July 06, 2016
The bird hatch of Farquhar Atoll (and other fly-fishing anomalies)
Goulette is the creole word for "tern," and it's also a desolate isle in the Indian Ocean. The sooty tern (Onychoprion fuscatus nubilosus) is the most common seabird in that part of the world, but humans rarely see or come in contact with them because they live and fly in open expanses of water, and only nest in isolated places where predators can't get at the eggs.
In August and September every year at Goulette Island there are more than 500,000 breeding pairs of terns covering the roughly eight city blocks of exposed coral. That number also includes cackling crowds of other terns like the brown noddy, lesser noddy, fairy tern, and other seabirds that stake out their turfs on the island the same way that Chinatown and Little Italy sit side by side in major cities.
While nesting, one tern hunts for food while the other tends to the eggs, and with all those birds on one little island, the adults have to work harder and longer to find less food than they normally would in the open ocean.
Death from Below
The chicks grow quickly through August and lose their fuzzy exterior in favor of flight feathers. Some wander too close to the water and are carried from the beach by waves, wind, and powerful tides. The parents are weary from feeding the chicks amid so much competition. Some of the adults are missing already, smashed from below by ghostly silver blue or black predators that follow their every move.
There is an urgent need for the fledglings to fly as soon as possible, to get off the island where their supply of food and fresh water is rapidly disappearing, and the tick population is booming.
When they first fly in October, the fledglings more than double the number of birds in the air and over the water. And when their trial flights begin, that's when all hell breaks loose.
All fly fishers have heard tales of a giant brown trout gulping a baby swallow when it falls from a riverside mud nest. Or of a pike that opportunistically snacks on a duckling. While those events are anecdotally fascinating because they so rarely happen, the feeding frenzy at Goulette is a far more predictable and widespread type of carnage. Every year the birds congregate at Goulette for nesting, and every year the giant trevally (also GTs, pronounced "geets") of the Farquhar group gather to eat as many terns as possible.
Longtime guides Peter King, Brendan Becker, Nic Isabelle, and Matthieu Cosson who work for the South Africa-based outfitter FlyCastaway have watched many days where the flats on the lagoon side of the island erupt with the assaults of giant trevally feasting on fledgling terns. The GTs can watch the low-flying birds from under the water, track them, match their speed, and then with a final thrust from their powerful tail, catapult into the air and either knock the bird down and disable it, or bite and carry the squawking mass into the water where it's gone in one easy bite.
"You just look across the flats and it's like cannonballs dropping into the water from every direction," says Becker, a five-year veteran at Farquhar who in 2015 guided a BBC film crew gathering material for a sequel to the documentary The Blue Planet. "It's complete mayhem."
Maybe because of the birds, Farquhar has the largest average size GTs in the Seychelles—many of them over a meter long. A GT that size has a mouth big enough to eat an NFL-size football. A fledgling tern is no problem.
To deal with these powerful predators, the guides use 12-weight rods, and 130-pound-test fluorocarbon monofilament looped to big-game lines like the RIO GT (70-pound-test core), or a SA Titan Big Water Taper (100-pound-test core). The line is critical because you have to throw a massive fly very quickly, and after the hookup you're in for a heavyweight brawl fenced with a coral perimeter. Crank down the drag and keep the fish as close as possible—within 50 or 100 yards—otherwise the coral will eventually reach up and destroy your fly line.
A standard fly for Farquhar GTs is a #7/0 black and white Poodle fly with copious EP Kinky fibers and giant 3D eyes. Designed like an oversized and overdressed Deceiver (and baitfish imitation), it also does a fair job of imitating a downed tern. You certainly don't see many 10-inch black-and-white baitfish swimming the flats.
But Oregon steelhead guide Jeff Hickman thought there had to be a better bird fly—a surface fly—so in November 2015 he found a black men's size 9 flip-flop along the shore at Farquhar and cut the straps off. He trimmed the heel to a narrow streamlined V shape, used the pieces to glue a prominent bird head on the "fly," and glued on the same 3D eyes as the Poodle. Then, using 130-pound-test fluorocarbon and the slits in the sole of the flip-flop, he fashioned a three-way harness with three #6/0 black EP Brush flies with all the feathers attached.
