Spring Saltwater Getaway--St. Brandon, Mauritius--April 11-18, 2017--FlyCastaway
St. Brandon's Atoll-Mauritius-Indian Ocean
It was about 10:30pm on a very snowy evening in February when I got a random email from my old friend and boss Jeff Currier. "Scotty Boy, I know its a shot in the dark but I have this opening to fill on short notice, I need to know asap, call me tomorrow." Jeff and I have been running around chasing trout and empty beer cans for years and I had just mentioned last fall that if he ever had a nice saltwater trip come up to let me know. My daughters are getting older so it is much easier to get away than it was just a few years ago. On top of that I lost my father to cancer a little more than a year ago and what that teaches you more than anything is that life is precious and brief. So I figured this is how bucket lists get started and the Indian Ocean was high on the list. I discussed it with my wife, Dana who I give all the credit for encouraging me to go and within 20 minutes emailed back and said, "I am 90% in, give me 24hrs to figure the financials". And just like that I was going to St. Brandon's, a place I wasn't even sure where it was and had only first heard of a year or two ago.
This trip would have been much more daunting if Jeff was not my side kick. Jeff is a veteran traveler and has fished nearly 60 countries! That is amazing, his appetite for fly fishing adventure is insatiable and I can see why. We were to travel to the other side of the planet, literally. Jeff even commented later that this trip was the furtherest he had ever been from his home in Victor, ID, that is saying a lot. To sweeten the deal, just a week before we left another slot had become available and Jeff reached out to another close friend of ours, Ben Smith. In similar fashion Ben jumped on the opportunity and we now had a powerful trio headed to a remote part of the Indian Ocean.
The day before the departure I skied with my daughters for a couple hours and said my goodbyes to the ski shop culture. My buzz was a mixture of excitement and anxiousness. The next morning I said goodbye to the family, they were sad but excited for me. I picked up Jeff around noon and we headed down the road towards SLC to catch our evening flight to Amsterdam the trip had truly begun. We both caught up on life, families, work and reminisced the old days, all that was missing was a cold brew which Jeff immediately took care of once we were safe in the Delta Club.
The flight to Amsterdam was comfortable thanks to the KLM 787 Dreamliner, pretty sweet! A quick jump over to Paris and we rendezvoused with Ben. I let those guys catch up this time in the Delta Club and just relaxed before the long flight to Port Louis, Mauritius. After a total of 39 hrs travel we had made it to Mauritius!
Wisely, Jeff had built two extra days on the front end of the trip to get over jet lag and to ensure our arrival to make the dreaded crossing to St. Brandon's. We settled into our hotel and sure enough were directed to the bar. Mauritius nationals are a blend of French, Indian and African and it was quite obvious they do not see Americans too often, much less three guys who pounded the local brew. Once we found the Phoenix Brew it got ugly on that first night but it was quite smart to get it out of our system and in the end we were harmless and the bar loved our enthusiasm.
We rested and took in the sights for a couple days before the crossing to St. Brandon's Atoll, also know as Cargados Carajos.
The morning of the crossing, while walking around the dock it was hot as hell, much tougher once you leave the sanctuary of a hotel pool I thought. The crossing was making me a bit concerned... 28 hrs in a hot sport fishing vessel, tossing and turning. Coming off a Jackson Hole winter I felt very weak in terms of dealing with heat. We finally get underway around 1pm and by 5pm you lose sight of anything and the swells get bigger, even though the mates said it was an easy passage I found myself needing a 3 point hold at all times, otherwise you are going down. The evening cooled just enough to pop a sleep aid and hit the bunks. At about 2am I woke for a cold drink and for 4hrs peered out the small portal window in the hull of the boat. You find yourself thinking of some pretty crazy shit and you certainly realize how insignificant we are, perhaps just as important how fortunate we were to be going to a special place not visited by too many anglers.
At about 3pm we arrive at the atoll. The FlyCastaway guides greeted us and we are finally back on land. For several hours my body still swayed with the motion of the sea but more importantly, it was finally time to go fishing!
