to the edge of the map
- By: April Vokey
by April Vokey
In pursuit of Indo-Pacific permit—plus “geets” and milkfish—in the Seychelles.
There are many ways in which I relax. Admittedly,fishing is not one of them. In fact, it is not at all the appeal of “ease” that draws me to the sport. Truth betold, since the day I was born I have needed adventure to flush my cheeks and sparkle my eyes. I have needed the uncertainty of what’s around the corner to spark my interest, and it just so happens that in fishing, there are a lot of those corners.
To experience as much of that as I can, I spend my days wandering the forests of British Columbia, dodging grizzly bears, ruthless rivers and difficult weather to catch steelhead and other anadromous species. Danger lurks around bends, and steep cliffs allow little room for error; anglers accept such risks for an opportunity to pursue adventure on the paths less explored.
Exciting and rugged, British Columbia is where I have always found the most true of my adventures. But cold winters and lethargic fish eventually began to highlight the appeal of saltwater fisheries and, like so many other anglers, I eventually followed my curiosity to the ocean.
I made the typical journeys to Mexico, Florida, Belize, the Bahamas, Louisiana and the like.
The endless ocean terrain cut me to size. The harsh reality of the food chain ensured that on the flats there is always a hunted—bonefish nervously flirt with risky migration routes; permit rise and fall on the tides, exposed to predators; sharks slice through waves with their dorsals; saltwater crocs loom in the brackish marshes. I felt life like never before, as I stood there with all of them, completely in awe, armed with only a fly rod.
Such experiences made me dream of less-travelled destinations, had me eyeing maps, paying attention to the outermost edges, allowing my fingers to linger atop countries that frightened me ever so slightly.
Naturally, the Indian Ocean piqued my interest and I was immediately drawn to the Seychelles, a country that rests 930 miles off the African coast, complete with tales of pirates and shark attacks. The Seychelles consists of 115 islands and only 86,000 people; I had heard that some of the islands’ surrounding atolls were inaccessible to outsiders, offered enormous giant trevally, the elusive milkfish, lots of large bonefish and the Indo-Pacific permit. I had to fish there.
One day last January it happened. AFTER 28 HOURS of flight, and layovers in London and Dubai, I counted down the hours of night, eager for that magnificent moment when the sun appears, filling a plane with soft light and exuberant passenger energy. Awakening to an orange glow, the welcoming smell of coffee and a smiling Emirates attendant, I peered out the window in time to fix my eyes on a mountainous island bathed in an endless blue canvas of ocean. Soon afterward we were on the ground.
I spent several days in Mahe, Seychelles before catching my small chartered flight out to Alphonse Atoll and Alphonse Island Resort. Gazing upon white sand, sweeping flats, waving palm trees and the most beautiful lodge I’d ever seen, I was greeted by James Christmas, a guide on the atoll who had invited me to join him during his week off. He showed me to my cabana while explaining the fishery and what I might expect over the week.
James had prepared an outstanding array of fly patterns: his stunning epoxy crab, his infamous giant trevally NYAP (not your average popper), a collection of milkfish algae flies, and various streamers we might need on the flats. Alphonse has a strict barbless rule, and each hook was pinched and ready for action. I watched James’ eyes light up as bright as mine when I rambled about the yellow-glazed Indo-Pacific permit. The weather had been rough, James explained, but nothing could dampen my mood. I poured a drink and again counted down the hours to daylight.
In the morning we teamed with the three other lodge guests and climbed onto a mothership for a 30-minute cruise to the flats. With skiffs trailing behind, James and I headed to the bow where he told me about the area’s fleet of well-armed Somalian pirates. On a mission to kidnap and collect ransoms, they were feared by tourists. The thought of encountering them petrified me, but I held to James’ promise that we were within a jurisdiction that would maintain our safety by paying ransoms if needed.
My fears quelled, James explained to me that the milkfish is a unique, incredibly powerful and aerobatic creature that feeds on algae on the ocean’s surface. Caught by casting small, lettuce-like flies to the approaching schools, the milkfish is skittish and hooking one of them is only the beginning of a tricky angling process. My blood rushed with his description of how special it would be to land one of them.
James described giant trevally—LOCALS CALL THEM “geets”—as a far more violent species. They are fast, angry and determined; James said I was to cast fiercely to them and proceed to strip vigorously until they devoured the fly. Like other saltwater species, geets linger in the murky trail of traveling rays, seeking an easy meal in the kicked-up sand.
It wasn’t long before I was scoping the vast, pale terrain, searching for skirting shadows, flashing sides and matte gray movement. We’d spent the morning catching large bonefish and while I thoroughly enjoyed my time doing so, it was the promise of permit that I anticipated. A short time later we were headed to Alphonse’s most productive permit flats.
We stalked slowly and quietly through the marl, aware and cautious of the large bull shark that we had seen cruising the area. As the tide slowly rolled in, James suggested that I keep my heart rate down to avoid the accidental luring of any predators larger than ourselves.
To maximize my time, James said I should scan the flats from right to left, rather than the opposite. He explained that, as reading and several other daily activities scroll our attention from left to right, our eyes get used to such scanning and, as a result, we often miss the details that right to left reveals.
Unfortunately, menacing clouds threatened interruption, which rushed our pursuit and limited our vision. Still, James halted and I immediately saw what I flew around the world for—large, dark tails piercing the surface, nervous ripples shivering their way to where we crouched.
Mentally timing the approaching cloud, I tried to stay calm while the magnificent yellow feeding permit swarmed around me, tailing in nonchalance. I made a cast and got rejected. Made another with the same result.
