Paradise in the Wild West of the Indian Ocean
October 27, 2017
Riding a cruiser around the three-mile perimeter of Alphonse Island doesn't take long, but overwhelms the senses nonetheless. The massive webs of palm spiders span the road, slowing, stretching, and ripping as I pedal through. Coconuts fall and hit the sandy earth with cannonball thuds. Crabs dodge the bike wheels, wave their lethal claws, and scuttle into dried palm husks. A 90-year-old Aldabra giant tortoise meanders across the grassy lawn before the guide hut, making his slow way to a daily mating ritual with a resident female. This sandy knoll in the Indian Ocean is the base camp of Keith Rose-Innes, managing director of Alphonse Fishing Company and Alphonse Island Resort.
"It's been a long journey, but I feel most at home here," says the South African. Today, Rose-Innes finds himself harvesting the fruits of 20 years of hard labor as the leader of one of the most logistically complicated angling destinations on the planet. To understand this explorer, you have to understand this place, 932 miles east of Africa, just under 10 degrees south of the Equator, and hopelessly encircled by what some would argue to be the richest and most challenging saltwater fishing on the planet.
"There are so many species here. The beauty here is distinct, very untouched, and much more wild than comparable locations, like the Maldives," says Rose-Innes.
The Seychelles are thought to have been mostly uninhabited throughout most of recorded history, visited only by passing Austronesian seafarers and Arab traders. The islands were later used by pirates and other wayfarers until the French began to colonize the islands in the mid-1700s. In 1810, the British Empire took control of the Seychelles, and made it a Crown colony. The islands were granted independence in 1976. Alphonse Island parallels this history and saw its busiest days when it was converted to a coconut plantation in the 1950s, and a resort in 1999.
Coat of Arms
Rose-Innes, now 39, was raised in King William's Town, South Africa, which was founded by his Scottish expat ancestors. His father served in the Rhodesian Bush War and upon sustaining a head injury, met his mother, a nurse. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, fly fishing was a significant part of Rose-Innes's upbringing. But in South Africa, there wasn't a cohesive angling culture to look to for guidance. Instead, his knowledge came mostly through his father and his grandfather, Harry Stewart, a famed angler and fly manufacturer in Zimbabwe.
"I read Trey Combs's books many times. In South Africa we didn't have much reading material with apartheid. When I would get a book from my grandfather across the border, I would study it cover to cover," he recalls. After a trip in his teens to the wild flats of the Seychelles, and treks to the untamed Zambezi River, finding a "normal job" wasn't his goal.
"I've never thought that way. Ever. Not once," he says.
Keith completed a university degree in advertising and made his way to London, working at a fly shop, bartending, landscaping, and playing rugby. He even set up a display at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show.
"I was so poor that I wore my black school shoes for the first three years I was there," he remembers. From there, he squeezed his way into Farlows on Pall Mall, the fly shop mecca of Old World fly fishing and a grooming grounds for international guides.
Rose-Innes bounced from Farlows to guiding the Amirantes Islands of the Seychelles, enticing fly fishers from London to join him in the Indian Ocean. Wanting to expand into untouched portions of the Seychelles, he hopped on a 100-foot schooner, the Mika, with a few friends to explore the outer atolls.
"We figured it out ourselves. We didn't have satellite images. We had charts. We'd go to the government mapmaker in Mahé. The maps were all printed in the '80s. We'd laminate them and plot our course. The depths weren't correct. So a few times, especially on Cosmoledo, we had the boat sideways on the sand," he nonchalantly relates.
The crew also carried a copy of Smiths' Sea Fishes, a 1965 biology classic, as their bible for figuring out how to catch giant trevally, triggerfish, and milkfish. In the exploratory process, they expanded the reach of South African fly fishers who have a reputation as some of the grittiest hunters, trackers, and guides on the planet.
"South Africans over the last 20 years have pioneered areas that are logistically difficult. Nobody opened up these places until these guys came along. They're fearless guys who have pushed the boundaries of our perception of what is accessible," says Jim Klug, Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures director of operations. "What they are collectively doing significantly raises the bar. They are not only some of the best guides, they are completely fearless. Keith was there from the beginning, restructuring what the next frontier of fly fishing is."
