of from 10- to 25-pound test, or fluorocarbon from 15 to 35-pound test. Take a flats hat, UV blocking, quick-dry long-sleeve shirts, and long trousers, wading boots, polarizing glasses (plus spare pair), and several tubes of sun screen, factor 25 . It is very hot and exposed on the lagoon. The season runs from the third week of September through to the end of June. Due to this destination's proximity to the equator the season is very stable, but the monsoon arrives in June and the bonefishing operation is closed. The prime bluewater season is from November through to January. For further information on fishing in the Seychelles, contact Frontiers International; 800-245-1950, www.frontierstravel.com.