What’s left on your fly fishing bucket list? Steelhead, pike, striped bass? These are pretty simple, you could probably catch all 3 on one trip without a boat if you planned it right. How about things like tarpon, king salmon, muskie, sailfish, or other commonly pursued trophy fly rod trophies? These are a little tougher, but still easily accomplished with minimal resources and a little time. What about marlin? Trevally? Taimen? How about a tigerfish? These are the kinds of fish that we’re talking about! Fish that really require a high level of commitment—both physical and financial. If you are seriously running out of fish to target on your next big trip, or just really want to have one up on your fishing buddies, have I got a trip for you!
What if you could target a trophy fish with a fly rod, that is still off everyone’s radar? It’s not going to be easy or cheap, but most things worthwhile aren’t. Success is far from guaranteed, your personal safety may be in danger the entire time, and the budget of this will surely exceed that of the last several trips you’ve gone on combined.
A hundred years ago, this fish was unknown to man. Many people have still not heard of it, very few have actually seen one, even fewer have actually caught one, and almost no one has caught one on a fly.
The fish we’re going after could only be one thing – the coelacanth.
“Aren’t those the prehistoric ‘missing link’ type fish only found in deep water off Africa” is what everyone says now. Yes they are prehistoric, and quite possibly are a missing link between primitive creatures and certain other animals. They do live in very deep water most of the time, but a select group of sportsmen from Africa has discovered times and places when these denizens of the deep come into range of sport fishermen. Sometimes WAY into range.
I had a chance, and very random conversation at a family function with a friend of a family member who told me the craziest fish story I had ever heard. As unbelievable as it was, I still found myself sending a letter [the paper kind] to a person on the other side of the globe. I got a response, and this led to a ton of research, me learning parts of 2 new languages, culminating in a 20,000 mile round trip journey involving almost every form of transportation you could think of, including a giant tortoise that hauled my gear at one point.
I sold one of my boats to help pay for the trip, sponsors paid for parts of the rest, and my generous hosts covered most of my expenses once there. Now, I am hosting a trip that will allow an obsessed and compulsive fly fisherman to accomplish what virtually no one has done before—coelacanth on a fly.
While these fish are well established as being denizens of very deep [100-500 meters, or 300 -1500 feet], it has recently be discovered that these fish actually come to shallows at certain times of the year. Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago when we knew nothing at all of this fish, and since the first specimen was caught by a commercial fisherman in 1938 off the coast of Africa, there have been populations confirmed in other locales. My research has even uncovered rumors of American subspecies of coelacanth, but that’s another story for another day.
At the far western fringe of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean are a few very remote atolls that have the unique combination of a remote location, heavy environmental protection, and very specific habitat found virtually nowhere else on earth. These atolls are surrounded by very deep waters that are known to be the home of the aforementioned deep water coelacanths. The atolls we’re concerned with each consist of a ring of islands surrounding very large lagoons. These lagoons connect to the deep ocean through distinct channels that have a high volume of water moving through them when the tide changes. It is in these channels where things get really interesting. While my new friend and guide Captain Stuart Bing is still putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together, it is a fact that the C-los [that’s what we call them] come into and feed in these channels at certain times. It is believed that this strange occurrence revolves around a spawning ritual coinciding with a mass exodus of a local type of shrimp that call the lagoons home. During the biggest spring tides, these shrimp leave the lagoons by the thousands, and the C-los lie in wait in the channels, sometimes creating moonlit feeding frenzies that just cannot be believed. Yeah, I said moonlit, this is almost strictly a nighttime deal. These fish are very light sensitive, and it is at the time of the first full moon following the Perigean spring tide that this really gets going.
ONE OF OUR FAVORITE CHANNELS, THERE ARE OTHERS JUST LIKE IT!
Timing on this trip is crucial. A week too early or too late could mean no fish. We have studied the movements of these fish compared to tides and moon phases for the past few years and are confident that our next trip will be right on as far as timing goes. During this moon phase, it is thought that they stage in semi deep water out from the channel mouths during the day. Then, the C-los move into these channels as the sun sets, and they seem to alternate between feeding and mating behavior. The shrimp come out of the lagoons on the outgoing tide, the reason for this we don’t know. We don’t see them coming back on an incoming, at least not in any huge numbers, so this must be a time when the shrimp just disperse to populate other areas. When the shrimp start moving, it is not long before the C-los come calling.
When the C-los are feeding, it creates a disturbance that is hard to believe. There is a lot of jaw snapping, thrashing, and splashing as they gulp down these shrimp by the dozen. Other C-los will hear this and join the melee, and before you know it you can have schools of C-los numbering in the hundreds tearing up the channel. When they are feeding this way, they viciously attack virtually everything we have cast at them that even vaguely resembles these 3 -5” long shrimp. Then, perhaps when they’ve eaten enough, the entire group of fish will cease feeding and begin this other behavior that is hard to describe. It is reminiscent of how tarpon form a “daisy chain”, except that they move in more or less a straight line, so instead of “daisy chaining”, we call it “crazy training”. If you are lucky enough to witness it, you’ll see how fitting this name is, as these huge fish follow behind one another, biting at each other, and sometimes sticking their heads out of the water and loudly snapping their jaws. You can actually hear their jaws snapping from nearly a mile away. They always move into the current, and it is always the biggest fish at the front of the train. The others will follow wherever their leader goes, and it often ends up looking like and incredibly long snake as the train sinuates up the channel. Sometimes an intrepid individual will make a move that allows him to cut ahead of the fish in front of him—it usually starts with the trailing fish clamping down on the next fish’s tail hard enough to get the front fish to spin around. This distraction allows the trailing fish to move up a place. Why it is desirable to move up in the train, we don’t know. While the C-los start “training”, trying to get them to bite has proven futile—they are just not interested in feeding, and we’ve tried various lures and even live shrimp to no avail. This is just as well, because if you were there for the frenzy, it is likely that you’ve had enough fish fighting for a night, now it is time to enjoy the show.
