Chasing TriggerFish on the Nubian Flats
October 08, 2019
Triggers have many of the attributes of their better-loved friends. You catch them only by sight fishing, and they are often tailing in shallow water when they feed. They are challenging to hook, disproportionately hard fighting, and they are notoriously dirty fighters, often sneaking under a rock or coral head and breaking you off.
Their goofy smile packs a powerful bite, and their teeth destroy flies. They can cut a 1/0 hook in half, and can take your finger if you’re not careful removing the fly.
They spook easily. If they see the fly first and get focused on it, they sometimes follow the fly and eat it at your rod tip. But if they see you or your fly line first, it’s game over. They’ll haul ass off the flats, and you’ll never see that fish again.
I think part of the reason they are neglected by fly fishers is they aren’t found on the sand flats of well-known destinations like Florida, the Bahamas, or Mexico. The Caribbean is home to the plain-looking gray triggerfish, but the only place they seem to regularly come onto the flats are on the hard, back reef coral flats of Turneffe Atoll.
It’s the exotic Pacific and Indian Ocean destinations like Christmas Island, French Polynesia, Seychelles, and Sudan where triggerfish really shine. Of these, the triggerfish capital is the coastal waters of Sudan on the Red Sea. Nowhere else can you target these fish on foot all day, with some bonus action of GTs, bohar snappers, and bluefin trevally.
Worldwide, there are about 40 species of triggerfish, but when fly fishers talk about them there are really only two important species—unfortunately those two species also have several different common names, which increases confusion. Moustache triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens) are yellowish green and gray and with a pronounced dark moustache above the upper lip. They are also know as titan or giant triggerfish, because they are the largest triggerfish within their range. Yellowmargin triggerfish (Pseudobalistes flavimarginatus) are a beautiful peachy color with a distinct tail. They are sometimes called peachface triggerfish.
Fly fishers also sometimes run into the much smaller, but stunning Picasso triggerfish. They don’t really have the size to qualify as formidable gamefish, but they are beautiful and round out a nice triggerfish grand slam.
All triggerfish have a distinct trigger on the top of their heads. This rayed fin can lie flat, but they can also lock it in the upright position, it making it impossible to remove them from under rocks and coral. They are notorious for using it, they will turn sideways and wedge themselves into coral heads, leaving you little hope of landing them without going after them.
The best thing about these fish is watching them invert and wave their tails in the air. They get properly upside down as they munch crustaceans with their oddly shaped mouths. You should cast close to tailing triggerfish, but not too close. You need the fly in their field of vision, and when they are tailing, their focus is very small and you need to be in that zone. If they are cruising a bit between tailings, then you need to lead them a bit more and give the fly a chance to get to the bottom.
Once the fish is aware of the fly and shows interest, use short strips and keep the line under tension. I found that once a fish gets focused on the fly, they usually stay committed and give you several opportunities to hook them. It’s critical to keep the rod tip down, and just keep using those short strips to move the fly, but not too quickly.
If you haven’t gotten past the trout set mentality, you are going to miss a lot of these fish. It’s not a strip-set as much as it is just staying tight. You often feel a lot of ticks or hits before you can finally get the hook buried in something fleshy.
Stuart Harley, head guide for Tourette’s Fishing (the operators of the Sudan fishing program as well as the Tanzania tigerfish and Lesotho trips I’ve previously written about) told me he has watched the whole process using a snorkel mask. He’s watched triggerfish smash the fly against the sand without opening their mouths. It’s as if they are trying to pin their prey before swallowing it.
That makes intuitive sense: If you eat creatures that bite back, it’s best to inflict a little damage first. That also helps explain all the bumps you feel—you think the fish is eating the fly but you don’t get tight. It also explains some bonefish and permit scenarios where you watch the fish tail up right on your fly—and you feel it—but just don’t get tight.
Fly selection is pretty simple—triggerfish eat most shrimp and crab patterns. When in doubt, match the bottom. On a light-colored sand bottom I throw cream and tan flies. A couple of my favorites are the Turneffe Crab and the Puglisi Spawning Shrimp.
Use good hooks, as these fish can crush them and bite through flimsy hooks. Weight is the other issue. You want these flies on the bottom, so heavy-wire hooks and lead eyes are a must. These fish take a toll on your fly box—carry more flies than you think you need.
Jako Lucas joined me on this trip, and we had consistent fishing throughout the week, averaging a dozen or so triggers between us each day. It is beautiful fishing, easy wading, casting to individual fish doing headstands—about as pure flats fishing as you can imagine. Each fish is engaging, and it’s as much fun to watch another angler as it is to do it yourself.
