LAND OF THE LEMUR:
A lone frigate bird flew high above the ocean, gliding in tight spirals as it rode the thermals, occasionally dipping lower to hover over a specific spot of the ocean before moving on. Standing at the helm of ‘Tipaul’, John Peluffo had spotted the bird, and immediately altered course towards it. To the untrained eye a lone sea bird flying above the water would have been just that, but blue water fishermen like Peluffo recognise birds as being the signposts of the ocean and know that,more often than not, they indicate the presence of feeding fish beneath.
By now the morning breeze had completely died away, and the deep indigo blue waters of the Mozambique current off the northern coast of Madagascar where we were fishing were totally becalmed, just the gentlest of swell lifted our bow as we trolled across an otherwise slick calm ocean. As we steadily approached the area where the bird was working our eyes strained for signs of life, watching, hoping for the first tell tail signs of feeding game fish. Our spread of lures and baits were skipping and splashing along behind us in our wake, hopefully if fish were present they could be tempted into striking at one.
We were perhaps 300 yards away from the bird when we saw what we had been hoping to see. The black sickle shaped tail of a billfish sliced through the oily surface film, followed moments later by a long spindle beak protruding in front of the glorious electric blue sail like dorsal of a large sailfish. Standing in the bows I became totally engrossed as I watched that fish snatch small sardines off the surface, and we were almost upon it before I realised that the fish was far from being on its own. Suddenly the surface of the ocean erupted in a mass of bills, tails and sails, which I could now see were feeding on a dense shoal of baitfish that they had trapped into a ball.
Looking down into the clearest of blue water I could see many more sailfish, which at times were gliding past the bow like dolphins, some almost within touching distance. It was a truly magnificent sight and I could happily have sat and watched it all day, but I was suddenly snapped back to reality by excited shouts from John and his crew in the cockpit behind me…”La Peche, La Peche!” I admit I totally flunked French in school, but at that moment I did not need a book of French verbs to realise that something was happening back amongst our spread of baits!
For a moment I couldn’t see just what the crew had spotted then suddenly a dark brown shadow followed by a beak appeared behind one of the ‘belly-shine’ strips fishing closest to the boat as a flat line, tapping at it inquisitively with its bill. Grabbing the rod I threw the reel into free-spool and barely had time to drop the bait back towards the interested fish when in a shower of spray the bait was snatched and line was being stripped from the reel. I pushed the lever drag reel forward to the strike position, the line drew tight, and I set the hook.
A split second later my first Madagascan sailfish exploded into the air and tail walked across the surface. Next came a series of spectacular head shaking jumps then the fish scorched off across the surface at what marine biologists inform us can be as fast as a mile minute. It was only then that I realised that it wasn’t just me that had hooked a fish. Two other fish were also tail walking and grey hounding about the ocean, John and our crewman Douda also were tight to fish…a triple-header of big sailfish aboard a 22ft boat, this was going to be fun!
Ten minutes after hook up my sailfish was lying alongside the boat ready for release, which by necessity was more or less a solitaire affair with John and Douda still preoccupied with their own fish, but after another five minutes or so all three fish had been dealt with and we were ready to try for more. The feeding fish were still clearly visible, and once again as soon as our baits came close all hell broke loose, only this time we had to settle for just a double header. One of the camps other boats, ‘Michelle’, was also fishing the same area and I could see the anglers aboard her, too, were busy fighting fish, and this was how the action continued until we gave up just before dusk.
Lying off the coast of south-east Africa Madagascar is the fourth biggest island in the world. Prior to my first trip it had been somewhere I’d wanted to visit for many years, as much to see the country and its rich flora and fauna and unique wildlife as for the fishing. Madagascar is one of the few areas of the world about which so little is still known, and it was only towards the end of the last millennium that any sort of regular tourist trade started to develop.
Much of the interior of the mainland is a wild and desolate place where, it is rumoured, cannibalism is still practised. Some tribes occasionally dig up their dead relatives and dance with them at certain festivals. Madagascar is the only place in the world where lemurs are found, and its here that you will also find weird looking chameleons along with carnivorous plants. Certainly Madagascar is a prime destination for anyone looking for a tropical angling adventure.
Nosy Be is a small island which lies off the northern tip of Madagascar, an area offering easy access to a world-class sports fishery. Translated Nosy Be means ‘The Big Island’ and following a 12 hour overnight flight from Paris to the Madagascan capital Antananarivo, followed by a 1 hour flight to Nosy Be, finally I arrived in this tropical paradise which is more generally known as the ‘Perfumed Island’.
For the most part Nosy Be is covered in dense rain forest and jungle, though large areas have been cultivated to grow a wide array of tropical fruits, coffee, sugar, rice, vanilla, peppers, spices and the beautiful smelling flower known as ylang-ylang whose wonderful aroma hangs over much of the interior of the island, and from which a pungent essence is extracted that is used as the base to make the worlds finest perfumes.
