Bumphead Quest

Joshua Hutchins hunts bumphead parrotfish in the Cocos Keeling Islands

Fly fishers are a funny lot. We all have different measures of what amounts to a ‘good’ day. For some, just being out there is enough. Sunny skies, clear water, Australian flora and fauna — what more do you need? Some would answer, fish. You need fish. And while we all want to be grateful for our surroundings, it would be cheaper to take up bushwalking if that is all we were there for. A ‘slow day’ for some is anything with more than five minutes not catching or seeing a fish. Others favour quality over quantity, wanting to find that extra-large fish, rare species or memorable moment. I subscribe to the latter approach. I’m rarely lured into a trip by the promise of numbers alone. Easy fishing might be fun at the beginning, but it becomes less and less satisfying. I am much more enticed by an unconquered personal challenge. GOING THE DISTANCE Kane Chenoweth, videographer, was brought into the world of fly fishing when I dragged him around the country for a film in 2019. Kane caught his first barra and bonefish on fly that year and has since seen the joys and frustrations of learning a whole new craft for perceivably similar results to conventional fishing. When I invited him to join me in the Cocos Keeling Islands, the destination and chance to catch more bonefish quickly caught his attention. Kane and I met up in Perth, WA — a quick stopover on route to the island. I’d done very little research or planning prior to our trip. Sometimes it’s more fun to let things unfold. What I did know was that Cocos offered a chance of catching a bumphead parrotfish — often referred to as a bumpy — on fly. As we were passing through Perth, we caught up with local angler Dan Ivanoff, one of very few with a consistent history of chasing bumpies on Cocos. Dan was very helpful, and made me even more excited about the trip. Cocos is unique. Nine hours of flying from Sydney, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, yet still on Australian soil. With historic World War structures, Malaysian influence and Australian vibes, Cocos is an interesting and quirky destination (see FlyLife #57, #86, #91, #97). BONEFISH, GT’S & SHARKS On arrival at the island, Kane and I were met by Nick Sheriff and James Norney, and we didn’t waste time getting to the flats. After recently purchasing one of the B&B style lodges on the island, Nick was in the initial phases of setting up his business ‘Hello Backing’, offering fully catered fly-fishing trips on Cocos. While we all had different goals for the week, loading up a rod and hitting the flats for bonefish was a logical start. I do love a good GT, but having caught plenty of bones and GTs before, it was the allure of the new target that had my mind racing. As we covered the first flat I pestered James with questions around my dreams of a bumpy. ‘I’ve come with a one-track mind,’ I told him. ‘If I only catch one bumpy, nothing else matters.’ The week began with a haul of bonefish — there were plenty. And after finding a way to house the camera gear in some waterproof backpacks, Kane was soaking it up. On previous trips Kane was robotic and full of questions before every cast. But this trip, he found his rhythm. Often heading off on his own, he soon hooked plenty of bonefish, and wore a consistent face full of satisfaction. But I was biding my time, waiting for some better tides to chase the bumpies. Our fishing was limited to where we could drive by car, or catching the sporadic ferry to Direction Island. Anytime the ferry was available we took it. Our first visit to the island was fruitless but things were very different the second time around. Within two minutes of leaving the ferry we were met with an eye-watering sight. A large bait ball had been pushed up onto the flat, and hundreds of sharks and dozens of GTs were feasting on the baitfish. At first glance the large black mass seemed like a permanent structure, but once our eyes calibrated, it didn’t take long for our hands to switch into gear. James made the first approach and managed to entice a large GT to eat his fly amidst the feeding frenzy. At first we thought it would be easy, but these fish were well fed. Just about every capture after that was a shark. James’s capture was a great one, and well worth the day. Much like my fixation with bumpies, James had been determined to catch a good GT. From memory he only had the 12-weight with him too. Sometimes the best moment means not even considering the other options. TROPHY HUNTING The days were ticking by. James and Kane had a morning ritual where they’d walk along the shore, minutes from the lodge, with a rod in one hand and a coffee in the