A word about change and how it occurs... you can't tell the world about a great fishing destination and then expect people not to want to see it for themselves. It's human nature. I stand guilty as charged for assisting in this bittersweet evolutionary process. Especially where Cosmoledo is concerned. I wrote one of the very first magazine articles about Cosmoledo's now famous GT's. Well... the world took notice. And through the savvy marketing efforts of international travel agents (like us), guide services and the web, the word definitely got out.
In the back of my mind, I knew this day would eventually come so as I stepped onto the ship's deck just as the sun inched above the horizon, my heart sank as I looked out across a calm sea and spied a tall-masted schooner off in the distance. From the deck of the I.O.E., I could see the interloper tucked into the lee of North Island, just a few miles away. I silently mouthed the words "NO WAY" as I shook my head in disbelief. It looks like we're going to have company this week.
A quick visit on the ship's radio answered the who's who question. Fortunately, the other group's leaders turned out to be some South African friends of ours. Solid guys, with the typical fly fisher's mentality and fortunately, respect for their fellow anglers space. With preservation of each others experience in mind, a shared-water protocol was quickly arranged. Cosmoledo is a big place, but the reality of two groups, both with a dozen guys each, wandering around the atoll unchecked might be cause to ruffle even the most agreeable angler's feathers. Working together in these instances is always a good idea. In the end, their presence during our week amounted to little more then a ship's silhouette off in the distance.
It took nearly six years, but it had finally happened, this week we would share the flats, channels and isolated reefs of our favorite atoll with another group of anglers. Not the end of the world I suppose, but it certainly reminds adventurous fishermen just how small the angling world has become. Up until this point, we've always relied on hideous geography and steep economics to keep the rest of the angling pack at bay. Those days would appear to be gone. Don't get me wrong, Cosmoledo is still a world-class destination, but going forward, the experience will change ever so slightly and so will our approach to fishing there.
Over the years we have experienced this "evolution of a fishery" phenomena in a number of places. The Bahamas, the Yucatan and Alaska just to name a few. These destinations, as popular as they've become, still constitute the world's most consistent fisheries. So don't despair, but we must ask "what does the future hold for Cosmoledo?" The obvious outlook is this... Cosmoledo is a vast atoll, roughly 60 square miles. I've had the great pleasure of fishing and hosting groups here for many weeks and I've still not fished the entire place. Consider the expansiveness of Cosmo's habitat: vast flats, reefs, beaches, numerous cuts and channels, plus the entire lagoon inside and the amazing bluewater outside. If any place in the world can hold up to some angling pressure, it's Cosmoledo! Rejoice and relax. Our favorite atoll still ranks among the world's most wild, diverse and productive fisheries.
In the future, the key to success at Cosmo, as with most maturing fisheries will lie simply in an angler's will. Do you have what it takes to fish all day despite miserable weather or unfavorable tides? Can you convert opportunities? Can you make that 50-foot cast into a headwind when your fish of a lifetime swims by? An angler's luck and skill, I'm afraid, are often more closely related than any of us would care to admit. Cosmoledo has never been a place for anglers that require a lot of handholding. Needy anglers would be better served by a fully guided, land-based lodge operation. So, how does one succeed at Cosmoledo? Here's what to bring... raw determination, unwavering optimism and a willingness to fish as hard and as wild as Cosmoledo itself. Those attributes, combined with a reasonable amount of skill, will often return those cover shot photos we all dream about.
Speaking of cover shots, we got some! But, before we get to that, it was my great pleasure to be joined this year by veteran Alphonse Island guide Graeme Field. Graeme hails from South Africa and has spent quite a bit of time in the Seychelles guiding fly fisherman. This was Graeme's first visit to Cosmoledo, but his experience at both Alphonse and Farquar Atolls made him the perfect co-host and side-kick for me with this group. The attributes I mentioned above for success at Cosmoledo describe Graeme to a "T". At 140 pounds (soaking wet), Graeme is the Jack Russell terrier of saltwater flats fishing guides. Compact and fearless, Graeme was very much at home wading the deep surf zones of this hostile aquatic environment. His passion and commitment to catching big GT's was almost frightening at times. I kept thinking, MAN... I wish he would not do that with the fishermen. That's way to deep out there! Fortunately we had no mishaps and some pretty confident swimmers in our midst.
There are some serious benefits to being an AD trip host and donating your services as a quasi guide. Mainly, while you are helping the anglers, you get to fish some. Sometimes, if everyone's doing well, you get to fish a lot. Graeme made great use of this opportunity with some spectacular results. One day on South Island, while Chip and Tim Stringer ate their lunch in the zodiac, Graeme went on a quick walkabout armed with his 13 wt. GT rod. It was high noon and approaching slack high tide as everyone retreated for higher ground. As Graeme made his way along the coral-lined, ocean side edge of South Island, he ran into his "fish of a lifetime." Given this guy's fishing experience that's saying something! Perched on the coral edge three feet above the swells, Graeme walked smack dab into a massive GT. The fish was lazily cruising the island's edge, not five feet from shore, searching for a lunch of its own. Without casting, Graeme simply slapped his fly and leader down inches in front of the fish's truck tire sized head.
Even with veteran anglers, there are simply times when what's going on in front of your eyes is so spectacular, you just lose your head. As the giant fish swam up to engulf the fly, literally in slow motion, Graeme, in his excitement, pulled the fly right out of the giants mouth before it closed. The fish's mouth was so big it was not even nicked by the 6/0 fly. Confused by the disappearance of the easy meal, the fish swam a lazy circle looking for the missing morsel. All Graeme had to do was get the fly back in the water. This time the GT was not going to let his lunch escape and the fly was hammered. With the big hook now firmly set, the fun was about to begin.
