This January I boarded the Air Canada aircraft and settled in for a long flight.
Two and a half days of travel, 30 hours of actual air time, several airline transfers and a whole lot of hectic running were what I was to expect in my near future.
Knowing this, I settled into my fleece-lined sweats and dove into Bob Hooton’s ‘Skeena Steelhead’ book (a must read by the way… review to come).
I was on my way to Alphonse Atoll in the Seychelles to meet with South African friend and Alphonse fishing guide, James Christmas from http://www.alphonse-resort.com
For those who are unfamiliar, Seychelles is an island country consisting of 115 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, 930 miles off the coast of Africa (northeast of the island of Madagascar).
With a population of just over 86,000 people, Seychelles has the smallest population of any African state.
It is a famous saltwater destination… one that had been on my bucket list from the day I first learned of it from a highschool friend whose Dad was from an island nearby.
James had been able to take a week off from guiding and together the two of us planned to stalk the vast flats and try our luck at Seychellois giant trevally, milkfish and permit.
James’ photos had been torturing me for the year leading up to my arrival… as a result, I had been preparing for equally as long. For now, I just had to get there…
The flight itinerary was relatively straightforward; Vancouver BC to London, London to Dubai, Dubai to Mahe Seychelles, Mahe Seychelles to Alphonse Atoll.
Having peppered James with questions, I learned that an atoll is the result of the gradual sinking of a volcanic island that has long since cooled, leaving behind an open crater in the middle section of the island.
As it begins to sink, the surrounding territory of the island falls beneath the surface of the water.
At the same time, the coral reef that is found around the fringes of the island remains and gradually is built up through the natural practice of the accumulation of marine organisms that become part of the reef.
This creates a barrier reef around the remaining section of the island, forming the perfect conditions for the development of a lagoon. Amazingly, though these coral reefs account for only 0.2% of the ocean floor, they contain over 25% of the known marine species (which is why their protection is so important). More on this soon.
Slides courtesy of the ICS.
London was a quick switchover and before I knew it I was on my way to Dubai.
I didn’t know what to expect of Dubai.
In fact, to be completely honest, the extent of my knowledge came from the last ‘Sex and the City’ movie which showcased a desert, Vegas infused, shopping town.
I was unable to experience Dubai outside the airport… but the emphasis that I saw in the shopping there was enough to encourage me to keep my distance.
The serenity of silent flats were increasingly gaining appeal.
The boarding call to Seychelles woke me from my tired haze and I excitedly boarded the flight amongst giggling, summer-dressed clad newlyweds.
My hot sweats, fleece Patagonia hoody, and rod tubes held the eyes of confused passengers and I kept my hat low to avoid conversation; it had been a long few days and I was certain I couldn’t have smelled my finest.
It was dark outside, peering off the wings of our aircraft… I counted down the hours of nightfall, ready for that magnificent moment where the sun appears and the reflection of light blue water fills the plane with brightness and exuberant passenger energy.
I awoke to the orange glow of sun dancing on my eyelids, the welcoming smell of coffee and a smiling Emirates attendant. Peering outside, there she was… a lone island, mountain laden and dressed in crashing waves. It was paradise…
The view even from our landing spot had me in shock… stumbling down the stairs, I clutched the handrail and shielded my eyes from the intrusive glare. Mountains? Mountains!? Mountains and saltwater fishing together? I had found heaven…
My stomach fluttered and turned in excitement while waiting in the customs line and I grinned as the serious man stamped my passport routinely.
I had given myself a couple of days to relax into island life before chartering out to Alphonse and James had arranged for me to stay with a local family until my departure to the atoll.
Rushing immediately to the airport restroom to change into something less… Canadian, I found a pair of shorts and hit the streets.
Flagging down a smiling cab driver, we negotiated rates and I hired him for the next five hours to show me the island; off the beaten path.
He politely answered my questions, wore his wedding ring proudly and spoke highly of his children. I took him for a cup of coffee at a downtown shop and quietly decided if I would trust him to show me around. He passed my interview and the two of us hit the road.
We picked guava off roadside fruit trees, peeled cinnamon bark off healthy trunks, explored tea and lemongrass fields…
Checked out some history…
Drove to the top of a mountain…
Checked out pig rock and explored the beach.
He picked up some dried pork rinds (he called them pork crackling) and together the two of us shared our stories, lives and cultures (they eat fruit bat!)
I was shocked at how much of a French influence inhabited the Island. English, French and Creole were the languages of most of the residents and I was thankful for the small amount of French I learned while in high school.
