How many fly-fishing spots do you know that have become mythical or legendary in the past decade? Rivers like the Ponoi in Russia have risen to greatness in the modern era but over the past 20+ years. Lake Thingvallavatn in Iceland has had a meteoric rise to fame for its extraordinary trout but there are not many… however Astove is one. One always hears about ‘the channel’ which seems to leave hardened giant trevally (GT) fishers all misty eyed. So, how did I find it this past February 2018?
I travelled with a wonderful team of guys who have travelled the world with me over the years. They would be the first to admit that though the years have been kind to them, they are not in peak condition and for the most part the other side of sixty. They would also agree that those facts probably handicapped their results. They still made impressive reading despite the fact we all agreed that to get the best from Astove one does need to be of reasonable fitness, ready to walk decent distances sometimes over craggy and sharp rocks and other times slippery situations as well as along and through surf. The walking over the rocks in the surf proved to be the most challenging of all. While we are on the subject of slight negatives, within ten minutes of the sun going down the mosquitoes come out in force. They try to combat them with spray but bottom line is, watch the sun go down and then go inside if you want to avoid being bitten. Easily done and that just about sums up the downsides – pretty much everything else was highly positive.
After a night at the Eden Bleu near the airport one does the usual morning rendezvous at the IDC (Island Development Company) Terminal and weighs in – body, bags and all. Everyone worked hard to be at the right weight and we had no issues. There is usually some give and take but do not ignore the advice because you will need to reduce if the weight is too great. You realise how in the middle of nowhere you are when you fly for 45 minutes and land on the remote Alphonse Island and are then told the next leg is 90 minutes. You really are out there in the middle of the Indian Ocean (the most distant fishing atoll except Cosmoledo) but that is what makes it special and, let’s face it, good fishing. To be factual, Astove is part of the Aldabra Group of islands known as the Outer Islands of the Seychelles 1,041 km (647 miles) south-west of the capital of the Seychelles, Victoria, on Mahe Island. There is no record of human settlement on the island until 1760 when the frigate La Dom Royal was wrecked. The crew left for Mozambique leaving the slaves who formed a community. Since the slaves were picked up some years later, further human presence remained sparse until Mark Veevers-Carter and his American wife Wendy settled there and built a 14-room house and started a copra plantation in 1968. I have had the pleasure of chastting to the family. Wendy dired in March of this year (2018), her daughter Ming describes how they used to look on with some amusement as their father ‘ran up and down the shore like an idiot’ attached to a banana fish (bonefish) on a fly. The kids could not understand why he was bothering given the fact that they are totally inedible. They fished for their own breakfast, which they would cook up on the beach. This extraordinary life came to a sad end in 1970 when Mark died in Kenya where he went to have some dental work and Wendy left in November of the same year. In 2014, Astove was declared a nature reserve and the house was converted to the fishing lodge and named Coral House.
There is a beautiful new airstrip and it was just a few minutes before we were sitting on our vehicle to go to the lodge where we enjoyed the first of many excellent meals. Rob and Robs, the South African husband and wife chef team were outstanding, with excellent food for where we were and presented with great care and pride. Jess Rensbury, the manageress, who looked after us beautifully all week, did a great job of decorating the dining room each evening, it was like walking in to a new room every day! The food was very much an unexpected highlight, the best I have had on any of the Seychelles fishing islands. After lunch and our lengthy introductory talk given by our leader Kyle Reed (who can never be faulted for his positive enthusiasm!) we were shown to our rooms. There are six main rooms all situated in Coral House, the main lodge. Some are spacious doubles, others smaller singles but all perfectly good enough for purpose and nice and colourful. I was outside Coral House but had lots of space to lay out all my gear, so everyone was happy.
