I’m goin’ to New Caledonia, get me a massive bonefish if I can.
Unbelievable rain. Richard said, “In seven years I have not seen rain like this.” We had a bright morning but a high tide when we arrived at St Bhale, New Caledonia. Morsie suggested we kill an hour by running over to a small flat—nothing more than a sandbar that had acquired a few coconuts and a limb of bamboo—just offshore from Balabio. The sea, dimpled by the lightest of breezes, was clear as glass. Standing high on the prow of the boat, I could see for miles. A few clouds gathering to the north began to draw light gauze over the sky, but nothing to bother with. On the mainland, a skein of rain sweeping at an angle to the mountains was black under the clouds, pink and orange in the sun. But a long way off, and moving away. The sandbar was no good, and we headed back, the air thicker now. The water was flat, but with no backdrop I couldn’t see far. Then a rain shower drew a curtain across the horizon to the south and began to close down on us.
Now rain has started to drum on the flat and on my hood. I drop my head against it and stare hard at the water immediately in front of me, feeling hopeless.
Suddenly a splash from somewhere catches my attention. Then another. There are taking bonefish ahead. As I slide toward them, a blue-green shadow smudges across the sand out of the steely water, so close, my first cast drops behind it. The smudge turns and moves slowly away. The water flattens and glows luminous under the heavy rain, but its bonefish, as far I’m concerned, are gone. I feel cursed. Seconds later, Matt is into a fish—the best of the week, I’d say, 11 or 12 pounds. As we wade back for lunch, the rain intensifies until the horizon is gone; all around is gray and I can hear nothing but the rat-a-tat on my hood and the fizzing water. My jacket gives in, useless against the downpour, and soon I am as wet as if I’d been swimming, drenched and sticky and fed up to miss my only shot of the day. As the others climb aboard and I wait in the water, Morsie turns to Matt and says, “I think Charles has gone and lost his mojo.”
[Aside] O gods! Who is’t can say ‘I am at/the worst’? / I am worse than e’er I was. / ...
... And worse I may be yet: the worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’ – King Lear
But it had started well. It really had. It was a long, long drive up the island from Nouméa to Boat Pass: the tail end of a journey that had yawned open and swallowed me whole; of days lost to the tongue-lolling unsleep of air travel: blow-dried eyeballs, irradiated sinuses, backache. All for the threat, the half chance, of an enormous bonefish, and thus a journey worth taking had it been five times as long.
At first I’m exhausted. I can’t keep my eyes open and fall in and out of sleep like I’m drunk. Finally I give in and lie down on the backseat of the car. But the road is bumpy, Richard’s driving is . . . Well, it is French, and at violent turns of the wheel or stabs of the throttle I lurch awake. The road is busy and wide at first, but it goes on and on interminably. Insects are thick in the air and rush toward our headlights like stars at a trekking spaceship.
And then I slept as though anesthetized, a huge hole in time between writing notes and Morsie knocking on the door, telling us it’s quarter past six, that Argentina is beating France (this is the opening game of the World Cup), and that in every other way it is also a perfect day.
Outside there is no wind, and the watery blue sky is clear. A Morse code of birdcalls has begun. In the low light it is intense, but as the light lifts, other noises begin and the enveloping birdsong recedes. I can hear the rugby commentary in French coming out of Morsie’s open door. It rises to a fever pitch, and Matt comes out saying that Argentina has just scored, that France looks to be in trouble. We grab breakfast and get on the road, deciding that big bones won’t wait even for a French defeat. We’re on neutral territory just now, the Englishman and two Aussies, though wise heads would observe that this won’t last.
You might not know about Rugby Union in particular, but you’ll know what I mean. Pick the team you follow—football, baseball, it doesn’t matter. Take its greatest rival, and a world-stage tournament on which both vie for the glittering prize. Add a dose of post-colonial guilt on the one side and resentment on the other, a contradictory pinch of complicated mutual affection, and finally a thick base layer of the foundation stone of humor in both camps: irony and mockery. That’s something of the broth a-bubbling between us: me the POM, Matt and Morsie the Aussies.
