Jack Samson, once editor of Field and Stream once wrote about Saltwater Fly Fishing that his love with the sport was visual. That fly fishing in the salt was 95% looking and searching, and 5% fishing. He considered it to be closer to hunting than fishing. And as a novice fisherman evloves, he starts realizing a love for the creatures he is catching, and eventually stops killing.
Another writer and fisherman, Ernest Hemingway, would battle with this love, especially as he hunted. And on lion hunts he eventually refused to kill any lion that was a member of any pride he had photographed. If a publisher wanted to send a picture of him with a kill to press, he refused to allow them to have his photograph alongside living animals of the same species. He considered this to be extremely bad taste. As he got to know certain animals he could no longer kill, and would only kill animals that he considered strangers.
Getting to know and understand your target as Hemingway did is crucial. And this familiarity combined with your desire means that you often end up falling in love. Sound familiar? The next three days are about me falling hopelessly in love with the worst mistress possible. The Milkfish.
Now I should warn you that this isn’t the happy ending I was hoping for. I ended up so severely disappointed in myself and the outcome that I still have to conciously stop thinking about the mistakes I made and the pictures I didn’t get to avoid genuine fish enduced depression and sleep deprivation. But anyway, this is how it went-
I’m still double checking knots & connections, and as usual, the others are on the boat waiting. I’m fishing with Jonathan today, the Brit who saved the day for me my lending me his 10wt xi3 on day one. We’re being guided by Scott, who for the third day in a row will be doing the outside walk. The “wild side” is a coral shelf that extends on the outside of the atoll into the surf zone. Its typically a GT walk, with some Triggers in the shallower stuff. Our tides are now half way to neap and pretty slack, and this is a place that works best with movement -so I’m thinking the surf is probably our best bet.
James gives us all a lift to the Southern Most part of the atoll and we begin the walk. Jonathan is built like a rugby player and I pose the question, correct assumption. We round the corner to the first of a series of coral bays. I sit down on an old whale bone while Jon and Scott head off. I tell them ill catch up. Im hurting. On my last trip I spent 6 months doing endurance training and it paid off. This one snuck up on me, and I was in the middle of an intensive bulking phase. More than a chicken a day, lots of heavy weights, no cardio- wont do that again, just in case. Im at my absolute worst physical endurance and my body needs stacks of protein to keep going, something that is a scarce commodity out here. My hands are calloused, but in the wrong places to benefit me here.
On my left hand are four deep infected cuts from the sharp scoots on the Geets, made deeper by the big fish that slipped out my hands as Keegan handed it to me on day 3.
My right hand has cuts through each crease from my pointer to my permit (middle) finger. Those are from the Sci Anglers GPX. A line I cant live without, but wish I could, After a few years these creases are wide and stranmge looking from constantly being cut through by this brilliant line. I suffer because its that good.
I scoff down a protein bar and drink a bioplus sachet- vile. But it helps. I get destracted and start scratching around in the bushes hoping to win the 100 dollar prize rob has offered for anyone who can find two matching slip slops- there are honestly millions here. A few whisky bottles too.
Then I focus on the surf in the bay in front of me. There are some funny looking mackerel like fishing surfing the waves. Looks like a new specie to me! I tie on a small white clouser on the 10, take my pack off and head out. Its a 50m wade that you always think you can cover faster than you actually can, the clear water makes you forget the resistance. I eventually get there and they are indeed some strange baitfish. They’ll chase but wont commit. Hmmm.
Jon and Scott are at my 2 o clock, 100 yards away casting at something. Back to it. I watch these fish surf the waves in, then turn and scuttle out. Surf is always good fun, each wave is like lifting up the skirt of sea and peeking underneath, and with every crest you can make them out again, and then I realize why theyre doing it. There is a GT, just sitting at the back of them, waiting to get a shot. And I dont have my 12. I look behind me at my pack and rod on the beach. Idiot. But Im at the point where I honestly dont feel like I can handle many more geets. I can barely close my hands. The infection mixed with a few knuckle bashing reel palming sessions have given me a bit of swelling.
I head back to collect everything as Jon and Scott start heading my way. Pack on, 12 strapped in. I decide Ill scratch around the shallows. Im secretly hoping to fishing the walk early and sneak through the gaps.
I start walking the imaginery line made by 3rd little set that breaks on the coral flat, parralel to Jon and Scott, on my right, at the second set. I watch as they get a few shots at fish, all I can think about is how tired I am, and if the Farquhar squirt epidemic that has plagued team America has finally caught me, but im all aches. 150 meters into the walk and Scott sees something.
“Pete! Come pin this trigger”
I stop feeling sorry for myself and shoot off to the right. Perfect cast, then another, then another.
“Is that a ?”
“Oh, its one of those red boxfish things”.
And back to the shallows I go. 30 meters away I spot a trigger, but hes sitting dead still. “i bet this shit has seen us” I mumble to myself. He has. And he shoots off before I start walking to him. The waves are your enemy when fishing for triggers. Theyre just too clever and there eyesight is too good. They can spot you 50m off.
Im still making my way away from the other two, mumbling about my two new irritating pets (a fly that lives in and around my buff, and a lemon shark that I just cant shake and gets excited by the foot stomping that usually works) when I spot something.
Geet! Geet on a sharks back!”
I grab my 12 and present. Shocker.
“Leave it!” Shouts Scot, and as he does the GT starts moving towards us purposfully. Im hardly stripping the fly now, just keeping it up in the water column. As it gets within a sniff I twich it. The fish lunges, and turns on the surface.
“Brakes on!”i lock my drag and pull like all hell. Nose wheelie time. A short tug of water later and I start reeling in. Something doesnt feel right. I look down. My handle is about to come off. Scot runs to grab the green fish and somehow manages. We land the fish , take some pictures and then set about trying to refasten my handle.
