Imagine a remote atoll delimited by pearly-white, palm-strewn beaches; a secluded and wonderous getaway surrounded by flickering azure blue water and set amidst a seemingly endless excess of alluring flats bathed in warm sunlight. Now, add to that a vast number of powerful fish species randomly revealing their ghost-like shadows along the edges of these flats as they hunt – just begging for you to throw a fly at them. Yes, close your eyes and dream away – to the far corners of the Indian Ocean.
BY RASMUS OVESEN
PHOTOGARPHY: RASMUS OVESEN & MARTIN EJLER OLSEN
You see everything unfold in slow-motion in an almost painfully predictable way: The powerful, erratic spurts of the apex predator as it confidently patrols the edges of the coral reef; the cast as it cuts triumphantly through the wind and unfolds across the glistening water; the agitated fin twitches as the fish sees the fly, its sudden acceleration across the shallow flat, and the fateful moment when it violently collides with the fly in a deafening explosion of foam and water that, most of all, reminds you of a sea mine detonation. Yet, for all the anticipation, you’re not the least bit prepared for the enormous pull from the fish. It’s a bit like being unexpectedly knocked down from behind by a Mexican wrestler. You just barely manage to stay upright as the fish takes off and heads for deeper water – with the fly solidly planted in its jagged jaws and a rapidly increasing amount of high-strung fly line trailing behind it. It’s pure mayhem!
You lean back, increasing the pressure on the fish until the strained carbon fibres of your fly rod make the cork handle squeak, and try to think clearly amidst all the chaos and disorder. The fish just keeps going – across the reef ledge and towards deeper water, somewhere out there where the water gradually assumes an opaque cobalt blue colour. As the tormented snarl of the fly reel finally comes to an end, you crank the drag setting all the way to max and decide to pursue the fish on foot – if your shivering legs are capable of carrying you, that is.
You make it to the edge of the reef, where a series of drowsy swells from the Indian Ocean blindly crash onto a craggy wall of corals, when the fish suddenly explodes in yet another burst of mad aggression. It mobilizes all its remaining power reserves in a resolute surge that propagates mercilessly through your fly line’s 100lb core before being met by the deadweight of that firm grip of yours on the fly rod. With a drag setting just a few picometers from being completely blocked, an equivalent and highly surprising pull is exerted on you – and you’re swept off your feet.
Once again, it’s as if something detonates loudly in the water. But this time, you’re right in the middle of the explosion crater, momentarily suspended under water, arms and legs in a spasmodic fit. As you emerge, in a state of mild shock – still clinging on to the fly rod for dear life, you’re almost dragging behind the fish. Your feet feverishly fumble for footing, and as you finally connect with the bottom and miraculously come erect – in chest-high water this time, you somehow manage to stop the fish.
Whether you’re finally gaining the upper hand, only time will tell. For now, you’re satisfied with backing up a little bit and regaining a few meters of hard-earned line. Eventually, as you continue applying pressure, your fly line becomes visibly somewhere out there, and it seems as if the fish is slowly coming closer towards you – albeit reluctantly. It’s as if your fly rod is a powerful magic wand exerting a supernatural form of magnetism on the fish, and you do your very best to use it to your advantage. However, as you start to look around for a good place to land the fish, it somehow rebounds and makes another irresistible run. And when it finally stops, all you feel is an immovable deadweight. Shortly after, your connection is severed. The fish has managed to wrap the line around a coral head and the leader has snapped. The battle is lost!
You’re left petrified – in a state of shock; all hollow on the inside, startled and retraumatized. Latent memories from a multitude of similar battlefield-losses swell shapelessly up inside you, as the unwavering nightmarish feeling left in you by the fight slowly precipitates: A feeling of sheer terror – the same kind that haunted you as a small kid whenever you went fishing for pike in the local lakes and ponds.