Boat Pass where we’re headed is another 15 miles up the coast to the point of the island, a narrow gap between the east and west sides and the few islands that splinter off in a short chain to the north. The road is a winding dirt track, riding over ridges, dropping into furrows. The island narrows to a spine of hills. Each vertebra emanates ribs to the coast, and our track has to rise and fall, turn and twist with the morphology of this skeletal landscape. The earth is red and poor. Thin, scrubby bushes cloak the hills, giving way to pale scrapes of shale and rock. Wild horses live up here, and once a pack of five galloped across the road, their manes flaring out behind.
Finally the road ends beyond a row of native houses, their gardens bordered with rope and seashells and painted sticks. Buoys and tires hang from the trees. The only sound is the knocking of a man splitting coconuts on a pointed stick. A roundel is at the center of road’s turning, and there are benches beneath shading trees, a picnic spot for travelers. Beyond is the bonefish flat I’d read about—more than a hundred acres of white sand stretching to the north and west. The tide is low and falling. Bare ridges of sand lie exposed. Beyond, deep blue marks the channel, and beyond again more white sand and the shore on the far side, a spectacular red ridge of hills like the back of a dragon, like the comb of a rooster. We all start walking for the far edge of the flat, where the sea begins.
A few years back a Frenchman called Phillipe briefly ran a fishing operation at this northern end of the island. A few people came. Mixed reports leaked out of large fish, but also of fishless days. Among these anglers the name Boat Pass was repeated. I remember a picture of a guide standing here buried in full-on Rasta locks, cradling the most enormous imaginable bonefish, and I knew I had to get there. My inquiries went nowhere. Phillipe, it turned out, had gone feral, disappearing into the forested mountains for increasing lengths of time until finally vanishing altogether and his operation with him. Now another Frenchman, Richard Bertin, has taken on the idea, and Matt, Peter, and myself are his bonefish guinea pigs.
Most people seem to think New Caledonia is somewhere in Canada. It might as well be on the moon. It’s certainly at the other end of the world, in the South Pacific a few hours by plane from Australia, well off the traditional bonefish map. Home to the indigenous Kanaks, it was discovered (in our imperial sense of the word) by Captain Cook in 1774, though 60,000 of these Melanesians called it home before that. Cook landed on the northeast coast, where we’ll be spending most of our time wading the sand flats deposited in the lee of the restless ocean currents that sweep up the east and west coastlines. He named it New Caledonia because its craggy shoreline, precipitous falls of clear water, and mountain backdrop reminded him of Scotland. He sailed down the east coast, so he wouldn’t have seen the stately valleys of the western plains that, as the light faded on our drive north, reminded me more of English parkland dragged toward the equator than of Scotland. But up here I know what he meant.
Later, thigh deep in the sea a rising sun has turned from slate to kaleidoscope, I finally pin down what has felt so incongruous all morning. Here the central mass of Grand Terre, the main island of New Caledonia (about 200 miles long and 25 miles wide), has narrowed to a single spine of mountains that fall like the tapering tail of a vast dinosaur skeleton. Though I have waded tropical seas looking for bonefish in most places they can be found, and although in New Caledonia I may be at a symbolic endpoint of that searching (time will tell if I catch the Moby Dick I’ve always been after), I have never, ever looked for bonefish with mountains in the background. Bonefish have always been creatures of empty, limitless horizons.
This sense of the incongruous is one of the things I love about fishing: turning up something amazing, somewhere unexpected. Seeing things through what someone once called my spectacles of fishautism, I’ve always felt Britain would be pretty much perfect except that it has no bonefish. Now that someone has considerately towed the west coast of Scotland into the tropical Pacific, things are looking pretty much complete.