The fly tying scissors I always keep, combined with tan SL12 hook on the other side seems to do the trick.
Ahead of us now are two defined channels heading out, making a deep basin on the shallow shelf. Blue water all the way in. It looks insanely good. John is 100 feet ahead, and I can see the Geet he’s casting to. He hooks up and quickly lands a fish.
To his right I can see two more geets. I speed off towards them but by the time I get there theyre out in the backline. More dark shapes, now on the other side. This time its Bumpies. I walk up to Scot and John and we discuss it all. Scott suggests we take some Bumpie shots. I get my 10 ready and quickly spot two triggers fighting with each other. They’re in deep water but eventually calm down about 20 feet apart and set about their tailing and rock lifting. They both spot me way before im ready, and off they go. Damn waves. The Bumpies are calm and doing exactly what you want them to. Feeding almost in formation, perpendicular to your presentation point. First cast, just ahead of the lead fish, nothing.
Second cast is a shocker, right in the shoal. One tap and then nothing. Third cast again ahead of the lead. Three strips in and ON! The fish takes off towards the reef and gets there in no time. Scott takes off at similar speed. Im not my usual Usual Phelps on hookup and stand dead still. The fish wraps and off it goes. I look at Scot and mention how happy I am that came off.
“I just dont have the energy for another hour bumpie fight bro”
We decide to have lunch up on the beach.
“I bet i can find us some flotsom chairs!” says Scot.
I need food now badly and I cant wait. We manage to find a massive foam buoy, multicoloured like a rainbow, in three perfect places. I throw the pieces down at the guys and keep the largest for myself. Its like pac-man with a wider mouth. Awesome seat. We open the lunch boxes and start tucking in as we begin a talk on politics- had to happen at some stage. finish lunch and energized, we get back to it.
Not much happens at the next channels and basins until we’re almost at the Manaha Gaps, some bones! Great fun over broken coral in the surf as theyre at their least spooky.
We catch a few and I shout to Scott.
“Boet! Im heading through the gaps! Meet you on that side?”
“Go for it!”
And off I go. Its sweltering in the gaps, and there are one or two solitary bones in seriously skinny water amongst the turtles and eels. How they survive in that seemingly boiling water is a mystery.
I have one thing on my mind- My permit flat. It takes me about twenty minutes to get over and through the gaps, back in to the lagoon. And on my way to permit heaven my peripheral vision is interrupted. Right there in front of the palm trees- “are those? Can they be? Permit? Lots of permit?”
Yellowish sickles are breaking the surface lazily and in an unorganized fashion. Heart pumping and i get over there in no time. Its not permit. Its Milkfish. The russian supermodel of the flats -the hottest tail and body you’ve ever seen, confusing, tough and frustrating.
They’re daisy chaining like mad. Eating something off the bottom of the flat. Coming out the channel in packs, then tailing lazily as they hoover for 10 or 15 meters and then back to the channel. In between the pack rats are a handful of the most special Milkfish variety of them all- the war veteran. And Farquhars war veterans are extra special. They live in the lagoon, and no longer seem to venture out in the ocean current for the easy meal. These old girls are full of
bumps and bruises, scarred and scratched from head to tail. And that tail….. Dull, bleached and blunt at the point, like a stray cats ear. Because that tail spends a lot of time out the water.
These war veterans just do it for me. Old mature ladies, ready to teach any young jock a lesson.
I had hoped Id find them, and so I had 4 milky dreams with me. The go-to fly for schooling fish. And im hoping it works in this situation. Not much has been written about fishing for them on the flats, so im completely in the dark. I throw down my 12, get out my fly box and tie on the best looking Milky dream, hoping the fish agree.
Scott and John are now just coming through, and Im hoping they dont come to close. They veer off to the right. Here I go. Im kneeling as low as I can, and I position myself just ahead of where most of the action has been happening. I can just make out 5 or 6 dark shadows turning towards me from the channel. Here they come. The tails sticking out the water isnt helping my heart rate, but I manage a decent cast ahead of the lead fish. They dont seem to spook, and I watch as they feed just off the fly. I wait again.
Like clockwork another shoal works in, and so it continues. I have presented 4 or 5 times. Then something happens, finally. A not-so-good cast is rewarded by a fish breaking formation and then going to inspect. It changes its mind. Then the next group arrives. It happens again. Im on my knees now, the water at my waist, the fish less than 20 feet away going about their business. This time the inquisitive fish inhales the fly, I scream and lift my rod “ON! On!” but i was a fool. My strike not direct enough, all i did was pull the fly right out its mouth.
“I know exactly what happened there!” laughed Scott from just behind me. The Scot De Bruyn Milkfish magic must be rubbing off on me.
I had two or more presentaions with no interest as the pick up arrived, but my re-education had begun.
I returned that night with new purpose. This was possible. My first presentations to these fish were in a blind river on Silhouette in 2008, and in one or two brief run ins since I was yet to convince myself this was possible on a flat. Now I knew it was. The first step in conquering a new species.
The first guy I told was my new friend and fellow Scott Fly Rod fanatic Rob, who has caught them on Christmas Island. Lucky bugger. Hes been popping in and out of lounge where Ive been cooking up flies all trip, and is as excited as he is amused by my funny creations. Over dinner I discuss it all with the guys and make a request. I knew going forward that the fun would be over for me. This is now serious. I have a goal in mind and I know the work its going to take. The guys agree to let me have a go, so with that confrimed I head off to the vice again. I tied some Surgeon Specials, Milky Dreams and then some other funny flies that I thought resembled the scum the Milks were eating and then headed off to bed.
Wont be easy sleeping tonight.