The grit you acquire growing up on the African continent—bush life combined with often-unpredictable political climates—makes the notion of adventure take on an entirely different meaning. Hopping onto a schooner sailing into the unknown didn't require deliberation for Rose-Innes.
"It's the 'Wild West' in South Africa. Always have a back-up plan for your back-up plan," Rose-Innes says. "You [in the developed world] have no idea what we have to deal with. But that's what equips us to work in these environs and with complicated logistics."
Rose-Innes founded his own outfitting company, Fly Guide, and eventually joined forces with Seychelles veterans Arno Mathee and Gerhard Laubscher to form FlyCastaway.
The South African company soon had the reputation as a grooming ground for the most hardcore guides, and drew recruits from around the planet. One such grasshopper was Jako Lucas. Rose-Innes encouraged him to finish university and then to work at Farlows, which is exactly what he did. After a year, Lucas circled back and asked for a job. Three weeks later, he was guiding at Cosmoledo.
"We'd throw them in the deep end and they'd have to guide. Jako didn't get training," Rose-Innes laughs. "We showed him a few spots on the map, told him where we'd be, to keep his radio on, and then to get out there and guide. And that's how we did it. After two to three weeks, he'd know a few spots and get better. Every night he picked our brains, and that's how he learned."
"'Fake it 'til you make it.' I live by that," says Lucas. "It was four years before I even had the chance to pick up a fly rod and fish the flats. So I was guiding for fish I had never caught. Keith's confidence, fishing knowledge, kindness, and willingness to teach others are just a few of the qualities that make him a good mentor, not just for me but for many others. No other person has done as much for the Seychelles as he has."
After years of running the logistical side of FlyCastaway, in 2012 Rose-Innes teamed up with The Collins Group and Devan VanDerMerwe to form the Alphonse Fishing Company.
The resort ambience is second to none. The open-air lounge areas, bar, and bungalows are comfortably island chic without going over the top. This is a place where you can show up to dinner in your fishing attire. Creole-influenced meals are largely made from the island's garden produce and with local fish. All guests are issued cruiser bikes to get around. Staff are encouraged to mingle with guests during the evening happy hours. Good, clean island living is the overall vibe.All-Star Team
His face has graced the covers of magazines and appeared in fishing films, such as Yeti's 2016 Cosmo. We're used to seeing Rose-Innes on the water, but he'll tell you he's as much a land creature as a sea dog. He's in the office many days and nights, or zipping around the island, overseeing everything imaginable. I watch him hunched over with a maintenance worker, inspecting the ground for the placement of post holes. He greets incoming guests on turnover days, and coordinates with conservation scientists stationed on the island.
"Keith's got to have a finger on everything. Everyone will tell you that," says Sam Balderson, a naturalist and activities director. "But the great thing about Keith is that 'what you see is what you get.' He's very forthright and ridiculously driven."
If you dream of working on this island paradise, you'd best be ready to keep up. Alphonse Fishing Company has 2,000 guide résumés on file. The secret's out that this is the place to become part of one of the most prestigious guide teams on the planet.
"You have to be really careful who you choose. Here in the Seychelles, it's best to choose character over skill. Skill can be taught. It's about spending time training the guides," says Rose-Innes. "There's no competitive edge within our team. It's about talking to everybody, sharing information, camaraderie, socializing in the evenings, tying flies, cleaning boats together. Going out on the water and getting results will come naturally."
Rose-Innes keeps this all-star team fresh by balancing young guides with senior guides and moving them around different destinations, so they don't get "island fever" from being in one place for too long. They work eight months straight at a time, six days a week, so a change of scenery is revitalizing.
The team functions as a unit, pushing you beyond your bounds in a tough saltwater environment. Every guide on Alphonse will make you a better, more focused angler. Day one, I was fumbling to keep up. By day five, I was almost ready to slit throats—metaphorically speaking, of course, and even then, giant trevally throats.
Rose-Innes and guide Ollie Thompson took a fellow writer and me out for a day on the water. The sky was dauntingly split down the middle. The weather alternated between heavy tropical rain with wind and inescapable sun.
We moored the boat near some knolls and hiked. Because the flats are firm, fishing is often done on foot, making the experience a true hunt. Some hikes span finger flats the length of football fields and others are a 6-mile round trip slog through water, like one to the rusted remains of a wrecked Japanese long-liner on the outer edge of the atoll.
