An arduous journey to St. Brandon Atoll places the author in bonefish paradise, with bonus shots at Indo-Pacific permit and giant trevally.
[Story and photos by Gary Kramer]
DEEP IN THE INDIAN OCEAN, due east of Madagascar and 268 nautical miles northeast of the island of Mauritius, lies St. Brandon, a remote atoll that provides some of the best saltwater flats fishing on the planet . . . and the best bonefishing I’ve encountered in 30 years of chasing those fish.
In fact, after a week of fishing, I’m convinced that St. Brandon’s bonefish are plentiful unlike anywhere else and they are the biggest and baddest you can tangle with—the world over. They average an honest five to seven pounds, and 10-pounders are caught with regularity. The largest bonefish on record here weighed 15 pounds.
Consisting of 50 small islands, coral ridges, and vast sand flats, St. Brandon is a place where fishing for bones, Indo-Pacific permit, and a host of trevally species is simply world class. St. Brandon (also known as Cargados Carajos Shoals) is one of the most remote and least fished flats destinations in the world, a last saltwater frontier and a wade fisherman’s paradise. Don’t expect spooky, leader-shy fish here—only six anglers per week are allowed on the atoll, and only the most adventurous and committed travelers make the trek to the Indian Ocean—for U.S.- and Canada-based clients, this includes 20-some hours in the air and another 24 to 28 hours on a boat, which can rock at times in 10- foot waves, like a proverbial cork.
Our first day on the water substantiated rumors of big fish and lots of them. We teamed up with guide Craig Richardson, a South African veteran of five seasons on St. Brandon. As we did every morning for a week, we boarded a 17-foot skiff powered by two small outboards and headed to the flats. Some runs were close, meaning within sight of the lodge; others were up to 40 minutes. That first morning we ran 20 minutes to Julie’s Flat. Once anchored, we grabbed our gear and started walking as the tide flooded in.
The first shot came quickly, and my fishing buddy, Alan Sands, made a couple of false casts then dropped a Gotcha about eight feet in front of a bonefish that was tailing in skinny water. He let the fly sink, then started stripping. It took only seconds for the fish to rush the fly and grab it—Sands responded with a strip-strike, and at least 100 yards of line raced off the reel. After the initial run, Sands coaxed the fish close, but the bone responded with another burst that took out backing. A few minutes later, Richardson finally netted the fish, a bright bone that weighed 6.5 pounds.
My turn came less than 15 minutes later when a dozen fish appeared, like gray ghosts against a white-sand bottom. Several false casts with the 9-weight gave me the distance needed, and I dropped the fly a few feet out in front of the pod. Three fish darted toward the fly. The fastest sprinter made the grab, and I was hooked to a good bonefish. After a couple of strong runs, Richardson netted a fine 7.5-pound bone, one of the largest I’ve caught.
This would be a recurring scenario; we caught dozens of fish every day, and Sands and I both landed bones that weighed 8.5 pounds. The largest of the trip, landed by a fellow guest, was a 10.5-pound brute.
While the bonefishing was outstanding, the most pleasant surprise was the number of opportunities for Indo-Pacific permit. Everything I’d read before the trip indicated that shots at permit would occur, but I did not anticipate multiple shots every day.
The initial permit opportunity came the first afternoon as we waded a flat within sight of the lodge. I’d just landed a bone, and we were in the process of photographing it, when Richardson spotted a permit headed our direction. We aborted the photo session as Richardson grabbed Sands’s fly rod, quickly snipped off the bonefish fly, and tied on a crab imitation.
I stayed back a little as the boys walked toward the fish. After closing the distance, Sands stripped line from the reel and cast. His aim and the trajectory of the fly looked good, but the fly dropped too close to the permit and the fish spooked. Disappointed, we joined up again and continued walking. Before we moved 100 yards, a permit appeared. It was quartering away and tailing like crazy. The guys moved toward the fish, paralleling it until they were close enough for another shot. This time the fly placement was spot-on and the fish came to the fly, then suddenly made the grab. Sands set the hook, and the permit sprinted toward deeper water. With the rod held high, he followed the fish, and after several wrist-wrenching runs, the first permit, a fine 10-pounder, was in the hand.
As the trip unfolded, we had multiple shots at permit, and both of us hooked fish, lost fish, and landed a few. Like their Atlantic cousins, Indo-Pacific permit are plenty finicky, and refuse flies and easily spook. However, because this atoll is so vast, and the fishing pressure so low, most of these permit have never seen a fly, let alone felt the sting of a hook. As a result, I would say that while not easy, these Indo-Pacific fish are easier to hook than permit in Florida, Belize, or Mexico, where they see flies almost every day.
In addition to the abundant bonefish and the somewhat cooperative permit, we landed several golden trevally to 10 pounds and had shots at bluefin trevally but did not connect. I also hooked and landed a giant trevally that weighed 38 pounds. It was a smallish GT by St. Brandon standards, as the fish caught here are generally over 50 pounds. Mine was the smallest caught last season. St. Brandon isn’t the best place for GTs, but they are frequently seen, and during a typical week, anglers get a couple of shots at them.
Fishing at St. Brandon was formerly from a mother ship. In 2016, the operation switched to a comfortable but somewhat spartan guesthouse on Île Raphael, which is part of the atoll. Four anglers are housed in double-occupancy rooms with the other rooms available for individual anglers. There is a guide for every two anglers.
There are two fishing seasons—September 1 to November 20 and March 25 to June 10. These time frames offer the best weather and optimum tides. However, not all weeks are fished—guests are invited only during the best tidal cycles, which amount to about 10 weeks per year. Ten weeks at six anglers per week makes for very light fishing pressure. When fishing at many saltwater flats destinations, you might worry each day about being the first on the fish, but here it’s the last thing on your mind.
Hard to reach, lacking cell service and Wi-Fi, and far from anything, this is not a place for the common angler. But if you are searching for a remote, off-the-grid, and nearly untouched flats fishery that offers some of the largest and most plentiful bonefish on the planet, along with shots at Indo-Pacific permit and other desirable species, St. Brandon Atoll is an ultimate destination.
Gary Kramer is a full-time outdoor writer and photographer based in Willows, California.
Getting There: It took me three days of exhausting travel to reach St. Brandon. My travel consisted of nearly 24 hours of flying time from California to Johannesburg, South Africa, then a four-hour flight to Mauritius, an overnight there, followed by a 24-hour boat ride.
Lodging: St. Brandon was a mother ship operation, but anglers now stay in a four-bedroom guesthouse at the northern end of the atoll. This is not luxury living, but it is comfortable and offers more room than the mother ship. In addition, there are two full indoor bathrooms and two outside showers.
Boats: To get from Mauritius to St. Brandon, anglers used to make the crossing in two 50-foot boats. Beginning this spring, crossings will be conducted in larger, more stable, and comfortable 65-footlong boats with air-conditioned cabins. During seven days of guided fishing, anglers are transported to various flats in wooden skiffs with outboard motors. Fishing is walk and wade.
Length of Stay: Ten days with seven days of guided fishing. However, some anglers, due to time and effort it takes to reach St. Brandon, opt for longer stays, meaning up to 14 straight days of pure flats-fishing bliss.
Rate: Get ready to pony up—the typical 10-day stay is $8,500; a 17-day trip runs $14,000.