Sunday, January 29, 2006

Fly Fish with Mel: Return to Paradise (Maldives) Day 5

Day 5:

We were going to be privilege guests at Mario’s ‘private bonefish yard’, affectionately called Little Bay or LB for short. Having spent the night out of Kurendhoo meant that we had to watch our water consumption or there’d not be enough water for us to use for bathing and cleaning.

The morning session had us fishing a small island that Mario had told us about the day before. It was so small that it took us a bare 5 minutes to walk round the whole island. There were a few nice bays but only Lee and Andy managed to tease up a couple of bluefin trevallies. The rest of the gang had to settle for a nice morning stroll until we all agreed that we should head back for an early lunch.

Mario then suggested that we head over to his ‘personal’ island for the afternoon session as he was certain there’d be some bonefish to be had there.

Little Bay or LB as he affectionately calls it was only 20 minutes away from where we were so it was a leisurely cruise after lunch to get there. But when we got there, the heavens were about to open up on us.

As the first of the two boat loads got underway, the view back was ominous. A dark curtain was looming over our boat and as we neared shore, Mashibaru was covered in a hazy layer of rain. The winds started howling and the tiny outboard was struggling to get us ashore. It heaved over each crest and lunged forward into each trough.

With five of us, overfed anglers, and Hussain, the little hull was close to floundering in the choppy surf. The meters counted down and not a minute too soon, we make landfall; just as the rain came down hard on us.

The scene of the little boat, free from its burden, seemingly skipping over the whitecaps would have been a funny one if it did not have to make another such trip with the second load. The waters may look shallow but it would take some time for you to reach the bottom.

When the 2 groups got together, we huddled on the leeward side of a small cove and lay our rods horizontal on the tree branches. As fate would have it, the water bodies on either side of the cove were doused in rain water but where we took shelter, there was hardly a drizzle and to add salt to the wound, several banded trevallies swam by us. No one was about to take chances waving our 9ft lightning conductors around.

Not long after, the rain stopped and the group fanned out across the cove while some headed straight for the surf. From afar, one could not be faulted for mistaking us for a Search and Rescue combing the bay for someone or something. Spaced 15 – 20m apart, we advanced as a wall, probing every inch of the water ahead of us but to no avail.

Looking up, I saw a bent rod near the surf and no prizes for guessing who was onto a specimen of a GT. Gerard had seen a huge GT but the first cast was ignored. Plucking the fly out of the water, his second cast hit the brute on the shoulder and in a flash, turned and inhaled the fly. I was in the process of winding up and making my way across to him when suddenly, I saw the rod straighten, eased from the raging fish. It was not until we got back to the boat did I find out that the whole braided loop had slipped off the fly line.

The rest of the afternoon went by without much action except for Michael’s capture of a bonefish. He’d walked out to sandbar near where we’d disembarked.

He calls it the ‘Bahamas’. There, he had spotted the whole school feeding at the bottom. Casting his 'Carrot' fly, he teased a single fish into taking his fly and then worked his quarry back into his waiting arms.

That was to be the last action of the day as we headed back for dinner.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Fly Fish with Mel: Return to Paradise (Maldives) Day 4

Day 4:

Day four had us cutting across the atoll to Dhiffushi, also coined by us, ‘Watermelon Island’. It used to be a watermelon plantation but now it has been converted to a coconut plantation. Once again, Mario met us at the island to join us for another session of flats fishing.

This day was going to be different from the rest as we had a lot of ground that we could cover. Arrangements were made for lunch to be served on the island. This would cut down our traveling time to and from the motherboat and give us more time on the flats.

As we got down to business, Gerard was again first off the start line with his second largest GT of the trip (pipping Michael’s fish at the scales). Walking along the shore, he spotted the critter plying the waters just by the shore. Casting a 4-inch, olive size 2/0 Clouser, the GT gave no quarter to the fly and took off for the wild blue yonder. Hardly breaking a sweat, the chunk of pure muscle stripped the fly line and then, the backing at a blistering pace.

