Photographs and text by Jeff Currier
There’s no doubt that some of the best and wildest fly fishing exploits are planned around a campfire while on such a trip. The night begins with stories about the fishing that day and then stories of the week. As the beer begins to flow the thoughts turn from the trip we’re on to what’s next? We begin to dream out loud. And soon, the next escapade unfolds.
I’m an American fly fishing adventurer from Victor, Idaho and this is exactly how my journey to Madagascar developed. I was in the Tanzanian bush catching enormous tigerfish with my friends of Tourette Fishing. While staring into the flames reminiscing about the tiger fishing, my mind suddenly switched gears. Where do I go next? Certain that the Tourette guys knew their hemisphere like I know mine, I asked, “Any untapped adventures in the Indian Ocean to do some saltwater fly fishing?” If all were hypnotized by the flames, my question broke the spell. For the rest of that night we talked about the possibilities of fly fishing in Madagascar.
Although the Tourette boys had been to Madagascar you could say they hadn’t exactly “cracked the code”. But I could see it in their eyes – the place had the ingredients I love most – potential yet uncertainty. Both of which usually add up to a thrilling adventure. My wife Granny and I set off from US soil for Madagascar on March 31, 2011.
There is very little information about fly fishing in Madagascar. Granny and I spent long hours prowling the web in the hopes of leads, but there were very few. Most of what was there were stories of unsuccessful attempts. We had to make our own plan and set our own goals. But first, we had to get to Madagascar. That’s where we used a helpful company called African Jenman Safaris.
The folks at Jenman are not fisherman let alone “fly fishers” but they know Madagascar like the back of their hand. At one time and perhaps again they worked with a fishing camp called Turtle Bay on the island of Kalakadjoro, but naturally with our luck this was not an option at the time. Our best choice was to pick our spots from home using Google Earth and let Jenman set up our accommodation nearby. We settled on Sakatia Island off Nose Be and Isle Saint Marie off Madagascar’s east coast.
After 55 hours of travel from Idaho we arrived at Sakatia Tower in the pitch of dark. We were greeted by a young man named Frankie, a fill-in manager at the time because the usual managers were in South Africa. Though exhausted, as Frankie handed us the welcome drinks I hit him with questions about the fishing.
Morning came fast. In fact Granny and I barely remembered our short visit with Frankie the night before. But it must have been valuable. Because as we walked up the cement stairs from our room for breakfast, Frankie greeted us and said that George would come by at 10 AM to discuss some fishing options with us. Wow, the welcome drinks must have done a world of good even though we didn’t remember!
George Emilson was a fisherman with a decent boat. I think he’s done some guiding too, but probably not much. One thing is certain, he definitely didn’t fly fish. But he was a nice guy and very enthusiastic, exactly what you want. Negotiating a price was challenging though. For George it seemed to be a game, for us it was not. We had planned a month in Madagascar on a backpacker’s budget, but we finally settled.
We didn’t fish with George that day. Our time with George was to start the next. Jetlagged and curious about our surroundings, we grabbed my 7-weight and set out in front of the camp.
Sakitia Towers sets high on a hill overlooking a mile wide channel that separates Sakatia Island and Nose Be. It’s one of the more spectacular views you could imagine. The ocean was almost always calm and has the look of fish all over it. There were the occasional local fisherman in dugout canoes but overall it was surprisingly void of human presence and extremely peaceful.
Once down to ocean level I couldn’t help but notice an incredibly high water mark. It was low tide at the time, but the fluctuation to high tide appeared to be about 18 feet, and with the exception of some small beaches the terrain was extremely hostile. We’d have to be careful, in fact, Frankie told me right away we couldn’t walk the shore because of the slippery rocks covered in dangerously sharp jagged oyster shells. In the water were various coral types and between them were patches of sand that were covered with spiny black sea urchins – I refer to these urchins as trip wreckers! It truly was some of the most inhospitable terrain I’ve ever seen but of course not enough to stop me. Granny on the other hand opted out quickly and settled in the sun on one of the small beaches.
When on new water in the salt I always start chucking a Clouser Minnow at every piece of structure I can find. You can’t go wrong with this fly. And sure enough I landed my first fish in minutes. It was the unglamorous lizardfish. And while many anglers would cringe at the lizard’s gruesome appearance, I smiled and took a picture. I had now officially fly fished in Madagascar!