The French run game fishing camp is located on the north east coast of Nosy Be, in an area known as Ambafao. It’s called ‘Terre Rouge’, red earth, after the rich colour of the native soil. To get to the camp you must first drive for half an hour to the islands capital, which goes by the dubious name of Hellville and was apparently so named after a French admiral. Hellville can best be described as being a typical third world African harbour town, steeped in colonial history, bustling with life and rustic in the extreme, though these days very run down, its not the sort of place to spend too much time given a choice. Your tropical adventure really begins when you board one of the camps boats, which will take you on the 40 minute run along the coast to the camp.
The camp itself is located along the very edge of an supremely beautiful shallow water lagoon, and consists of an open central dining area and 8 wooden chalets set just back from the beach beneath the palm trees. Facilities at the camp are basic, yet more than adequate for most anglers needs.
Apart from its truly exotic location and first class food, the single biggest attraction for most visiting anglers will be the camps close proximity to the fishing grounds. The main sailfish area is located less than two and a half miles straight out from the beach, a mere 10-15 minute run. A typical day fishing here will consist of an early start, usually leaving the beach by 0700, often returning to the camp for lunch and perhaps a siesta, before heading back out to fish again until dusk. The waters off Madagascar are noted for being calm and while on some days I fished we woke to find a stiff breeze blowing across the sound from the mainland, invariably by mid-morning the sea would be calm. When it does rain, it almost always rains here at night.
When fishing for billfish the first task of the day is to catch a few fresh bonito for bait, from which the tough, shiny, belly fillets are cut. At other places I’ve fished for sailfish these are cut into long thin strips, then rigged in conjunction with a colourful lure. Here the entire belly is folded and carefully sewn onto the hook, then fished alongside the usual spread of teasers and lures. They call these baits “belly-shine’, elsewhere they are known as Panama Strip Baits.
Another thing unique about the sailfish at Nosy Be is the shear numbers of fish that are present throughout the season. I have seen for myself, that it is far from unusual to see hundreds of fish each day and to experience dozens of strikes. I would say the sailfish fishery off northern Madagascar is very similar to that found off the Pacific coast of Central America, both when talking in the number and average size of fish caught.
Black marlin are another speciality in these fish rich waters, several very large fish had been hooked in the days prior to my arrival, so it was an easy decision to to spend the first couple of days of my week long trip trying for a marlin. Marlin, including some of the biggest specimens caught in the area are occasionally taken on the sailfish grounds in front of the camp, but a better bet is to fish an area known as the ‘drop-off’. The drop off is located about 8 miles north of Nosy Be, and here the depth rapidly plummets from less than 50ft to well over 1000ft. As you would expect in such areas, the fishing can be quite exceptional.
“In addition to good numbers of black marlin, which are mostly fish between 150-300lb but often include larger specimens up to 600lb or more, the area around the drop off also produces lots of sailfish plus all of the usual blue water pelagic species including yellow fin tuna, wahoo, dorado, tuna, kingfish and sharks. The bottom fishing, too can be exceptional for enormous grouper, snappers, sharks and various species of trevally,” explained John Peluffo, the Italian camp manager, now a great friend following four trips to Madagascar and five to The Maldives with this expert angler.
“The usual technique for fishing for marlin here is to slowly troll either a live or dead bonito, but the shear numbers of other fish that will readily take these baits can make concentrating exclusively for a marlin difficult,” continued John, which was exactly what we found as invariably no sooner had we caught a bait, rigged it and set it to work, when it would be slashed to pieces by either a kingfish, barracuda or a wahoo. In the end we were forced to switch to concentrating for sailfish further inshore.
An occasional striped marlin has been caught off Nosey Be and blues are occasionally raised, and there is little doubt that more exploration further offshore, notably about 40 miles out in the vicinity of a second significant drop off, more blue and striped marlin would be encountered. Likewise, broadbill swordfish must be there for the taking for those adventurous anglers willing to try for them. So I spent much of the time during my first stay at Terre Rouge catching sailfish.
A few late afternoon were spent casting surface poppers and flies for the various species of trevally, which are known locally as kingfish. Giant Trevally, GT’s. This first trip was in the mid-1990’s when popping for trevally was a relatively new sport. In the following years popping assumed what can almost be described as cult status, and Nosy Be and the nearby Mitsio Island offer world class GT fishing, with fish topping 100lb landed. Later trips on which I escorted groups of up to 8 other anglers have focussed almost entirely on the popping and jigging, but here I want to relate my experiences during that first magical trip, and so back to the waters off Nosey Be.
With an enormous great splash the huge lure landed alongside the shoal of baitfish that had been shimmering just below the surface, and instantly erupted in a state of synchronised panic that created a noise like someone playing a fire hose across the surface of the ocean. The instant the lure landed John snapped the reel bail closed, and began cranking it back with a series of powerful jerks, each jerk creating a huge boil and splash as the lure crashed, dived and jumped its way towards us.