But our champion of the flats was always up to the challenge with his 250m of PE4 backing. Letting the freight train tire itself out fighting not just the Able Super 6’s drag but also the increasing line drag in the water, Gerard put the brakes on the fish. Turning the tables around, he placed the fish on a one way ticket back.

True to its form, the fish never gave up fighting but it was a foregone conclusion as to who was going to win the battle. With a last gasp run, the GT had used up its remaining rocket fuel and finally succumbed to the triumphant Gerard. The victor then lifted his defeated foe quite ignominiously for photos; with his leg.

By now, I was getting really fed up with the fly line clip as sand kept getting stuck causing the clip to loose its grip. Besides that, the surf was pulling line out of the clip as well. So after a fruitless morning, while Michael and I were resting under a tree seeking refuge from the relentless sun, I came across a blue oil drum. Opening the cap, there was hardly any smell of oil so I dragged it to the water’s edge and flipped out my Swiss army knife. Making cut after cut, I managed to fashion a pretty cool makeshift stripping basket with two slots for my belt.

Next came the intensive scrubbing with sand to make sure that whatever leftover scum was cleaned. My Scientific Anglers 7-wt floating bonefish line was also pretty worn so I grabbed Wahab and had him send me back to our motherboat to get a replacement line. On board, I quickly whipped out my new Monic 7-wt Tropical Clear floating line and swapped the two lines.

I grabbed a couple of the ripe, yellow bananas hanging in the corner and back I went to shore. For those who have not been to the Maldives, it may be taboo to have bananas onboard in Australia, it certainly is not in the Maldives. Every trip begins with a huge bunch of green bananas hung up in a corner of the deck. As we travel, day by day, the bananas slowly ripen and thus we always had a steady supply of natural power food at least for the first few days.

Back on the island, I started casting with my new line and what a difference it made. I had line shooting out with ease. The slickness of the Monic line is incredible. Anyway, I changed tactics and started to concentrate on the small coral patches in front of me and plucked out fish after fish. There were honeycomb groupers,

paddletail snappers,

long-nosed emperors,

swallowtail darts

and small bluefin trevallies. Nothing of commendable size but it was lots of fun nonetheless.

Lunch was served not long after. The crew had brought Tuna and Egg sandwiches, coffee, tea and milo. Wahab and Hussain even cut coconuts for us to drink. There was also the much needed odd can of coke or sprite, though it was never ice-cold. Noting that we had every one of the group and even Mario with us, we huddled together and got our apprentice photographer, Wahab, to take a few group shots. Then, after lunch, Mario left to keep his wife, Louise, company. She’d flown in a week earlier and would be leaving the same day as us.

Seeing my new stripping basket, Mah and Gan, got busy themselves and went oil drum hunting and get themselves a new basket each. We then trekked through the plantation to get to the other side of the island. Walking through the narrow well-worn path, we stumbled through the opening onto a small patch of beach that lined a very beautiful shallow lagoon with 'fish' written all over it.

Pairing up with Gerard, we waded to the middle of the lagoon, carefully following the whiter patch of water that charted out the shallow waters. I’m not sure if it was his polarized sunglasses or just his eyes but Gerard could always spot a fish way before I did and sometimes even when I couldn’t see at all. He saw the first Banded trevally beyond the glare and shot his clouser out.

One strip, two strip and he had the fish firmly hooked up. He said he saw a school of them feeding around but I could see none of them. So I continued to cast blindly until his fish came in. The trevally was of reasonable size but faced with the power of the 7-wt Winston XTR, it was only a matter of a few minutes before the fish succumbed to its power.

Out and under went the camera and a couple of clicks later, the fish swam happily away, albeit a little disoriented as it started to hide between our legs and around us before scooting off.

Around the middle of the lagoon, the water started getting deeper forcing us to turn left to comb towards the surf. Being in this position, meant that we could fish the outer depths of the lagoon and, at the same time, cover the inner, shallow areas.

It was my turn next. I saw the banded trevally very late but just as it was heading away from me, I cast to its left and slightly ahead. While waiting for the crab to sink, I twitched the line to gain the fish’s attention. Then, I started to strip the crab in with a moderate retrieve-pause-retrieve. I could see the fish turn and then pounce on the crab. Nothing beats seeing your quarry react to your offering.

