Better lucky than good

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Better lucky than good

The sky is shading pink to purple and the last rays have departed the towering clouds to seaward, the sun long ago having dropped below the green mountains. I'm standing waist deep in warm water, listening to the swell growling its last on the reef. The taunting tails have disappeared with the tide.

A large black shape glides towards me from the mountainside, circles and with laboured beats of leathery wings, descends its claws to touch the water's surface before slogging up again, back towards the trees.

Leathery? Where other destinations have frigate-birds and ospreys, Mahé has flying foxes. Why dip their claws? I'm not sure, but it's the height of mango season - every night they gather in the trees next to the bungalow to eat, chatter and bicker into the early hours. Maybe even bats can't stand sticky fingers?

So how did I get here, waving a fly rod on a tropical flat?  On an aeroplane obviously, but that’s not what I mean.

Growing up in the UK the image of fly-fishing was typified by a TV ad featuring a tweedy old gent searching for the book  'Flyfishing by JR Hartley'. Even lure fishing was seen as a fringe activity only conducted by deviants and Americans... Baitfishing provided plenty of fun, but then university intervened and fishing went out the window.

A decade later, living on the beach in western France I started to get the itch again. Lure fishing was now very a la mode, though the returns were meagre. Two bass in three months... The snowball had started rolling however.

At a meetup someone handed me a fly rod. The casting was easier than feared, the catching not so much. 

An invitation to an American wedding provided a gateway to another wonderland. Standing on a casting platform, gliding across glass in the Everglades, watching redfish shouldering through  grass, snook lurking and barracuda apprently teleporting in and out from the Starship Enterprise, was a tipping point. I chickened out on attempting fly gear that day, but I wanted to see this scene again and again.

The fly rod duly took a trip to Mexico, where I was lucky enough to meet a Dave and Roger, true  24/7 flyfishing hobos. Without their encouragment I might have given up, unable to see a fish in the never-ending wind. A guided day provided my first bonefish. Then a few days later a first – tiny – DIY bone at Boca Paila.

So back to Mahé. 

With Zika ruling out most of the planet, the Seychelles popped up as a surprisingly accessible (from Europe) babymoon destination. The atolls were way beyond budget so it would be Airbnb a few miles from the airport. Fishing prognosis ‘debatable’. The pre-trip equation of google + hope * (fevered imagination) = mood swings was in full operation.

The first evening - black scimitar tails slicing the water. Wild excitement, wonky casting. But they resolutely stayed in their search pattern, no spooking. Eventually the mystery was revealed – milkfish!

Day two will stick in the memory. A calm grey dawn and barely a hundred paces onto the flat; big tails, backs out of the water. Finally a cast that doesn’t spoon off into the gutter. Strip, line tight and the water bulges upwards. Fish departs at breathtaking pace. I’ve still no definite idea what is really on the end. The first view drops my jaw – a bonefish that looks like a submarine – ten times the size of the Mexican tiddlers. It has plenty in the tank and I get plenty of bruises to the knuckles. Finally to hand and two hands needed to hold it briefly. I watch it fin slowly away, elated.

However it seems I have angered the god of the flat, or maybe I’m just not much good at this flyfishing business. Each day falls into the same pattern – see tails, cast, fish depart. I see bones moving in the channels, but rarely more than one or two each day and every presentation is a bungled horror show. The frustration leavened by small emperors and a peacock flounder.

Two incidents drive me to the edge. Rabbit-in-the-headlights with a marauding shoal of golden trevally, charging upwind and out of reach too quickly. Then the final straw – sharing a low tide pool with about thirty large bonefish and two small Indo-Pacific permit that have absolutely no interest in eating anything at all.

The hope hasn’t quite dried up though. The days of watching and walking had brought home to me how full of life the flat is with inches of water and how devoid once waist deep. Basic stuff, but being a beginner often means needing to be beaten over the head with the obvious before the lesson is learnt.

And there is ‘that tail’ - always alone, always vertical, always in roughly the same area and always disappearing at the first cast. 

Fishing virtually blind over thick turtlegrass meant success or lack thereof feels like complete guesswork. Should I have leave the fly to sit instead or stripping, or vice-versa? Is the fly too contrasty or too subtle? The wrong size? Time wasting fly changing – the tide isn’t waiting. I have an inkling that ‘that tail’ might be attached to a permit, but little confidence. None of the flies in my box look much like the local crabs, but the ones given to me by Dave in Mexico look rather more sophisticated than the rest. I resolve to only use the one fly for a whole tide.

Here goes...

Its starts typically enough. The milkfish are there, a series of large shadows – probably trevally – swing past beyond casting range, stingrays saunter past and the odd small eagle ray or lemon shark comes to investigate my ankles. The bones are there again, but a wayward cast sends them scarpering. All is quiet – bar the slashing needlefish – for a long while. The tide rises and clouds move in. Maybe that’s it for today.

And then up pops a yellow Y of a tail. Gone again. Up again a bit further away. I start to creep towards it when it comes up barely two rod lengths in front of me. I still can’t see the owner. It disappears as I awkwardly flail a short cast in its direction. The crab plops in and I stand heron-like as the seconds tick past. Nothing.

Deflated, I lift the rod to start retrieving the fly, when the belly of line arrows away to the right. As so often happens, an emporer has intervened and stolen the fly. I tighten up and guide it towards me but it has other ideas and seems to get bigger with every moment. The reel spins backwards in staccato bursts but the run isn’t long and I start to gain line. A black sickle shaped fin and yellow/silver back appear. Now it’s my head that’s spinning, back and forth between “it’s probably just some sort of trevally” and “ IT’S A F*CKING PERMIT!”. 

The fish keeps the mystery going, revealing itself piece by piece between punchy little runs. Finally it is there on the surface, unquestionably a permit and my hand around the wrist of its tail.

I subject the fish to the indignity of a hundred yard stumble (while bending double to keep it in the water) to show it to my girlfriend. I can’t possibly exist unless someone else has seen it. She’s  oblivious to the drama, snorkeling around the rocks, but knows exactly what it is when I wave the fish in front of out face. The camera won’t work, cross words and the rain starts to fall. The permit remains inscrutably calm throughout, and yet the moment it is released it charges from the shallows, the frantic zigzagging still fresh in my mind more than a year later.