The Halfway Mark
By the time our fourth day of fishing arrives, we’re in giant trevally mode. We see several, but all are out of casting range, and any blind cast we make results only in bycatches in the shape of blue-speckled emperors, garfish, groupers, brassy trevallies, and bluefin trevallies. Our luck continues into the fifth day, even though the winds finally die down enough for us to fish the outer reefs. The fish are just finicky. At one point, we see a couple of nice ones pass through a tidal channel, but they’re gone before we ever manage to put a cast in.
Later that day, as the tidal water gushes in over the outer reefs and we’re busy carefully scouring a flat, the perfect opportunity arrives. Three charcoal-black giant trevallies unsuspectingly approach. The lead fish is a monster. I somehow manage to place a long cast ahead of the school and let it sink a little. The suspense is almost unbearable as the fish approaches my fly. I start a retrieve and gradually speed up the fly. My heart is galloping and my hands are sweating. One of the two “small” fish, which still must be between 40 and 45 pounds, resolutely chases after the fly in a state of blatant agitation—replete with flaring fins and flaming eyes. At just 10 meters out, it bursts forward and inhales the fly in an explosion of foam and water.
I do as Brandon prescribes. I lower the rod tip, pull hard and resolutely on the fly line, and start backing up to set the hook. But the fish just opens its bucket-sized mouth and spits the fly. In a state of pure, flustered overagitation, my nervous hands lose their grip on the fly line, and all my efforts to hook the fish are in vain. Before I can manage another cast, the fish are gone. I’m beyond frustrated. I scornfully toss the fly rod into the water and fill the air with all sorts of inappropriate curses, then stand on the flat in total silence.
With a heavy heart and almost no confidence, I begin our last day of fishing intent on catching one of the gold bars of the flats—an Indo-Pacific permit. These incredibly attractive and challenging fish often forage in the wake of big stingrays, which dig for crustaceans on the sand flats. To my surprise, we’re fortunate enough to see this phenomenon several times in the morning, and I’m successful at hooking one of these shrewd fish twice. Unfortunately, I don’t stay connected for more than 10 minutes before the fly loses its hold. My level of disappointment is so intense, I feel like fainting.
Later, the outgoing tide exposes the several sandy flats and there are no more permit to be found, so we head for the outer reefs. Even though it’s still early in the season, and the sea is still relatively agitated, we can’t resist the temptation to look for a school of Alphonse Island’s mythical milkfish—a nervous fish that looks like an oversized mullet but fights harder and longer than many other saltwater species. If we’re lucky, we just might be able to trick one of these finicky, vegetarian fish into eating a fly.
We’re fortunate enough to find a big school of milkfish lazily cruising along a tidal seam running parallel to St. François’s western coral barrier. Our guide for the day, Wesley, shuts off the engine, jumps to the fore of the skiff with an oar, and coaxes us closer.
I cast a green algae fly well ahead of the school and keep good contact with my line as the school passes. Suddenly, I feel a subtle tug, and as I lift the fly rod, the line immediately starts shooting through the guides of my 10-weight rod, and it’s followed by a tormented, flanging squeal as the reel spool spins out of control. In a flash, large amounts of fluorescent orange backing begin to cut through the water and disappear into the ocean.
Out of the corner of my eye, in a completely different direction from the one my backing has charted, I now see a giant, silvery fish thrusting itself high out of the water, with a fly line dragging behind it. It’s seemingly suspended in midair for an unnaturally long time, and it isn’t until it collides with the water again that I realize it’s the actual fish I’ve hooked.
It jumps several more times, and with a backlog of about 160 yards of backing, the pressure on the leader and the small hook becomes too great. The fly loses its grip in the fish’s soft mouth, and the battle is lost.
The same scenario plays itself out three more times by the end of the day, but the toughest blow comes late in the afternoon when I loose the last milkfish of the day—a fish of a much more manageable size than the others. I fought it long enough to actually believe I would be able to land it. When it popped free, nothing could console me—not even Wesley’s well-meaning statistic that about only 1 in 10 hooked milkfish are actually landed. Statistics don’t mean anything to a man who feels defeated.
Now that the day is over, the flats skiff is anchored up, and we’re back on board a catamaran slowly headed toward Alphonse Island, I have a burning sense of failure—of having missed out on a unique opportunity.
I’m already yearning to get back, and as I cast one more glance behind me and take in the scenery for the last time, I think of the phrase, “Eternally owned is but what’s lost.” It’s a trite old proverb, which, unfortunately, makes too much sense now that I’ve had close encounters of the third degree with the full St. François Atoll villain cast—bonefish, triggerfish, milkfish, permit, and giant trevally. Now, the challenge is no longer about mending my wounds, but rather to find a way to plan and finance another trip to Alphonse Island and the St. François Atoll.
Rasmus Ovesen is a Danish freelance fly fishing journalist and photographer residing in Oslo, Norway. A fly fisherman since the age of eight, he has traveled extensively across the globe in search of trout, char, and salmon over the last 25 years.