With only a slight breeze ruffling the edges of your shirt, you search a gin-clear flat alive with a diverse variety of creatures such as rays, crabs, sharks and hopefully, bonefish. On this perfect morning, it seems as if you're almost chasing memories as much as bonefish... until you hook-up!
Classic bonefishing moments are truly intoxicating. These moments ripen in us over time and they can force otherwise rational people to go to extraordinary means to repeat them. The search for these classic moments is an obsession for many anglers leading them to some of the most remote corners of our globe. If this is an addiction, albeit a positive addiction, then I'm guilty as charged... and always ready to pop-off on some new angling adventure.
Whispered rumors of huge bonefish prowling the flats of the South Pacific nation of New Caledonia were enough to seduce me into some twenty hours of airtime from the states... a journey not for the casual angler. You have to want to end up at Tontouta International Airport near the city of Noumea deep in the heart of the South Pacific. Reminiscent of parts of Australia and Tahiti, New Caledonia is a three hour flight northeast from Sydney or northwest from Auckland into one of the world's most fertile ocean environments.
New Caledonia is wild and remote... a land of stunning contrasts. Arid hills drop steeply into perfect, cobalt-blue water fringed with classic white sand beaches. These mountains, with their low lying scrub brush and rolling grassy hills, are reminiscent of my home in Wyoming. But I have no ocean or beaches in my backyard... and especially not beaches like these that look as if they were created for a Hollywood movie set.
The development and surprisingly sophisticated infrastructure of Noumea (based on nickel mining) recedes quickly into the distance as you drive some 240 miles north on the road that ends at the tip of the island at Relais de Poingham. Here you'll find an area still owned and regulated by the local Melanesians... an area rich in native culture. These indigenous people are intimately familiar with the ocean and their knowledge of their local flats and reefs is extraordinary! For these natives, the bounty of the sea is the focus of their culture and their livelihood. Handlining, spearfishing and cast netting are all taught at a very early age and these coastal people are remarkably adept at each skill.
You only have to look at the bottom of a flat on a calm day to understand why the bonefish are so huge here. Giant tube worms, thousands of small clams, shrimp, small fish and a host of unknown creatures live side-by-side creating tons of edible biomass... perfect fodder for any bonefish lucky enough to have been spawned in these waters. It is the richest ecosystem I have ever seen and obviously the principal reason why every bonefish here is a giant. On the flip side, the bonefish are not prolific. While sighting twenty fish a day might be typical, hooking-up with four to eight is the norm. Landing these fish is difficult and requires at least a 9-weight rod. These are true "oceanic" bonefish. They live in a dangerous world at the edge of the reef. They only venture into the shallows on the right tide and only stay long enough to feed. Completely unpressured and uneducated, the angling challenge is to present your fly in a way that makes these giants want to eat. These fish are not undernourished. It can be difficult to present your fly in a way that makes them want your offering over a wealth of other natural targets. Crab flies seem to be a favorite and at times, they appear to be picked up by these big bones almost with indifference. The bonefish will not chase a "stripped" fly very far... they simply give up and eat the closest neighbor!
When hooked, these NC bonefish take long, powerful runs as they make for deeper water. Reef edges can be sharp and leader break-offs are common. However, when you land a fish, you will be rewarded with a true trophy. We carried an IGFA certified scale that showed bonefish averaged 7 pounds with 9 to 12 pound fish being common. Every member of our group saw, hooked or landed the biggest bonefish of their career. Documented catches of bonefish in New Caledonia have weighed in at over 15 pounds and it seems clear that the next series of IGFA records will come from these islands. But beware, this is not a destination for novice fishermen. Good casting skills, the ability to see fish in deeper water and a healthy dose of patience are all required for consistent success.
When the tide was wrong for bonefish, we turned our attention to kingfish, queenfish and a wealth of trevally species including giant, spotted and golden, as well as numerous other reef species that prowl the edge of the flats. These species aggressively pursue colorful flies presented with a fast sinking line. A few of the islands we visited have deeper, blue water edges that hold very large trevally, kingfish and wahoo. In fact, on our first day of fishing, one member of our group lost an entire fly line and a substantial amount of backing to a very large fish. It may have been a wahoo or a large trevally. We will never know! We do know that it was an exceptional first run and we all felt the disappointment of not at least seeing what species was capable of such a feat.
We all hooked large trevally and kingfish, landing some and breaking off many more. During one memorable stretch, we hooked up to five or six large kingfish only to lose all of them to fierce runs, sharp coral edges or tackle failure such as a broken rod and more than a few broken wire leaders. We did land the rare and beautiful golden trevally, as well as the hybrid golden-spotted trevally. Both fish were exceptionally beautiful and strong.
Our guides were extremely well-versed in their local fishery. Hard working and organized, they did a great job finding spots where bonefish move onto the flats. While wading, we frequently had two guides to help us spot the fish better on the deepwater edges. We used two, 20' center console boats as transport to the wading flats and found them perfect for fishing the deep reef edges. Our guide's equipment was in great condition and we all felt comfortable under their tutelage.
Our home away from home was the small beach resort of Relais de Poingham. It is a comfortable, quaint, bungalow-style resort with a great sense of style and a charming atmosphere. The small beachfront bungalows have private, outdoor garden showers and are wonderful to return to after a long day on the water. Our hosts, Jean and Josy Broudissou were delightful and served us authentic French cuisine including spit-roasted local venison washed down with superb French wine. The food was outstanding and I thought more than once that it would be a great place to take non-anglers for a week of rest and relaxation.
New Caledonia is not a spot for everyone. Complicated logistics, long flights and language barriers all make the journey difficult. However, for those intrepid, experienced anglers seeking trophy bonefish, this spot is outstanding. This area offers truly huge bonefish and is almost completely untouched. What the fishery lacks in quantity is more than made up for in quality. While these flats offer true trophy bonefishing, there are also plenty of other rod bending opportunities on a variety of species. We will return to New Caledonia soon with bigger rods and more time. I've reserved a spot on my dance card for yet another huge, emerald green shadow pushing up the edge on a new incoming tide. We've also reserved lodge space for late spring 2003. If you are interested in big fish bonefishing, give us a call... we'll help you fill out your dance card too!
Written By: Brad Wolfe
Photos By: Eric Berger