Into the Great Wide Open – Part 1: Adventures to St.Brandons Atoll

“Into the Great Wide Open…Under them skies of Blue… Out in the great wide open…. A Rebel without a clue”… I wonder if Tom Petty had wandering fisherman in mind when he penned his 1991 classic… But whenever I’m off on a mission to chase fish somewhere off the regular grid, this chorus is never far from my mind… Am I a rebel without a clue? Perhaps, perhaps not…. But I am heading into the great wide open, which is all that matters…

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Top of the Charts…..

That “Great Wide Open” has seldom been wider than on a trip I was fortunate enough to be a part of in May this year… It had been just over 10 long years since I last walked the hallowed grounds of an isolated Indian Ocean Atoll Flat in search of fish with the long rod… Many of the years between my last trip to the outer atolls of the Seychelles ( Cosmoledo and Farquar back in April 2005 ) has been devoted to conventional angling on the saltwater front… the jigging and popping addiction bit me hard and fast, and apart from a few stints chasing Juvenile Tarpon on 3 weights in the Caribbean, with the odd bonefish thrown in, my long rodding life has been expressly freshwater focused….

Approaching paradise
Approaching paradise

A phone call in early May this year changed all that… For the last 10 years I’d also resigned myself to the fact that I would probably never visit those amazing flats again… Cost, and time of year made it an unlikely prospect… Too expensive, and too difficult for me to be away from work over the typical seasons meant I pretty much thought I’d be dining out on my rose tinted memories of my 2005 trip….

The good folks at FlyCastaways ( www.flycastaway.com ) happened to call me at just the right time… Ryan mentioned they had a few spots left last minute on a St.Brandons Atoll trip leaving in 3 weeks… could I make it? I checked my bank account, checked with work, checked with the wife…. And as luck would have it, everything lined up, and I sent off a very happy e-mail to Ryan with those two words I never thought would be sent …… “I’m in”

Those 3 weeks were a blur of stoke, and nerves, frantic tying, some binge spending on tackle ( a new 9# and 12# somehow managed to find their way into my tackle stash… ) and sneaky missions to very kind friends houses to raid their fly boxes… Thankfully I have generous friends who just happen to be amazing Fly Tiers and whose wares can be extracted from them with a couple bottles of Chocolate Block, or the promise of a bottle of Mauritius’s finest 8 year old rum…. MC, Conrad and Platon’s kindness saw me boarding my plane to Mauritius with what I thought was the largest collection of crabs, shrimps, brushes and NYAP’s this side of Borneo….

NYAP NYAP NYAP...
NYAP NYAP NYAP…

Before the story continues, a little about St.Brandons itself… St.Brandons ( or Cargados Carajos Shoals as its also known ) is a little cluster of outter islands , sitting approximately 430 kilometres North-North East of Mauritius… the atoll stretches over about 50km from end, from Ilse Raphael in the North, to Cocos in the South…. Its about 5km wide at its widest point, but has only 1,3 square kilometers of dry land area…. But has 190 square kilometres of reef flats…. In other words it’s a huge fucking atoll in the middle of fucking nowhere with more flats habitat than you could likely fish in 3 months, let alone a week… The Flycastaways boys have been running trips for just a few weeks a year to this incredible fishery since 2009… and as one would expect from the FCA Team, they have once again hit a home run with St.Brandons… running very short seasons, with very limited groups, means this fishery remains virtually untouched, and unpressured.

Back to my tale… I flew up to JHB the night before my 8:00am departure to Mauritius… not wanting to have any issues with delayed flights getting from Cape Town to JHB at 5:00am and potentially missing my flight to Mauritius, I chose to overnight at the City Lodge at OR Tambo… Grabbing a beer downstairs I got chatting to a young fellow from West Texas who had just landed in SA, overnighting in JHB before flying to Zimbabwe the next morning for a 3 week Archeology trip with his university… The combination of his jet lag and my excitement of my impending trip saw us staying up chatting in the now closed bar till 3:30am, fininshing all the beer in the Hotel Vending machine, and most of the bottle of Jack Daniels Honey he had stashed in his back pack….

