The zenith of saltwater fly fishing
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
I’m in the middle of the Indian Ocean, standing on a finger of hard coral that stretches into a milky-blue lagoon. Frigate birds with long, angular wingspans wheel on the thermals high above. I’m staring up at the sky when a voice interrupts: “Look down – stingray!”
This is a fly-fishing pilgrimage to Alphonse and St François Atoll in the Seychelles. The holy grail is giant trevally. The fish’s more secular name is “geets”. Savage predators, the local guides call them the “gangsters of the flats”; and they love to hang out with the rays.
My guide is a veteran. Yousuf arrived here from Bangladesh in 2004 to help build the lodge on Alphonse Island. He was promoted to gardener, progressed to barman, finally graduating to fishing guide. Now a superstar of his milieu, he is booked a year in advance by the worldly anglers that come here. His razor-sharp eyes are legendary, as is his patience. He has been poling me on our shallow-bottomed skiff since 7am, hoping for this opportunity.
Through the glare, I think I see the seductive fluttering of stingray tips moving through the shallow water, churning up a seascape of crabs, large shrimp and small reef fish. Next to the ray are the sickle fins of a large trevally, hoovering the fleeing fish. Geets are constantly on the move and, once they have been spotted, the feeling of time vanishing is acute. Monsoon season has begun and the winds are starting to blow, making accurate casting almost impossible; the heat is relentless. “Not too short, not too close, land it softly…” the advice runs through my head like a hypnosis track. I unfurl my cast in the direction of the ray and its ravenous dinner guest.
St François Atoll is the most southerly of three small islands that make up the Alphonse Group. They were named to honour the birthday of Chevalier Alphonse de Pontevez, the Portuguese captain who it’s claimed was the first man to lay eyes on the islands back in 1730. Far from everywhere and anywhere, they remained largely uninhabited until 1823, when the French colonialist Huteau family settled there. A turtle fishery was established and native flora was cleared to make way for a coconut plantation. Remnants of this era remain: the prison cell, a graveyard recording those who never made it off the island, and an ecosystem contaminated by commercial coconut trees and the invasive species of rats and feral cats.
In the late ’90s, a group of adventuring fly fishermen encountered the prodigious population of bonefish that swim in the shallow waters of these outer atolls. With scales as bright as mirrored glass, they are known as the ghosts of the flats, disappearing from sight with the merest turn as they reflect their environment. One of these early pioneers was Keith Rose-Innes. Back then he was a young South African with a lust for adventure; today he’s a managing director of Blue Safari Seychelles, which manages operations on Alphonse and a handful of other atolls. “Bonefish were the cornerstone species,” he tells me. “With such an abundant population we figured guests would come, even to somewhere so remote.”
This was the beginning. The passion for exotic fishing transformed into a passion for restoring these atolls, for turning back the tide of exploitation from previous centuries. This wasn’t the elementary eco-conservation of ditching plastic straws and using refillable shampoo bottles: the team at Alphonse drive world-leading research and navigate the murky waters of government. They have succeeded in winning meaningful protection for one of the earth’s wildest places.
There are touching examples of their vigilance. As night falls and the lights outside your cabin are switched on, the bulbs glow bright green. It’s adequate to see by but, crucially, it’s not confusing for the thousands of sea turtles that nest here (the greatest threat to them is mistaking the light of human settlements for the moon’s reflection over the water – they head inland and never make it to the ocean).
It feels reassuring to dodge baby sea turtles and Aldabra giant tortoises as you stroll to the beach bar for sundowners, where most evenings there is a talk about conservation projects on the atoll. Blue Safari’s own team works closely with the Islands Conservation Society, a local NGO based on Alphonse and surrounding islands. The enterprise has produced some exceptional research and, critically, results that have a real impact at government level. This evening’s talk is by Elle Brighton, Blue Safari’s ecology and sustainability manager, who is working alongside the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Islands Conservation Society to decipher giant trevally movements. Fish caught by visiting anglers are tagged with a small microchip. The atoll has 68 receivers, and each time a tagged fish swims past, it is recorded. The trevally have a relatively small range and become masters at hunting their specific terrain. The survival rate of caught fish is high, but the recapture rate is low, implying a higher population than had initially been thought. It’s encouraging news for fishermen who understand that travelling thousands of miles to an eco lodge isn’t exactly the most eco choice. “But, here’s the irony,” Brighton tells us. “It’s because of people travelling to the Seychelles that the government has designated 30 per cent of its territory, including the Alphonse Group, as a Marine Protected Area. It’s safeguarded from its other major income stream, commercial fishing.”