other. They’d usually return, not long after, both having landed a bonefish from a school of fish nearby. Plenty of bonefish, a few GTs, but still no bumpy. So, what is a trophy fish? A trophy brown trout is commonly known as anything over 10 pounds. A metre-long Murray cod or barramundi meets the trophy standard. But truthfully, we make these rules for ourselves — they are not binding. A five-pound bonefish on a flat full of one-pound fish can easily be the trophy. And in my case, it was wanting something difficult, something different — a bumpy on fly. James and I were particularly obsessed with the bumphead quest. James had racked up almost 20 hook-ups on recent trips, with zero landed. I’d had a few very brief hook-ups, but they quickly resulted in bent hooks, destroyed flies or cut leaders. And to make the attempts even more excruciating, bumpies are everywhere on Cocos. Big greeny-blue tails were wagging and teasing us all over the flats. We’d often see them in schools of 10 to 30, calm and feeding. Yet the moment they were aware of your presence, they’d vanish from the flats. I’d spend 20 minutes sneaking up on a school, only to have them spook on the first raise of the rod. We tried everything, but the moment never came. It was easy to become frustrated and distract yourself with the ever-present schools of bonefish. But I wouldn’t be deterred. ISLAND LIFE Island life sucked us in. Wake up, fish for bonefish, catch bonefish, look for bumpies, fail to catch bumpies, catch a few more bonefish, dinner, sleep, repeat. Cocos has all the island time that you’d expect of any Pacific or Indian Ocean atoll. We broke up the routine when local Levi Fowler took us for a quick crayfish exploration and trip out on his boat. That was great fun and showed us the deep-water fishing opportunities too. I can understand the appeal of living in a place like Cocos. It’s simple and relaxing — with plenty of bonefish. But it was our last day, and still no bumpy. That’s the thing with trophy hunting, it’s not the easy option, and you have to come to terms with the fact that things may end in failure. FINAL SHOWDOWN Kane, James and I decided to devote the final day to bumpheads. Setting off on foot from the lodge we headed to the area where we’d seen the most bumpies during the trip, and made our way from school to school. For something different, we decided that James should be the #1 option, so he set off with a 10-weight and bright Orange Alphlexo crab. That was the pattern that had gained the most interest so far. I set off as wingman, with an 8-weight and a large spawning shrimp style pattern, ready for bonefish. There are quite a few theories as to whether bumpies actually eat the fly due to legitimate feeding, or just out of curiosity. The latter explains why bright and contrasting style crab or shrimp flies have emerged as favourites. At this point we were all spread out, and things start to blur in my memory. I turned around to see a fresh school of bumpies appear from the reef edge and move along the flat, heading straight towards me. The tide had just turned, and the slight push of fresh flow must have nudged the school back onto the flat. It was perfect. They were working towards me, tails in the air. Despite the 8-weight rod in my hand, it was the ideal scenario. I was placed right where I needed to be. As they made their way closer, I lay a cast in front of their incoming path. The school moved straight over my fly. This was no different to previous encounters, but this time, it happened. I had been doing my best not to move the fly, just keeping enough tension in the hope of feeling something. I felt it; then set it! Things got wild very quickly after that. The school dispersed towards the reef edge and so did the fish on my line. ‘Kane! James! I’m on! Bumpy!’ I did my best to avoid my line wrapping around the reef structure and rocks, while also keeping pressure on. The fish had hit the waves on the reef edge, and the fresh incoming tide was building. I couldn’t have done it without James and Kane. They both came running, and by this point I was in the waves. I could finally see the leader; I knew it was close. For the first time I actually thought it was possible. My heart rate went from fast to erratic! ‘Wait until he turns, please James,’ I begged. I was near hysteria, but knew his experience would help in those final moments. We all held our breath, and then… we landed it. It’s a long way to come for one fish. But I got my trophy. It just felt so good. Maybe it’s not your trophy, but I guess that’s what makes fly fishing so much fun. And for that, I’ll always be grateful to the Cocos Keeling Islands.

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