Tackling up and the acid test of whether one’s tackle shop has sold you the right or wrong gear was next on the agenda. I am pleased to say that my team took my advice and embraced Tom at Fin and Game and he, in turn, seemed to supply the right gear so very little was cast aside by the guides. Our standard rigs were a 12 wt set up for GTs and a 9 wt for bones, permit, triggers or whatever was going. If one had to pick one fly to cover all those species it was one of the three colour variations of the Flexo-crab, white, olive or brown. Over the week, that fly was tough to beat and effective with GTs too if there was nothing else to cast to them in the moment. The guides had the rest of the day off, but guests are welcome to stalk the beach for the afternoon. Bonefish and small GTs were caught with larger fish seen. Our first evening was a spectacular sunset.
Let me explain Astove. Many obsess about the channel which certainly does have the ability to produce wonderful fishing but there is so much more to Astove than the channel though what passes through it is critical. Another major feature is the drop-off from coral flats to mega-deep ocean (1000 metres) with a 90-degree vertical wall. There are five main areas. The north reef flats, the east, the west, the channel in the south and the lagoon in the centre. The team do a good job of moving everybody around so they can experience all the different areas and features. There is only one channel so all fish entering the lagoon must travel in and out via the channel. During the neap tides, the lagoon itself can be out of play because the rise and fall of the tides does not fill the lagoon suitably for fish to wish to enter. If the bait species (up to and including bonefish) do not enter there is no reason for the predators to follow. This is why there are Neap and Spring tide prices and rightly so. You lose a vast area of outstanding fishing but all is far from lost. The outside reefs all have their unique features and where the island turns north or south and currents meet can be particularly good. The north is perhaps the most rocky followed by the south around the entrance of the channel, the west is broader and deeper with some serious rocky outcrops at the southern end. The eastern reef flats I think are the most attractive with eroded channels carved by water seeping out from the lagoon. All have plenty of triggers and GTs, the best or biggest bones seem to be in the southern part of the west side while anything can happen with any species in and around the channel. Guests are delivered to their selected fishing spots by 4 x 4 Viking buggy and sometimes boat, a Seychelles skiff on the outside of the lagoon and a flats skiff on the inside. We enjoyed a spring tide and witnessed the lagoon come to life as the week progressed.
I had a pretty special and unique first three days. I hung out with my guests taking photographs and flying the drone but also got to explore Astove somewhat on my own. I was number seven of what is essentially a six-guest lodge. It was raining the first morning and our small team consisted of Terry, Richard and my old friend Serge who, has himself, become a Seychelles-guiding legend from way back when I was involved in running Alphonse to today. We headed to the north of the atoll near the airstrip and began to walk the coral flats in the surf. It was very tough, no light to see, some waves coming through and slippery rocks under foot. The guys began to walk either side of Serge and I slotted in behind them. I spotted the unmistakeable subtle wake of a GT moving out from the flat, stripped off my brand-new Hatch line that Fin and Game had asked me to try, laid out a cast and began to strip. I was not certain where the GT was by this time. My cast was a guess at where it was headed. It was not long until I was very clear where it was and that was on the end of my line and careering past the others at high speed. It was a proper ‘giant’ trevally at probably over a metre. He ran hard along the beach and try as I might to follow, the rocks were very slippery and awkward. I was now 70 or 80 metres into backing but soon the line went slack and that fly line I had been asked to try… well half of it was headed out to sea. It was good for one cast anyhow! It was Game Over as they say. No light, slippery and sharp rocks and the fish running along the beach not out to sea, I guess I stood little chance, but it was still a major bummer. That was the greatest piece of excitement during our rainy morning but things livened up in the afternoon with GTs, some big triggers and bones caught. Seychelles flats slams (combo of bones, triggers, GTs and/or permit) were caught – for a mostly cloudy, rainy day, the team had done very well. We spent the afternoon nailing bones wading in the lagoon after some relaxation back at the lodge. YES – one of the pleasures of Astove is that you can come back to the lodge at lunchtime and really, it does not cost you a great amount, if any, fishing time.
