Cosmoledo, Seychelles - Part 2
You almost can't get there from here. If this had been the early 1970's, access would have been by air as far as Turkey and then by rail to India. The next leg would have involved a steerage berth on a freighter to Mahe, the northern island and capital of the Seychelles. It would have been primitive and tentative getting from Mahe to any of the outer islands.
As it now stands it's still not easy, but at least it's quicker than 4-5 weeks. I flew overnight from Detroit to Paris arriving in Paris mid-morning. I met the rest of the group, guys from Indiana, North Carolina, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and Oklahoma, in Paris. We took day rooms at the Sheraton in Charles DeGaulle airport and then caught an Air Seychelles/Air France flight overnight to Mahe (nine and one-half hours!!). Arriving in Mahe in the early morning, we had 24 hours to see the town (90% of the country's population lives on Mahe), to relax and catch up on badly needed sleep. We overnighted at The Wharf, a top-notch small hotel on the water. Accommodations were excellent, as were the food and service.
Next morning early, we flew from Mahe to Assumption Island, the southern-most of the islands with an airstrip. Less than two dozen people live on Assumption. We rendezvoused with the Indian Ocean Explorer, the boat that was to be our transportation and lodging for the next week.
The IOE, as it is called, is manned by a Seychellsois captain, Francis, and a crew of 7 including the cook and a cabin girl, who kept the cabins clean, served meals and helped in the kitchen. The IOE is 114' long and rigged as a dive boat, but that rigging served us excellently for fishing as well. There were two Zodiacs as tenders to shuttle us to and from shore for fishing and to takes us out to deeper water when we wanted to bluewater fish. There were rope slings for all our rods and dive lockers that were perfect for each of us to store our individual fishing gear in, thus preventing that ball of confused gear that happens when 9 men live in tight quarters on a gear-intensive trip.
Our cabins were below deck and forward, 2 men to a cabin with bunk beds a shower/toilet in each cabin. Directly above the cabins was the dining area which also served as lounge, bar and library. The cabins and dining area were air-conditioned, a real blessing at 9 degrees south latitude. Above that was the pilothouse and aft were the galley, engine room, crews' quarters and fantail.
Once on Assumption Atoll, we had the day to fish on our own. Most of the guys fished in the area of the white sand beaches where the IOE was anchored, but Jim Dean (and you thought he was dead) and I walked to the other end of the airstrip, which is also the other side of the island, and fished two miles back to the IOE. Most of the shore was rocky with onshore winds that precluded any fishing, but we found a little bight about one mile east of the anchorage that held African pompano and bonefish. We entertained ourselves mightily for the afternoon; especially considering the word was that there were no bonefish on Assumption!!
We returned to the IOE in the late afternoon, ate dinner and then headed for our cabins as the IOE made the 12 hour overnight crossing from Assumption to Cosmoledo, the island at which we would be fishing for the week.
Mahe and the northern Seychelles are volcanic in origin and thus have relief and a fairly complex ecosystem for isolated islands. The southern Seychelles consist of old reef atolls. Assumption and some of the others are low, solid islands, but Cosmoledo, Aldabra (World Heritage Site, home to the giant tortoises, etc.) and others are fringe atolls with a discontinuous circle of low, thin islands and a large central lagoon.
Cosmoledo's lagoon is fairly deep and the center of it remains several meters deep even at low tide. There is one large and several smaller channels that move water between the lagoon and the open ocean as the tide ebbs and floods. Separating the lagoon from the ocean is a series of fringing islands, the largest of which are Menai (men`-eye) and Wizard. The flats on the inside margins of the encircling islands are dry at low tide, but as the tide rises, they are flooded and are the habitat that the bonefish use and where we did most of our fishing.
Surprisingly for the tropics, the tides on Cosmoledo have a fairly large range, something like 3-6 feet. Most tropical tides range in the neighborhood of 1 foot between cycles. These more extreme tides meant that the fish move onto and off of a flat faster than they would in the Bahamas or Belize, for instance. We had to adjust our fishing strategies accordingly.