Our time passed before I knew it and he kindly dropped me off at Neela’s and Jules’ place (my hosts while in town). Their house was located on a steep mountain overlooking the city, just past the most spectacular graveyard I had ever seen.
That night I took Neela and Jules out to dinner (where I adamantly expressed my desire to try fruit bat, which to my dismay was not available on the menu).
The kind couple explained that they lived 20 to 30 minutes (walking distance) to the downtown area and that if I woke early I could make it to the marketplace in time to see the fresh fish harvested by local anglers. I set my alarm for 6am, but was up by 5:00 anxiously waiting for the sun to rise.
I grabbed my runners and made the trek down the vibrant graveyard, reading tombs, thankful that each tomb was inscribed with lengthy dates. Reaching the bottom of the hill, I followed the brackish river to where I could see a gathering of buildings.
The island police station.
I followed the signs (thankful to be back on the kilometer system)…
And soon found myself downtown.
There were fresh fruit, vegetables, jams, spices, fish and goodies everywhere! I pulled out my wallet and bought some groceries.
After weighing myself down with as many bags as I could carry, I checked out some other interesting structures on my way back to the house.
…And then played with all my new purchases.
The next afternoon, I boarded a small aircraft that was destined to Alphonse.
In it was myself, four guests and several resort staff…
We were a relatively quiet bunch and I squirmed uncomfortably as heavy “smoke” began to fill the aisle.
My eyes jolted from person to person, hoping that I wasn’t the only one seeing this disaster unfold.
Fortunately, the silence was broken and a kind voice explained the condensation. It was good for a laugh and soon enough all anglers came to meet, genuinely partaking in friendly introductions.
Soon after we landed, I came to learn that Alphonse is occupied by one fishing/scuba lodge and is virtually inaccessible to all other flights outside of those pre-arranged by the lodge (as set with the Seychellois government.)
The Alphonse Island resort is a five star lodge and is notably distinguished as a major conservation activist inclusive of an ICS (Island Conservation Society) office consisting of two kind and dedicated conservation staff; Aurelie and Richard, who live on the island for a large part of the year (they are angels in disguise in my personal opinion).
Their list of duties are endless and they’ve generously lent me slides from their PowerPoint project to share with you, in hopes that we may be able to raise awareness to shark finning and pollution.
They refuse to use plastic water bottles for fear of adding to an increasingly alarming pollution problem.
They educated me on the North Pacific Gyre and its Great Pacific Garbage Patch; the world’s largest garbage mound, said to be twice the size of Hawaii.
Birds and other creatures feed on bits of plastic that they mistake as food, and their carcasses clearly show that this is a serious dilemma.
Shark finning is another gut-wrenching disaster that’s been affecting the ecosystems in the deep blue.
I felt helpless but personally committed to never engaging in a dinner at a restaurant who supports such atrocious ethics (often times illegally).
I was appalled when I learned of the endangering of sharks that the Seychelles saw several years ago when boats came in and virtually wiped the system out. Without sharks, the entire marine ecosystem is in danger…
I was surprised to find out that the lodge also abides by a single, barbless hook mentality (which is a rarity amongst saltwater organizations), as well as educates anglers on how to not hold fish under their bellies where harm can be inflicted on vital organs.
I felt like a school-girl, surrounded by like-minded folk!
I settled into my cabana and tried to control myself from jumping on the bed with excitement.
James met me with a warm, welcoming hug and all 6’4 of him was gentle and trustworthy. I trusted this man… I trusted him with my first permit, my secrets, and with all of those bull sharks around, I even trusted him with my life.
We unpacked my gear and prepped for the next morning. I was set up with Rio’s tarpon and large game fly lines, and I had confidence that they could hold a giant “Geet” (as the guides refer to Giant Trevally), should they have the opportunity.
As with all of my saltwater trips, Mike Rice of www.muddogflies.com had tied me a custom order of bonefish, permit and geet flies that overflowed my boxes.
I awoke bright and early the next morning to ride my bike to catch the Mother Ship before she departed…
I rode carefully and watched the road for any passing tortoises acting as speedbumps.
A string of flats boats drifted behind the large ship and I chuckled at the names on each of them.
The warm wind on my face was glorious and James and I sat on the bow of the boat, dangling our feet and enjoying the scenery.
Half an hour later, we anchored the large ship and all of us hopped into our designated flats boats.
James gave me the safety drill…with concern, I asked about the pirates that I had heard so much about.
For the last few years, pirates, hijackings and ransoms had been a major issue in the depths of the Indian Ocean.