A drop of warm rain hit my nose and sank alongside the disappointment in my stomach. Seconds later, like hundreds of tiny fingers drumming on the smooth water, the flats erupted into a musical masterpiece. The water bounced as though it were dropped onto a booming subwoofer and a loud crack of lightning bellowed from the dark cloud, leaving me no choice but to drop low to the water, seated with my rod pointed away from Mother Nature’s voltage. I trembled in the cold waiting out the storm, nerves on edge as round, yellow bodies swam beside me, unaffected by the weather and most certainly unaffected by me.
In tropical fashion, soon the sun reappeared—James and I were on the hunt again. Nearing an old wreck, we repeated the same stalking game in search of fish pushing in on the tide. We spotted a large boxy tail flagged above the surface and I cast to it. A vibrant triggerfish tilted to eat my orange crab and I strip-set into his hard mouth. In a flash he was gone and I was left staring at my unloading reel.
“Run!” screamed James. He shouted for me to keep my rod high and the leader out of the coral, and together we raced through the sharp terrain until the trigger succumbed. Teeth jutted from its mouth like a bad overbite and I made a note to keep my fingers away from them. James demonstrated why they are called triggers, placing his index finger lightly behind the stiff dorsal fin. With ease, the fin collapsed and we continued our search for the elusive permit.
Then it happened.
Four enormous permit cruised in WITH THE GRACE of synchronized swimmers, their forked tails waving in unison. James, at six feet four, couldn’t negotiate the coral in silence, so he persuaded me to continue on alone. Like a child being released from her mother’s grasp for the first time, I looked at him with slight fear and then ventured into the bay to attempt my first-ever solo shot at a 20-plus-pound permit. I walked slowly, my size seven feet quietly managing the coral. The light of the sun illuminated the fish’s exposed v-shaped tails like glowing arrows and I held my breath as I prepared to cast.
All five feet five inches of me crouched low as I snuck toward the dancing fish. Together we waltzed for what felt like forever. I swayed left, they swayed right. I stepped forward and they swam back. It was a rhythm that felt strikingly similar to that of a heart about to explode.
Toying with that very heart, those intriguing permit eventually lowered their fins and disappeared. I returned to James, smiling and flushed, for I had just experienced a flirty affair with some of the largest permit I had ever seen.
Admittedly, I had pressed James to spend most of our days on permit flats, but it also felt right to spend a day searching for trevally. We headed back to the wrecks and paced the surf-line looking for incoming predators. The strong, churning waves continued to knock me off my feet and I thanked my backpack for its ability to lock in air and keep my head afloat. We cast into the frothing aftermath of the crashing water and raked our poppers back toward us as fast as we physically could, calling for predators on the feed.
On one cast, a large bluefin trevally annihilated my NYAP just as a wave hit my chest, knocking me over. Half floating and half supported by James, I struggled to stay tight to the bright fish. After a short battle and subsequent release we continued our journey along the endless sandy beach. The water, just two feet deep, erupted a mere six inches from my feet and an enormous creature turned on a dime and fled the scene.
I squealed in complete and utter shock, “What the hell?”
James laughed and, in his polite South African accent, replied calmly, “You just got charged by a geet.”
It was on.
Later, from the safety of the skiff, James and I spotted a large, gray ray and a ghostlike form behind it. “He has a friend,” James said.
We chased the two large creatures down, slowly gaining ground and eventually securing a place in the direct path of an oblivious and focused geet. I false-cast once, then twice, working out the large fly, nearing my target.
As I delivered my final cast, in seemingly slow motion, the middle ferrule came loose and half of my four-piece rod flew through the air. I would rather not repeat the words that emptied from my mouth.
Between faulty equipment, a forgetful angler and my obsession with permit, I didn’t end up landing a giant trevally in the Seychelles, but there was still a surprise waiting for me in the depths.
Shortly after the trevally debacle, JAMES AND I located a school of milkfish. They dappled the surface and fed on slick greenery alongside our boat. Casting into their paths, I prayed for a round mouth to open up around my tiny yarn fly. Sure enough, as mouth met hook, I set into a large milkfish and held my breath as it peeled line into my backing. James advised me to muscle the fish without giving it any playing room. I cranked my fluorescent backing around the strained spool and kept my rod high to keep the line out of the jagged ocean bottom. Forty minutes later, with shaking arms and an ecstatic guide at my side, I held a beauty in my hands, marveling at its simplicity of design. The perfect speed specimen, it kicked as I released it back toward the depths and neither James nor I spoke for a few minutes.
My trip was made.
I can’t conclude with harrowing tales of aggressive bull sharks, thieving pirates or disastrous shipwrecks, but my trip to the Seychelles was undoubtedly adventuresome. It spurs me to seek similar experiences in less-than-safe places elsewhere. Why? I can’t tell you for sure. Perhaps it is my method of self-grounding in a crazy world. Perhaps it’s a way to magnify those lucky moments, those perfect days, to finally appreciate a blissful, ignorant youth. Perhaps I’m just a fool.
I know this: I’ll plot more trips to the edges of the map where nothing is certain, except that I’ll be appreciative of each new day in this often wonderful and sometimes chaotic world of fly-fishing.
April Vokey is the founder of the British Columbia-based guiding operation Fly Gal Ventures, specializing in steelhead trips and instruction. Find out more at www.flygal.ca.
It wasn’t long before I was scoping the vast, pale terrain, searching for skirting shadows, flashing sides and matte gray movement.
A large bluefin trevally annihilated my popper just as a wave hit my chest, knocking me over.
Back in to swim again. After a hard fight a trevally gains strength for release.
The author hoists a bluefin trevally that smashed a popper on the flats.