This meant a fuzzier than usual head the next morning, but it meant I did sleep well on the plane, something I can usually never do…

Arrival in Mauritius was uneventful., albeit incredibly slow getting through immigration and then their “health Monitoring” system…. I was getting a little antsy at this point, as I had organized with a local guy to fetch me and get me to Le Caudan Marina in Port Louis to board the MV Gryphon, our mothership which would be leaving that evening and I’d been told I needed to be on the boat by 6:00pm for customs clearing etc…. I finally got through all the immigration processes and was deemed not to be carrying Ebola/swine flu/Measles/Asian Bird Flu or anything else…

I got to the Baggage Carousel and grabbed my bag, which was all on its own, as I was one of the last people through… hurrying as I wanted to be sure I caught my lift, I was very nearly through the exit doors when a small well dressed Mauritian Customs Officer stepped in front of me and said:

“Excuse me Sir, how are you?”….. Of course he then asked to see my passport, and asked how long I was staying in Mauritius, where I was staying, and what I was doing in Mauritius… Of course I was flustered by this point, and sweating the beer and Jack Daniels of the night before in the intense Mauritian humidity at this point, when the dreaded “ Would you mind stepping into our office Sir?” question came…. Fuck….

I stepped into the small cramped Customs Office, and greeted the other 3 officers in their with a resigned look on my face… The questions started again, and again, and again… They then asked to search my bags, of course which I complied with…. The small young officer reached into my duty free plastic bag and pulled out the two packets of Rolling Tobacco that MC ( who had been out to St.B’s a couple weeks before ) suggested I pick up for the guides as a little gift…. The little man said “ What is this?” to which I explained it was rolling tobacco… well apparently rolling tobacco, and the rolling papers that go along with it, are HIGHLY ILLEGAL in Maurtitius…. As in no questions asked, your ass is going to jail right now…. Thanks MC!!!

Of course I explained I had no knowledge of this, and did my best to charm and joke with the fellows…. They did however at that point want to search my entire luggage….. After about 10 minutes of this the little guy turned to me and said:

“Mr Andre… Are you sure you don’t have any Marijuana in your luggage?”…. for the briefest of seconds my heart leapt into my throat… had I somehow stupidly left some tiny bit of Mountain Cabbage from ages ago in my bag and he’d now found it…. Fuck…

“Sir” I replied “ I may look like a scruffy pot smoker, but I’m not an idiot… I travel a lot, and I can promise you I would never be that stupid…”… Well apparently this is the right answer to give when asked by a Mauritian Customs officer if you are carrying any contraband…. All 4 of them packed out laughing, and then made me sign some forms about being searched, and then said I was free to go, and they hoped I caught lots of fish!?!?? WTF!!

Sweating like gypsy with a mortgage at this point, I finally made it out and met up with my driver for the hour long trip across the island to Port Louis…

Arrival at the marina, I got my first glimpse of my home for the next 10 days…The MV Gryphon… a 93ft old sea lady which would carry us over the 24 hour crossing from Port Louis to St.Brandons… A beautiful old boat, she’s decked out with all the comforts one could ever need on a trip like this, with plenty of room, and nice comfortable and most importantly, well air conditioned cabins!

The good ship MV Gryphon
The good ship MV Gryphon

I fell onto the boat in a nervous mess, dripping sweat and probably looking a bit like a meth tweaker on withdrawals to the rest of the team who were patiently waiting on the aft deck sipping ice cold beers… I should mention at this point that I had not met or spoken to, or even knew the names of anyone of the other 6 anglers on the trip with me… Always a scary thing when you are going to be stuck on a boat with these 6 strangers for the next 10 days…. But thankfully any reservations I may have had vanished pretty quickly…

At this point I managed to pull my shit together and calm the fuck down, because I had made it to the boat, all my bags had made it, and I wasn’t going to miss the trip, I settled down, and took the kindly offered ice cold beer from FlyCastaways Head Guide Matthieu Cosson, a French native who has spent much of the last 7 years guiding in both the Seychelles and St.Brandons… The rest of our guides were already on St.Brandons, having remained on one of the little islands from the last trip 2 weeks prior…