The giant trevally ‘took’ it after maybe three or four of these jerks, and when I say ‘took’ I am talking in the general sense. None of the various trevally species ‘take’ lures; trevally demolish lures in an eruption of white water and spray, a violent smash and grab display of aggression that has to be seen to be believed.
So far as GT’s go this was not a particularly big fish of perhaps 20lb, whereas on the reefs we were fishing each cast was easily capable of producing a specimen better than 100.
When talking in terms of shear power, few species can match a trevally, a family of fish that an increasing number of travelling anglers have come to regard as being the finest inshore game fish that swim in the tropical seas of the world. John’s modest sized fish had been hooked on strong and powerful tackle, yet still it took many minutes for him to gain the upper hand.Several times he had the fish alongside the boat, only to watch helplessly as it turned away and effortlessly dumped stripped many yards of line off his reel in another powerful run, before finally it could be hoisted aboard for a quick photo session.
Another evenings trevally fishing we enjoyed one of those all-too-rare text book perfect sessions when everything comes together perfectly. After a morning fishing for sailfish we had returned to the camp, ate for lunch and had a couple of hours siesta, then gone back out to sea after the worse of the heat of the day to concentrate on fishing an extensive reef system, which starts less than five minutes from camp.
Again the surface of the sea was like a millpond, every fish that moved anywhere near the top was clearly visible from its prominent wake. Beneath us we could see every detail of the pristine system of colourful coral heads and rock outcrops, including the dense shoals of exquisitely beautiful tropical fish that were milling around them.
Slowing the boat down to a crawl John and ‘Douda scanned the surface for signs of baitfish, which were not hard to spot. At regular intervals around the reef huge shoals of lime green fish about 15cm in length basked on the surface, seemingly enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. Occasionally these shoals would explode in a mass of white water and confusion as a predator slashed amongst them, looking for an easy meal. Knowing that our target species would invariably be in close proximity to these bait shoals, our technique was to position the boat well uptide of a shoal then very slowly drift down towards them, casting our lures around the edges.
John used his popping rod, while on this session I had decided to fly fish. Using my 8ft 6in Thomas & Thomas 12wt I started casting surface popping flies, which found instant appeal with the fish. Almost every cast brought at least a follow or two, and I soon hooked and landed a modest queenfish.
A few casts later the fly was smashed off the top in a classic trevally take, the coils of slack line lying it my feet disappeared back out through the rod rings in a sizzling blur, followed by the remainder of the fly line and many yards of backing off the reel. Even using a 12wt I had my hands full, and for a long time I was convinced I was hooked up with a decent GT. It was not a GT but a yellow-fin Trevally that at best weighed 6lb, a new species for me.
No sooner had we released this fish, than Douda was excitedly pointing towards an area of white water several hundred yards away. He started the engines and swiftly sped us towards the area, where we could see masses of baitfish being attacked by large predators. At first we had thought they were tuna, but as we got closer we could see were trevally. Standing at the bow I started to work the line ready for a cast the moment we were in range.
Douda cut the engine and gradually we drifted in closer to the area of greatest chaos, which was steadily working its way towards us. With the leading fishing perhaps 25 yards straight off the bow I cast the little popper, which landed with a delicate plop in the general area I had aimed at. Holding the rod firmly beneath my right arm I used two hands to double strip the fly line quickly back towards the boat, which is often the most effective way to induce a trevally to take.
Barely had I started to work the line when there was a boil, a splash and the fly disappeard. Everything locked solid, and the fly line burnt my fingers as it scorched out through the rod rings, in a split second a full 30 yard fly line had gone and the fish was easily liberating many additional yards of backing against a substantial clutch setting.
John, too, had hooked a good fish and for a while the two of us just stood there laughing out loud as our respective fish led us a merry dance about the ocean. John’s fish was first to the boat, a yellow spot trevally of about 15lb, a species renowned for hard dogged fights interspersed with high-speed runs.
At this stage I was nowhere near landing my fish. Each time I managed to gain some line, it would once again run right back off the reel. Then with horror I realised we had drifted into very shallow water of less than 20ft, razor sharp pinnacles of coral clearly visibly. I realised that unless I gained some line quickly both the fight and the fish would be lost.
Applying as much pressure as I dared I gradually some of the backing, eventually reeling the end of the fly line onto the reel, followed by a sizeable proportion of the fly line. A few minutes later I got to the stage where I could see the golden flashes of the fish hanging deep in the water, about this time the fish made several concerted efforts to dive into the deeper troughs between the coral.
Each time all I could do was hang on and wait for the sickening feeling of coral grating against my monofilament leader, which I was sure would precede a sudden slackness in tension on my heavily bent rod. But that fish was destined for me to catch, and eventually after several nerve racking moments John leaned over the side and hoisted my fish. I t was another yellow spot trevally, a stunningly beautiful fish of a similar size to John’s, and as I was proudly informed the first ever caught on fly at the camp!