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Seychelles: Providence Atoll 03-05-2008

There is no reason to sugarcoat the journey; getting to a liveaboard yacht and a remote atoll in the Seychelles is an exhausting affair. It starts off with a domestic flight in the U.S. and then an overnight flight to Paris. Then comes an overnight flight to Mahe, the capital island of the Seychelles, and a brief overnight at a hotel before a 3:00 AM wakeup for a dawn charter flight to a strip on a remote atoll. The final leg is an overnight steam aboard your ship to your chosen atoll. Then it gets interesting....

For the 11 of us that were to explore Providence Atoll on this trip, our arrival at the IDC hangar began the real voyage. Our weight limit aboard the Beechcraft 1900 was either 35 or 40 lbs. per person depending on which authority we decided to listened to. We had all religiously adhered to the 35 lbs. just to be safe, but when we added up the weight of our gear with the provisions for the boat that were already stacked at the IDC hangar upon our arrival, we were informed that we were 160 kg. overweight. As a result, the bananas and soft drinks were culled. Then the frozen meat was pulled and a bit later a box of canned goods. Finally, after a bit more messing around by the IDC staff and the boat's representatives, we were told to load up.

With just a hint of dawn backlighting a new moon, we lifted off. We were headed 478 miles SW of Mahe for the strip on Farquhar Atoll. Here we would board our mothership yacht the Sea Pearl. Ten minutes into the 2 hour flight, we banked left and a pre-recorded flight announcement- the same kind you would hear on a commercial jet and absurdly formal for this charter - cheerily chirped, "in preparation for landing etc. etc". Minutes later we were out of the plane and outside the IDC hangar once again. We were told there was something wrong with the landing gear and that repairs would need to be made. The plan was to call us a bus and we would go back to our hotel where we would wait for the call announcing that the plane was repaired and good to go. No one from the IDC flight crew talked with us, the info just filtered thru some underlings.

We milled about for 1/2 hour, ostensibly waiting for the bus when suddenly the plane's engines were fired up, a small sedan pulled up and a senior IDC flight staff member emerged and marched over to examine the plane's landing gear. After ten minutes, it was announced that all was A-OK. We were told to reboard the plane. The pilots never explained a thing and soon we were off again.

Such is the Seychelles. As one trip member said, "It's like we are in jail. They have us and they will do with us as they wish while we are here." Now the Seychelles is a beautiful country and for the angler absolutely worth any difficulties, but one does feel "carried along" at times.

But I digress... so after 1 hour and 45 minutes, we landed on Farquhar Atoll, unloaded our gear and stepped up into a wagon towed behind an old tractor for the short trip across the island to the boat dock. In no time, we were motoring to the Sea Pearl, which was moored outside the lagoon entrance. The Sea Pearl was built in 1915 and has a fascinating history. For instance, it was intentionally sunk during World War I so the Germans could not use it! The ship is a 155' twin-masted schooner. It is not a luxurious boat, but it is quite serviceable for anglers looking to explore the most remote reaches of the Seychelles.

That afternoon we built rods and rigged our giant trevally reels to the liking of our guides who were from South Africa, Namibia and Scotland respectively. These guys liked a Bimini knot doubled with a double surgeons knot to a braided loop at the backing/fly line connection. Then, we rigged another braided loop at the leader/fly line connection. All other systems were nipped off, as they expected the GT's we were to encounter to be up to 135 cm. in length and they would tax our gear to the max. After all this "messing with gear", we got settled in our cabins, stored our gear, readied our packs for tomorrow and headed to the salon for dinner. We would leave for Providence after dinner and hopefully be there to fish the south island at dawn. For those prone to seasickness, we had earlier swallowed dramamine tablets and stuck scopolamine patches over the mastoid bone just behind the ear. Now after we finished up a light dinner, we would try to sleep in our drowsy, drugged and dry-mouthed states hoping to arrive at the atoll not too much worse for the wear.

