Photos by Jim Klug
South African guide Dean Scott piloted the 18-foot skiff to a flat on the near side of Saint Francois, the primary fishing atoll in the Seychelles and a 25-minute ride from Alphonse Island. It had taken four flights, two and a half days of travel, and eight months of suspense to finally set foot in this pristine spot in the Somali Sea, and I was about to make my first cast.
I waded through knee-deep, turquoise water shimmering over white sand. Gray shadows zipped under the rippled surface in all directions. I made a cast into the shadows with my 8-weight and stuck a 2-pound bonefish on my second strip, the first fish of a productive morning. I fished one school until Scott chuckled and instructed, “Turn around,” only to find another school three times larger. In 90 minutes, I caught 20-plus bonefish to 6 or 7 pounds, which would have been unimaginable on my trips to the Florida Keys and the Bahamas.
Midway through the morning, Scott spotted a pair of giant trevally making a ruckus a few hundred yards away. He handed me my 12-weight, and we took off on foot through the sand and clear waters. Despite working with my 12-weight nearly every day through the Florida winter to get ready for this moment, I flubbed the shot. Casting practice in my front yard was no match for the adrenaline pumping through my bloodstream after spotting my first GT, or the mechanics of casting while standing in thigh-deep water.
Fishing from the skiff that afternoon, we spotted a nice trevally, with its broad flanks and blue highlights, cruising alongside a lemon shark. I made a close cast and stripped the squid-patterned brush fly I had tied on a 6/0 hook as fast as I could. Quick twitches of the fly exploded in a ferocious eat. The line burned a groove in my finger as the slack cleared, and I felt the weight of the GT on my reel. The lemon shark noticed the big jack’s takeoff and accelerated with a tail flip. The 7-footer wedged the entire GT inside its mouth. The drag on my Hatch 12 Plus reel screamed like an injured animal as I cranked it down even harder to try and stop the shark. In a heartbeat, the 100-pound mono leader snapped from a mix of pressure and razor-like teeth.
Day one, and the Seychelles had already proved extraordinary — sublime setting, catching so many bonefish I stopped counting and hooking my first GT. Then again, everything about this adventure was extraordinary.
When I entered Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures’ 20th anniversary contest on Instagram, my hope was to win a cooler, maybe a hat. Even when I received an enthusiastic message from the director of marketing exhorting me to “call immediately,” I couldn’t have imagined what he was about to tell me: I’d won the grand prize — a weeklong trip to fish Alphonse Island in the Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean about 900 miles off East Africa.
The trip was scheduled for the first week of May 2021, but the chances of it actually happening felt about as slim as winning the contest in the first place. Living under pandemic restrictions for nearly a year had driven home the difficulties of making travel plans, especially travel that would require international flights and navigating the Covid restrictions of multiple nations.
The uncertainty of the global situation, however, did not stop me from spending several months obsessively prepping for the trip. The strict 15-kilogram limit (33 pounds) for my luggage loomed large in my mind. I made packing lists, modified them and weighed my bag repeatedly. More than three quarters of that limit was dedicated to fly-fishing gear.
I set a goal to tie as many of my own flies as possible. I spent hours tying with the help of videos on the Alphonse Fishing Co. website, but I needed to figure out how to substitute the South African materials with those I could find at home in Florida. The guys at Orlando Outfitters, my local fly shop, were happy to hunt down the perfect substitutions. I spent evenings filling fly boxes with huge 6/0 brush flies wrapped with pulsing marabou and supergluing my fingers together to build Alphlexo crabs — the game-changing fly that subdues permit in the Seychelles.
My enthusiasm was contagious. One friend sent me a dozen brush flies that he had tied while off-camera during Zoom calls. I also lucked into a Hatch 12 Plus reel for sale in an online forum. Chitchat about the sale led to, “Where are you headed?” This ignited a 30-minute phone conversation with Jerry from Jacksonville, who had fished Alphonse the previous year and was planning a two-week trip to Cosmoledo Atoll, one of the more remote spots in the Seychelles. He was more than happy to talk about his experience, including details about what he packed. Jack warned me about the dangers of long days fishing Seychelles flats: chafing, sunburn and feet destroyed on coral. He recommended bicycle tights, neck gaiters, gloves and hard-soled flats boots.
The most frequent advice I received was to practice casting with my 12-weight. I did that almost every day in my front yard, along with my 9-weight and 10-weight. Practice time was important but insufficient. I should have been out in the wind with big poppers tied to the end of the GT line. I didn’t feel comfortable with the 12-weight until day three on Alphonse. And, of course, you can’t practice fighting and landing one of these powerful beasts — unless you try to reel in a Labrador retriever.
With the reduction in global flights because of the pandemic, my route to Alphonse became even more circuitous. After more than two days of travel, I was about to touch down on the concrete runway that bisects Alphonse. On the approach, I spied the most perfect saltwater locale I’ve ever seen, more impressive than I had imagined.
