Taking Chances

John Robertson shares some memorable moments from a trip to the Cocos Keeling Islands

I am sitting on my haunches with water up to my chest, exhausted; the adrenaline is pumping through me. The fish of a lifetime lies across my knees in an embrace like a bear hug. I start to collect my thoughts on what to do next… It was a March afternoon on West Island in the Cocos Keelings (see FL #57, #86, #91), and I was fishing with two mates on the ocean side of the atoll. They went south and I headed north along the coastline. The trip host, Dan Ivanoff, had provided a good briefing on what sort of fish to expect, so I was armed with my trusty homemade 8-weight and a light-coloured fly, searching for bonefish. Cloud cover wasn’t allowing the best visibility, but it was fishable, so I strode on my way across the ground inside the reef. After 30 minutes of wading I spooked a triggerfish, so a fly change was in order — “a dark coloured crab with orange if possible” was the recommendation. I didn’t come across any more triggers, but in the distance I could see a large group of tails feeding — they had to be bumphead parrotfish. I had only ever heard about these fish so I approached cautiously, watching the feeding pattern and trying to work out how I would attempt to tackle one with an 8-weight. They continued to tail in the shallows and appeared unaware of my approach. I laid a cast into the feeding zone, letting the fly sink to the bottom before imparting any movement. One fish moved off and I felt deflated, expecting the school to spook. Making a small twitch, I felt pressure and a slight vibration in the line. With a mental image of the beak-like teeth of the bumpy, I set the hook with a solid strip strike. At this point all hell broke loose with bumpies taking off in all directions and the reel singing as my line peeled off and the fish headed for the surf break. I quickly realised the power of the fish and the total under-gunned nature of an 8-weight with 20 lb leader. My only option was to chase the fish. In my head I was certain that I was sprinting, but in hindsight, in waist-deep water, it would have been a power walk at best. I focused on staying as close as possible to the fish, keeping the line off the coral and rocks, and I realised I was starting to turn the fish away from its surges towards the reef. I began to think that I might have a chance. We started to move back towards the shallows where I could try to tail-grab or fish-tackle this bumpy to make the capture, but as my confidence grew the fish had another trick up its sleeve. We came past some plate coral and he turned slowly, powered, and slid under the coral. I dropped all pressure off the line and ran to the coral, thinking please no, don’t break. I was very grateful to have the presence of mind not to pull hard as I could see the leader sitting between two fingers of coral. This was no ordinary fight — or fish for that matter — so I dived under the water, sliding my hand under the plate coral and managing to reach the fish’s tail wrist to gain some semblance of a grip. My other arm reached around its girth, trying to find a hold, and again I remembered that sharp coral-crushing beak. I found a grip and gently pulled it out before falling backwards onto my haunches in exhaustion with a grin from ear to ear. So, there I was, with the fish of a lifetime that I had only ever read about, straddled across my lap, wondering how I was going to get some photos of this magnificent beast, with my fishing companions over a mile away to the south. As luck, coincidence or opportunity would have it, a West Island local was fishing for yellow lip emperor about 150 metres away — just far enough that my yelling couldn’t get his attention. After a few moments of recovery I started a hunched-over shuffling walk towards the fisherman while keeping the fish fully submerged to the point that it almost got away from me, twice. As I approached he realised that I was trying to get his attention and waded towards me thinking I was hurt due to the awkward way I was moving. A quick conversation resulted in agreement that it was a very worthy capture, and he took some photos with my camera. We both watched as the bumpy said farewell to its encounter and epic tussle and powered off strongly back to the reef and its herd. These fish are sometimes referred to as the cows of the ocean due to the way they move in a random formation grazing over the coral for a feed. This coupled with its size meant ‘herd’ felt more appropriate than school to me in this moment. creating OPPORTUNITIES That evening our group had a few celebratory drinks, with toasts of ‘Bumpy’! During this we discovered that Steve Ooi, who had been wading on the lagoon side of the atoll, had managed to catch another fine fish that could be termed lucky. He’d landed a