The highlight of the trip was one afternoon when the flats were fired up and we could see tailing triggers in every direction. We quickly doubled up, and Harley swept both fish into the net. With triggers all around us, we decided to give it a quick go for a quadruple trigger photo. Jako managed a second fish very quickly, but I failed to get another fish in the next few minutes, and we let the three fish swim away healthy and strong. We still ended up with one of my favorite tripled-up photos of all time.
Sudan is not just for triggers—in the conventional tackle world it’s also known for its healthy GT population. Those fish make it onto the flats just often enough you always carry a GT rod with you just in case. As we were wrapping up a great day of triggerfishing, Jako and I walked the shoreline ridge in the waning light, looking for GTs surfing in the waves. It was tough light. I spotted one, but I couldn’t get the fly in front of him in time. I turned around to tell Jako they were coming, but he was already hooked up. It was the only GT we landed for the week, but it was a stout, memorable one.
We picked up a few bluefin trevally on the flats, and a part of every day was also spent on the reef edge, bombing out a teaser and bringing in all kinds of fish—bohar snappers, ’cudas, various groupers, and occasionally GTs. I also had a handful of shots at monster bumphead parrotfish, but didn’t connect. They do occasionally see permit and bonefish as well, a testament to the incredible biodiversity here.
Sudan is surprisingly easy to get to. It’s a quick hop from Dubai to Port Sudan, and then a couple of hours through the desert on a bus and you board Scuba Libre, a 60-foot steel-hull catamaran that serves as the base of operations. The coast of Sudan is virtually uninhabited, and Scuba Libre lets you explore the Red Sea as you motor north toward Egypt.
During our week aboard Scuba Libre we covered around 60 miles and came within 40 miles of Egypt. We never saw another boat or angler. There aren’t many places in the world left like that. Tourette handles all of the visas and it’s a surprisingly easy process. I haven’t had another stamp in my well-used passport get as many looks as the two-page stamp from Sudan, written in Arabic.
It would be negligent to talk about the wonderful fishing on the Nubian flats of Sudan without addressing the perceived risks of traveling to this part of the world. There are four countries on the U.S. Department of State list of State Sponsors of Terrorism and they are Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan. Sudan is also one of the countries listed as “Level 4 Advisories, Do Not Travel” along with Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria. That’s not good company to keep.
As I wrote this article there was a military coup in Sudan, overthrowing President Omar al-Bashir, who had reigned for 30 years. It’s easy to say “Forget that, there are safer and easier places to go!” and write off this trip, and others like it.
They are challenging to hook, disproportionately hard fighting, and they are notoriously dirty fighters, often sneaking under a rock or coral head and breaking you off.
You can always go to the Bahamas or the Florida Keys to get your saltwater fix. Even for fanatics like myself, it’s not worth risking your life to chase fish. If I was planning a trip to Sudan, my wife and my mother would be much happier if I delayed the trip until the current political situation becomes more stable. Until then, U.S. travelers will likely be missing out on a beautiful, remote, pristine part of the world with wonderful people.
I never felt unsafe and found the people open and friendly. During our trip, we were mostly out at sea and never saw a soul, just endless empty flats. I spoke to the folks at Tourette’s after the recent military coup—they had clients in the country during the event. There were no issues with that trip. The local sentiment is that removing President Omar al-Bashir was a good thing for Sudan. Tourette expects international relationships to improve, and travel will get even easier in the near future now that al-Bashir has been ousted.
Trouble exists everywhere if you are looking for it, but it’s also avoidable. If you were to look at the crime statistics of the worst parts of Detroit, you might never visit the U.S. That’s really how it is in most parts of the world. There are parts of Sudan that are dangerous, and I wouldn’t go near them for any reason, but out there on the empty Nubian flats, I felt secure.
I also believe in mitigating as much risk as possible. I carry a Global Rescue policy, not just for medical evacuation but security as well. When I’m going somewhere a little more risky, I call Global Rescue and walk through my itinerary and give them a copy. They give me a country debriefing and local contacts should I have any issues.
I also carry a satellite phone. Communication can avoid a lot of issues and help solve problems when they arise. Two-way satellite messaging devices like the Spot X or Garmin InReach allow you to send and receive messages almost anywhere. These devices also act as GPS trackers, so family and friends can see where you are. I carry both a phone and two-way messaging device, the combination gives me a little redundancy and helps reduce the risks involved with travel abroad. None of this means I’m going fishing in North Korea, but the Middle East has a lot of potential for great saltwater fishing.
In the end, the world is a great place, and most people I meet are genuinely great people. Traveling offers a lot of perspective and grounding and I think the world at large would be a better place if more people explored and learned more about our world. The more you go and do and see, the easier it is to empathize with others. Combine that with incredible fishing opportunities, and I expect to do it for the rest of my life. Do your homework, make a plan, don’t throw caution to the wind but go explore, the world is small and life is short!
*Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas—Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations around the world and in the American West.