Eat or Be Eaten

Sparring with the food chain at Alphonse Atoll.

[by Tosh Brown]

HAVING VISITED A FAIR NUMBER OF FISHING DESTINATIONS during my 50-odd years on this watery orb, I’ve noticed a consistency in the distribution of predator and prey relative to their proximity with man. In more civilized locales there are often noticeable gaps in the food chain. Netting and long-lining of predator fish, for example, allow their forage to overstock. Conversely, exploitation of baitfish reduces predator numbers or forces them to hunt elsewhere.

In a few cases, though, I’ve been fortunate to experience remote locations where the hunters and the hunted remain in pristine balance. Those fisheries have an unmistakable edge about them. On a remote Bahamian out island, many years ago, I was fighting a small lemon shark that had been harassing bonefish when a three-foot barracuda bit off its tail at boatside. After tossing a tube lure and catching the cuda, it swam over to a nearby creek and was promptly dispatched by a six-foot bull shark. Checks and balances.

I’m guessing that’s how all fisheries looked before we began disturbing the mix with nets and gang hooks. Watch your back. Know your place in the company. Dumb and slow will get you bit.

After a day and a half of travel from Texas to the Indian Ocean, I had high hopes for experiencing the raw natural order when I first viewed the flats of Alphonse and St. François Atolls from our charter flight. Shallow specks in a vast, deep ocean with no population centers within thousands of miles. A week later, I left the Seychelles with taped-up fingers, shredded flies, and verification that Darwinism is indeed alive and well at Alphonse Atoll.

THE SEYCHELLES ARE AN ARCHIPELAGO of 115 named islands located 7 degrees south of the equator in the western Indian Ocean. From the island capital of Mahe, one must travel quite a distance to reach a significant landmass: 994 miles to Kenya, 2,020 miles to India, 1,134 to Madagascar.

Alphonse Island Resort was first established in 2000 by a group of South Africans who converted an abandoned coconut plantation into a beautiful facility for anglers, divers, and beachgoers. Its paved runway ferries guests to and from Mahe via charter flight. Anglers sleep in comfortable chalets on the beach and gather each evening for drinks and dinner at Le Lys, an open-air bar and restaurant named for the French ship that first discovered Alphonse in 1730.

Fishing guests are limited to a maximum of 12 rods per week, but non-fishers are encouraged to come along. With beautiful beaches, a pool, diving, snorkeling, tennis court, bicycle trails, and paddle sports, it’s a great place to take the wife and kids.

“Naturally, one might view exuberant reports from a new destination with some skepticism, especially when the first promoters were touting the Seychelles as ‘better than Christmas Island . . . better than the Bahamas . . . better than Los Roques. . . .’ ”

The guide staff at Alphonse is made up primarily of South Africans, a couple of Brits and Americans, and Yousuf, the one and only Bangladeshi fly fishing guide. Managers Keith Rose-Innes and Devan Van der Merwe understand fully that when someone flies halfway around the world to visit a fishery, there shouldn’t be an issue with the guiding. Guides are rotated daily among the fishing guests, and they are among the most skilled and attentive flats guides with whom I’ve fished, anywhere in the world.

Each morning, anglers gather in the fishing center to stock up on last-minute flies and gear. From there they board a catamaran mothership that ferries them quickly across the deep channel that runs between Alphonse, Bijoutier, and St. François Atolls. Most of the fishing takes place on the 10,000 acres of flats and lagoons surrounding St. François and Bijoutier. The Alphonse flats are reserved for the occasional bad-weather day when the channel crossing is too rough.

The majority of the fishing is done on foot over firm white sand, coral, and turtle grass. If you’re up for some combat wading, there is good fishing on the far outer edges of the atolls, as well. They’re not easy flats to reach, but they’re often worth the effort. Staking out channels on the tide changes is also effective. From there you can stand on the bow of a Dolphin skiff and harass whatever swims by.

WHEN NEWS OF GREAT FLY FISHING FIRST SIFTED OUT OF THE SEYCHELLES, it was the massive number of bonefish that piqued the interest of most travelling anglers. Naturally, one might view exuberant reports from a new destination with some skepticism, especially when the first promoters were touting the Seychelles as “better than Christmas Island . . . better than the Bahamas . . . better than Los Roques. . . .”

Honestly, I held that same suspicion when I first arrived at Alphonse. They’ve been fishing those flats for eight or nine months a year with a dozen rods for 15 years. Would the bonefishing still be as advertised? I was pleasantly surprised.

At our fishing orientation on arrival day, Alec, the head guide, informed us that the first day would be “bonefish Sunday.” A chance to warm up the casting arm and shake off any lingering jet lag before taking off the gloves for tougher species.

The next morning our group spread out across miles of glistening sand as the falling tide began draining the central lagoon at St. François. We were standing thigh deep when the first waves of bonefish appeared. Groups of 10 to 20, then 50 to 100. They pounced on flies like they hadn’t eaten in weeks. The retreating mobs thinned a bit as the tide receded, but they were still coming, and they were still hungry. By the time the water dropped to our ankles, most of us were ready for a break. Stripping fingers were raw and casting arms were tired, but the bonefish were still trickling past—now tailing and flashing and dashing as they rushed to pluck the remaining bits of life from the sand before the tide left the flats exposed.