Fishing from a skiff is equally an adventure. The changing spectrum of green and blue water glaze over Chihuly-like coral formations flush with fish. It's like floating over a giant aquarium filled with hawksbill and green turtles, sharks, rays, and hundreds of other mysterious fish species.
We started with a few bonefish, the warm-up species here. My young boat companion and fellow writer Alex Ford made the foolish mistake of assigning himself to land a triggerfish for a Wall Street Journal piece. So after a few bonefish, the rest of our day was focused on these notoriously tricky fish.
We motored to a finger flat. I sat while Ford stood on the casting deck. Rose-Innes hopped out and pulled the skiff behind him. Thompson stood on the platform. Both scanned the flats and soon pinpointed the turned-up tail of a foraging triggerfish waving at us.
On Ford's third cast, the trigger took the small, green crab and hightailed it toward the edge of the flat, which drops off sharply. With a magnificent splash, Thompson leapt from the poling platform, sprinting through water with a net, hot on the tail of the fish, lifting the line, and making a diving attempt to scoop it before it reached the coral wall. With Rose-Innes yelling directions, the trigger plunged over the side, into a coral hole, and sawed off the line. Thompson sloshed back to the boat, dejected.
We took shots at triggers throughout the day, and on the last cast of the day, I hooked one. But I tensed up as it made its dive down the reef, and it also snapped off in the coral.
"You did it right! You did it right, and then freaked out," Rose-Innes exclaimed, slapping me on the back. Damn. It. We returned to the skiff and called it a day. I got a few refusals in the following days, but didn't hook a trigger again. That was my chance.
Rose-Innes is a Thomas & Thomas ambassador, and with his guides he has helped T&T owner Neville Orsmond, a South African businessman, refine T&T's saltwater rods.
"Keith's somewhere between Indiana Jones and The Most Interesting Man in the World," says Orsmond. "He's done it all and has helped me so much with the Exocett rod. He understands fishing in the harshest conditions. I can build it, but he truly gets it. We've gone through an entire design process with him and Devan. Those rods are out there every day, all day, getting fished hard, going one hundred percent through the paces.
"There isn't a better place to test them. And there aren't better people to do it," Orsmond continued. "They understand all the conditions that this rod has to perform under during one, small opportunity. What's going to stop a GT? That's where Keith and his crew have given us critical feedback. They understand people and fly fishing. They've helped us design for everyone, not just pros."
Beyond experimenting with rod design, Rose-Innes is also working to conserve natural resources. For example, the story of sea turtles around Alphonse Island is one of conservation success. Sea turtles were prized for their meat and shells for centuries. By the 20th century, sea turtle hunting was unsustainable. Legal protections, combined with the presence of an angling operation and guide activity to keep an eye on the resource, have drastically decreased turtle hunting. Today as you walk the flats, you can't take a step without practically tripping over a happily grazing hawksbill or green turtle.
The same is true of Aldabra giant tortoises, which also inhabit the island. Rose-Innes heard of a hotel owner on Mahé who was hoarding the giant tortoises. "They were just hanging out, being cool, doing what giant tortoises do," Rose-Innes said. So he offered the tortoise collector a price, and brought a boatload of juvenile giant tortoises back to Alphonse with him, handing them off to the conservation program, which now breeds and monitors the strange, gentle giants. Juveniles and hatchlings are held in a cement enclosure, which guests may visit at any time and interact with one of the rarest species on the planet, existing only in the Seychelles and the Galapagos.
Alphonse also carefully manages its own food fishery.
"We don't import any fish. We catch all of our own fish here, and don't believe in pillaging surrounding areas. In return, we manage our fishery respectfully and responsibly. We don't fish [for food] any shallower than 80 meters," explains Rose-Innes. "We mainly fish deeper areas and only for pelagics. And that's created a big change in our dive spots. There are now more fish in those places."
What's next for a man who, as many have noted, has done it all?
"I see myself doing this forever. I don't know about living here. I've got a family, but I'm lucky I've got a great partner who understands that I need to be out here. I love what I do and she also comes out here," closes Rose-Innes. "I can't wait to teach my children how to fish. At this point, I'm not doing this for me, but in order to have something for my family to enjoy."
Sarah Grigg (sarah-grigg.com) is a writer and editor based in Bozeman, Montana.