That’s the magic of fly fishing! That moment of spotting your adversary, to the cast, to the retrieve and the point when the fish reacts to your fly, is something that we, fly anglers, lust for. The hookup is of course preferred but not necessarily as breathtaking as the take.

The feisty little fellow took me for a long ride, preferring to swim about in circles rather than in towards me. By the time I had it in my hands, it was almost on the verge of asphyxiating. I tried my best to revive the fish but each time I let it go, the fish would sink to the bottom.

Gerard came over and lent me a hand in reviving the fish and after 5 long, anxious minutes, the banded trevally regained enough strength to swim away. We both heaved a sigh of relief.

No more than 20 meters from where I’d caught my trevally, Gerard sighted another banded trevally, but this time, a mere 6 feet away from him, swimming towards him. He asked me to cast to it while he dragged his clouser in front of the fish. Without stripping or casting, the fish gulped down his clouser and hooked itself. This had had to be the easiest catch of the whole trip! He quickly landed the fish and let it off on its way.

Nearer the surf, we started to notice schools of turquoise parrot fish and rays swimming around but they were too spooky for us to approach or even cast our fly. So we sloshed our way to the surf in the hope of finding some nice GTs. This surf was very uneven with broken corals and loose rocks strewn around the seabed. I struggled with the pounding surf while Gerard cast away merrily. I will always remember an old friend telling me that I can only catch fish if my fly was in the water and not in the air. And so it was that Gerard, with his fly in the water, added another bluefin to his tally while I wrestled with my tangled line in the surf. Nothing big but strong nonetheless and it propelled itself past us and into the lagoon behind us before giving up.

We had not realized that Mah and Gan had followed us to the surf and were themselves into bluefin. As we headed back to the landing point, we left the pair in the midst of another bluefin blitz.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Fly Fish with Mel: Return to Paradise (Maldives) Day 3

Day 3:

We were supposed to meet up with Mario, our italian friend who runs a fishing charter service out of Kanu Huraa Resort. 10 minutes after we set sail, Mario called and told us to go to Dhidhdhoo, which happened to be just couple of islands away from us. He would meet us there and fish with us for a couple of hours.

Dhidhdhoo is located northwest of Kurendhoo, just before Maavaafushi. Past trips to this island had yielded numerous bonefish and bluefin trevallies. However, we had never had to pay to go on the island to fish. This time though, we were told that we had to pay an 'entrance' fee of US$1. Ibrahim tried calling the owner of the island and after a few attempts, got the clearance for us to proceed.

A unique local dish, Mashuni, was served at breakfast. A flavourful blend of freshly dried tuna flakes, fragrant grated coconut, chopped spicy hot chilli, chopped onions and a splash of lime juice; it is eaten wrapped in a flour shell, not unlike our local chapatti. The nutty flavour of the coconut complimented the oily tuna while the acidic lime juice prevented the oils from overwhelming the tastebuds. The spicy chilli and sweet onion added more bite and rounded up the flavours of this very simple, yet delectable dish.

After breakfast, we began our usual ritual of gearing up while the crew launched the dinghy. “First five, get ready!” goes the call. Soon we’re back on the fine sands of Dhidhdhoo.

Michael, William, Lee, Andy and I spread out towards the left side of the island, while the rest of the team found their own niches on the right. Not long after landfall, over the horizon, we saw a sport-fishing boat heading towards Mashibaru.

It was Mario’s Keyolha. Wahab took the dinghy back out and brought Amin back to receive our guest. An exchange of greetings later, the pair was back on the beaches, rod in hand.

In the pristine waters, with only a slight ripple, we were able to spot a few bonefish but when presented with our flies, they merely turned away. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted some movement and there was Michael with rod bent and definitely onto a good fish.

Making my way across the hundred odd meters to him, Michael was just beginning to bring the fish in. Taking out my camera, I put it underwater and awaited opportunities to take a few underwater shots.

We were both guessing that it could be a bonefish from the way it was taking line but as it turned out, it was a fair-sized bluefin trevally. After the customary poses with our model, it was released safely back into the water. We relished the sight of it swimming strongly away, back into the depths.

