Tailing Temptations

Brett Habener takes up the triggerfish challenge

The anticipation of setting foot on the pristine flats was uncontrollable. Tales of speeding silver bullets cruising in ultra-shallow water had fueled my imagination in the months prior to the trip. Just ten minutes into the first session at Christmas Island (Kiritimati) I had my first bonefish in the hand. I instantly understood the allure of these incredible fish, but little did I know my outlook on flats fishing was about to change. Moments after the release, I noticed a solitary yellow blob out toward the edge of the flat, moving slowly and methodically along a rubble edge, tipping and turning as it went. I moved closer as it tipped again, its tail wagging in the air, seemingly luring me in. I pitched the fly a safe distance ahead, but to no avail; the fish had bolted. THE OBSESSION Triggerfish are like a drug. They suck you in until you are utterly consumed. If you choose to cast at one of these angry flats bulldozers you will become addicted. Six years have passed since my first encounter and I still can’t get enough! When I first stepped onto those Christmas Island flats, I was greeted by a fish that I knew very little about. This lack of knowledge led to a very steep learning curve and to this day I am still discovering new things about these incredible fish. There are over 40 different species of triggerfish found around the world but there are three species most likely to be encountered on the flats of the Indian and Pacific oceans. The Titan, Yellow Margin and smaller Picasso will all venture up into the shallows to feed, providing fly anglers with a visual target. Each fish comes with its own strange personality but there are certain patterns that seem to be consistent. Yellow Margin and Titan triggerfish will both be found feeding on coral fringes of flats but the Yellow Margin will often venture further into the centre of a flat, feeding over a mix of sand and rubble. Always be aware that a trigger is never too far from its home. If spooked or hooked they will race over and dive into a hole on the flat and extend their ‘trigger’ to lock themselves in. Once wedged in, they are almost impossible to extract (and they will bite!). It is near these holes where you will often find the small Picasso triggers racing around. They are much smaller than the other two species, but they are a beautiful fish that can be tempted with a bonefish fly. One trait common to all triggerfish is that they are ill-tempered and seemingly spook for no reason at all. Cast too close, or surprise them with the fly, and they spook. Bird flies past — spooked. Creep in slowly — spooked. Cast when their head is up — spooked. Sees another fish — spooked. There is no end to the ways a trigger can be put off. You will also lose count of the times when your fly is stolen away from a feeding trigger. Bluefin trevally, GTs, snapper and even bonefish will accompany feeding triggerfish, cleaning up the scraps, and they have no hesitation in grabbing a fly from under a tailing trigger’s nose. The disappointment when the ‘eat’ you thought was a big trigger turns out to be a seven centimetre snapper is a hard thing to digest. It is all part of the challenge that makes these fish one of the ultimate fly targets. THE DRIFT When you approach a trigger the battle is often won or lost before a cast is made. Their hyper awareness and generally erratic nature can make it very difficult to sneak up on them. Sighting a fish from long distance is ideal. Try not to stumble or tread on any coral that will crumble, or it is likely the fish will spook. Wind and current across the flat should always dictate your approach and fly placement. In the past I had always viewed current as a hindrance. I have made the mistake of using a heavy fly to get down quickly in the current, which does catch some fish, but more often leads to the fish spooking or your fly getting snagged in coral. On recent trips, utilising the drift across the flats to our advantage has led to an outstanding improvement in success rates. Any current can be helpful, whether it is surge in the surf zone or just wind pushing water slowly across the flat. As the tide fills in and the flow increases, triggerfish seem to feed with more urgency. Using a smaller fly such as a size 6 shrimp with small to medium brass eyes greatly reduces the chances of spooking the fish. Casting wide of the target allows the trigger to spot the fly naturally drifting just off the bottom as you strip. Often it can take several casts to get the fish’s attention but when you do, the fish will often bite and follow all the way to the rod tip. This same technique works well for intercepting cruising triggers, which are notoriously spooky and fickle to catch. THE RETRIEVE When retrieving your fly it is important to read the fish’s mood and adapt movements to suit the terrain. I use a series of short strips to gain attention until the fish begins to follow. At this point try teasing the fish to an area where the fly can be rested without becoming snagged if possible. Occasionally your fly will get caught on a section of coral while the trigger is following, but don’t panic at this point. Let it sit. A determined trigger will easily eat through a section of coral to get to the fly. Maintaining a slight tension at all times during the retrieve is critical — when a trigger bites it will be a quick nip, and feeling every little tap is crucial. Once you get a bite, use a short, sharp, strip-strike of no more than 30 cm. Often it will take four or five bites on a retrieve until the point of the fly finds a section of the trigger’s boney mouth where it can penetrate. The short strike keeps the fly in the zone and you can continue to tease the fish. A good sign that a trigger is going to eat your fly properly is when the tail goes up and the fish pivots for a clean take. Once you do come up tight it is important to go as hard as possible, keeping the fish as close to you and as far away from its coral cave as possible. Once a hooked trigger gains traction it will take off across the flat with incredible power, so you need to be ready for a brawl. THE OUTFIT Most anglers agree that a 7–9 weight outfit is ideal for triggerfish. Using a #6 or a #10 may also be acceptable in some situations. Triggers are stubborn and fast over a short distance but do have the capability of dumping a lot of backing in the water if they get the chance. Having a rod with a bit of grunt in the butt to pull a trigger away from its hole and to steer it around more easily when landing is a big advantage. Fluorocarbon tippets of no less than 16–20 lb are a necessity for both abrasion resistance and strength when you are trying to stop a rampaging trigger dead in its tracks. A floating line with a quick loading head will help punch casts into the wind and keep the running line free from tangling around the rubble and reef on the flat. THE FLY Triggerfish have an incredible set of jaws that will destroy flies at will. A quality hook is essential when tying for triggers and some of the best are the Owner Flyliner, Ahrex NS115 DE and the Gamakatsu G Carp. However, I have still had fish roll points, bend and even bite through all of these very strong hooks. There is a certain element of luck as to where the fly gets lodged in the fish’s mouth. I will choose a fly based on current, terrain and the food that is present. Minimal flow and shallow water requires casting closer to the target, so using a smaller fly will help avoid spooking the fish. Generally a tan/orange shrimp pattern in size 6 will be my first cast every session. If that gains little attention, upsize, change weights and experiment with colours. Having a wide selection of crab and shrimp patterns in the #1–#6 size range in varying weights and colours is essential. It only takes one bite from a trigger to demolish a fly beyond recognition so carry multiples of your favourite patterns! TEAMWORK Two anglers working as a team is advantageous and a bit of friendly banter is always fun. Walking a cast-distance apart on a flat allows you to cover more ground and to assess the area from two different angles. It is amazing how often a trigger will be sitting at an angle where it can be seen easily by one angler, yet remains invisible to the other until pointed out. Having someone nearby to intercept a hooked trigger by standing over its cave, as well as lending assistance to land the fish, will make the final moments of a fight less stressful. Too often the hooks will pull out of a trigger when trying to bring it to hand solo. If you do plan on fishing by yourself for any period of a trip I definitely recommend taking a small landing net. This will greatly reduce the chances of losing a fish in the final stages of the fight. The next time you find yourself exploring a flat and see a tailing trigger, will you be tempted?

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