Except, of course, that I haven’t found any bonefish yet. It was never going to be easy. What little I’d discovered about bonefish in New Caledonia told me only two things: that they are very hard to find, and that if you find one, it will be very, very large. It’s the latter more than the former that dragged me here. There are many species of bonefish worldwide—Morsie gave us an expert tutorial in this—but while the physical differences may be subtle, all bonefish are paranoid, skittish, morphing ghosts that mess with your mind, your eyesight, and your sanity. And in New Caledonia, so the international fish-whispering goes, these fish become truly massive. The biggest rush, the biggest wave.
We’ve come with Hervé, our Kanak guide, back again across the Baie D’Harcourt to St Bhale, a thousand acres of white sand lying to the southwest of Île Balabio. These last two days have been hectic. At Boat Pass, Morsie hooked a monster. The fish went miles, burning down the flat. Matt laughed out, “Go, Morsie. That fish is pulling some string,” and then it was gone. Peter simply had all his line and backing to wind back in. Later the tide turned and two big fish came on at the same time, our first fish landed in a double-hookup that has become a feature of these fast tides and tight windows of chance. The Aussie and the Englishman and two giant kissing bones, captured in a blizzard of pixels.
Matt busted his fish off on coral. The next day we all did. And then yesterday and the day before at St Bhale, this disturbingly sexy wonder of nature. The flat is epic in its endless, featureless expanse. White and emerald sand stretches to the horizon. Behind, soft red mountains cascade down to the sea, like slipping mounds of sugar. As we approach, we’re all blown away as the bright sun sweeps a penetrating beam a mile across, fanning slowly toward us and illuminating the flat as though glowing from within. Morsie says that the look of the place is getting him hard, and I say I was just thinking the same thing—that it might be worrying when fly fishermen become actually aroused by the ocean.
And St Bhale has been arousing in more tangible ways. Big, big bones in tight, fast-swimming platoons that are on you and past before you can blink or think. We see them for a fraction of the tide, and haven’t yet worked out where they are before and after. But in those few minutes of chance all hell has broken loose. My first whopper—a 10-, maybe 11-pound fish that I flossed on the first strike and that took again—ran me ragged for 10 minutes only to be abraded off the line by the rough skin of a pursuing shark. A while later, briefly in the thick of them, I hooked another and popped it off when the line wrapped the reel handle; caught a small one of eight pounds a few minutes after that, and finally hooked a fourth, this time in broken cloud with fish coming off the flat behind us. I turned to find three right there, no more than 20 feet away. All I could do was flick a short awkward cast their way, pause, strip, and the central fish—looking more like a pig, actually—jumped on it and tore off for the reef edge. I hung on for only 30 seconds and then wound back a weightless line, feeling very sick. Peter looked at me and said, “Bonefishing here is all about broken lines, broken rods, and broken egos. You can be a rooster one day and a feather duster the next.” Mojo?
It was Napoleon III who annexed New Caledonia in 1853—hence all the French names and remaining a French dependency. Until 1922 the island was used as a penal colony. The first century of French rule would not have been a happy time for Hervé’s ancestors, the indigenous people of New Caledonia, even after their numbers had been decimated by a flood of Old World diseases in the wake of Cook’s discovery. Persecuted by slavers and missionaries, they were finally (with the discovery of nickel) squeezed from their ancestral lands altogether and confined under an apartheid-like system of government called indigénat. Nowadays the Kanaks have reclaimed their heritage, their land, and their sense of place, and the island is evolving toward an overtly more inclusive common identity, a mixture of French and Kanak culture.
The Kanaks, my guidebook tells me, are gentle and shy people, and one should not mistake their reticence for animosity. All this was useful advice with Hervé. On the ride over I tried my best in broken Franglais to learn a little about him. He told me he has been fishing since he was a toddler, that he has two children, and that they are at school and not yet “les pecheurs.” But every bit was hard won, and I decided in the end that Hervé, like the rest of his people, prefers silence.