So I moved on to meeting the rest of my fishing partners for the trip…

My cabin mate, and fellow South African, Mavungana Flyfishing’s Rowan Black… Thomas Hinnerskov, the human poling platform ( all 6’9” of him ) and Danish national whose based out in Singapore, Jim and Barbara, a retired couple who lived all over the United States, but now call Washington State in the Pacific Northwest home, and good mates Mike Dawes and Tim Brune from Victor Idaho… Mike is president/CEO of World Cast Anglers and Tim is both a guide, and in charge of quite a few of WCA’s river camps and all manner of other stuff… Once again I’d landed with my bum in the butter by lucking into a group of folks who were not only all great anglers who I ended up learning a shit load from, but also just an awesome bunch of human beings to share an incredible experience.. we shared laughs, jokes, stories, music, philosophies and more… sometimes encouraged by the plentiful beers or rum or whiskey or cocktails… other times just because that’s what you do when you share a journey with like minded folks…. And in truth its one of the best things about these kinds of trips… your experience is a 24/7 one, especially on a mothership, not just an 8 hour fishing day one…

THE CROSSING:

Our skipper Florian warned us that we might have a slightly rocky ride for some parts of our overnight crossing, so after dinner we settled in got comfortable for the 24 hour sail ahead… The MV Gryphon is a big old girl, and while she may not make a huge amount of speed, she sits nicely in the water, and we had a rolly, but pretty easy first night… easier than expected…

Looking a little sporty out the porthole on the crossing..
Looking a little sporty out the porthole on the crossing..

The next morning saw us waking up surrounded by a sea the kind of blue you only get 100’s of miles from mainland rivers and pollution… that deep rich azure that’s hard to describe or capture in pictures… after a great breakfast enjoyed on the back deck ( where we spent 90% of our time when on board ) we settled down to tackle prep… fly boxes were opened, patterns looked at, picked over, analyzed, complimented… The amount of meticulously tied flies, and variety of patterns I saw between those 6 anglers was staggering.,.. Having pinched both MC and Conrads flats boxes, as well as a bunch of flies from PLaton, I thought I would have more flies than most… Not even close… Thomas is an incredibly meticulous tyer, and I’m sure had spent a lot of the free time he may have over the last 2 years filling his fly boxes… rows upon rows upon rows of the most beautiful flies, from shrimps, to crabs to baitfish to poppers…

Mike Dawes has a problem… and that problem is Permit, and the flies that go along with the pursuit of these fish on fly… More crab flies than I ever knew existed came bursting out of his multiple boxes…. The excitement was starting to build in my know… we were going somewhere to do battle, and we were bringing the weapons…. We were fucking prepared!

Got Crabs?
Got Crabs? Tim having a page through one of the many boxes of flies… 
Kicking back on the back deck, where we spent most of our time on the crossing...
Kicking back on the back deck, where we spent most of our time on the crossing…

Almost 24 hours to the minute after we left Le Caudan waterfront, we arrived at St.Brandons…. in the dark it took us a while to find our mooring ball to tie up to for the night, but we did, and after a great dinner, and a fairly healthy number of beers, we all crashed out in anticipation of the first days fishing the next morning…..

DAY 1:

Loading up...
Loading up…

Our 3 other guides joined us the next morning, brnging the 4 skiffs that would be our transport to and from the flats everyday down from Isle Raphael where they had spent the last 2 weeks…The Bearded One – James Christmas ( The Viking ), The Tall One – Craig Richardson ( The Yeti ) and The Hippie – Chase Nicholson ( Shark Bait ) , all South Africans who had spent the full season on St.Brandons quickly made introductions of themselves, got the boats prepped and loaded up, tackle into the boats and we were soon in the skiffs and heading off in 4 different directions…. Rowan and I jumped in with James, who said “ We gonna hit a spot called Shark Spit… could be some Geets coming in on this push, and maybe we’ll see some Bones”…

FCA Guide James Christmas.. aka The Viking, and father of The NYAP, and the Christmas Shrimp patterns...
FCA Guide James Christmas.. aka The Viking, and father of The NYAP, and the Christmas Shrimp patterns…

“ See some Bones”… haha, understatement of the year…. Expecting to run for at least 20 minutes, I was pleasantly surprised when less than 5 minutes from the boat James started powering down on the outboards as we coasted towards a tiny little  sand islet, with sugar white sand and hard pan flats stretching away on either side of it…. We drifted into the islet, chucked the anchor up the beach and started walking in the shin deep water on the leeward side… within the first 45 seconds, James pointed out a group of 3 bones coming off the slightly deeper water onto the hard pack sand bottom… “ Take a shot”…

