I have a long history with Alphonse Island. I wish I had known what we have all learned over the past 20+ years about fishing the extraordinary atoll when we were bobbing about living on the catamaran Tam Tam before any hotel had been built. When I was there recently, a small part of their presentation was about how much the tiny island of Bijoutier had changed and moved, even over five years. I could not help wonder about the changes over 20. Those were crazy days living on Tam Tam, we had the place to just four of us, fished all hours, fished naked after too much rum but oh boy did we catch some fish and break some rods!
I have seen some pretty poor decisions over the years too. The idea of splitting the fishing operation between two operators who hated each other is an example. It cost Alphonse its reputation for a while as guests lost their appetite to fish with feuding organisations on the flats. Other than sending guests, my involvement was minimal for a while until 2003 when we were asked to come in and bring the two organisations together to run as one which, to the credit of the individuals involved, they did admirably and we enjoyed a few glory years from a fishing operational point of view. We were also shareholders in the hotel during those years but could not bring enough influence to resolve the issues which would have taken us to the next level. The hotel was also badly marketed and therefore often only visited by enthusiastic fishers and their non-fishing partners.
Then the secret bomb dropped. The hotel was sold and the new owners wanted the fishing so, despite our 25 year lease we were told that the fishing had to be given to the new owners and it was suggested we try and sell all the boats and equipment we had invested in to them. I think our boats are used at Astove to this day. This caused rifts and understandable bitterness among the team but none of us involved on a day-to-day basis had a clue this was coming. The new era brought in tiresome industry bias, promises of improvements that were never really delivered, questionable assurances about looking after non-fishing guests and a change of policies on an almost annual basis. An end to that era was almost inevitable and so it came. Why do I reflect on all this… because today is a different story.
The Ponoi River Co has always produced a much higher proportion of top fly-fishing industry talent than any other lodge I know. Keith Rose-Innes joined me on the Ponoi in 2001. We enjoyed one of the most successful eras the Ponoi has ever seen. The fishing was the best it has ever been but the crew was even better. Despite record breaking fishing, the client comments were noticeably focused on the crew and the social life in camp. Keith went on to be a part of Flycastaway and then lead the new and most recent organisation to operate Alphonse. When you have worked with someone for four years in the middle of nowhere, you know if they know what they are doing or not. So, it was with confidence that I brought a private group to Alphonse this January. This blog is not so much about the fishing as about how Alphonse is finally what it always should have been had the ‘big cheeses’ of old allowed the operations people to fulfil their vision.
The fishing does however deserve a mention. On the first day, our team of 11 fishers consisted of three experienced saltwater anglers who had caught bonefish before, one who had caught a couple, four who had fished a bit but never in the salt and three who had barely, if ever, cast a fly. Every single person caught bonefish that day. I question if there is another location on the planet which is capable of delivering such results. I also question if there is a guide team capable. Some of the saltwater novices went on to catch permit, a GT and a milkfish during the week as well as other species and that was during some pretty poor weather. The bonefishing is extraordinary, not just the number of fish but the quality of the fishing, stunning white sand flats and miles of them, good sized bonefish (I caught and was broken by some really big fish), finger flats and other nooks and crannies for variation. When it comes to bonefishing, Alphonse has it all and is really in a league of its own on a world scale. It is also a good permit fishery, there are few places that can match it for realistic opportunities for milkfish (and it is where it was realised that they can, actually, be caught), and there is a good population of trigger fish.
The Giant trevallies remain a feature and this past season 2018/19 has been good but Alphonse has been the place everyone has learned how hard one can push a GT population in terms of fishing pressure and methods and the other Seychelles islands have been the beneficiaries of that. There is still a good population but there are currently better places if one is really focused on GTs. It has been interesting to note how travelling anglers react to going back to the Caribbean after Alphonse or the Seychelles in general unless they have a very specific focus such as a permit or tarpon. Disappointment is almost inevitable because there are so many less fish than in the Seychelles and all the atolls are like marine parks packed with life which can be so easily seen. Furthermore, if you have to be saltwater fishing in bad weather, the Seychelles is the place. Possibly with the exception of Christmas Island, there is nowhere I know of better for seeing fish on the flats in dull or rainy weather. If it gets really bad, there are always coral heads etc to fish for other species that will pull your 12 weight with alarming power! Such fall-backs do not exist elsewhere.