I fought off my jetlag with several sessions along the treacherous rocky shoreline throughout that first day. I caught several interesting new species of fish such as baby Malabar grouper, bluefin trevally, chocolate hind, blackspot emperor fish and onespot snappers. The only missing thing was large fish. In fact I never even got broken off or saw any large fish smashing bait in the distance. This was concerning because I have certainly been to my share of “fished out” water in my travels. But the beautiful water and splendid weather had my hopes soaring.
George was late the next morning. I hate to say it, but when you wing it in foreign countries, late, unprepared guides is kind of par for the course. The good news was that he was prepared and his excuse for being late was quite entertaining. Off we went straight north of Sakatia.
It turned out that George is one heck of a good guy and an excellent fishing guide. He knew his waters well and after he saw Granny cast to the first schooling tuna he quickly made adjustments in his boat handling to be more accommodating for the fly. In our experience, tuna on the fly are always challenging. By some good boat maneuvering and excellent casting by Granny, the first tuna, a small skipjack was quickly caught and released.
The more we fished with George the next few days the more our combined efforts became a sound machine. Our fishing got better and better. We pretty much mastered the skipjack tuna and frigate tuna and by dredging a 700 grain sinking line on the 12-weight around various reefs we managed numerous other cool fish species as well.
The real highlight with George came at the end of a day. We’d caught so many tuna that our forearms wanted nothing more than to lift some brews back at Sakatia. It was truly a phenomenal day of fishing. Granny and I were kicking back as we were cruising full throttle back towards Sakatia when I noticed a distant school of feeding tuna. We’d seen plenty that day but as I stared at this school I swore that a barracuda-like fish leapt from the frenzy some 20 feet in the air – impossible I thought. Ten seconds later it happened again. I wasn’t seeing things. The fish was a narrow-barred king mackerel sky rocketing as it accelerated through the bait. Like any crazed fly fisherman I came unglued. “George!” I shouted while pointing to the frenzy. That’s all it took. The crazed mackerel jumped again and George aimed the boat towards the chaos.
My heart pumped wildly and I retrieved my 12-weight as we bounced our way towards the action. Praying it wouldn’t tangle, I stripped my line to the bottom of the boat. I was trembling with excitement. Once there the engines cut I launched my first cast. The boat was coasting so fast that my cast was quickly dragged and never had time to sink. I stripped the heavy sink line back and made another cast. This time my angle and sink was perfect, however, the feeding frenzy was already over. As I stood in the bow I watched the horizon looking for the action to reappear. All the time my line and fly was sinking. Then, frustrated because it seemed the fish outran us, I retrieved my fly from the depths. That’s when I got jolted.
“Fish!” I yelled, as line then backing sizzled off my reel, “It’s a good one!”
I had hooked something strong and this fish was smoking me. A minute into the battle I was sure the brute was a sizeable yellowfin tuna. But something was unique. I have never experienced such a straight, speeding down-run. Whatever it was, it just kept going and going, simply straight down. Worried about getting spooled, I gradually tightened my drag. At first this did nothing but cause the fish to accelerate even more. How could he gather speed as I tightened the drag? Could it be a dogtooth tuna? Just as I started to fear a major equipment loss and failure, the angry fish slowed down and then just stopped dead in its paces. Only then I suspected I had my mackerel.
With the exception of high speed trolling, catching a king mackerel on any type of tackle is an accomplishment. It is real lucky to hook one of size and to land it even more so.
These thoughts were racing through my head as I pumped the fish up hard. I had at least 400 yards of line and backing out and was very uncomfortable being this far separated. George, who had no idea what my experience is, was very concerned that I was over pressuring the fish. The truth is you can’t let a blue water fish fight you, you must fight them. Only when the fish really pulls or if I feel like he’s about to go crazy do I back off. The fish rarely breaks off because there is so much stretch in your backing, fly line and even your leader if rigged with a Bimini Twist.
I repeatedly squatted, reeling the rod tip into the water, and stood up lifting to pull the fish. This lasted for about five minutes and there was my fish, a gorgeous king mackerel. I had landed a 27 lb narrow-barred king mackerel! I couldn’t believe it! Granny fired off some photos while George scurried around frantically. Not only was he a bit surprised we got this fish on the fly but he was rightfully scared of it. All king mackerel have razor sharp teeth. One careless move and you could end up with a severe gash or even lose a finger.
After a week being based out of Sakatia Island we ventured inland to experience the incredible wildlife that Madagascar is famous for. From chameleons to lemurs we got a piece of it all. Then we took on an entirely different saltwater venue off the east coast of Madagascar on Isle Saint Marie and that’s another story.
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