Windows of Opportunity

James Laverty comes to grips with the heavyweight bonefish of New Caledonia

Fly fishing in New Caledonia generally means one thing, big bonefish. It is a wild, beautiful country and a destination right on our doorstep, with arguably some of the biggest bonefish and most stunning flats on the planet. Personally, I love the hunt, the challenge and opportunity to get shots at fish that I know will test every element of my angling ability. Fish that I have travelled a long way to catch and fish that I have prepared meticulously for, and tracked down sometimes over several days or a whole week. All for that one opportunity, often only a small window where it all comes together or it doesn’t. As fly fishers, I think most of us can relate to this concept. The challenge of successfully seizing that moment is one of the greatest motivators driving us to travel all over the world. We are wired this way. New Caledonia is not an easy fishery (see FL#26, #30, #40, #77, #87). Big fish, but hard to catch. Well not quite. I think it really all comes down to a few basic aspects that when broken down make sense and can be applied to your thinking and strategies on the flats to help turn a good trip into a great one. It is however, highly rewarding. I have had days where half a dozen bonefish have been landed here and some days where I haven’t hooked a single one. But as long as I’m seeing them, that’s a good start and it is time on the water that makes the biggest difference of all. Experiencing the power and exhilaration a double figure bonefish exerts on both your drag and your heart rate, is very hard to describe. RUGBY SCRUMS I have been taking length weight data on big bonefish (Albula glossodonta) for a number of years now, which has helped me to get a more accurate gauge on the bullshit meter and confirm that these New Caledonian bonefish are the broadest and heaviest that I have come across, relative to their length. When you see a double figure bonefish here they are absolute barrels. Big green-backed fish that are hard to mistake in good spotting conditions as they move along the flat, poking in and out of weed-beds, often tracking in slightly deeper channels or in close proximity to drop-offs. Generally seen in singles or pairs, they are at times observed in the winter months in schools of 15 to 20 fish as they move onto the flats to feed, and I suspect in preparation for spawning which generally occurs two to six days after the full moon. On my second trip to New Caledonia I was fishing with my guide, standing in the same position adjacent to a weed-bed for nearly fifteen minutes as the tide was rising. I had just had several refusals from single fish and had re-tied on a new pattern which I had cast a short distance in front of me. I was about to lift it from the water and prepare again when I had a tap on my left shoulder and looked over in disbelief. Surely not! A school of bonefish was coming straight past us, with the five or six fish together at the front, shoulder to shoulder, like a rugby scrum. They must have been 13 to 15 lb in weight. I had heard of these huge bones but to see them so close and so many of them together was a sight to behold. They were too close to re-cast as I would have spooked them, so we stood frozen still until most of the school had passed. Aware that my fly line was also floating above them, I gently twitched it and then began a long very slow draw retrieve. The smallest fish of the school peeled off and I was on, pulling out a huge amount of backing as I remained standing there in total disbelief at what had just happened. We landed it, got out the sling and she weighed 9 lb. Clearly, I needed to tighten my drag even more and bump-up by tippet. I stuck with the same fly, and what transpired after that was amazing as we found some single fish feeding on their own, which weighed 11 lb, 13 lb and two others at 8 and 9 lb to finish off the session. It had all come together beautifully and I was hooked on New Caledonia. MOON & TIDES When planning a trip to New Caledonia there are a select number of prime days each month to be fishing a particular flat due to the large tidal variation (0.5 to 2 m) and prevailing swell. Some flats are deeper than others so the best conditions for one flat may be quite different to another on a given day. Some are surrounded by deep channels and gutters, while others have what I would call deeper flats around their perimeter. Neap tides, ideally with an incoming commencing in the morning, will give the best conditions as the bonefish come onto the flats to feed. Generally, a waxing crescent moon going into the first quarter, or waning gibbous going into the third quarter will provide these tidal conditions. This scenario maximises your fishing day and allows you to fish the run-out tide in the afternoon, which can also be highly productive. The low won’t be too low, and the high not too high to wade safely and polaroid fish. IT’S NOT JUST A FLAT One of the big misconceptions is that if you are not seeing bonefish on a flat, then they just mustn’t be there. Or it’s been overfished. Just because you may not be seeing fish on a particular flat over a day or two probably has very little to do with the size of the population that resides there. It’s all about where and when they need to feed. If there are deeper sandflats in the area full of food for example (around 2 metres deep), then guess what? That’s where they may be. The fish don’t necessarily have to always feed on the shallower flats that we like to fly fish. As an example, some locations with deeper flats around their perimeter such as the magnificent Saint-Phalle off the north-east coast of New Caledonia can fish better on the larger spring tides, giving the big fish a reason to move from these deeper adjacent flats areas onto the main fishing flats to feed. The Saint-Phalle flat is massive with a huge amount of seagrass, coral and food available so you need to concentrate your fishing