It's a contraption that would make even veteran musky anglers blush. You certainly can't cast it. Instead, Hickman stood at the edge of the channel running near the north end of Goulette, flipped his Bird Fly out there like a Frisbee, and then added stack mends to twitch and move the fly as the incoming tide dragged the belly of the line away from him.
I was a little bit upset about it actually," said guide Nic Isabelle when he told me the story a week later. "I thought it was like, a joke for him, and that we were wasting valuable time while the other guides were out catching GTs. But five minutes later, 'WHOOSH!' he had a GT. And it was the only one landed that day."
Luckily for us, Hickman captured the whole thing — tying the fly, casting, the explosion of the fish crashing the fly, and landing the GT—all on video. You can find it on youtube.com just by searching for "Farquhar Bird Fly."
According to the guides at Farquhar, the first few weeks after the season opener are by far the best weeks for landing numbers of big GTs, and it's all because of the birds. In the October 2015 season opener the first group landed 40 GTs in a week. It doesn't sound like a high number to a trout fisherman, but that roughly means eight fly fishers had over 100 hookups and triple that number of fish chase and either miss the fly or abort. That's insane GT action during a week when you're likely to spend only a fraction of your time specifically hunting for GTs with your 12-weight rod in hand. It's easy to get side-tracked by shoals of green bumphead parrotfish, tailing triggerfish munching in coral crevices, milkfish filter-feeding on the flats, not to mention Indo-Pacific permit, bonefish, and dozens of other strangely exotic species most North Americans have never heard of, let alone seen.
Fledging peaks in early October and tapers rapidly downward in the month that follows as the surviving juvenile birds head to sea. By November there are still thousands of nesting pairs on the island, but not hundreds of thousands.
As the terns evacuate Goulette, the GTs spread out across the entire archipelago and settle into more "routine" predatory feeding behaviors such as patrolling along the edges where 2-foot shallows drop off into unknown depths, following tiger sharks across the flats (any big shark actually) and scooping up fleeing prey, running a sandy beach on an incoming tide, or hunting the channels and gaps in the reef that serve as GT highways between the flats and the open ocean.
The cumulative land mass of all the islands in the Farquhar group is only about 3 square miles, but together with the shallow lagoons, flats (many of them dry at low tide), coral reefs, and channels, the entire fishing area is about 66 square miles—all of it a vast hunting ground for Farquhar's giant trevally most months of the year.
GTs are voracious apex predators capable and willing to eat almost anything they can get their enormous mouths around. They eat mostly other fish like parrotfish, wrasse, and bonefish, but also seek out crabs, spiny lobster, eels, squid, giant mantis shrimp, octopus—even small turtles and juvenile porpoises have been found in the stomachs of adult GTs. A GT is like a Pacman with fins, constantly moving, and constantly gobbling.
When they hunt the edges of the flats they are looking for literally anything that is alive, so your fly doesn't have to particularly imitate any one thing like a bird or an eel. It just has to appear in front of them at the appropriate time and move like a lifelike menu item. While it might sound easy to hook up such an aggressive and willing fish, it's not.
GTs are looking for big food items they can spot from far off, but to make that feeding strategy work, they have to move quickly. When you are sight fishing to feeding carp, redfish, bonefish, or tarpon in shallow water you often have a reasonable amount of time to put the fly in front of the fish.
GTs are big creatures, and you can often see them coming from a long way off, but they are coming in hot. You most often have one shot, the fly must land directly in their field of vision, and instantly move in a convincing manner. If the fly pauses at just the wrong time, or the fish spots the 130-pound tippet, or anything else doesn't look just right, they won't eat it. They are the boldest creatures on the flats, and can snatch prey from the jaws of a tiger shark, but they also have incredible acumen that will make you respect them . . . even bow down to them by the end of the week.
