Bones of Contention

Peter Morse gets more than he bargains for in New Caledonia

New Caledonia is not an easy place to fish, especially as a ‘do-it-yourself’ angler looking for the big bonefish that swim the waters of this French Pacific Territory. There are a lot of obstacles stacked against a visitor, language being the most obvious. But even with a smattering of French, or even in my case travelling with a partner who is a native French language speaker, the challenges seem to keep coming. The bonefish here are Albula glossodonta, the big bonefish species distributed throughout the Pacific. The main island of the group, Grande Terre, is 400 kilometres from north to south and the calmer west coast is protected by an almost continuous barrier reef that runs between 3 and 5 kilometres offshore. The east coast also has a barrier reef, but it’s not so benign. That’s a lot of bonefish habitat, much of it little explored. Then there are the islands: the Isle of Pines to the south of Grande Terre, and to the east the Loyalty Island group of Mare, Lifou and Ouvea. The Isle of Pines is a regular tourist attraction and has good bonefish flats and a few big fish. Mare and Lifou are steep- sided with no flats, but the northernmost of the Loyalty group, Ouvea, has an immense lagoon and some flats in places. RETURN TO OUVEA In 1988, on Ouvea, a group of Kanaks (the preferred name of the indigenous Melanesian people) mostly from the village of St Joseph, attacked the Gendarmerie on the island and kidnapped 35 French policemen and their weapons. They held the hostages in a cave at the northern end of the island. The response of the French police and military was merciless and 19 Kanaks were killed and two members of the French military died. The locals from the north are consequently not so friendly. Some years ago I did two trips to the north of Ouvea with friends and we managed to scratch up a few small bones, but we were flying blind, didn’t have a lot of experience, and tourism infrastructure was minimal. We stayed in a Gite (home stay); the food was rugged, but the beer was good. Return trips to New Caledonia have mostly involved the more accessible north, and the Isle of Pines. But a return trip to the flats of Ouvea had beckoned for a long time and I figured that almost 30 years after the uprising things should be a little more settled. So I headed back with my partner Monique (the translator), and John Haenke and his partner Peta. John and I both had a big bonefish itch to scratch; it had been too long since we’d walked a bonefish flat. COURTESY CALLS There are rules of courtesy that must be followed in this part of the world. You need to speak to the chief of an area to ask for permission to fish the waters; the French word is coutume (custom), and a small token presentation is made to the chief. Conflicting advice on what the presentation should consist of made things more difficult — tobacco, sweets for the kids, money? Most things are acceptable but tobacco is apparently best avoided these days. Money speaks all languages and opens many doors, but it sets a precedent. The presentation is a matter of respect, like asking a farmer for permission to cross his land to fish a river — here the village owns the waters and the fish. The price of travelling with partners is usually much higher. If the fishing’s great, most fishermen I know would sleep in a hovel. On the other hand, the Hotel Paradis on Ouvea is right up there, way beyond my usual sort of fishing trip digs, but with dismal food. The beach is really spectacular and within a five minute walk there’s a reasonable flat at the bridge that joins the islands. Inside the bridge is a lagoon and beyond that the ocean. This lagoon has some pretty amazing looking flats but it’s a reserve and no amount of friendly engagement with the locals could get us access, so we fished the outside of the bridge. If you were looking to just fill in a bit of holiday time with a few hours of bonefishing for a few days, the flats at the front of the bridge will get you by. There are a few bones there and some very large ones too. John managed one that was probably double figures while I scratched up a few smaller fish. There were also some trevally cruising the outside rim of the flats at low tide, and these responded to a bonefish fly as well. But this flat was like trying to scratch a big itch with a soft toothbrush. We were on the super moon tides, which meant a big low in the middle of the day, and with some near perfect weather forecast we hired a car and headed north to St Joseph. With Monique as our communications expert we asked some locals hanging around outside a shop if they could tell us where the chief lived. They avoided eye contact and walked away. A girl in the shop told us that the chief had died, but we could talk to his wife, who lived right behind the store. There we found three old women sitting on mats in the cool breezy shade, counting a pile of money — it was a Monday morning so we thought it might be the church collection. They were very friendly, Monique explained where we wanted to fish and permission was granted. Having been told that home-made gifts were best, we’d planned to present a box of flies to the chief. It was all we had, and the old woman seemed pretty happy. One of the women told us her son fishes those flats for bonefish with friends from Noumea and they fish with flies — “peche a la mouche.” It was all very cordial. SCRATCHING THE ITCH We drove the hire car down a long sandy track to the end of the road and made plans to be picked up late that afternoon. It was about a two-kilometre walk to the flats, the tide was perfect, there was little wind and a solid dark inky blue sky. The area is known as a shark nursery and true to its name we could see a large number of sharks cruising the flats; my guess was black tip and nurse, or tawny sharks. At the beginning of the flat is an entrance to a large tidal lagoon