In the 7 hours and 40 miles it took us to get from Farquhar to Providence's south island called Surf Island, we had a few casualties and the majority of us were a bit pale and weak-kneed at breakfast, but the prospect of fishing drove away the nausea and it wasn't long before the 11 of us were in the skiffs and on our way to shore with either Tim, Warren or Korin, our guides. If I told you that this group caught less than 10 bonefish, you would assume we had a horrendous trip. But with our high new moon tides, the bonefish just weren't on the flats in any numbers. Compared to our previous trips to other atolls such as Astove, Cosmoledo, St. Francoise and Farquhar, our bonefishing on Providence was abysmal... and yet we had a wonderful trip!

Providence is just about as remote as you can get in the world. Government records show that less than 1000 visitors have visited this atoll in the last 100 years. The atoll is 46 km. north to south and 16 km east to west. It is a vast area that is essentially unexplored and virtually unfished. Most of the guys in our group, while they might have liked a few bones, had not come specifically for bonefish so the news of no bones on the flats was not a big issue. We had come for a different critter and had heard that Providence just might be the best spot in the world to find it. We were seeking GT's... giant trevally... "jeets"... the thuggish jack with a mind for mayhem and murder. And Providence did not disappoint! This vast area of sandbanks, turtle grass flats and snaking channels produced a big GT for almost everyone every day and for some many times over. To my mind, this was the best spot for giant trevally, including other atolls in the Seychelles and the South Pacific, I've ever seen.

Our basic drill was this: On the morning falling tide, we would wade the atoll edge searching for GT's that were looking for baitfish coming off the flat's edge on the water draining from the atoll's lagoon. The GT's would prowl this edge and we would form a line much like when bonefishing, to intercept their prowlings. At slack low, we would eat lunch and on the incoming, we would wade to where the tide met the dry atoll edge. Here we would find GT's looking to push onto the flats with the rising water. We used big streamers like "brushies" and "Don Kings" connected to straight 130lb. 6' fluorocarbon. This was not a delicate form of angling art, but a slugfest or a street fight. Our equipment was rigged to be able to put maximum heat on a fish before it reached the coral edge or wrapped around a coral head or "bombie" (as the South Africans called them). This GT fishing was sightfishing at its very best. To see a 40 lb. GT kicking up a big wake in 2 feet of water over a turtlegrass flat is as good as it gets. Often we would see GT's on rays or even near turtles or sharks where they would wait to attack any baitfish dislodged by their foragings.

When a GT was sighted, we would cast at least 10-20 feet away and strip slowly a couple times relying on the GT's great vision to find our fly. When a GT charged, we stripped progressively faster until the fish opened its big maw to inhale our flies. Then we would initiate a series of big strip strikes and hold on with drags almost pegged. To trout strike a GT meant an eventual, if not immediate, unbuttoning. But in the commotion and with the violence of a big GT strike, it was often hard for some to forego old habits. Time and concentration were the only cure for trout "strike-out-itis". While wading the flats for GT's was flyfishing at its most pure, we did catch GT's while trolling flies along the bluewater edge and while search casting coral heads and the flat's shelf drop-offs. One other GT technique should be mentioned and although it may not be for purists, it sure was fun! This technique involved teasing GT's to within flycasting range while either wading or drift fishing from one of the skiffs. With a hookless plug, we could bring GT's virtually to our feet sometimes from well over 100 yards away. Sometimes we would tease spotted fish while at other times we just covered the water with the teaser bringing in these mobsters with relative ease. We could see the GT's the moment they attacked the hookless plug and sometimes they would hold the plug under until it could be powered from their vicious jaws. They came in singles, doubles and small packs. As the plug skittered along the surface, we could see their dark charcoal bodies and huge gaping mouths charging the plug.

