Bonefish Everywhere

Ben Little visits Australia’s remote Cocos Islands

5a.m. 7th March 2016. Thirty minutes left on the clock before our flight to the Cocos Islands is due to depart, something doesn’t seem right. Surely a biweekly flight to the islands would have more than three passengers aboard, right? The penny drops — we are at the wrong departure gate! The next thirty minutes could be considered the most intense and vividly anxious minutes of my life. Battling through border protection, trying to find a pen that works to fill out that less-than-convenient departure card. Pulling a belt off at high speed to pass through the scanners and, even more awkwardly, trying to put it back on. All the while dodging through hundreds of shoppers in an early morning duty-free binge, with that one shoelace threatening to trip me up at that perfect moment. Hafey would later divulge that we probably should have looked into the travel details a little more. It was lucky for us that the border protection requirement for travelling to Cocos doesn’t require passports. 8 a.m. 7th March 2016, Cocos/Keeling Islands, a remote territory of Australia in the Indian Ocean. Our hosts Pam and Jeff at the Birds Nest accommodation (our home for the next ten days) take us for the customary tour of West Island. From Trannies Beach and the old quarantine station to the old wharf, to the back of the airstrip and the community lime trees, we quickly gather that Cocos is one of those unique places that has no peer — an out-of-this-world relaxed atmosphere. This remote atoll is a fly- fishing experience waiting to happen (see FL#57). West Island is a tight knit community of approximately 150 vibrant and friendly residents, all very eager for a yarn and free with advice on where the bonefish are. After pooling the results of our discussions within the first ten minutes of walking around the small community, we can’t help but ascertain that they are everywhere! DO IT YOURSELF 9:30 a.m. 7th March 2016. By this time Hafey and I have decided that Cocos is a real do-it-yourself destination — no guides, no hire vessels, and practically no boundaries. Vast areas inside the lagoon and along the fringing reef around the perimeter of the atoll offer suitable habitat to search for bonefish. The quick island tour with our hosts was enough to show us that our plan to walk the island between some key destinations would be much harder than anticipated without transport. Being a little lazy, we opt for a hire car. Scooters and bicycles are also available for hire. All of twenty minutes later we have excitedly dissected our luggage to separate clothing from the plethora of fishing gear that we thought we’d probably need. We are charged and loading the car when we notice some seriously large fish tailing across the reef flat directly in front of our accommodation. Surely not. Where else in the world can you literally spot feeding fish from your balcony? It turns out that the fish we witness feeding across the flat would be the most challenging fish of our lives to target. After spooking them, not once and definitely more than twice, we decide to turn our focus to a shimmering section of water that had to be less than ankle deep. Our hunch was dead accurate. The shallow water turned out to be a draining gutter between two areas of flat reef, holding an astounding number of bonefish. First cast Hafey snaps the hook on the set. Quickly tying on another fly his second cast finds another hungry mouth and the battle is brief and exhilarating. While he’s brandishing his well-conditioned 5-pound bonefish, I immediately set the hook into a screamer. By 10:30 a.m. on our first day, Hafey and I have already taken a few nice sized fish, all within a few hours of arrival and all within casting distance from our balcony. TAILING BONES On our second and third days we would discover that rain and overcast weather doesn’t dampen the bonefish spirit or make much difference when spotting feeding fish. The dull days did make it challenging to target and track moving fish, especially fish moving across the vast stretches of turtle grass meadows, but when they actually decide to perch on a spot and tail, you can’t miss them. The dull weather also seemed to encourage the big fish to drop their guard a little. Areas where smaller fingers of weed separate off from the main weed beds were prime zones for ambushing fish as they worked along them. They’d even move confidently across bare ground — a blind man could have caught them when they were feeding like this. This didn’t mean that we could get away with lazy casting or noisily plopping a fly a foot away from them. Presenting the fly 5–10 metres in front worked best, limiting the disturbance from fly and line. Letting the fly settle for a few seconds before giving a solid strip and pause engaged many a solid fish, sometimes from 10 or more metres away. Some would even engage on an actively stripped fly, and when you see the abundance of small crabs swimming around it isn’t hard to see why. My first solid bonefish fell to a crab when I managed to punch out a 60-foot cast while the fish was swimming at warp speed. The fly fell five metres away, at which point the fish pulled on the handbrake, took a hard right turn and devoured my size 6 Merkin without even thinking about it. I quickly found out why everyone raves about how hard bonefish fight. On its first run the fish practically melted the guides from the blank — 100 metres of line gone in the blink of an eye. AVOIDING THE SHARKS Going hard on bonefish makes them only go harder, and it really stirs up the resident plague of small sharks. The sharks are protected in the atoll and their numbers are mesmerising to see, but they are a real downer on the astonishing fishing — an endless supply of sharks lurking on the fringes waiting for the chance of a cheap feed. After a long cast to another fast-moving school, the basic crab pattern was picked up in an instant. The fish turned to run but swam directly into a wall of teeth. The sharks must have been stalking the school, with the hooked fish and me being oblivious to their presence. Penned into a corner the fish really didn’t have a chance. I had to chase it down as fast as I could. When he finally caught up, Hafey commented that he’d never seen me move so fast, let alone barefoot. Fly-kicking an angry shark to the head isn’t probably the best idea but it was all I could do to stop the shark from biting down on what turned out to be my biggest fish of the trip. In the end we decided to adopt a suggestion made prior to leaving for Cocos. Run light drag, and run like a bat out of hell after them. The first time I tried this was on my 7-weight and I quickly realised that 180 metres of backing was not really enough. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an arbor knot while fighting a fish before, but it surely makes you dig deeper and pinch that little bit of extra speed out of your legs when you do see it. Taking tired fish right back up into the shallows for release seemed to be the least treacherous method as many of the bigger sharks appeared to be uncomfortable in water that didn’t cover their backs. BONEFISH EVERYWHERE After three days of incredible fishing, Hafey and I concluded that the locals couldn’t have been more correct — there were bonefish everywhere. You just had to be in the right place at the right time. We spent countless hours each evening on Google Earth planning the next day’s attack. Between the outer atoll and the lagoon, you could fish all day without any issues at all. The outer atoll held a surprising number of fish — at times actively feeding schools could be sighted from 100 metres away, appearing as a blue moving smudge. While the numbers of fish in the outer were high, on average they were smaller. The real action for big fish lies in the lagoon. Catching a full flood tide regularly saw us change location as the weed beds along the southeastern interior inundate. The channel between the spit near the yacht club and Pula Kambling Island was a great place to start early in the tide. Two hours after the bottom of the tide was the key for us, having found that the fish were comfortable enough in this depth of water to move and feed over the thick turtle grass. Spotting them was hard on the dark and mottled bottom, especially if the rippling breeze was running. Not that it really mattered as they tail so hard and for so long that you could get a good bearing and move towards them and get off a quick shot. We landed good numbers of fish up to 7 lb through this area but failed to find anything in double figures. From the the spit you can make it around to the bottom end of the lagoon, towards the end of the runway, where the thick turtle grass beds stretch up onto a firm even bottom. This area was a major contributor to our success. One four-hour session produced 14 fish from 20, all in the 7 lb class, with many other fish cruising out of casting distance. It was literally a case of tripping over smaller fish to chase down that elusive trophy. While a trophy is a distinct reality in the lagoon, we drew the short straw on day six. With a developing spring tide and a warm and steady wind blowing from the northwest, the lagoon got hot. At one point it was like walking through used bathwater. While the milkfish weren’t perturbed, the bones were nowhere to be seen. With little in the way of water transport we decided against making the long trek across the southern lagoon flat at low tide to scope out the massive expanse on the west side of South Island. Instead we decided to work the reef flats and northern limits of the island where dense lush palm forests brace the shoreline, making long casts somewhat challenging. We encountered a few different species along the beaches, including an unidentified type of threadfin salmon, and of course, bonefish. Most of the fish held up in water quite close to the edge and could occasionally be spotted. While this filled a gap and satisfied curious minds it was a real shadow of the fishing to be had at the southern end of the island. PARADIGM SHIFT To the extreme western tip of the northern beaches lies a stretch of beach fringed with dense coral reef and sections of coral rubble bottom. Breaking through yet another overgrown forest path onto the beach we saw tailing fish as far as our eyes could see. Edging closer to a school of fish actively working the edge of rubble and beach, Hafey and I managed to get a good view of the feeding school. Some were of immeasurable proportions — by far the biggest fish we have ever encountered on fly. Raising his fly rod from a crouched position, Hafey worked an angle that looked to give his minuscule crab a good drift over the fish. Before the line had even hit the water the school chaotically took flight. We later found out that they were a mix of double header and Maori wrasse, and really wondered if we’d have been able to stop them on our 9-weights anyway. Day after day, presentation after presentation, these fish would take flight. Eventually we realised that individuals isolated from the main school were less sensitive, and I finally got one to tail on a tiny crab, set the hook, and it literally shook its head and screamed off sideways, snapping the fluorocarbon leader. Short lived and exciting, it was a major paradigm shift. Could these massive brutes be an alternative for a hot lagoon? Over the ensuing days we worked the reef flats religiously for bones, small triggerfish, coronation trout and emperor. The big green fish turned out at every location to taunt us and Hafey finally managed to find out how well his 9-weight would handle a big one, but he’ll have to get back there another time to find out how that story actually ends, as I’m sure that fish is still swimming off with his line!

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