A tagging project for Giant trevally commenced this season which will prove fascinating in one way or another. Currently have 66 GTs have been tagged with acoustic transmitters which are tracking their movements (the goal is 70 GT tagged). They have also tagged 176 GTs with the PIT tags (small microchip with ID number that they can scan when a fish is recaptured). To date they have only recaptured one GT on St Francois and this individual was recaptured in almost the same location on the atoll and exactly one month after it was first caught and released. They are surprised by only one recapture, but it could be an indication that the population is larger than has been assumed. They do not think the low recapture rate is because of post-release mortality, because all the fish with transmitters have survived.
71 acoustic receivers have been placed around Alphonse and St. Francois lagoons. Some preliminary results show that there is high variation between individuals in their space use and what part of the atoll they use (i.e. habitat preference). Some fish stay in the lagoon, some stay outside the reef, and some move between lagoon and reef. Some fish will use the entire lagoon and flats, while others spend their whole time on one finger flat! So far it does not seem to be size dependent. There has also been some movement of fish between Alphonse, Bijoutier, and St. Francois.
The point of this piece is that three to six of my party, truth be known, were not overly keen on the fishing and therefore the non-fishing features of Alphonse were tested by some pretty discerning and knowledgeable travellers. The party also liked a big gathering in the evening and therefore where we ate and how it was presented each evening was a big deal and Alphonse did not disappoint.
The diving was a huge success. The experienced divers said that from a species point of view, Alphonse exceeded anything they had seen previously even in some of the world-class diving hot spots. They found the coral to be second only to one other place. Of course they saw countless of all the species we spent our days trying to catch and much more including swimming in a giant school of tuna for a long time. One of the team had a confidence wobble having not been diving for some time and therefore they did not continue with the dive that day. It was nice to see that they were encouraged, taken on a mini-refresher and then taken on the same dive a few days later successfully. The dive team did a superb job and now have an amazing set up within the extensive watersports centre.
The Azure Spa is located centrally in a convenient place and even I tried it. There was great praise from my team on all their experiences.
There is a really superb, big vegetable garden on the island which services not only Alphonse but Astove and Cosmoledo and some of my team did the bicycle tour of the island which included the Smoothie Café in the veggie garden. It was not the best weather but one day we had a wonderful beach lunch on the small island Bijoutier between Alphonse and St Francois (the fishing atoll) lagoons. The plan was to take the non-fishers snorkelling with sailfish and manta rays after but this was scuppered by the weather sadly. On other days we got out on the bluewater boats. Team members caught tuna and wahoo and lost sailfish on the fly as well as various species of grouper as well as a shark. One evening, we enjoyed an excellent 40-minute lecture about the flora and fauna of Alphonse by the team working at the very active Island Conservation Society Research Centre which also oversees the tortoise sanctuary.
There were many things that we ran out of time to enjoy: dolphin viewing, conservation walk, reef flats educational walk, sunset lagoon cruise, St Francois nature hike, cycling and running tracks, snooker, table-tennis, giant chess, tennis, paddle boards, stand-up paddle boards, kayaking, snorkelling, the list goes on, so much so, there is more to do than can be fitted in during one week. The Alphonse atolls are teeming with bird and marine life and there is no better place to enjoy a ‘Blue Safari’, now the name of the new organisation.
A highlight for many was the imagination and effort that went into the location and set-up of each dinner. On our first evening we had dinner in the dining room with an amazing buffet from stunning fresh tuna to incredible deserts made by the desert chef. The next evening moved to a set up in the bar, the next on the beach and so it went on with perhaps the most spectacular evening being at the Sunset bar. The photographs really tell the story best and my point is that this can be done for couples and parties with dialogue with the on-island team.
The hotel now has a full staff of real talent, from fishing guides to dive masters, chefs, spa professionals as well as key admin and hospitality staff. The result is a thriving island with enough people, all passionate about what they are doing, to make living or life on the island positive and fun, thus a busy and energetic work environment. They are a team that have come together at a time when there is fresh global respect for the oceans and how we treat them and the creatures that live in them. People want to learn, understand and enjoy the oceans and the staff are fired up and passionate about what they are doing and conveying their affection for the micro-world they are living in. It makes for a really uplifting and positive experience for guests. In summary, while the fishing at Alphonse remains in good shape and is being well looked after, the island itself has never been better for fisher or non-fishers alike.