Cocos Encounters

Leighton Adem sheds more light on the Cocos Keeling Islands fishery

We have run stories on this remote Indian Ocean outpost before (see FL#57,#86), but it is social media that has stimulated the fly community’s latest interest, with Cocos having recently been connected to the NBN via satellite. Hello world. Now a small but growing group of Cocos-Malay locals have been captivated by fly and regular posts of their bonefish catches on Facebook was the spark that led James Laverty to invite me to explore this fishery further. On our approach, the pilot generously gives us a full 360 tour over the entire horseshoe shaped chain of coral islands. Twenty-seven in total, only two of which are inhabited. There are flats as far as the eye can see inside the horseshoe, with the outer side fringed by reefs, lagoons, channels and drop-offs that have Jimmy and me anxious to explore the possibilities. The hundred-metre walk with an airport trolley to our bungalow accommodation gives us an idea of just how small Cocos is. Steph, who is there to greet us, points out all the important amenities in the short walk. “Pub is there, general store is there, beach is there, there and there – anything else you need, I live just there, enjoy your stay.” It’s midday and the tide is on its way up to high. “Fishing?” is all I say to Jimmy and we dump our gear, rig up and jump in the hire ute conveniently parked out the front with the keys in it. As we barrel down the dirt road to the southern flats of West Island, Jimmy spots smoke. We pull up to find a boat floating just inside the surf fully ablaze! Illegal immigrant transport we guess and this is confirmed that night at the pub. “Yeah we get them all the time, sometimes they are salvaged, but often they are beyond repair and they get set on fire.” Just a regular part of life on Cocos. The southern flats extend for miles and we explore the likely channels and grass beds for bonefish as the tide comes up. We spot a couple of skittish bones that we never get a shot at, with plenty of small milkfish and mullet drawing our attention early-on before we dial them out of our spotting radar. There are heaps of reef sharks too, curious buggers that nose up close to us before shying away. We fish the southern flats again the next morning with similar results, which has us scratching our heads. Are we in the right spot, right tides, right time of year? It’s tougher than you think fishing a place that gets fished infrequently and where you don’t have a pool of collective wisdom to tap into. But it’s intriguing to be challenged to work for your first fish and learn the moods of the place. Fortunately we are due to meet up with the Cocos-Malay locals tomorrow and they should be able to dial us in. Grabbing our 10 and 12 weights for the afternoon we head for the ocean-side reefs. Pulling up at Trannies Beach (we never see any), we hit the lagoons. With a combination of live coral heads, pools and some sand-flat stretches there’s plenty to explore and Jimmy spots a ‘herd’ of bumphead parrot fish. There’s eight or nine of them only a short distance away and we make cast after cast trying to tempt these reef eaters to no avail. We have fun catching a variety of reef species including small cod, wrasse and trevally. Standing at the edge of the reef I spot a school of bluefin trevally in the face of a breaking wave, only metres in front of me. As the wave crashes around me I throw a cast and hook-up almost instantly. The school follows my fish and Jimmy throws his fly into the mix and hooks up too. I release mine quickly; Jimmy’s takes a little longer to subdue, drawing the attention of a few of the reefies that have been hanging around. He finally lands and releases the bluefin straight at my ankles where the sharks boil up on the poor fish, a cloud of red spreading around my feet as I hop step it across the sharp reef and get the hell off the dinner table. The tide starts to drain out and we head for a deep channel that provides a likely highway for cruising giant trevally. We pull out the twelves, Jimmy with a 120 lb leader on and me with a less ambitious 80 lb. Jimmy must have known something because a large dark shape swoops under his Brush Fly as he strips his first cast in towards his feet. The wind is howling from the south-east on this exposed point and we have to back-cast with the wind blowing across our right shoulders. Jimmy manages a nice second cast though and vigorously strips his fly through the deep dark water. Strip, strip, strip, BANG! A ripping sized GT nails the Brush Fly and immediately begins peeling line out into the channel. Jimmy tightens up his drag as the shore break crashes around his hips and the outgoing current tries to pull him off to Madagascar. It’s well over ten minutes before the fish begins to tire and turn. I run back to my pack to change lenses, moments later turning back to see Jimmy picking up his flyless leader. “Sharked!” As if to rub it in a little further it takes an hour to get our car out of soft sand, and we’re in desperate need of a cold beer when we get back to town. It turns out that the pub doubles as the town cyclone refuge and putting the bar in was an afterthought. The pub is actually a non-profit organisation putting the money straight back into cheap drinks and the vibrant local community. This place is really starting to grow on us. We join the procession of West Islanders heading for the first ferry to Home Island in the morning and Affendi is there to meet us. He is one of the new breed of Cocos-Malay that have recently taken up fly fishing. Affendi was born on Cocos, went to school in Perth and returned to Cocos to start a family, piloting the ferry as his regular gig when he’s not out on the flats chasing bonefish. We jump on his quadbike — there are no cars on Home Island — and head to a spot he says will handle the high tide. High tide! We wade into a corner of a bay with the water up to our armpits. The shoreline looks more like