Having covered the flats, Michael, William and I turned towards the surf on the other side of the island. There was a flat area of rock that offered us good footing. The line clip that I had hanging at my waist was giving me a hard time in the surf, with water pounding me every few seconds. I had my line pulled out so often that I hardly had any time to cast my line.

Michael, on the other hand had his line out beyond the breakers. Again, he was to be the one to latch on to a mother of a GT.

This time, he had his rod bending so hard that he was literally using only the butt section of the rod to apply pressure on the fish. Foot after foot of backing kept peeling off the whirring reel. All he could do was to hang on and slowly turned up his drag 2 clicks at a time. Then, with the last 2 clicks, the GT stopped pulling line off the reel.

Sensing it was his turn to throw punches, Michael switched to high gear. Alternating with steady pressure from his rod and reeling in line, Michael made up for lost line in a short time. As it came closer to shore, the GT must have sensed danger and went on a long run across the rocky surf. Somehow managing to avoid getting cut off, Michael turned the GT’s head and proceeded to drag the brute in. Again, with camera ready,

I started snapping picture after picture above and below the water. Removing the 15lbs Bogagrip from Michael’s backpack, I tried to grab the lip of the tired but still unyielding creature. The jaws of the Bogagrip was barely wide enough to grip the lip of the GT.

Only by forcing one jaw of the Bogagrip into the bottom of the fish’s jaw and then over the lip, was I able to finally to get a firm grip of the fish. Lifting it up proved difficult with one hand as the scale was way over the 15lbs it was rated for.

A few quick snaps and we let the gangster return to its wayward, bullying way.

I had my share of fun too, though it was only short–lived. The rampaging bluefin trevally made 3 dashes across inches of water and finally cut me off one of the numerous sharp rocks strewn generously across the lagoon. A familiar growl in our stomachs reminded us of the time and we made our way gingerly over the rocks and then, the sand, to the beach to our waiting ride.

Back on the boat we found out that Gerard and Mah had had a fantastic time over on the right side of the island. After walking the stretch of beach, Gerard spotted a whole school of darts, a tremendous school numbering in the hundreds. Both anglers let loose a cast at the school; Gerard with a crab pattern and Mah, a crazy Charlie. Letting the crab sink, Gerard employed a slow retrieve, dragging the fly on the bottom. Mah, on the other hand, used a fast retrieve.

Gerard was first to connect. The fish made short work of the drag, taking Gerard into his backing in mere seconds.

Mah felt the Charlie stop in its tracks and then he too was into his backing.

"This has got to be a huge dart!" Mah thought. If it was a dart, it would have to have been on steroids?

Both anglers skillfully played their quarry and landed their respective fish only to discover, they had a double hookup on bonefish! The bonefish had been feeding beneath the school of dart. Now who said that you had to strip slowly for bonefish to take a fly?

Walking further, Gerard saw a whole area full of turtle grass. Turtle grass is synonymous with bonefish as they feed amongst the grass for crustaceans and shrimps. In the midst of changing his fly, Gerard caught glimpse of a sight that would make any grown angler cry. There, a mere few feet ahead, amidst the grass, the unmistakable shape of a bonefish feeding. However, instead of the urge to finish tying the fly and casting. He simply stopped whatever he was doing and lapped up the phenomenal sight before him.

After lunch, we all held the hope of coming across that school of dart and perhaps, a chance at hooking one of those feeding bonefish. However, it was not to be. Not only were the dart not in sight, there was hardly any sign of the other species as well. By the end of the day, the only silver lining was provided by William with his first fish on fly, a small Honeycomb Grouper (Epinephelus merra).

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Fly Fish with Mel: Return to Paradise (Maldives) Day 2

Day 2:

Sleeping on the top deck, the roaring of the engine brought me back from dreamland. One by one we rolled our mattresses, pillows and blankets into one giant 'swiss-roll' and proceeded to descend back into our cabins to put away our stuff. Everyone was bright and chirpy, even Michael, who was still nursing his sore throat and cough. Coffee, tea and milo was served with sausages, omelettes and baked beans. There was also a choice of the local toasted bread or our very own Gardenia, which travelled with us over from Singapore.