Somali pirates, ungoverned, broke and hungry, were tormenting the sea and preying on unprotected vessels who might be carrying precious cargo (or people).
James explained that as long as we stayed within the Seychellois boundary line, we would be under the care of the Seychellen government (meaning they would pay our ransom). It was clear however, that atolls outside of this jurisdiction would be left unaided. I was beginning to understand why some of the other operations were temporarily abandoned.
We secured all rods and gear and raced off to a nearby bonefish flat. James laughed as I found entertainment in virtually everything my eyes rested on.
He taught me to scan my eyes from right to left, as I would focus better on shadows and movement in the ocean’s glare. This made sense, as with reading our eyes are so accustomed to scanning left to right, that we often lose the attention to detail so necessary in flats fishing.
We played with some bones and warmed ourselves up for some geets and permit.
With the skunk off of us, we jetted off to the surf to try our luck at some incoming trevally.
We strolled awkwardly on the jagged rocks, when suddenly James stopped and pointed into the water.
“What is it?” I asked.
In his soft South African tone, he responded, “There, do you see it?” He was pointing at a rock.
I was blind… “The rock?”
Water broke the surface around it and it looked just like all rocks I had seen in the ocean.
He smiled warmly and crept over to the small boulder, carefully picking it up from its underside. To my delight, little fins fanned on either side of it and a large puffer fish rested in his hand.
Shocked, I squealed with glee! It sat calm and “unpuffed” and I just ached to hold it.
“Just keep your fingers away from its teeth”, James warned.
From here, we headed to the surf and glared through the dark day for a hopeful glimpse of a feeding trevally. The surf’s strength was unexpected and I stumbled each time it hit me. As I was bowled over, soaking wet and unsteady, James’ tall frame handled the waves with ease and I tried to learn from him.
He leaned into the white water and didn’t fight the force.
He used his Patagonia Stormfront dry bag (the guide bag of choice in the Seychelles) as a flotation device and he allowed it to lift him through the water.
He instructed me to wait for a large wave to push and then directed me to cast into the momentary white froth that lay slack and flat in anticipation of the next wave. I cast one of his famous NYAP (Not Your Average Popper) flies into the foam and vigorously stripped it back in towards myself.
Unexpectedly, a large bluefin trevally annihilated the fly and I froze in shock. James gasped and I promised never to freeze up again.
That night, we went back to James’ cabana where we tied flies until my eyes glazed over. His tying material collection was extensive and he tied a mean permit crab.
The next day, we hit the flats in search of the elusive Seychelle permit.
As the tide pushed out, large square tails broke the water’s surface and James explained to me that these were feeding trigger fish.
I cast a crab tied the night before at the oblivious fish and slowly stripped back in. The fish stopped, turned, and focused on my crab pattern; it was fish on!
Through the coral it raced and James screamed at me to run and keep my line out of the abrasive ocean floor.
My prize was a beauty of a Giant Triggerfish. With colors that shone through the dull day, I had to admire the abstract characteristics of the creature.
James pushed his fingers on the topside of what looked to be a dorsal fin (the trigger, hence the name); it was hard and didn’t budge.
Gently repositioning his hand, James pushed the trigger from the underside and the trigger fin collapsed with ease.
Its teeth were sharp and intimidating, designed to bite through coral… It was lovely in the most unique way.
We spent the rest of the day pursuing geets and tailing permit.
The permit were uneasy, but they allowed me the occasional shot. We stalked them slowly and I held my breath, frantically trying to clear my line from the water to make the tricky casts.
The weather was rough and the wind pushed strong. We eyed up an incoming black cloud and desperately tried to hook up before being caught in the fast approaching storm.
Rejected, rejected, rejected. I managed to get an “eat” but couldn’t manage to hook up. I hung my head in disappointment but continued to cast despite the now overhead thundering of lightning.
For fear of electrocution, we sat low in the water and prepared to wait out the storm. It felt like forever and the fish teased us further by tailing directly beside us.
We risked the dangers and made several casts to them while seated, before a deafening skyward boom coaxed me to wait until the gloom had passed.
The next day, James and I were greeted with a welcoming sun and the two of us were in high spirits as the rays warmed our faces.
Again we were off to the surf where we would use the light to our advantage to sight giant geets rolling in through the waves.
As we walked through the sandy beach towards a large abandoned shipwreck, James and I halted as three gigantic permit tails assaulted the water’s surface.
I felt my knees weaken and I clung to James…
“Are those….!?” I felt the world silence around me as I focused on what could only belong to three huge permit.