solid GT on an 8-weight with 20 lb leader and a shrimp pattern intended for bonefish. How any self-respecting GT that size would feel that eating a shrimp was worth the effort to speed up and beat its mates to the prize still confuses me, but Steve took the opportunity with what he had, making a memorable capture. This sparked a round table conversation, lubricated by rum, on the merits of luck versus skill and determination, and more importantly creating and taking an opportunity when it comes your way. There are so many variables that come into play when fishing, and often the perfect conditions, right gear and magic cast don’t result in landing a fish. If you don’t roll the dice with what you have at that point in time you will never know what might have been. Opportunity doesn’t come knocking — it is always there for us to take. This particular trip was to prove again that creating and taking these opportunities can result in some memorable moments and fish. On day four a yellow alert was called as tropical cyclone Savannah approached the Cocos Keelings. At the time Steve and I were happily catching a pair of bonefish in a rainstorm. This, however, found us on the wrong side when the ferry stopped running and the lagoon was closed to all private vessel traffic. The rest of our crew was in our accommodation on West Island with the rum I might add, and we were on Home Island. Shahrin from CKI Fly Fishing Frontiers was gracious enough to welcome us into his family home where Steve and I stayed the night and enjoyed great home cooked Coco-Malaysian food. Messages coming from West Island indicated a cyclone party was in full swing. The following day saw the cyclone track further to the west and, even though conditions had improved from the previous night, the lagoon would remain shut for the day. Instead of sitting inside under cover, and with a nod from the local police force, we set out with Shahrin and Azrin to see what we could find. A few small bonefish for the morning came from working channels and drop-offs as we moved from spot to spot on the island using the boys’ ATVs. Curry puffs for lunch, courtesy of Azrin’s wife, were just the ticket. If you do find yourself at Cocos make sure you have the curry puffs from Home Island, but be warned they aren’t the best for your waistline — something about the pastry being 80% butter — but if you’re wading the flats working it off then treat yourself. During lunch we learned that the crew on West Island had just emerged to greet the day, so we informed them about the bonefish captures of the morning. The afternoon saw us on the southern flat of Home Island and spread out, doing our own thing. As the day progressed the sight fishing had improved to the point you could start to make out fish moving across the flats — mainly silver biddies, sharks, mullet and cruising milkfish. Around the time I started to think about calling it a day, a green torpedo appeared just at the edge of my vision — this was the largest bonefish I had seen on the trip. Luckily, I had landed a few others by this point, so I had an idea of how to present a fly, strip the fly, and hopefully if opportunity presented, fight the fish on the rod and reel. I sometimes feel that when it is windy the non-mirror surface means the fish are a bit more lenient on an indelicate cast. In this case the fish wasn’t, because it moved away as the fly crashed down on the water. Without panicking, I just picked up the cast and laid it out in front of the fish again. Opportunity presented as the fish reacted immediately to the first small strip once the fly was on the sand. A few more small sharp strips and the green torpedo tilted onto the VGDC Merkin. Seeing the take and feeling it through my fingers, a hard strip-strike ensured the hook found purchase as the torpedo shot off across the flats. A yahoo of excitement escaped my mouth as I called out to Shahrin and Steve in the distance. The fish decided to run at them anyway, and soon they were aware that I was on. The first run confirmed what I had already seen — this was going to be the best bonefish of the trip for me. Light rain falling on my back reminded me of the marginal conditions. After multiple runs and some heart in mouth moments near the closing stages, Shahrin managed to tail the fish for me, and soon Steve had joined us to help celebrate a solid CKI bonefish and my best to date. Some quick snaps saw us releasing the fish and I stood there in awe of the luck we’d created by getting out there in conditions that weren’t ideal, but still comfortable enough to wade and to fish. I packed up my rod, happy to say that was my last fish of an adventure to the Cocos Keeling Islands, where I’d created some opportunities, made the most of them, and landed two fish of a lifetime.

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