Other talks focus on the colony of threatened wedge-tailed shearwaters, charismatic birds that nest in rabbit-like burrows and now thrive on the island. Or the state of coral, which is precarious the world over, but studied here in depth. That chunk of coral the size of a luxury car I’d fished around earlier in the day only grows at an inch or so a year, and was probably several thousand years old.
The talks are food for thought during a dinner that begins with wahoo sashimi caught by the expert cooks and served with vegetables grown in the island’s own garden. Sixty-five per cent of the food is grown or caught on the island, and an array of solar panels provide the majority of energy used. It’s not virtue signalling; it’s just wisdom linked with the cadence of tropical island life.
Back on the flats with Yousuf the next day, there is no escape from the sun. I missed my first chance – I made the cast well, and the fish swam towards it with gluttonous exuberance, but you have to pull the line in fast strips, to imitate a fleeing bait fish and that was too much for my unpractised hands. Sensing deceit, the fish rejected my offering. Poling further, we encounter a moustache triggerfish, its tail waving out of the water. Head down, its human-like teeth trap crabs against the coral and grind them down. This time I manoeuvre my fly accurately and it’s fooled. A brief tussle, stopping it from diving off the edge of the reef and disappearing in a coral-lined hole, brings this eccentric creature that echoes all the colours of the reef to hand. Still, a trevally, the ultimate prize, remains unrewarded.
Yousuf scans the horizon for signs of sub-aqua life and then speaks: “Reel in – we’ll go to the Cosmic.” The Cosmic Lagoon is an area of St François Atoll that sees the land roll into the submerged ring of coral and forms the atoll. Still covered with native flora and home to a remarkable array of bird life, it remains uninhabited. The incoming tide floods sandy inlets, and the smaller bonefish and mullet flock to these new feeding grounds. During big spring tides, the water gets deep enough for trevally to follow. Yousuf cuts the engine and the boat glides to a stop. A group of spur-winged plover walk gawkily across the beach, probing with their beaks in search of food. On my right is a narrow sand bank next to a forest of native trees, housing a colony of red-footed boobies, their iridescent beaks glinting in the early evening sun.
I tie on a fly the length of my forearm as Yousuf slowly pushes the boat through the water, watching and waiting. “They like to hunt up and down this shore line.” A shadow catches my eye, 50yds away. I’m not sure if it’s from a bird circling high above, a strand of seaweed, or a fish. “Nine o’clock. Long way off,” Yousuf says, confirming my hunch. “Cast at the shore and wait.” The fish is now 30 yards away. I ready my fumbling hands: no room for error. Now 10yds away; the water is so clear I can see the fish’s big circular eyes, searching for its victim. “Strip!” At the instruction I pull the line as fast as I can, and the fly springs to life, looking like it’s frantically trying to escape. The trevally’s methodical cruise changes in an instant. Fins flared, it accelerates and as I pull the line for the second time, its mouth opens unfathomably wide and engulfs every inch of the fly. It feels like I’ve hooked a brick wall. Everything is tight. I’m holding on, but against my will the line is ripped from my hands and the reel is fizzing: 50yds of line are gone, 100, 200. Yousuf starts the boat engine and we begin to give chase.
Fighting a geet is not a long-distance race. It’s a manic sprint and you strain every sinew. With time I manoeuvre the fish close to the boat. Yousuf, now standing in the water, grabs its tail and turns it on its flank, revealing a slab of gleaming silver. I jump into the water. It’s my turn to hold the fish, to look it in the eye and marvel at its power. Yousuf passes a scanner over its back. It’s never been caught before. He injects a tiny tag, makes a note of its number and records the exact time and GPS location on his watch. I hold the fish steady against the incoming tide, and then let it go. It swims off with vigour, returning to the hunting grounds of these sacred atolls.