Saint Brandon Atoll

Roughly halfway through the 26-hour boat trip, as I watched a half-digested baguette transition from my stomach into the marine toilet, I started to question my sanity. The reason for taking this journey was to reach the remote atoll of St Brandon, which sits some 250 miles northwest of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa. Reachable only by boat, the sole inhabitants are a few commercial fishermen, who live there for a few weeks at a time, and a couple of staff manning a meteorological station. Half a day later, the sea started to die back as we came around the southern tip of the atoll and it provided some shelter from the swell. As an entity, it isn’t a place that stands out as you get close. Although there are a few islands on the atoll, most are small and any trees or bushes on them are small and stunted. I was travelling to St Brandon with long-time fishing buddy Mat McHugh, and Tony Hayes and Shaun McCann from Tongariro Lodge in New Zealand. Given the company I was keeping, you don’t have to be a genius to work out why we were going there. Although it appeared unassuming at first sight, one feature the atoll does have is huge areas of shallow flats. Almost ten years ago, these flats were fished by some of the original founders of the fly-fishing outfit ‘FlyCastaway’, who found them loaded with bonefish, many of which were trophy fish. After running trips for several years to the atoll, the set-up has been well honed and anglers now stay in a simple, but very comfortable lodge, with a seating area that looks out over the atoll – the perfect spot to sit with a cold beer and discuss the day’s events. I experienced the quality of the bonefish from my very first few minutes of fishing. Walking a flat not far from the lodge, I cast to a solid bonefish sliding up the flat towards me. The fish zeroed straight in on the fly on the first strip, everything went tight, and the reel emptied as the fish shot off on that blistering first run. A few minutes later, it slid into the net and we taped it at 26 inches with a 14-inch girth — a solid 7–8 lb fish. BLUEFIN After picking up a couple of smaller fish, it was on to a rubble flat on the inside of the reef, where the white-water from the breaking swell on the reef pushed over the broken coral. Arranged in random patterns by the current and waves, the dead coral created an uneven underwater landscape through which packs of bluefin trevally were hunting. Using the rubble to their advantage, they had corralled an unfortunate school of baitfish in shallow water and were taking it in turns to rush in to feed. As the trevally lit up and rushed in at the baitfish, a well-timed cast that placed the fly in the danger zone generally resulted in a hook-up. With so much coral around, the key to landing the fish was to lock the drag up and bully them before they got around some structure. Mat managed to land a couple of cracking trevally and I, for my sins, hooked a big one and watched as a knot in my fly-line ran up through the rod rings before taking the top section of the rod with it. The fight with three-quarters of the rod didn’t last more than 20 seconds before the fish got the butt-loop of the leader caught in coral and popped the 80 lb fluoro like cotton. We enjoyed more excellent fishing for bluefin over the first few days of our trip, while the tides were at their biggest. One particularly good spot was a small sand-spit that the guides called JA’s. A large pack of bluefin had a huge school of terrified goatfish cornered against the sand-spit and, like their compatriots on the coral rubble, would take it in turns to rush in and harass them. Generally, one fish would light up, rush in and others would quickly follow suit, leading to a few brief seconds of madness. My bad luck continued with the first fish I hooked when the fly-line loop popped just after hook-up. Reforming a loop as best I could, I tied on something a little different — a large hinged popper, tied with one of those extra-large, shaped popper heads from the Flymen Fishing Co. First cast over the pack of fish and one of them simply sidled over and sipped the popper from the surface like a trout taking a dry fly. Racing down-tide, it gave me a real runaround before our guide Craig managed to get a hand on its tail. Mat was up next and he had an almost carbon copy take. One small strip and a real hog of a bluefin turned on the fly and inhaled it. After a fight that involved chasing the fish down-tide and some nimble negotiation of coral bommies, he lifted an 81 cm bluefin (about 17 lb) up for a photo. BONEFISH As the fishing for bluefin slowed over our trip, so the bonefishing picked up. Larger tides had only presented small windows of opportunity when water depths were sufficiently shallow for the bonefish to be on the flats and feeding. As the tide pushed in and water depths increased, they got skittish and moved off the flats, aware of the predators that took advantage of the deeper water. The largest of these we saw on our trip was Henry, a 16-ft tiger shark that hangs around one particular flat, waiting for the bonefish to shoal up. When the tides were right, we experienced some great skinny-water bonefishing, with singles, doubles and small pods of fish criss-crossing the flats in less than a foot of water. While we didn’t keep a strict count, our group must have scored close to 200 bonefish. I don’t think you can beat casting at a solid bonefish in water so shallow its back is almost out of the water, and then watching it pounce on your fly. In an attempt to get a bit inventive in the evenings, I tied up some simple variants of the SparWolf crab fly, using chartreuse thread, 1/40 oz dumbbell eyes, yellow grizzly legs and a body of heavy crab dubbing. Crabby McCrabberson proved to be pretty effective on the shallow-water bonefish. The heavy dubbing meant that it landed relatively lightly and once in the water presented a good profile with lots of movement. PERMIT Enjoyable as the bonefishing was, there are a lot of places around the world where one can chase bonefish, many of which are more easily accessible than St Brandon. The fly fishing target that really got under our skin was the Indo-Pacific permit (T. blochii), of which there are a very large number on the atoll. We had multiple shots virtually every day and saw everything from singles to big schools of fish, but Mat and I never got a serious hook-up. We both had follows, although these were hard to come by. Permit being what they are, we both had frustrating encounters when a cast that we thought looked perfect was studiously ignored. Alternatively, another unwanted fish would get to the fly first. On some flats there were virtual plague proportions of small spangled emperors, which would pounce on your fly as soon as it hit the water. On other flats we had small goldens and GTs rush the fly and take it from under the permit’s nose. Walking back to the boat on our penultimate day, I saw a really good permit slide out from behind a coral bommie on an otherwise pure white sand flat. But just as I placed my fly in front of it, an unseen bonefish spooked and the permit left the flat at warp speed. Frustrating, but ultimately one of the many reasons that the eventual capture of the species is so highly treasured. Tony Hayes managed to get his just reward in the form of a stunning 15 lb fish that was feeding hard in a strong current. The current made things difficult, but after a couple of shots were ignored, the permit finally intercepted the fly and confidently inhaled it as it drifted down with the current. As if to show that it helps to have luck as well as skill on one’s side, the leader was virtually worn through by coral when the fish finally slipped into the net. I sorely wish we had hooked more permit, but then I suppose that every angler that has ever fished for permit has the same thought.

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