Cast of Characters
While Farquhar is famous for its large GTs, what truly makes it special is the incredibly diverse fishing for freaky flats fish that are as challenging and engaging as they are beautiful.
While they bear the same family name, and have similar body types as giant trevally, golden trevally are far different creatures. Just one look at their carplike, protractile mouth tells you a lot about these fish, and how they feed. Golden trevally don't race across the flats smashing everything in sight, they use their vacuum lips to suck crabs, shrimp, mollusks, and small fish from the bottom. They move slowly and feed carefully, often with their tails out of the water. Because they are focused on bottom feeding, your weighted fly must appear right underneath them.
Larger golden trevally often feed behind slow-moving nurse sharks or with shoals of bumphead parrotfish that act as a highly sensitive security perimeter. You'll have to use lighter 20- and 30-pound tippets with golden trevally, but you'll still have the same coral hazards to look out for.
Permit in Florida and the Caribbean have a well-deserved reputation for being wary. If you've ever entertained the idea that "angler pressure" produces those spooky permit, you might also think that an uninhabited tropical atoll 430 miles from the nearest population center might have "easy permit" but there is no such thing. Permit are just as hard to catch here as anywhere.
In truth, these aren't exactly the same fish (Trachinotus falcatus) we call permit in North America because that species is by definition native only to the Western Hemisphere. "Permit" in the Seychelles, Mauritius, and all the way to Australia are actually snubnose pompano (Trachinotus blochii). Other than just a slightly different shape around the eyes and forehead, and a glowing band of yellow/gold around the perimeter, these fish look, feed, and act the same as permit anywhere else in the world.
These are the strangest space aliens fish you'll ever tackle with a fly rod.
Because they congregate and sleep in large groups (often in caves or in shipwrecks) they are extremely vulnerable to spearfishing and netting. And wherever there are populations of humans, you can expect bumphead parrotfish to be a relic of marine history. The only places in the world where there are fishable numbers of bumphead parrotfish on flats are two little island groups in the Seychelles (Farquhar and Providence) where there aren't many people, and fishing for "bumpies" is catch-and-release only.
Like all parrotfish, bumpheads eat coral. Their "mouth" is best described as a prehistoric beak, designed to break off and crush pieces of coral. Each fish eats tons of coral per year, and defecates a nearly equal amount of sand, making them an important part of a healthy reef ecosystem.
Bumpheads feed into the current like most fish, but unlike most other fish, they won't identify your fly as food, then move to consume it. To hook them, your fly should be a reasonable facsimile of a piece of coral (or a small crab). You must position yourself upcurrent of a feeding/moving group of bumpies, cast across, and then slowly swing the fly at an angle to intercept fish feeding near the front of the pack. Try to stay away from the lead fish, which is often one of the largest and oldest in a group, and seems to act as a group watchdog.
I have seen a lead fish raise an eyeball above the surface, look directly at me, and then quietly turn and take the group back to deep water. And that's when I was frozen like a statue. If you make a sudden movement or brush a fish unnaturally with the line or leader you'll see them thrash the flats in a stampede toward deep water.
If you hook one of these aquatic dinosaurs you've got about a 1 in 10 chance of actually landing it. Their beaks can break or cut a saltwater hook shank, sharp coral cuts a tight fly line as easily as scissors, and these fish have a rare combination of speed, power, and stamina.
But because these huge fish (mostly 30 to 50 pounds) tail and feed in water that often barely covers them, they are visually fascinating, frustrating, and perilously addictive. My friend Tola Chin hooked 13 of these beautiful creatures—more than the rest of the lodge guests that week combined. I was with him on the flats near the shipwreck at Diposé Island when we cast at parking lots full of tailing bumpies for two hours. He hooked two fish that afternoon, and came agonizingly close to landing a 50-pound giant by running a half mile through waist-deep water to keep the line as short as possible. Our guide was close at hand with a net, but as usual "something" cut the line just as the fish was beginning to tire. Unlike GTs, bumpies require 30-pound-test monofilament or lighter, so every fish that poses for a photo is a minor miracle.