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I unhooked the Petersens Spawning Shrimp off my guides, stripped out some line, put it in the air and laid out the cast…. The fly landed probably 6 feet short of the lead fish, in most places too short for Bonefish…. Well this was the moment when my “Bonefish World” changed… and I will never forget it… it set the tone for the rest of my St.Brandons Bonesfish experience…. Thinking I was a little short, I was about to pick the cast up and shoot it again, but never got the chance… that Bonefish charged my fly like it was the first thing he’d eaten in days and absolutely crushed it!!! Within seconds of making my first cast in St.Brandons my backing knot was flying through my guides…. A 7lb bonefish the result.,… I was beyond stoked!!!

First cast of the trip.... not bad...
First cast of the trip…. not bad…

The next 2 casts saw me pinning another 2 bones in the 6/7lb range… and another 2 fish in the next 5 casts after that…before one fish pinged me so hard on the eat it popped the 14lb flouro I was using…. I was a giggling mess at this point…

Rowan and James were wading about 50metres from me picking off Bones as well… then in a split second everything changed, as it always does when Mr GT decides to crash the party…. While their numbers are nowhere near what they are on the Syechelles outer atolls, the St.Brandons GT’s on average are BIG… and the two fish barreling down the flat edge toward Rowan and James were no exception… its always a mind shift to see such a huge hulking fish cruising towards you in thigh deep water over a crystal clear sand flat… Despite their hulking presences, and flat out domination of their environment, the St.Brandons GT’s are incredibly weary fish… this is not the destination that is going to give you dozens of shots in a day at GT’s… and they shots you do get, need to be taken fast, accurately, and almost delicately… if ever there was finesse fishing for GT’s, this is it…

James very quickly got Rowans’ 12 weight into his hand as the pair of fish came cruising towards them… but unfortunately, as so often happens when a couple of 1 metre plus GT’s show up unannounced out of nowhere, things went a bit pear shaped… Rowan managed to hook the biggest on the flat…. The biggest being our Viking guide James in the back of his jacket on his back cast..…. Before they could get another shot in the fish were within 15 metres of the two of them and spotted the angler and guide team and spooked hard…. I had a courtside seat to this whole circle of events, watching from the side, and was blown away to be able to watch it all unfold in front of me…. And I got a good look at the outside fish as the pair streaked off the flat to deeper water, pushing bow waves ahead of them like a pair of pissed off hippos…. It was a tank… Rowan, James and I had a laugh and went back to smacking Bones….

We moved off to another flat, the tide now on the last bit of its pushing cycle before starting its drop, and we found ourselves quite literally in Bonefish heaven… For the next 2 hours I spent more time hooked up to Bonefish than I did not hooked up to bonefish… After I’d popped off a fish on the take earlier in the day, James had asked what tippet I was fishing.. “ 14lbs I said” thinking this was pretty heavy for bones… “ Dude, bump it up to 20lbs, these fish aren’t shy and with a 10lb bone more than likely to come across your path, you don’t wanna be pissing around with silly string”… Lekker, 20lb tippet for bones in 1ft deep water…. I like this place!

Rowan and I doing our best "Look into my eyes darling" pose...
Rowan and I doing our best “Look into my eyes darling” pose…

I saw my backing knot more in those 2 hours than I had in the past 10 years….. My new Salt 9# was getting well and truly broken in!

This happened ALOT...
This happened ALOT…
and this...
and this…putting that 20lb tippet to work..

Fishing 20lb means that you could really put the hurt to these bones on a 9 weight, and in my opinion actually get a better fight out of the little rockets… not having to protect ultra light tippets meant you didn’t need to baby the fish, and could fight them hard.. this made for some tricky landing of fish as a 6/8lb green bonefish in a foot of water is quite a handful… smartly the FCA guides carry big mesh landing nets which makes this a lot easier, and saves you from a potential disaster in high sticking at the end of a fight trying to get a bonefish to hand… Another very important thing about fishing heavy tippets, and being able to land fish quicker, is that you can get a fly out there again quicker, and hook more fish…. And more importantly, something which has yet to be touched on, but is VERY prevalent when you’re on St.Brandons, is the ridiculously large number of Sharks on the flats…. Lemons, Blacktips and even some rather over sized Tiger Sharks roam these flats, and are always on the look out for an easy meal in the form of a hooked bonefish… We had some rather interesting altercations with sharks over the week… one in particular which I’ll cover later, but will quite clearly indicate why Chase got the nick name “Shark Bait”, and also high light just what an idiot an angler can become when fish fever in the form of a rapidly approaching GT kicks in… and yes, that idiot angler was me….