The race to the end of the island began as Graeme sprinted 200 meters over the razor sharp coral following his fish. As Graeme reached the end of the real estate, the fish changed direction and figured the open ocean was a better place to be. The classic stand off ensued... a big GT pulling hard against a completely pegged drag with line burning back off into the deep blue. At this point most anglers would be content to admit defeat and only watch as their spool emptied. Not Graeme! Armed with a radio, he ran and screamed asking for the tender to be brought out into the waves. The tender driver was not buying the plan. As Graeme's spool continued to empty, he was not willing to admit defeat. Graeme leapt from the coral head into the five feet of water below and continued his chase towards the reef. Neck deep in water, Graeme was doing his best impression of the Neil Armstrong moon hop as he chased the fish. Still screaming into the water resistant radio to the tender driver he said... "Get your... #@**))$# out here! NOW!"
As the tender and its three man crew rounded the corner and braved the swells, there was Graeme's head bobbing barely above the surface, far off shore among the waves. With the radio's wristband clamped firmly in his teeth and his rod tip arched to a bend that barely broke the water's surface, Graeme was rewriting an angler's definition for the word commitment. Nearly out of backing, the tender crew hauled him aboard and Graeme continued to fight this beast from the boat. They managed to keep the fish from plummeting over the edge of the reef. Now the challenge was to get this whale off the bottom. No way! Not with the lifting power of a fly rod. After a lengthy tug of war this fish was holding flat to the bottom like a manhole cover. The tender driver, sporting dual masonry gloves, took the 8-foot plunge under the tender and swam for the fish. Moments later, a labored, one-handed dog paddle brought the behemoth to the surface by the tail. It took three guys to drag the fish into the tender. After a few quick pics and some measurements, this magnificent fish was back in the water and on its way. We estimated the fishes weight utilizing a highly accurate formula. However... to quote the weight exactly is in direct violation of Angling Destinations' truth management policy, so I'll just say it sauntered well into that triple-digit neighborhood. Unbelievable!
And so it went with Cosmoledo delivering several more legendary angling stories. With the typical highlights aside, I'd say that overall this year's trip to Cosmoledo saw slower fishing than in the past. The masses of big bones we've come to expect seemed to be harder to come by. The ravenous packs of bluefins were virtually missing. We even had more than our fare share of refusals from the GT's. Hummm? Who knows what the reasons were? Fishing is still fishing and even in a place like Cosmo, slow days or even weeks happen once in a while.
I think going forward, from a traffic management standpoint, any visit to Cosmoledo should also include stops to the other islands that make up the rest of the Aldabra group. Obviously as a World Heritage Site, there's no fishing on Aldabra, but Astove and even Assumption should be visited and fished with enthusiasm. Each island is unique and full of great angling opportunities.
Astove, often referred to (even by me) as Cosmoledo's redheaded stepchild, should not be overlooked. During our two weeks here, we spent two days each week fishing this fantastic atoll. What makes Astove such a great option is its geography. Huge spring tides are basically negated in Astoves vast interior lagoon. The reason being, there is only one small entrance, where 100% of the water flushes in and out of the lagoon. Virtually the entire lagoon is fishable at some point in the day. Wading is "parking lot" easy as you follow the ebb and push of the one-way only tide. Even on a high, spring tide profile, a guy can fish a massive incoming spring tide in the safety of the lagoon and not have to fear for his life as he meanders his way along. Astove is kind of like the Aldabra Group's ace-in-the-hole fishery.
Fact is... we had some pretty fantastic results from our time we spent on Astove. Focusing on the interior lagoon yielded massive quantities of bonefish for all. Nothing huge, 4 pounds was pushing the top of the size scale, but agreeable, hard pulling, tailing bonefish were virtually everywhere you looked. During high tide, the water in the upper two thirds of the lagoon, by virtue of it's 2 to 3 foot depth, took on a milky cast. Maybe the water clarity was the result of wind and surface chop? Or... maybe it's just the unfathomable numbers of bonefish just doing their best to make a living by churning up the lagoon bottom. Either way, as the water dropped, we got the visibility that classic bonefishing dictates and the action was constant for tailing singles, doubles and small schools that lazily rooted their days away on these gorgeous white sand flats.
The biggest surprise we encountered at Astove was the number of permit we saw in the lagoon. We saw quite a few, especially by Seychelles' standards. Not all of them were whales, but our guys managed to land seven permit from the lagoon at Astove. As usual, I never managed to convert on a permit, but I definitely had my chances. The other big surprise came with the incoming water. Large creatures were returning to the lagoon and with the clear, fresh push of clean ocean water, the big boys materialized: big sharks and huge GT's. We donated two fly lines to unstoppable freight trains disguised as GT's during our short visit. That's something an angler never forgets!
As always, our annual visit to the Aldabra group aboard the Indian Ocean Explorer was an outstanding adventure. We tried as best we could to make some adjustments in the face of some severe weather, extreme tides, challenging fishing and sharing our turf for the first time with another group of anglers. Despite these challenges, I think it was a great trip with some truly memorable moments. This is the sort of trip that has the potential of being a life-changing event. For those who truly have an appreciation for the entire experience, I think it was. For those who simply quantify a trip in terms of how many times their rod was bent, I suspect they returned somewhat disappointed. That's OK. I think any experience and what we take from it, like most decisions in life, is more a matter of choice them circumstance. To just be here in this place... this wild, remote and beautiful place, is a privilege all it's own. And after many visits to this group of atolls, it still blows what's left of my hair back.
Written By: Todd Sabine