that’s rimmed with mangroves and rich with life. The tide had fallen sufficiently for us to figure there would be no bones in there at the time, so we concentrated our search on the flats at the front. Our usual approach when fishing two-up is for one to look in water shallower than knee deep, with the other taking the deeper water. I took the shallow side and within minutes we were into fish. Big singles were coming out of the really skinny water, my first a solid 3 kilos and the next was bigger. John had found a school of 2-kilo fish. Knowing we had to stop them before they got anywhere near the sharks, we fished 20 lb tippets and laid into them. We had one of those days you dream of. No clouds blocked the sun, the wind never rose above 5 knots, and we didn’t see another person. Refusals were rare and we both used the same flies all day until John lost his to a shark that ate a bonefish — the only one we lost. We walked the full length of the flat, and late in the day, with the tide pushing in, we found ourselves back near the mouth of the lagoon. A big school of bones was gathering up to make the run into the lagoon, and for half an hour the action was hectic. At the end of the day John and I agreed that this was one of the best fishing days of our lives and we finished with a tally of 27 bones averaging probably 2 kilos and maxing at 4 kilos. Although the itch had been scratched, we couldn’t wait to get back there the next day. THE SAGE & THE MACHETE The following morning was identical, although we were earlier and the tide was higher. The sharks were coming out of the lagoon and we watched and waited. I spotted two big shapes holding stationary in the slightly discoloured water of the lagoon’s outflow, and after three casts managed to get a good enough drift for one of the fish to peel off and eat the fly in mid- water. I wasn’t sure what it was, but the run said bonefish. Looking out, I saw a boat with three locals approaching. It was a blue and white fibreglass boat with a noisy 2-stroke Yamaha Enduro on the back. They were happy guys and they pulled up and watched the fight, calling out that it was a “caranque” or trevally. It was a solid bonefish, maybe 3 kilos, and the guys insisted on keeping it. For the first time in my life I killed a bonefish. They were very friendly and drove their boat up into the lagoon on the falling tide; a convoy of sharks came pouring out and kept going to the deeper water. Looking down along the beach I spotted a crowd of around 20 people coming our way. They wore backpacks so I figured they were tourists on a guided walking trip. They ignored us as we wandered back out into deeper water. We walked the length of the flat and I didn’t see another bone all day (serves me right for killing one) and John managed four by sticking to the shallower water. The group of people had marched along the beach past us to a deeper passage between the islands where they went snorkelling — we were visible to each other all day. Later in the day as the tide was just beginning to push in we made our way back to the lagoon entrance. The group was returning and were now about 100 metres away on the beach. A Kanak man, who I assumed was the tour guide, shouted out and waved to us (my French is not so good but I interpreted it as “come over here.”) He started coming out towards us as we walked in ready for a chat. I was much closer to him than John and had a smattering of French so took on the role of communicator. He was a solid guy, in his mid 40s, and in one hand he had a machete with a blade of about 60 cm — clearly, he was not happy. In rudimentary French I explained that we’d done the coutume with the chief’s wife and that all was OK, but this only seemed to rile him. This was not looking good. With the witnesses on the beach I hoped I might have some protection, and that safety lay in eye-to-eye contact and not showing any fear. He took a swing at my fly rod with the machete and there was a horrible cracking noise. Believe me, the sound of a machete hitting a fly rod is not a nice one. Remarkably it was undamaged, with not even a scratch. I understood then that he wanted to cut my new Sage X 990 into little bits, so I kept it behind me. He seemed to be accusing us of spooking all the sharks. I explained in my best French that there were plenty of sharks out wide, and that the guys in the boat had disturbed some earlier. I was getting nowhere, so we retreated to the group of French tourists on the beach, suspecting he wouldn’t be stupid enough to machete anyone there. One of them spoke English and confirmed that the guide was upset about us disturbing the sharks. We said sharks had been all around us all day, plenty of them — all they had to do was walk out across the flats to knee-deep water and they would see all the sharks they wanted. From the beach we pointed out a cluster of fins they hadn’t seen. Everyone got excited at that stage — sharks at last. When the guide stopped to talk to a couple of locals with throw nets, we took the opportunity to walk quickly towards the hire car back at the end of the road. “No stopping to take our boots off, John, just get in the car and go,” I said, and he agreed. We made it to the car ahead of our provocateur, but he picked up a lump of coral and made to throw it at us as I backed out. We left quickly. In later discussions the hotel management encouraged us to go to the gendarmes, but we chose not to in the end. Another local listening in thought the man was probably upset because we were releasing fish that we were obliged to kill and give to the locals. Not likely, there’s a cultural crevasse right there. So the itch was scratched, gladly not with a machete, but it’s certainly a warning to take nothing for granted in that part of the world. It’s not an easy place to fish, and with a vote for independence due in the next few years it’s not about to get easier.

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