We’ve dropped our anchor at St Bhale and jumped overboard into the warm saltiness. Hervé has shown us which way the fish will be coming from and is now off on his own at the far end of the flat. Richard says that Hervé has eyes like an eagle. But he fishes like a heron. The weather has turned now, and today the dark sky is closing in from the south. The wind has picked up and fat, rolling waves are heaving off the shallow water and smacking against my legs. Worst of all, the sun has vanished. One minute I’m trying to find a needle in a haystack, the next I’m trying to find a needle in a haystack in the dark.
Peter and Matt have walked back the other way to chase reef fish until the conditions on the flat pick up. Hervé remains motionless on the horizon. Then I look again and his rod is bent double. I wade toward him. He looks over, sees me coming, and slowly closes the distance between us, his rod hooped over his shoulder. As I draw closer still I hear his rusty fishing reel croaking like a bucket of hot frogs as whatever he is attached to makes for the far horizon.
“Is it a bonefish?”
Hervé shakes his free hand in a comme ci, comme ça kind of way, as a dark curtain of rain lashes up the sea and the taut line sings in the wind. We gaze at the horizon for a long time, Hervé very slowly winning the fish back until it comes close enough for me to see, a green hulk anchored by its own weight and strength to the sea bed, circling stubbornly beyond reach. It is quite simply massive. It circles endlessly, Hervé’s rod bent into a ludicrous loop. And when we finally get it in, Hervé’s cool gives and he breaks into a broad grin. Well done, I say, shaking him by the hand. I ask if he’ll help me find a fish, too.
“Yes,” he replies, as if I’d only ever had to ask. “You must follow me.”
And I do. Hervé takes me to my fish, the faintest shimmer of green, no more than the reflection of a wave. I make my cast and hook it, and the atomic energy of the thing drags me 200 yards inshore, onto the pale shallow crown of the flat. When I catch up with it I am alone—Hervé has drifted off to stand again like a heron on the horizon—in the middle of this empty salt desert of bonefish paradise, the tide carrying the sea away, the enormous bonefish battling remorselessly at my feet.
And that night, or the next morning—I can’t remember when anymore—England lost. Not to Australia, though it might as well have been, for we lost our opening game 36-0. Nothing could have prepared me for the full-on castrational effect of this. Not after I’d stood toe to toe with Morsie on the barracking front for the past five days, half believing my hype, half knowing that England was indeed hopeless and that Australia might well win.
A few glasses downwind on the night of this disaster, Morsie knew he had his foot on my chest. He conceded a point only to press harder—he was, after all, having fun. “I gotta admit one thing, Charlie. Your guys know, or rather knew, how to scrummage. I mean you came down under last summer and Andrew Sheridan taught us a thing or two there. He really did. Trouble is, you forgot it all and we remembered. Ha ha.”
And exiting stage left, silently into the tropical darkness: my mojo.
There is another ending here, of course. I might not have caught another fish. I might have wandered Lear-like across the bonefish heath, howling at the merciless gods, while Morsie and Matt shrieked reels to taunt me. And my mojo, which slipped away with England’s defeat, might have wandered, too, homelessly across the globe for a fortnight. But I found it when I got home, and England met Australia in the semi-final, and simply pounded them into the dirt. The whistle went, and I shouted victorious profanities into the sky so loudly, Morsie might have heard them back home in Australia, had he been listening instead of hiding under the bed. Ha ha!
And then I went fishing and caught a boatload of whoppers.
Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s latest project is a self-made film about his obsessive search for giant bonefish. You can read about it on his Web site, www.thefishingmovie.com.
If You Go
If you want to catch a really big bonefish, New Caledonia is the place. They average a genuine eight to nine pounds, but the fishery is very challenging.
Take the usual—9-weight rods, a standard selection of bonefish flies (some heavy), floating and intermediate lines, top-quality polarized glasses, good rainwear, a waterproof backpack, flats boots, wading trousers, cap. Nothing unusual here. But you’ll need to tweak your skills, clean and oil your reel, adjust your expectations, both up and, possibly, down.
You can book a trip there with Fly Odyssey, run by Matt McHugh (the Matt in this story). Current prices for an eight-day packages are roughly $5,000. The season runs from March through October.