Each fishing day started with us up just before dawn for a quick breakfast buffet style, then put the day's gear together (I quickly learned to set up for the next day the night before), grab a lunch and water and then take a Zodiac shuttle to the flats we were going to fish. We generally split into 2 or 3 groups for the day's fishing.
From high tide through the falling tide cycle we would fish for bonefish. This was contrary to my Bahamas experience, where the best fishing was on the rising tide, but here the tide rose so fast that the fish came in quickly and then spread out. On the falling tide they came off the tide at a more leisurely pace and then hung around the deeper edges of the flats until the bottom of the tide forced them into the deeper lagoon waters where hungry things lurk. I found that if you could read the subtle flats topography, there were always troughs, points and bars that would channel the fish in and out and that these were generally the best areas. Still, you had to move at a fair pace and keep up with the tide and the fish. I caught bonefish on both tides, but the fishing was noticeably better on the falling tide.
Once the tide hit dead low, we would move by either foot or boat to the deeper channels and cuts and fish for bluefin and giant trevally. This required a switch in tackle as well as location. A 10 weight would be a minimum rod for giant trevally (GT's, as they are called) and being as that is the lowest common denominator, we used 10-12 weights for all of the other fishing.
The trevally would usually hit a popper or a deceiver type streamer. My biggest GT was a bit over 30+ lb and took a polar fiber minnow, but I think he would have hit anything. I caught him feeding in the break line on the surf on the outer shore of one of the islands. There were two of them and you could see them through the lens of the wave so clearly that I could determine which fish was the largest and had ample time to cast to him. He (or I?) missed the first take, which only served to get his blood up. With his predatory amperage at max output, he turned on the second cast just as the fly smacked the water. The fly was just in front of and a foot to my side of the fish. It was a down-the-throat view as he turned and engulfed the fly. GT's don't do anything half way and that includes fight. I was glad that I had a 12 weight and even at that, it took over 10 minutes to bring him to the beach. I surfed him onto the sand, took a photo and put him back into the sea.
At least one group a day would opt for bluewater fishing instead of fishing for trevally. That was always an outing with a mixed bag. Hayden Groendyke caught a 100 lb. yellowfin tuna, giving us sashimi and tuna steaks for two days. Mike Schwartz caught a 200+ lb cod grouper that ate a bluefin trevally he had trolled up. There were always bonita and rainbow runners as well as big snapper and grouper to be had. No one landed a wahoo or sailfish, but they were there.
With all of the ocean fish around, we ate like kings, in part because the crew handlined off the fantail daily and in part because we had a cook who knew what to do with good fish. After the meals, we would go to the upper deck above the fantail, drink a couple of Seybrews (a good pilsner-style local brew much like Corona), smoke a cigar and watch the sunset. The bullshit was always at least knee deep up there.
Our days ran together in this manner separated in our minds only by the different spots we fished, the various partners we fished with or what we caught. Even at that, the days were so full that it was difficult to keep the events assigned to their proper day.
I concentrated on bonefish mostly, having somehow missed that big-fish gene that plagues most fishermen. Somewhere in the middle of the week, I had a trip-defining day where I caught and released something in excess of 25 bonefish. I'd had a similar day once in the Bahamas, but those fish were 3 lb schoolies. These fish averaged between 4-7 lbs with one that was just a bit larger than that. I was fishing with Jeff Peedin and Ed Boese and they both had a banner day as well.
Other days were remembered for other reasons. Scott Heywood, Eric Berger and I fished a flat one afternoon that had been unfished by any of our crew, some of whom had been to Cosmoledo three previous times. On a whim, we waded over a mile to get to it. Stiff winds and a rainstorm that pinned our ears back had made the morning's fishing slow, but the water was murky due to the winds on the new flat as well. Scott and I spotted a couple of bones, but nothing too exciting, so he went another mile further to fish a channel for trevally on the flooding tide, Eric spent the afternoon taking photographs of boobie colonies and whatever else caught his critical eye and I waded out along a sand spit that split the new flat in two.