Unbeknownst to you, the massive giant trevally you’ve just lost represents a physical manifestation of a life-long and crippling anxiety inside your mind; a lightning-quick, ominous and unpredictable threat that makes your blood freeze. But whereas the pike has always exemplified what’s ill-omened and terrifying in that, which is hidden to the human eye, the giant trevally – to you – seems different in its conspicuousness and distinctive in its abrupt brutality. It’s like a drifting pleasure killer; uncompromising, self-assured, vicious – and shockingly violent.
Less than two hours later, you spot the next giant trevally and you’re struck with that same, familiar and near-paralyzing terror once again. For a short moment, you consider not casting to it, but in the end you do. Of course, you do! And as you send off another momentous cast, you’ve never felt more alive. The fish demolishes the fly with the same blind force as a freight train. It’s scary, but this time you’re mentally prepared. This time, you’re going to overcome your opponent – and your innermost fears…
Tropical fly fishing in the Indian Ocean is synonymous with giant trevally, but it’s acutally so much more than that. During the daily drama that unfolds on-, along-, and off the flats of the Indian Ocean, there are more than one protagonist. Apart from masterfully cast supporting acts in the shape of barracuda, bluefin trevally, yellow-lip emperor, mutton snapper and parrotfish, it’s the motley crew consisting of triggerfish, milkfish, bonefish and Indo-pacific permit – in addition to giant trevally – that comprise the lead cast. And the dispersion of these species makes the Indian Ocean a much more diverse and varied fishery compared to, for instance, the Caribbean.
During the best fishing days in the Indian Ocean, you’ll start off sight-fishing for bonefish and triggerfish in the morning, after which – on a falling tide – you’ll go looking for the absolute gold trophy of the flats; an Indo-pacific permit. Later on, you’ll target big and aggressive giant trevally that you spot in the tidal channels or blind cast for with noisy poppers along the drop offs. And, if the winds drop down during the afternoon, you might head for deeper water and try to catch one of the over-dimensioned mullet-like milkfish that, just like Popeye, have developed super-natural powers by munching on green salad. Oh, and we mustn’t forget all the other fish that will randomly show up on the flat – many of them very colourful and aggressive, nor the multitude of species that can be targeted from a boat; for instance dogtooth tuna, sailfish, wahoo, rainbow runners, groupers and even marlin.
After a long day, having waded kilometres of knee-deep water and sent off an incalculable number of expectant casts with a racing pulse, you’re now back at the lodge. Here, you’re enjoying a refreshing drink – one of those with an umbrella and a few ice cubes in it, while listening to the high-pitched reports from fellow fishermen; their faces all lit up with excitement.
It’s been a hectic and eventful day, and you take it all in as you enjoy another picturesque sunset – one that makes the sky glow with blushing intensity. Somewhere deep inside you, something equally warm and glowing has been ignited. It’s less than three hours since you landed and released your first giant trevally. The achievement has you completely intoxicated, and with the renewed sense of confidence and courage you’ve been infused with, your entire body aches for tomorrow to arrive. When it does, you’ll be out there once again patiently waiting to test your skills, nerves and stamina against the Indian Ocean’s self-appointed king of terror.
Fact file – The target species of the Indian Ocean
Giant trevally (Caranx ignobilis)
Is the biggest member of the jack family, which – among others – includes bluefin trevally, amberjack and jack crevalle. It’s an immensely powerful fish, that has specialized in hunting and killing everything from crabs and other crustaceans to fish and even sea birds. (If you haven’t seen BBC’s documentary about the giant trevally at Farquhar Atoll that leap out of the water and snatch flying terns out of mid-air, check it out now). Giant trevally can grow up to 170 centimetres in length and weigh in excess of 80 kilos, but flats-caught 1 meter+ specimens are generally considered trophies.
Indo-pacific permit (Trachinotus blochii)
Are dwarfed by their Caribbean cousins (Trachinotus Falcatus). They rarely exceed 75 centimetres in length, and their maximum length and weight are believed to be around 85 centimetres and 10 kilos respectively. However, in terms of appearance, Indo-pacific permit – with their fiery golden sheen – are far more eye-catching and pretty compared to Atlantic permit. And they’re known to be even more finicky and challenging to catch than their relatives elsewhere in the world – so they’re considered one of the greatest saltwater trophies on the planet.