We checked our gear and wandered off to a flat behind the lodge. I wanted to get my eyes dialed to the water and test my casting arm. Somehow I had a bad case of tennis elbow that was giving me some grief, perhaps from boot fitting all winter in the ski shop. Jeff had mentioned a couple species that were very common, almost to the point of being a nuisance. "The Blue Spangled Emperor", he says "will rob your fly right before the permit eats, just you wait". Well I did not see any permit that first evening but I did catch my first Indian Ocean specie, a Blue Spangled Emperor.
The week was a vivid blur now looking back, it went by way too quickly. This place is pure Bonefishing Paradise. I have caught bonefish all over the Caribbean but this place was extra cool and the bones are big! I think the bonefish is the quintessential specie for saltwater fly fishing. They live and feed in shallows, therefore conducive to sight fishing and they eat relatively small invertebrates and are spooky much like trout. Once hooked the bonefish has a blistering run, in fact if they grew much larger I am not convinced they could be tamed easily. You will see your backing several times with nearly every fish and we were not getting the monsters St. Brandon's is known for. Due to the unseasonably warm water (recurring theme everywhere, duh) the larger bones were not around, we had to settle for 4-7 pounders. Ben actually landed the best of the week, a whopping 9 lb bonefish and I tied my personal best at about 7.5 lbs. A few years ago I had a guide in the Bahamas tell me I had just caught a 10 lb bonefish, after seeing these fish I know he was full of shit.
The real prize of the Indian Ocean is the Indo-Pacific Permit. I came with very low expectations for this critter. I had caught a modest permit in Mexico years ago and understand this challenging fish but hearing everyone speak of the Yellow variety made it seem much tougher and more elusive, that is saying a lot because any permit is hard to catch on a fly. Late in the day on the first day with our guide Brendan we get a couple good head on shots. This is very important because they are more visible coming head on, once that fish goes sideways it literally disappears, they are like swimming mirrors. I was up and had a lucky cast that was about 4 feet in front and slightly off of the fish. I am so used to leading fish with my cast and all week I had a hard time putting it on the nose in fear of spooking the fish. Leading a bit was working for me but the guide's mantra was "spook it or hook it". Nonetheless, my permit was a happy fellow and he swam over and ate my small white merkin crab with gusto. After a very good fight I cradled one of the most beautiful fish known in saltwater fly fishing, the Yellow Permit of the Indian Ocean.
To top it off, each evening you are greeted with a fine spread of sashimi, either fresh grouper or yellowfin tuna. We all gathered around and shared the day's encounters and relished in the moment. To make the permit even more special one of my new South African friends, Chris Bladen, who is an extraordinary artist of fish sculptures later in the week made a very kind and generous offering of a permit belt buckle he had made. The gift was for catching the first permit of the week and I am sure it will be a true conversation piece for many years.
It was nice to have the tough fish box checked. Now we hunted big bonefish and trevally! My elbow was killing me after day 1 but we were pumped. Ben and I had some incredible bonefishing on day 2 and it was nice to finally fish with Ben again. Other than our annual carp tourney this trip was a rare opportunity for the three of us to spend some angling time together. Ben, who once guided with our staff in Jackson, WY now lives in West Yellowstone, MT and guides for TroutHunter in Last Chance, ID. He has an infectious laugh and silliness that made the day no matter what the fish did, we were so stoked to be there and of course a few Phoenix brews helped.
The next goal I had was a Bluefin Trevally. The big game in this region is the GT or Giant Trevally but we were not seeing many. I must admit I was concerned about doing battle with that creature because of my right elbow, the 12wt was a real bear to cast with my condition until my new South African friends hooked me up with some Cataflam. That drug saved my last 4 days and sure enough the most beautiful of all the Trevallies showed up in good numbers daily.