While we tucked ourselves into a very hearty breakfast, Ibrahim plotted a course west-north-west to Maavaafushi. An hour later, we were all ready for our first full day of fishing. Five of us eagerly boarded the small boat and headed to shore. When we got to shore, Moses exclaimed: "Who took my rod?!" Everyone checked and found that we each had our own. Michael went to have a look at the rod Moses was holding and discovered that he had taken Michael's 9wt Winston XTR. This had us all bowling over in laughter. When we had composed ourselves, the first wave went in separate directions.

Walking with Gerard, we spread out to cover more water and soon enough we were on to something. Combing the flats to the left of the island, Gerard spotted a school of mullets. From experience, there was a possibility of bonefish following behind mullet schools. Through polarized glasses, Gerard scanned intensely and made out some dark forms behind the school. "Bonefish following the mullets", Gerard yelled and let go a cast. I was still trying to locate the school which was hard to spot in the glistening water surface. Even with my glasses on, the glare was still preventing me from seeing the fish.

"Fish on!" cried Gerard, as the purring of his reel grew louder, drowning his voice. It was like music to our ears. The individual clicks of the Abel Super 6 mixed into a single continuous melody.

The bonefish had seen his crab and turned from the school and in a flash, sucked it into its down-turned mouth. Feeling the crunching of the crab, Gerard pulled the line tight and the silver torpedo launched itself towards the open waters, effectively setting the hook itself.

The rod bucked but the 33lbs bite tippet held and the tug of war raged with each side gaining and losing line a few times. Winding my line up, I prepared to help Gerard with the photo session. Each time he put line back on the spool, in the blink on an eye, with line streaking through the water, his adversary had him into his backing again.

Wearing the fish out, Gerard finally had the leader within reach. It was a nice 2½lbs Bonefish (Albula vulpes). A few quick snaps above and underwater and the fish was released safely.

Then, came a call of nature and I had to scramble to find secluded spot to dump my load. Returning to the beach, there ahead of my by the shoreline were 3 long shadows. Quickly, stripping the belly out of rod, I took a few slow steps forward as far as I could without spooking the fish. With 2 back cast, I let fly the size 2 crab to the side of the school. With a "plop", the crab landed 2 feet to the right. Too close, I thought. Thankfully, not only did the fish not get spooked, one of the three turned towards my crab. One short strip and the fish turned tail and ran. The line ran through the loop made by my thumb and index finger and slapped onto the blank.

"Whrrrrrrrr..." the handle of the reel, lost in a blur. The first run took me into my backing. Seeing the line cut through the water throwing up a mini rooster tail like that of a F1 powerboat, I was sure it was a bonefish. My first bone! Or so I thought. A 20lbs bite tippet seemed overkill when fishing for peacock bass back home but here I was not sure if it was going to be enough to keep my fish on for long. Applying just enough pressure to turn the fish but not pop the tippet, I worked the fish towards me but it would be another two more runs before I’d get to see the fish up close. And close it was.

They looked so much alike and well, they fought so much alike that I’d thought I’d caught my bone. It turned out to be a Double-barred Goatfish (Parupeneus bifasciatus). Out came the camera for the customary mug-shot but this fish was destined to be on our table. Sorry mate.

Hanging around, I continued to scour the shallows for the tell-tale shadows of the bonefish on the bottom. The wind had died down leaving a mirror calm surface that was great for spotting fish but which also made them more easily spooked. Then Michael called out to me: "Mel, 10 o’clock." Turning round, there, lying not more than 60 feet away from me, the distinctive torpedo shape of a huge bonefish. Not wanting to spook the fish, I made a couple of false casts and dropped the fly to the side of the fish. It came up 10 feet short. The fish made no move to suggest it had been frightened. Another cast this time closer but ahead of the fish but still no response. Slowly, the fish cruised away. Was it not feeding or was it my crab fly?

Unconvinced, I continued to fish with the crab. Ahead of me down the length of the beach, the rest of the team had taken up stations about 40 – 50 feet apart. Next came William’s hail:" Mel, bonefish coming towards you!" Looking to my right down the beach, I couldn’t see anything and then there it was, as if magically materializing from thin air, a long bluish shape. Somehow the slightly deeper water and the blue sky had given the mirror-like scales a bluish tint that made it easily seen at close distances.