OUR SPECIAL LIGHTS ILLUMINATED THIS GROUP AS THEY CHANGED FROM FEEDING TO “TRAINING”
The moon will be full, or at least mostly full for the duration of the trip, and once you are used to it you can see surprisingly well. There is also considerable bio-luminescence occurring, adding to the bizarre scene. If the moon does not cooperate, we have developed some special lighting systems that not only allow us to observe these magnificent fish, but also seem to draw the shrimp to whichever part of the channel we have staked out in.
So, we’re fly fishing at night in one of the most remote areas on earth. An area known to have pirates, crocodiles, and huge sharks. Safety is a huge concern on these trips, and we have come up with multi-boat system that allows each angler to hook and land as many fish as is possible during a session. We fish from a Mother Ship that is anchored or staked out at a favorite spot in the channel.
OUR MOTHER SHIP–THE “TORTUGA”, NAMED AFTER THE GIANT TORTOISES FOUND ON THE ATOLLS
As the night progresses, the fish move up closer to the lagoon, and it is sometimes necessary to make a move in the middle of a session. While the Mother Ship is large, the designated casting area is relatively small, allowing for two anglers to cast at a time. When a fish is hooked up, the angler is escorted into a smaller “chase boat” [captained by your personal guide/valet] allowing the angler to keep the fish close and land it in a reasonable amount of time. Once the fish is landed, the guide drives the boat back and ties off to the Mother Ship. The successful angler can take a break, enjoy a snack or beverage while he waits for his turn to come up again. In a typical night, each angler will hook up about 5 times with a fifty percent landing ratio. Safety is always a concern, as pirates, smugglers and other malfeasants are known to pass through this area. The Mother Ship has a fulltime security crew including a gunner with a 50 caliber fully automatic rifle. Your guide will always be armed with both a rifle and a sidearm, and the chase boat has emergency supplies should you become unable to return to the mother ship. On more than one occasion it had been necessary to wait until daylight to rescue a chase boat that ended up in the open ocean while pursuing their fish. GPS and beacons make this process relatively simple. When we picked up one angler, he proudly showed off his giant fly reel that had been stripped of the quarter mile of backing.
CAPTAIN STU WITH ONE THAT WAS KEPT FOR DNA RESEARCH
Your guide will be at your side from the time you get picked up in Madagascar until you are dropped off. He will act not only as your fishing guide, but as your valet, assisting you with anything you need every step of the way. These guides are very knowledgeable of the waters and surrounding islands, and are very familiar with the fish and wildlife, as well as local culture. These guides are still learning the nuances of sport fishing though, and may not be able to offer much help with technical fly fishing questions or rigging. If you are not able to select and rig your tackle, tie knots, or handle and unhook fish, then this trip is not for you.
OUR TOP GUIDE TKAO HOISTS A BIG ONE BEFORE RELEASE
As far as tackle goes, this is a trip for heavy gear. You will be provided with a complete list of tackle and gear required for the trip, and only approved rods and reels will be allowed when we are set up for C-los. We’ve had pretty good success with 12 weights, and any current model from a respected fly rod company should suit you well. There are not any rods lighter than a #12 that will be allowed. Some anglers prefer the added beef of a true big game rod, like a #14, and using a rod like this will reduce the fight time. Be sure to have a reel to match, packed with as much backing as you can fit on it. Remember, these fish average 50 lbs., and you will have chances every night at fish over 100. We have seen and hooked some true giants, fish that look every ounce of 200 pounds, and if you don’t want to end up on the wrong end of a rescue operation your tackle better be up to the task. There may be some opportunities for smaller gamefish like trevally or bonefish, so if you want to bring a few lighter outfits for these fish, that’s fine. Just make sure that you have at least 2 outfits that are a #12 or heavier.
You will be fishing at night, so items often associated with saltwater trips like sunblock and polarized sunglasses are less important than you might think, but still bring them. More important are good deck shoes, fish fighting gloves [batting gloves work well], the largest size Boga Grip, and a CO-2 inflatable life vest [we ask that you leave this on at all times]. If you have not done so already, consider getting a conceal/carry permit before the trip. You cannot bring your own firearm on the trip, but permit holders will be issued a side arm one we are on location.
In the months leading up to the trip, we we be having several get-togethers where we will go over rigging, flies, fly tying, and general discussions of tactics and the logistics of the trip. These meetings can be viewed via skype if you can’t make it. This trip is scheduled for spring of 2016, the complete itinerary and prices will be finalized in the summer of 2015.
I realize very well that this trip is not for everyone. For the truly adventurous angler, this is a trip that is unmatched. So unique is this trip that we will be accompanied by a crew from the Discovery Channel that will be compiling video for a two hour special scheduled to air during Shark Week of 2016.
If you would like to be on the mailing list for updates on this epic adventure, be sure to send me an email describing why you would like to go on this trip, be sure to describe your experience level and other trips you have been on. There is only room for eight anglers this time, depending on how this trip goes we expect to do a similar trip the following year that could allow for more anglers.
One more thing, be sure to let me know if you are up for some smallmouth bass or muskie fishing, we can catch lots of those much closer to home, using tackle you probably already have on water with virtually no pirates.