While Rowan and I were getting more than our fair share of the most ridiculous bone fishing you can imagine, the other guys and gal were also making the most of their first day… none more so than the tall Dane, Thomas…. Thomas was fishing on his own with head guide Matthieu on the first day, and managed to start his trip off in the most incredible way… connecting with an absolutely beautiful 12/15lb Indo Pacific Permit….

Happiness is... Thomas with a beautiful Indo Pacific Perm on Day 1.. what a start..
Happiness is… Thomas with a beautiful Indo Pacific Perm on Day 1.. what a start..
Pucker up Rubber Lips..
Pucker up Rubber Lips..
Bye bye gorgeous...
Bye bye gorgeous…

Not only did Thomas manage a beautiful Permit, he helped himself to a couple solo double headers on the bonefish too… not sure there are many place you can get that right…

Solo double header Bones...
Solo double header Bones…
See ya...
See ya…

Jim and Barbara were fishing with FCA Guide Chase, and come across an insane Bonefish and Golden Trevally bite and capitalised in a big way!

Jim with one of a couple lovely Goldens he connected with on Day 1..
Jim with one of a couple lovely Goldens he connected with on Day 1..
Barbara and Jim with a set of monster class Bonefish doubles in skinny water...
Barbara and Jim with a set of monster class Bonefish doubles in skinny water…
Check the girth on Barbaras fish...
Check the girth on Barbaras fish…
how amazing to be sharing a moment like this with your partner in life of 40 years...loved these two!
how amazing to be sharing a moment like this with your partner in life of 40 years…loved these two!

Mike and Tim were out with FCA Guide Craig – The Yeti…. now these two guys have probably fished more places between them than most folks even know exist to be fished… and as such their skill set shows it… certainly two of the finest fly anglers I’ve met… and on top of that two pretty rad fellows with great stories, great sense of humour and great taste in music… They were on a Permit mission right from the start, and while they didn’t connect to the Holy Grail on day one, they definitely took advantage of the epic bone fishing..

Mike and Tim doubling up on Day 1
Mike and Tim doubling up on Day 1

So that was Day 1… What a start.. we had 5  more left…. what else would St.B’s throw at us…

To be continued – Part 2 coming soon.

** All images courtesy  and with thanks to the folks on the trip, and taken mostly by our guides James, Chase, Craig and Matthieu on our cameras **

9 thoughts on “Into the Great Wide Open – Part 1: Adventures to St.Brandons Atoll”

  1. Herman Botes says:

    WOOOO, BUCKET LIST STUFF

  2. Ray says:

    A www, sheeeeeet, Thug Life!

  3. Shamwari says:

    I just shed a tear

  4. Myburgh van Zijl says:

    What a fantastic write-up! More of/on this, please.

  5. Platon says:

    Nice one Dre. I’m actually getting to hear the full story since we didn’t really get to catch up about this trip over a coupme of beers. Looking forward to part 2.

  6. Andre Van Wyk says:

    Thanks for the kind comments folks… Pla – ja we never really got to a full trip sit down and chat over beers… but also funny how one tends to remember more and more that happened when you start writing it down…

    I’m off to Oman on Sunday, so will have to wait till I’m back before I can start putting part II together!

  7. Tim Brune says:

    I would say thats pretty much how it went down. I do recall you winning some award that night and having to wear it on your head….care to elaborate in Part 2 on that one? Solid write up my friend.

    1. Andre Van Wyk says:

      Cheers Tim…. Yep I won that award twice actually… both Matthieu and myself won it twice… but can’t remember who it was who won it on day one though…. I definitely one it on day 2 and day 5!! Both will be covered in Part 2! 😉

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