This is why you bring an 8-weight rod to Farquhar. When the tide is ankle-deep and just starting to come in, triggerfish (and bonefish) are the first to sneak onto the flats where they get first crack at edibles hiding in the cracks and crevices of hard coral flats. When you spot them, their entire tail and parts of both dorsal fins are often waving a friendly invitation. Or else sticking a middle finger in the air.
Tailing triggerfish aren't tilted slightly toward the bottom like a bonefish when they feed, they are vertical, using their pointed heads and powerful canine teeth to pulverize sea urchins, starfish, mollusks, and crustaceans. They have essentially no field of vision when they feed, and when that tail goes down, they move from spot to spot in random, unpredictable directions, so it's extremely tough to predict where the fish is going and intercept it. While bumpies move in a leisurely forward path like cows grazing a field, jittery triggerfish are all over the place, sometimes even backtracking with no apparent rhyme or reason. Triggerfish are food-focused when they are tailing, but when that tail comes down, their security system switches to high alert. If they see you, the line, or your rod moving, or they don't like the way your fly or leader "plinks" on the shallow flats, you'll see a sudden bow wake toward deeper water, and nothing else.
In calm afternoon sight-fishing conditions you can gain a slight advantage in leading the fish with the fly because you can see where they are headed, but then they are incredibly spooky. Your best shots come when a wind ruffles the surface so you can drop your fly without spooking the fish. If you don't spook the fish and it actually sees your fly, there's a good chance the trigger will follow and then try to "pin" the fly against the bottom.
They have tiny mouths and crazy teeth, so they'll rarely just come up from behind and consume the fly like a bonefish. It's common to have an aggressive triggerfish trap the fly against the hard coral bottom two or three times on a single retrieve. Stay in constant contact with the fly to feel the trap-and-capture, pause, then use a short, firm strip-set to dig in the hook.
There are triggerfish in every tropical flats/reef ecosystem in the world, but in the Caribbean you'll see mostly gray triggerfish on the flats. The Indian Ocean is rich with different brightly colored triggerfish, and on Farquhar you'll see mostly mustache (giant) and yellow margin (peachface) triggerfish.
You'll need smallish #6-8 bonefish flies for these beautiful flats fish, and even smaller flies if you want to tick a Picasso triggerfish off the list, although these tiny, memorable triggerfish should probably be considered an aquarium species rather than a gamefish. Whatever floats your boat though. Bigger is not always better.
What I've described (above) are only a few of the most fascinating, challenging, and foreign flats fish you'll find at Farquhar. It's also an incredibly prolific atoll for large bonefish, and if you hunt any of the backreef flats on the west side on an incoming tide with good light, you'll get nonstop shots at bonefish up to 10 pounds. If bumpies and GTs have skunked you for a couple of days, it's a great way to get your mojo back. But then, you didn't come all this way to catch a bunch of bonefish.
While wading the flats you'll also catch bluefin trevally, spangled emperor fish, yellow lips, Napoleons (humphead wrasse), pufferfish, and numerous other fish you've never seen before, and probably won't see again. When the tide is high and you can't flats fish, you can blind cast over coral outcroppings and catch bohar snapper, grouper, wrasse, barracuda, and you can also tease up sailfish, wahoo, rainbow runner, and tuna in the nearby blue water just 500 yards from the lodge buildings.
Unless you're a veteran of the Indian Ocean, it's very likely that you'll catch a new species of fish every day at Farquhar. But don't come for just the fish. The terns and other seabirds, the unbelievable numbers of turtles on the flats and nesting on the beaches under a full moon, giant coconut crabs, ancient Farquhar tortoises, and many other creatures and plants create an isolated biodiversity that is both rare and wonderful. Whether or not you catch a fish you'll cherish every day at Farquhar because there's always something new to see and experience.
To book a trip to Farquhar, contact The Fly Shop in Redding, California, at 530-222-3555. They have experienced advisors who have been to Farquhar, and are in constant contact with the local outfitter.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.