The transfer was the key. As the plug reached casting distance, the job of the angler was to cast the fly early enough so that as the plug went by and was pulled from the water, the fly "became" the plug and the GT seamlessly went from plug to fly. Easier said than done. Sometimes flies went too early and an angler's stripping room ended too early at the boat and sometimes it went over the head of the GT, in which case, the fish veered off at our feet and never saw the fly. This whole process was exciting and if it didn't lead to a hook-up, it always led to a bunch of whooping and hollering. The anticipation when a pack of GT's started in on a teaser was delicious. We caught fish well over a meter long this way, as well as Bohar snapper, 'cudas and grouper that also attacked the teaser.

We were wading the flat on a falling tide. Water was draining from the atoll's lagoon and racing across the turtlegrass flats to meet the reef and eventually the blue water of the open Indian Ocean. Our skiff driver "Danny-Boy" was anchored inside the reef edge waiting for us to finish wading this flat. Our flat was separated from the skiff's flat by a slightly deeper channel. We were wading in water that was flowing like a swift river and the GT's we had hooked up earlier had been tough to land. With this swift tidal flow, we had had to fight both the incredible tenacity of the fish and the strong pressure of the tidal flow against their bodies.

The four of us were spread out along the edge of the deeper channel. We were getting ready to probe its depths with a white 2 0z. hookless plug when we saw a disturbance perhaps 400 yards away out by the skiff. It didn't take long to figure out that the water exploding on the shallow flat was caused by a pod of big "jeets" attacking anything unlucky enough to be found in their path. By the time they reached the deeper channel, they were 200 yards away. We lost them when they hit the deeper water.

It was then that Warren let loose with the teaser. The plug sailed over 100 yds. falling well short of where we had last seen the jeet pack. Almost instantaneously, churning water appeared behind the plug as a pack of 10-15 big GT's zeroed in on the teaser using their incredible vision and hearing. Warren cranked on the plug fighting hard to keep it ahead of the pack. Big GT after big GT lunged at the white plastic bait. As the teaser neared us, Adam Taylor and Guy Gardiner cast first. In the wake of the plug's path, a 100 cm. + GT violently ate Adam's fly and took off left, towards me, pulling fly line and then backing against a drag set strong enough to winch a small French import out of a ditch. Meanwhile, Guy somehow got hooked up too and his fish, also a monster, headed west towards Africa. And if all this wasn't enough, Mike Kotrick was tight to a fish too. I had never seen him cast!

With Adam's line running virtually at my feet, I saw a big GT veer from the pack and head my way. I made a short cast and the fish lunged at my fly. Unfortunately, Adam's fly line lay directly between my fly and the fish. I immediately stopped my retrieve, as I didn't want to ruin Adam's chances with his big fish! My GT disappeared in a boil of water and turtlegrass tailings. I was happy to see that Adam was still hooked up, but Guy and Mike were reeling in slack lines. In Mike's case, he was cut off at the leader on a "bombie". For Guy, it was more serious as we were to learn that the last 20 feet of his fly line were a twisted and mangled mess and would have to be excised before he could get back in the game. Then Adam went slack too. His big GT had taken all his fly line. We discovered the cut to be at the Bimini knot. The GT had accomplished this by using a small coral head as a cleaver. Adam could only smile and shake his head. Losing a fly line in the Seychelles is a kind if right of passage so Adam took the event in stride. For this episodet, the score stood: GT's 4 anglers 0. We could only stand there slightly stunned by the sheer violence of the moment.

GT's are brutish thugs and when in a pack, mayhem and murder follow. In a pack, they charge onto a flat with their normal malevolence supercharged by the pressure competition creates. There is a kind of beauty in their attack and most anglers are awed and slightly overwhelmed by the incredible theater a pack of GT's creates. The flat you are wading for giant trevally may make you feel like the same rules apply as with bonefish, but make no mistake, if the cerebral hunt for bonefish is chess, the pursuit of GT's is a street fight, frightening for the violence held in the moment when man meets giant trevally.