On Day 3 I was teamed up with Milan, Gerhard(G, is the owner of FlyCastaway) and Keegan. We had another fine morning chasing bonefish and then moved on to a permit flat for the afternoon. We split up and I had spotted a nice permit circling an old wreck structure on the surf side of the island know as Paul. He came in and out of the surf, riding a wave, vision was easy and this time my cast was on his nose... spook it or hook it I thought. It worked and he ate! I'll be damned I got another permit on but wait that structure was his home and like an old brown trout he took me right to cover and snap! Milan and I sat bummed for a minute then he says, "grab your 12 weight, Bluefin!" I looked up and a tight group of marauding bluefin were coming right at us crushing bait, mixed in were several sharks as well. The 6/0 tan brush fly hit and within two strips my backing was going out! What the hell just happened I thought, you instantly crank down on your drag and give the fish all the reel can muster. The Bauer RX 7 , a reel made to deal with a hundred pound GT was too much for this 18lb Bluefin trevally. I regained my fly line quickly and within a couple minutes had this stunning animal in my hands. Fortunately Milan was a good photographer and we captured some nice shots before his release. Meanwhile, on the other side of the island G and Keegan had an exact situation unfold and luckily were able to land both their gorgeous permit and bluefin, certainly an epic day with new friends!
Days 4 and 5 landed me in head guide, Craig Richardson's boat with Jeff and Ben. We did some new spots further out and had less action but saw some amazing sights. Fishing around the atoll typically offers two environments to hunt, one being sand spits and flats with less wave action and the other being rocky marl and coral with breaking surf from the Indian Ocean. Both very exciting and posing different challenges. On Day 5 Craig took Ben and I to a particular section of surf zone known as the Snatch and the Kraken. We were both mesmerized by the diversity. At one moment bonefish would slide by in the surf zone with small parrotfish, trevally, emperors and grouper all mixed in. Here the main challenge was not getting cut off by coral or the super sharp rock known as marl. We had fun exploring this area and at the end of the day we saved a couple hours to go dredge some channels with sinking lines for larger grouper, both Ben and I were super stoked to try this. Craig was grinning as we managed to prove ourselves with the 500-700 grain lines and not screw up. The fish were weird and bigger but we did not find any massive grouper, he insisted we go to Farquhar in the Seychelles and promised our arm would be longer afterwards. Ben managed a rare catch of a surgeon fish on a fly and the beer was extra special on the ride in that evening.
With my elbow feeling better and some personal goals checked I wanted to give the GT a good shot but they had other ideas. We did some searching on the farther flats and coral gardens and it seemed the last couple days we were seeing a couple giants in the 140cm range but they had very little interest in our flies. My best shot was on the last day with Jeff and our guide, Brendan. Cruising the edge of a coral garden they spot this beast of a fish. I was on the bow at the ready. I fired off a good shot in line with the monster and it actually swam right under the fly and kept going. I was expecting the GT, a member of the Jack family that is known for voracious grabs to light up and hammer the 6/0 brush fly but it was not meant to be. Instead I watched it cautiously cruise out of sight and realized that fish is precisely why I need to return to the Indian Ocean in the coming years.
Jeff and I had the toughest afternoon of the week that last day. The tides had changed a bit from earlier in the week and with little water movement there were less bonefish around but we did manage to find a few and savor the trip's last stalk. I was very satisfied with the trip's fishing and found it interesting that the guides and G thought it was off. It was nice having no preconceived expectations besides going fishing with your mates but I understood their process, much like when guiding trout, you as a guide have higher expectations for the day more often than that of your client's. That position is not always fair to a guest but nonetheless is a driving force to great guiding, professionalism and most importantly, passion. Thank you Fly Castaway team for pursuing and making such a great fishery available to visitors, nice work!
The return crossing was not nearly as bad with a tailing wind and light seas, in fact it was about 3 hours shorter. Once we arrived back in Port Louis we had 10 hrs to kill before our flight to Paris that evening and fortunately our new South African friends had a place to rest and clean up in Black River, Mauritius. Andy and Chris were extraordinary hosts. We had a nice swim, some celebratory cocktails on the beach and a terrific steak BBQ that evening before our taxi arrived for the hour long drive to the airport. We once again exchanged our gratitude and promised the gentlemen to similar hospitality and some trout fishing if they ever made it to our part of the world. Making new friends from other Nations and cultures is a huge benefit of travel such as this and it reminds me that the fish are always a smaller portion of the journey than you first realize. If you are an avid angler you owe it to yourself and your family to make these types of trips every so often. You come back with an incredible sense of place, gratitude and a better understanding of the world.