We rode golf carts through the jungle and arrived at the island’s sprawling resort complex. The lodge allows a maximum of 70 guests and 12 anglers a week, but under covid conditions, it was much quieter. There were maybe 10 guests on the entire 400-acre island the week I was there, with four people fishing each day, rotating one-on-one through the stable of guides.
We spent the afternoon of our arrival rigging gear. Every guest was assigned a bicycle to ride to the fishing center on the other side of the island, cruising past tortoises that resemble lumbering boulders. The guides are very particular about rigging; they don’t trust factory-welded loops, and they use their own formulas for leaders — in some cases 100-pound straight mono. The long evenings spent tying flies back home were rewarded when my work got the coveted assessment of “100 percent,” particularly my big GT streamers. As it turned out, some of the advice on patterns and colors I found online was a couple of years old — black was out, and yellow was in. If it ain’t, chartreuse, it ain’t no use. I heard that refrain over and over.
On my second day of fishing, guide Trevor Sithole pulled a Bluetooth speaker out of his backpack and set it up on the skiff. “Why don’t we listen to your music?” he suggested. We fired up a heavy dose of classic rock, and he started poling, on the hunt for triggerfish. Fishing for triggers reminds me of pursuing redfish in Florida. You’ll find fish lazily cruising or tailing over structure, and you need to drop the fly pretty close to their nose.
Trevor put me in a great position to take a shot at a large moustache triggerfish, a cartoon-like specimen that is one of the prime targets in the Seychelles. My shrimp pattern with a rubber curly tail was reminiscent of the soft plastics that come in a first-timer’s bass-fishing kit. The trigger inhaled the fly, and I managed to horse it away from the leader-destroying coral. The fish’s colors were otherworldly.
With the pandemic raging at the end of the main fishing season, which runs from early October through May, many of the staff decided to stay on the island during the slow period, particularly those who would have gone home to India, an epicenter for Covid infections at the time. Many were going on two years without leaving the island. Beneath their homesickness and anxiety for family and friends were smaller inconveniences of isolation, including watching the same dozen or so DVDs from four or five years ago on a continuous loop.
I heard about a group of 12 anglers who were tested for Covid as they were about to leave Alphonse, and six came up positive. A positive test triggers a mandatory 10-day quarantine, with meals taken in your bungalow, and the only way to get out on the water is on a paddleboard or wading from the beach. I encountered one of these unlucky individuals on his 11th day and learned that his bar tab during isolation almost equaled the discounted price of his room for the 10-day stretch.
On the fourth day, a thunderstorm delayed our start for a few hours. There’s always a fair amount of wave action in the channel, but the crossing on this day was wetter and rougher than usual. In typical understatement, the guides said the conditions could get “sporty.” After a few hours of fishing, the wind and rain picked up to the point where I couldn’t see Warren Graham, my guide, standing aft in the 18-foot skiff. Hoods up and heads down, we waited out 20 minutes of tropical rainfall until we could cast again.
On this day, we were picking large bonefish off larger schools of fish in the morning and popping for GTs with an 8/0 reaper fly in the afternoon. Another angler had decided the weather was too much and headed back to the lodge. I asked Graham what he thought about the forecast and had to laugh at his reply: “Well, if it gets really bad, we’ll just abandon the skiff and have them come rescue us in the offshore boat.” On the way in, we encountered said sporty weather. Head Alphonse guide Kyle Simpson and Graham piloted up and down waves that were bigger than their skiffs, surfing in a buddy system for safety.
On the last morning, I awoke early to an alarm I set despite the final-night rager at the bar. I grabbed my 8-weight and pedaled my bike to the north end of the island, where I spent 30 minutes walking the beach and brought two nice 3- to 4-pound bonefish to hand.
All of my six days fishing at Alphonse afforded endless opportunities. There were additional triggerfish caught — and many that I cast to — along with a seemingly infinite number of bonefish. In addition to the GTs, there were plenty of other trevally to pursue: bluefin, yellow dot and golden among them.
Fishing with Trevor on my final day, I had a couple of infuriating casts to Indo-Pacific permit on the backside of Saint Francois. One fish saw my crab fly land and immediately charged toward it to investigate. After an interminable wait, however, the permit decided it wasn’t interested and swam away.
I lost three other GTs during my time on Alphonse. Actively feeding fish that I cast to from a distance were hooked and on the reel, then suddenly gone. Another time, while cruising over coral hunting triggerfish, Trevor spotted a GT, and I cast to it with the 10-weight. Watching a big GT eat a tiny crab fly was exhilerating, then terrifying as I tried but failed to keep the beast from breaking my 16-pound flouro leader.
Every day of fishing was different, as we tested new areas and new methods. I trusted the guides and fished for whatever the conditions gave us. I hooked four giant trevally but landed zero. So it goes.
Once home, everyone wanted to know about my adventure. “I’d call it a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” I told them, “except I’m already trying to figure out how to get back.”