We also took a host of other species on the flats with flies. Some of the notable catches were: blue spangled emperors, sweet lip emperors (hot fish with big orange lips), pacific triggerfish (beautiful triggers that tail in inches of water and take dime-sized crab patterns), marbled grouper, bohar snapper, jobfish, and a myriad of other snapper/grouper derivatives. Two other notable flats fish are as tough to take as permit and although we caught none on this trip, we did get some hook-ups. They are the bumphead parrots, a massively strong parrotfish that tails on the flats and will take Velcro crabs after a thousand casts or so. And the milkfish, legendary and monstrously strong, theses vegetarians take an algae fly (like the Milky Dream) in about the same number of casts as the "bumpies" above. I've only caught two milkfish in seven trips to the Seychelles!

Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when the tides were too high to fish on the atolls rim, we fished the bluewater and reef edge. This fishing was at time simply incredible! Often we were within 500 yards of the mothership when we hooked sailfish, yellow-fin tuna or dog-toothed tuna. We employed numerous techniques to dredge up these denizens from the deep. These techniques included: trolling flies and conventional plugs, tethering live bonito to tease up fish, trolling teasers (which included hookless plugs, poppers, bonito belly strips and whole small bonito) and my personal favorite... targeting billfish by teasing sailfish and marlin to within casting distance with a fly.

One morning, only a few hundred yards from the Sea Pearl, we were trolling a hookless teaser and trying to wake up. The drill was for Korin, our Scottish guide, to slowly bring any raised billfish to the skiff's stern with the hookless teaser, then the fly rodder would cast beyond the fish and hopefully the billfish would turn and take the fly going away thus insuring a solid hookup. A good hook-up is often hard to accomplish (and much less elegant) when trolling a fly. We weren't in for two minutes, when a huge, charcoal gray shape sliced across our wake. Its size was so disproportionate to what we were expecting that it took a moment to process. Then a slightly smaller billfish did the same thing followed by two sailfish that in comparison looked like bonefish on the backs of rays.

We got no hookup. The billfish were gone as soon as they came, but we thought the first two fish to be black marlin and we estimated their weight to be at least 500 and 350 lbs. respectively. This was a scene I will never forget and in one stunning moment summed up both the promise and richness of this atoll.

From the panga style skiffs, we caught bonito up to 20 lbs., yellow-fin tuna up to 60 lbs., dog-tooth tuna up to 80 lbs., giant trevally, marbled grouper, lyre-tailed grouper, bohar snapper, big rainbow runners, white tip sharks, big 'cudas, wahoo and sailfish. We really didn't devote much time bluewater fishing, as most of us preferred to fish the flats, so for the amount of time we allotted to this, our results were staggering. This was an incredible adventure. We visited one of the most remote and hard to reach atolls in the world.... Which is the ultimate dream of any angler worth his salt. We had a great group of eleven enthusiastic souls that took everything in stride and never complained - not once - about anything. Our guides were extremely knowledgeable... hardcore comes to mind. The Sea Pearl was comfortable, if not luxurious, with great food, a hard working staff and a very competent captain and crew.

So as I write this, our group is splitting up. Some will stay in Paris to meet family members, wives and girlfriends. Others will make their way home to New Zealand, Bangladesh and the U.S. In our baggage we have a few fly reels with drags turned to cinder and at least five fried digital cameras. On the atoll, we leave behind 7 fly lines, countless flies and bluewater poppers, hundreds of fish with sore lips and a few footprints under the turtlegrass. Otherwise, the atoll hardly knew we were there.

Thanks to Dr. Guy Gardiner, Mike Kotrick, Earl Zagrodnik, Doug Jeffries, Jim Dean, Dr. Steve Peskoe, Dave Coolidge, Brian Haberstock, J.P. Albrecht and Adam Taylor... what a great time and what a great group!!

Addendum: To do this trip, you'll need an 8 or 9-weight rod for bonefish, triggers and other flat's species with 12 to15 pound fluorocarbon leaders and appropriate flies. The guides sell flies on the boat and you can arrange to have appropriate flies waiting for you on the Sea Pearl. You'll need a 12 wt. rod for GT's with ultra heavy leaders as discussed and appropriate streamer patterns. Your camera should be WATERPROOF! IF you get seasick, come prepared!

Written by Scott Heywood








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