mangroves than bonefish flats. Affendi senses our apprehension and says, “Don’t worry, plenty of good bonefish here, they all come past with the tide.” Affendi hooks a trevally after a few casts. Casting into a channel drop-off it’s not long before I hook a solid bonefish. I manage to smash my knuckles on the reel handle (rookie) as it spins freely with the bonefish doing what bones do. After a second run we bring it to hand, a handsome fish with dark green bars across its back. As the tide drops we move further up onto a sand spit that has rusty war ruins still defiantly clinging on to their violent past. A huge flat stretches in front of us with clear turquoise water fringed by the coconut palms. Razin, another local fly recruit, joins us on the spit. Affendi encourages us to fish the drop-off right in front of us, so we spread out. It’s not long before we each hook ourselves a bonefish. They’re more silvery here, presumably spending more time over sand than weed beds. Having got the monkey off, Jimmy and I are keen to try sight-fishing the alluring expanse of flats. We split off in two groups and Affendi spots and nails another bone, holding it skywards to us across the flat. Razin has all the stoke you would expect from a youngster eager to catch his prey, and I have to keep tugging his elbow to slow him down and give us a better chance of spotting a cruising fish. We don’t see any but Razin’s enthusiasm is enough to keep me geed up for our next session. Waiting for the return ferry we drill for intel on the rest of the fishing and Affendi rattles off some likely spots. Great — that’s our next few days sorted. Borrowing a tinny from Rik, our local contact on West Island, we spend a day exploring the endless flats inside the southern end of the islands. The environment is just stunning with a tropical postcard picture in every direction you turn. It barely matters that we can’t find a bonefish to save ourselves, and we ponder the potential if we had a flats boat to cover more water. At low tide we head ocean-side on the east. It’s exposed to the prevailing Trades and the reefs only block half the swell. The fishing for reef species is great fun again though, particularly the prevalent bluefin trevally. What a stunning fish with their electric blue fins and spots, and we pick out a few solid ones that give us a good run for our money. Changing it up we manage to organise a lift to one of the more remote islands with Remni, a local who at 75 has been fishing the waters of Cocos since he was a child. He has thick hand-line scars across his enormous salt stained hands. After carefully navigating the channel Remni drops us on the beach. Immediately in front of us, dark reef flats give way to a small gutter of sand running parallel to the beach. We later walk around the entire island and establish that we are the only people there — true solitude. We hook more bluefin trevally in the gutter before Jimmy spots a nice size bonefish that gives him a few good runs out onto the reef flats before he brings it to the beach. Not far up the beach I find another school of small bluefin, pinging them one after another. It doesn’t matter that they are small; it’s just delightful to be calf deep in crystal clear water, wearing just board shorts and a t-shirt and catching fish. I’m so lost in the surrounds that I barely notice a reefie sneak up on a bluefin I’m playing. Feeling the weight on the line increase tenfold as the shark takes the bluefin I instinctively strike. Before I know it I’ve hooked myself a reef shark on fly with 12 lb tippet! I’m resigned to the fact that at any moment it will bite me off, but the thing is soon at my feet thrashing around as I try to tail it without getting a chunk taken out of me. For the second time in two days Jimmy is just laughing hysterically at me as I have another close encounter with the black tipped toothy kind. Further up, the reef changes where it meets the shore, exposing huge turquoise holes amongst living coral. A sloping drop-off into deep blue water just screams big fish. We dump our packs on the beach and take up position on the drop-off, with the surf crashing around our waists trying to wipe us off our feet. We spot a prowling GT and I cast a large Brush Fly out ahead of it. Strip, strip, strip, BANG! There is no need to strip-strike, this thing has nailed the fly and I grip the line with all my might to avoid giving the fish any ground into the sharp coral heads just waiting to shred my line. The fish fights hard and we can see its unmistakable dark profile only 20 metres out in the channel. A set of shoulder high waves come at me and I have no choice but to duck my head into the curl of the first one, which knocks me clean off my feet and I go sprawling across the reef, all the while doing my best to keep weight on the GT. Recovering quickly, the fish has followed the same surge in and we are soon tailing it on the shallow shelf. Such an amazing fish. All muscle and business with its bright silver flanks and darker mottled back. I’m pleased as punch and the adrenaline takes quite a while to subside after releasing the fish. The fishing is enjoyable but uneventful on our last full day on the island. We are cooked anyway — we’ve fished dawn to dusk for 6 days straight and need a rest. We don’t get it though. It turns out that tonight is the opening of the Cocos Olympics. A biennial event that involves all the West Islanders, adults, kids and tourists alike. It goes for a whole week, but we are allocated to a team anyway for an overnight cameo. That’s the thing about Cocos — whether you come for the diverse fishing, the outdoor marine activities, the culture or just the uncrowded tropical simplicity of the place, you end up leaving as a member of the extended Cocos community. Lining up at the airport only reinforces this as the locals pop over from work to say a last goodbye and genuinely encourage us to visit again soon.

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