I made a quick cast when it was about 40 feet away and then waited for the crab to hit bottom. I gave it a quick, short strip to get the fish's attention and then slowly dragged the crab on the bottom. I saw it move over but it didn’t seem to have reached my fly when I felt the resistance. Just as I stripped to strike, the fish took off at the same instance. I was left with a broken piece of 20lbs tippet and one crab less.

After picking on a few small Bluefin Trevallies, it was time to head back to Mashibaru for lunch. With all accounted for, Gerard was the only one still out fishing. Hailing him on the radio got no response. So we waited for him onboard. Amidst our chattering, the little outboard coughed to life and left to pick-up our straggling Gerard. A few minutes later, we heard shouting from afar and got up to see Gerard waving frantically, a colossal GT hanging from his Boga Grip. We jumped up and headed to the stern to greet him. I grabbed my video cam and proceeded to the top deck to film his 'triumphant' return.

With the dinghy alongside, we saw a hand pass the Boga-grip to Ibrahim who struggled to pull its load aboard. Next we saw a silvery gray body, that didn’t seem to end, slowly slide aboard the boat. It was huge. When Gerard handed the rod to Ibrahim while he pulled himself up, I heard what should amount to be the quote of the trip. "You caught this fish on THIS rod", a look of utter disbelief on Ibrahim’s face. Smiles broke out on everyone’s face. The Boga-grip’s scale almost maxed out. 28 ½ lbs!!!

Gerard had spotted the fish cruising lazily along the flats. Changing from a crab to a 4-inch camo and bucktail white clouser, the grey giant turned the instant the fly hit the water and charged into it. There was no need to strike as the ferocity of the take and the subsequent take-off had the clouser firmly embedded in the top of its mouth just in front of its fearsome crusher plates. With the grey hulk going off at top gear, all Gerard could do was to hang on. Having just upgraded his reel with 250m of PE4 backing, Gerard was only too glad to let the 'gangster of the reef' bulldoze its way around the relatively flat ground before him.

Increasing the drag of his Abel Super 6 two clicks at a time, he started to turn the fish once he felt the fish unable to take line off his spool. The 7-wt Winston Boron IIx bent to its full flex, Gerard artfully used the butt power of the rod, coupled with the drag of his reel to muscle the monster back towards shore. Like a mismatch between a heavyweight champion against a flyweight boxer, the two opponents exchanged punches and dodged blows. The match lasted a full half hour before David overpowered Goliath.

Being alone and having been tired out by the long-drawn battle, Gerard could only muster the energy to lip-grip and drag the fish to landing point. Getting Wahab to be the photographer, he posed with the fish for a few shots before attempting to revive the fish. However, the long battle plus the photo session took its toll on the GT. So they hauled it aboard the dinghy and returned to the motherboat. His hands were still shaking as he shared the story over lunch.

Seemingly re-charged by the GT episode, Michael seemed even more ready to hit the surf, despite his cough. Taking down his 8wt Winston XTR and Abel Super 7, Michael was one of the first in the dinghy. Once on the beach, He made his way towards the surf while the rest of us continued our hunt for bonefish and whatever came our way. However, it was not to be that afternoon as most of us either managed only small fish or none at all.

We'd be staying out that night so Ibrahim found us a parking spot just inside the lagoon on the leeward side of the island. All of us were worn out from a whole day of walking. Michael’s cough was acting up again and so after dinner, it was cough syrup and off to bed. William and I tried our hand at bottom fishing. Jigging turned up nothing so I switched to bait like William who had already pulled up 2 small Barracudas and a small Long-nosed emperor. Not long after, I had a hard pull and proceeded to haul up a 3lbs Long-nosed emperor, a great fish to end the day with.

Sitting in a deck chair on the top deck, I relished the solitude while enjoying the beauty of a sky full of stars, with the occasional shooting star. Very soon, I was nodding off to sleep, so out came the 'swiss roll' and so ended day 2.