I caught two bones in the turbid water on the way out. Once I got to the end of the spit I noticed that the water on the far side was clear due to the combination of it being on the lee side of the spit and the influx of ocean water from the rising tide. Bonefish were moving along the spit from the clear water around the tip and into the cloudy water. They were mostly singles and doubles, pretty well spread out and some were noticeably large. I fished back up the spit as the rising tide flooded it, catching five more bonefish on that tide until the water was too high and cloudy to spot fish anymore. Two of those fish were very large, one measuring 28" and the other 29". Often there were other fish around me as I played the ones I hooked, but it simply took so long to land those big fish that I had no opportunity to fish to many of the bonefish I saw...and I was fishing with my 10 weight!
The tide had also forced Scott off his spot, but not before he had counted coup on bluefin and giant trevally. He also caught a number of big bonefish going to and from the channel, the last one being about 50 yards from where he met back up with me. It's rewarding to make something out of a day that starts slow, especially in untried waters. And if you somehow think that Eric's day was second to Scott's and mine you only need to see his collection of photographs to be convinced otherwise.
Jeff Peedin, Steve Hoffman, Jim Dean and I fished together another day on the same flat where Jeff, Ed and I had done so well only a few days previously. It didn't fish as well that day, but Steve had a personal best day and everyone caught plenty of fish.
I never had a day where I struck out on bonefish, but there were some days that I worked pretty hard for what I caught. There's not a thing wrong with that. The Seychelles stands alone in their reputation for world class fishing. I knew what to expect in that regard before I even bought my tickets. What went beyond my expectations were the beauty and the ecology of the place. The contrast of cerulean deep water, pale green flats water, sandy beaches and low islands under a towering tropical sky have to be experienced to be truly appreciated. Words and pictures just can't capture the essence of it. Add to that that this one of the last truly unaffected and wild places on earth and you start to get a sense of it.
I stood on a flat as the tide flooded in one afternoon and counted 15 hawksbill turtles within sight around me. Other days we walked the outside beaches in search of trevally, crossing countless tracks up from the beach where the leatherback turtles had come ashore to lay their eggs. If you were on the beaches early enough in the morning, you could often find a turtle putting the finishing touches on her nest.
The red-footed boobies were on their nests in large colonies and the frigate birds harassed them mercilessly. Hayden caught some very aggressive trevally right under the overhanging bushes at one colony. The ship's crew told us that a week earlier when the boobie chicks were small, the trevally had been eating the ones that fell out of the nests and into the water!
Red-tailed tropic birds were also nesting, but they build their nests on the ground in amongst the low bushes. Approach those nests and you get a scolding so harsh and aggressive that it gives you pause even when you know what it's from. The sooty terns were in flight over the islands in clouds of thousands. This is pre-mating behavior preparatory to their April nesting.
All of these birds flock to these remote islands because they are one of the few places remaining where mans' activities hasn't displaced them and where there are still no introduced predators to destroy their nests or young.
There are hundreds of other mental snapshots that come to mind when I close my eyes and let my consciousness stream back to that week on Cosmoledo: gorgeous green and yellow rock crabs, red robber crabs (a land-bound hermit crab the size of a small coconut, too large for any adopted shell), beautifully marked grey, white and black crab plovers as long-legged as a miniature flamingo, the way that the lead-bottomed clouds and pounding showers diffuse the light and remove the glare from the water on the flats making the bonefish stand out starkly on the white bottom, a stormy night with the floodlights on over the fantail and boobies and terns landing on the deck. It is a privilege to have experienced such a place.
It is often quoted that fly-fishing has rewards beyond the activity itself, the foremost of those being that it occurs in some of the most beautiful places on earth. If that is fly-fishing's standard, then the Seychelles are the hallmark.
Written and photographed by Chuck Ash