“Oh my… they are…” He whispered, his eyes not shifting from the commotion.
We crept low and silently towards them… each step careful not to make a disruption. Then the inevitable happened; the soft bottom turned to hard, crunching coral.
James’ size enormous feet simply couldn’t continue with me any further without spooking the monsters, and he gave me the look of a mother saying goodbye to her child as he coaxed me to proceed without him.
The next half hour must have been painful for James.
Alone, petrified of failure, and over-anxious, I followed the permit over their terrain.
My 5’5 figure and size 7 feet were useful and I utilized this to my advantage in seeking discretion.
For that seemingly endless time, there was no one else… nothing else… it was me and them, waltzing, dancing together in a romance that would ultimately leave me broken hearted.
They tailed high and happy; their large fork tails capturing the light, glowing with the penetrating sun, pointing downwards towards their large round bodies like golden arrows as if to say “search here for treasure”.
It was beautiful.
They lead right, I followed suit. They leaned left and I obliged. They lead me like a waltzing bride and I couldn’t help but smile to myself as they dropped their tails and pushed back to sea.
I had just experienced my first solo affair with some of the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. Seychelle permit glow a bright yellow and they have forever ingrained themselves in my mind.
Still smiling, we headed to the surf and hoped for better luck with trevally.
Stripping James’ NYAP until my fingers bled, we cast aggressively into the water near an old ship wreck hoping to “call in” some players.
The waves picked me up mid cast, but none of that mattered as a large bluefin engorged my fly on the water’s surface.
Half of the fight took place with my head under water and James held me afloat while I desperately tried to get my line on my reel.
Eventually we landed a magnificently blue fish, its colors surreal and truly unlike anything I had ever seen before.
As the tides changed, so did we, and we hopped aboard the boat in search of sting rays and nurse sharks. Rays and sharks are often used as a giveaway to anglers pursuing giant trevally, as geets utilize the mud disturbance to hide while feeding in the flats.
Spotting a large ray, James and I dropped anchor and raced to get in front of the pair. Sure enough, following suit was a nice size geet. We watched it change color from gray to black, depending on its disguising backdrop.
I prepared to make the cast, foolishly not checking my ferrules.
“There’s your shot! Take it!”
I false cast. Once, twice… getting ready to shoot…
The top half of my rod fell at my feet. “Acckkkk!!” I shrieked. By the time the pieces were back together, my opportunity had passed.
James patted me on the back, supportive and kindly hiding his dismay. I knew that somehow I had to make up for this on the water the next day.
The next morning I was alive with energy! It was going to be a good day; I could feel it in my blood.
The morning was still and our spirits were high.
We set off in search of schooling milkfish.
I had heard of the famed milkfish from saltwater enthusiasts who claimed that Seychelle milks were hard to hook. Even more trying, was the landing of such hard-pulling, fast fish.
With missile shaped bodies built for speed, milkfish feed on vegetation, often surface feeding on floating plankton.
The calm morning made finding these fish a little easier.
We drove fast, breaking the still glass surface with the bow of our boat. James scanned the blue sea for feeding fish. He excitedly stopped the boat and instructed me to grab the Loomis NRX pre-rigged with a light green algae fly.
Cast, rejected, cast, rejected…
I made the cast into the path of an upcoming school and set hard to the side as a solo fish mouth encompassed my fly. It was game on.
Countless jumps, 45 minutes, two shaking arms, a bruised midriff and a smiling fishing guide later, I had landed my first milk. I felt like a million bucks.
The days passed faster than I cared for, and though we found time for a quick snorkel on the last day… before long I found myself on the tarmac saying my goodbyes.
Inevitably (though not disappointingly) I found myself back in the home of Neela and Jules’.
Their smiling faces greeted me kindly and they advised me to clean up as we had a dinner engagement at 6:00.
I was stunned… A dinner engagement? Who with?
Thoughtful and generous, they had arranged a family dinner where each family would present an authentic Seychellois dish.
I crossed my fingers that I would be able to try this supposedly succulent fruitbat.
Welcoming me as one of their own, together we blessed the food and sat down to a perfectly executed dinner.
I ate until I had no more room and tried fruitbat curry, salted fish casserole, crabapple coleslaw, blood pudding and several other delicacies.
It was a feast fit for a king, following suit to a guide who treated me better than a queen.
Spoiled and glowing, I sat back to digest it all; the memories, the experience, the friendships, and of course, the fruit bat… It was the perfect end to a perfect trip…