efforts wisely. It pays to focus your attention on the drop-offs at the start of the incoming, as the fish begin to stack up and patrol the edges. Larger gutters and entry channels can initially be prime stake-out locations just as the tide begins to come in, but it’s important not to walk through them as you will spook fish moving onto the flat. As the tide races in, so do the fish but with the water moving so quickly they are in transient mode, and on the move to get where they want to go. It’s then you need to move onto the flat and try to locate them as they start feeding. They end up feeding over a frantic hour or so either side of high water before making their way back off the flat again, and you can target them moving back towards deep water. This timing concentrates the opportunity for big fish to feed and can result in some outstanding sessions to numerous trophy fish well in excess of ten pounds if you are in the right locations at the right time. SLOWLY DOES IT Although there are exceptions to the rule, and you will occasionally find tailing fish in skinny water, most of the bigger fish you will encounter in New Caledonia prefer a water depth that is certainly above knee height and ideally mid-thigh or around 80 cm. If I’m fishing knee-deep water and not finding fish, I’ll always head a little deeper and invariably find them. So, I’m always conscious of the depth and try to stay in this optimal zone to maximise my chances. With the deeper water comes more of a polaroiding challenge, particularly in light, hazy cloud conditions that throw off a lot of glare. Concentrating hard in your best window of vision is very important during these times, but you will see them. A gentle breeze is your friend and if it’s nice and sunny, perfect. Unlike places such as Christmas Island (Kiritimati) where there are higher numbers of fish and more competition for food, large bonefish in the Pacific generally will not eat a fly that’s moving quickly, or moving at all sometimes, when they approach it. Getting their attention is one-thing, but one of the biggest mistakes is stripping or moving your fly too quickly and either spooking the fish or missing the take in between re-grabbing the line. Once you have spotted the bonefish, lead them by a few metres and let your fly sink. It will take a medium-dumbbell fly around 3 seconds to hit the bottom in 2–3 feet of water. Make sure you are also aware of any current direction and allow for this. A single short strip or hop should get their attention if they have not already seen your offering on the drop. At this point, don’t move it, and then watch the fish as it moves towards your fly. If you see it tip on the fly, fantastic, but you may not always be able to see this moment exactly. So if you think the fish is in the area, start a very slow long draw or slow full extension of your arm to gently pull the fly along the bottom and stay in contact with the fly. If you feel nothing, do a short strip and repeat. The take will feel more like you have snagged the bottom momentarily, at which point prepare for all hell to break loose. At this point you don’t need to strip strike, just clear your line, get it onto the reel and hold on. THE BUSINESS END When fishing for these large bonefish it’s imperative to have a lot of backing and double your typical bonefish drag setting. They will pull off an incredible amount of line and if your drag is too loose, you will run the risk of being spooled or losing them to coral off the flat’s edge. An 8-weight outfit is ideal, with a tropical floating line and saltwater reel with a good drag system. Intermediate lines or sink-tips can also be used, but I don’t think that they are ideal, particularly on flats with weed and structure. A 9 foot, 18 lb tapered leader out of the pack is fine, or you can make your own. To this I add 3 feet of 16 lb fluorocarbon via a double uni-knot, while 18 or 20 lb is good insurance where there is some reef structure. At the business end, most generalist bonefish patterns will work if presented well and fished properly, provided that they have enough weight. However, over the years I have found one particular Gotcha pattern to outperform anything else. UV accents clearly work very well and when the UV double pupil eyes were released by Hareline Dubbin many years ago, New Caledonia was the first place I tried them. The Saint-Phalle Special works particularly well on sand-patches around seagrass, coral and rubble, and catches the eye. On clean, clear flats I tend to stick with a gold dumbbell brass eye and keep everything neutral. I think the trick for big bonefish is to not overdo the UV colours, but rather have subtle combinations. This can be the dumbbell eyes, the thread nose, or tips of rubber legs which also impart good movement. Arctic Fox or Finn Raccoon for the body over-wing is also important, and not too much flash. Due to the size of the fish I over-dress the fly and have two long antennae, in UV Orange or Pearl which I tie to stand up at a 45-degree angle like a shrimp, rather than horizontally. Ensure your hook is strong. I have never bent a SL11-3H #4, which is larger and of thicker gauge than a #6. These are big fish so stick with a #4, which balances out well with a medium dumbbell eye (3/16) as a guide. BE PREPARED In destinations like New Caledonia, needing to make the most of your opportunities is an understatement. It’s not always easy, and you need an element of luck to tip it all in your favour. Quite often its taking those moments and making them count, particularly in the first few days, that swings the ledger. At week’s end it’s so often the mistakes made during this time that we reflect on — poor casting, wrong fly, saw it too late, bust off on the strike, too much whiskey the night before. Preparation for New Caledonia is key, and while it may not be ideal for beginners, it’s certainly a wild, amazing destination full of endless possibilities.

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