Is a collective term for 40 species in the family Balistidae, of which the vividly coloured yellow margin- and the big and aggressive moustache (or titan) triggerfish are the two most sought-after. These fish are known to chew and break corals apart in order to expose small crustaceans (and for crushing flies and bending hooks), and while they rarely grow larger than 50 – 55 centimetres, they are incredibly fun and challenging to catch.
Milkfish (Chanos chanos)//
Is an exciting and archaic species of fish; a species of fish that – pound-for-pound – ranks among the most hard-fighting and spectacular fish in our oceans. Milkfish grow up to more than 25 kilos and are known to jump meter-high out of the water once hooked. Furthermore, because they have two sets of gills, they don’t build up considerable amounts of lactic acids during the fight, and this means that they just keep going, and going, and going… Milkfish can be found in smaller schools up on the flats where they filter the water for thread algae, but they’re “easier” to catch offshore, when they’re daisy-chaining on the surface in huge schools.
Bonefish (Albula glassodonta)//
Are the Speedy Conzaleses of the flats; an explosive fish that is capable of accelerating and exposing backing at break-neck speeds. It can grow up to 85 centimetres in length and weigh in the vicinity of 10 kilos, but 5-kilo+ fish are generally considered trophies. Bonefish grow big in the Seychelles and they are found on shallow, sandy flats where they dig for crabs and other crustaceans. The biggest fish are typically singles, whereas the smaller fish appear in relatively big schools; schools that create what’s typically referred to as “nervous water” as they patrol and forage along the flats.
Want to fish the Indian Ocean?
If you’re dying to travel to the mighty Indian Ocean to fish its beautiful islands and atolls, there are different options depending on your budget and time frame.
It’s fully possible to fish the Indian Ocean with success in a strict DIY (“do it yourself”) manner. But it’s not easy! Especially if you don’t have any previous experience with flats fishing. If, on the other hand, you’re a seasoned tropical saltwater flats fisherman; you have a keen eye; and lots of patience and stamina, you could venture on an exploratory trip to the Maldives, Mauritius or Mahé (the main island in the Seychelles), but don’t expect a lot of shots at GTs. Do your research and go with an open mind. Fish for bonefish, triggerfish, snappers, bluefin trevally, and the odd permit – but always keep a loaded 9’ 12-weight rod at hand in case one of the flats’ so-called “gangsters” suddenly manifests itself.
If you have a bit of money to spend, and it hasn’t already been set aside for expensive fly fishing equipment, there are a few tour operators that offer packaged fly fishing trips to the Maldives for somewhere between 3000 and 4000 dollars excluding flights. On these trips, you’ll mostly be fishing on your own, but – with an accompanying travel guide, boat transfer crews, lots of accumulated experience from previous trips and plenty of productive spots within immediate reach- you’ll be afforded a decent chance of catching that first GT – in addition to bonefish, triggerfish, bluefin trevally and a number of other species. For further information, please refer to Getaway Tours’ website: www.getawayflyfishing.com
If you’ve just won the lottery, treat yourself to a fully guided luxury fishing experience in the Seychelles at one of Alphonse Fishing Co’s lodges. Here, you’ll find the best flats fishing in the whole Indian Ocean. Farquhar Atoll is known for its massive GTs and bumphead parrotfish. Alphonse island is a tropical paradise and a great all-round fishery with endless flats and raw amounts of bonefish and triggerfish – in addition to permit, milkfish and GT. Poivre Atoll is a remote, exclusive and highly productive destination for the hard-core permit fisherman, while Astove Atoll provides great opportunities for landing an Indo-pacific grand slam in majestic surroundings. And then there’s Cosmoledo Atoll; every GT fisherman’s wet dream. It’s a magnificent place, where a group of eight fishermen sometimes catch as many as 250 GTs in a week and where a beautiful eco-lodge provides the scene for a number of unforgettable experiences and the very real possibility of catching a bonefish, triggerfish, GT and permit in a single day. Further information can be found here: www.alphonsefishingco.com