My second day was spent in the lagoon. I waded with the guys in the morning and saw some great GTs and permit and caught plenty of bones. Then I walked all the way to the channel to fly the drone. I had great fishing on the walk there and saw huge numbers of fish coming out of the lagoon – lots of milkfish, permit, bones, GTs, Bluefin trevally etc. It was a marine park experience and I just enjoyed it and stopped fishing. I flew the drone and could only imagine the fish it was spying from above only to find that for some reason it had not autofocused at all…devastating! On day three, we poled our way to the channel from the lagoon and spotted no end of fish before arriving at the channel and catching a host of smaller GTs. In the afternoon, I walked back and had delightful bone fishing in the skinniest of water. This time the drone behaved itself. The guys continued to do very well with Slams and Super-slams every day with great triggers and GTs being caught. It was a credit to the guides who clearly would have preferred a team of fit 30-somethings ready to yomp for miles, but you have to hand it to them, everyone did well.
Day four and I was in luck for the rest of the week. I was assigned a guide each day and we fished together for the last three days. First up was guide Stu Webb, an Englishman from South Africa or a South African from the UK – take your pick… either way a top guide. We poled our way across the lagoon picking up two nice GTs, one on a traditional GT set-up, the other on a Flexo-crab. We also got a lovely permit to take – Stu said not enough strip-striking from me, I say I thought it was on and was bracing myself for the run because the line was tight – I’ll embrace his version! We made our way to the east side, walked over the little piece of land between lagoon and ocean and were on the stunning eastern scoured flats. We saw trigger after trigger but they did not want to play. Stu got a nice GT and we cast to others. It was a great middle section of the day. I have to admit, even I was lagging on the walk back with cameras, drone and batteries etc on my back. It was quite a hack in the midday heat. We relaxed and re-hydrated and then began to pole our way back with Stu convinced we would bump into permit. Bump into permit we did but there was a problem, there was ZERO wind. Not a ripple so we were just spooking fish after fish even though we aimed further and further away from them. It began to feel hopeless so I said to Stu that I was going to cast where it seemed there were no permit. I did so and stripped the fly back as if I had cast to a permit. To our great delight a fish took and it was a permit. I joked to Stu that we had cracked it and we would get a hat-trick. We continued to fish and to our mutual surprise, another take! Another permit! The fish seemed to melt away after that and now we were seeing only the occasional bow wave. We were discussing how far ahead one would have to cast to not spook the fish and were agreeing it would be a ridiculous distance. We then saw a bow-wave about 100+ yards away and decided to take a gamble and lay the fly 20 yards ahead of it and hope it held its line. It did and it came on to the fly and we scored out hat-trick – truly amazing!
My penultimate day was with the boss (and soon to be married to Jess) Kyle Reed. We headed back to the airstrip which was a very different place in the sun and walked east in readiness to turn back to go west and then south. Right as we stopped Kyle saw a GT and nailed it. A fine example of how it’s done. I am pleased to say I mimicked him once we were out on the flats and another nice GT was landed. We actually had a hell of a day, still the triggers would not play ball but we landed another three or four nice GTs. Sadly Kyle, to his huge embarrassment, dropped them all having tailed them and each came off and were never photographed. We also hooked a knock-out Bluefin trevally but it came off in a novel way. The whole dressing of the fly had slipped from the shank around the bend of the hook and had essentially unhooked the fish.
My last day was with Serge. Our mission seemed simple – a nice photograph of a good Astove bonefish (all the others I had caught were on my own) and a trigger, I had cast to dozens but they would not take or hold on to the fly. Before we focused on those we staked out for some GTs. Slow at first but then we saw one and it nailed the fly. As we began to walk south we bumped into a run of GTs. One landed, I then lost three, Serge lost three, then two more for me, it was a breathless hour in some tough wind and low light but all fish caught the best way, wading with the fish careering toward us. By the time the GT-fest was over, we entered trigger/bone territory. First, a big trigger. Serge warned me not to yield any line to the trigger if it took. It was a positive graveyard of coral heads littered all over the flat. The trigger did take with full enthusiasm and I clung on while Serge ran after it. I had to run too to avoid breaking the rod but we were triumphant. This same area has some huge, almost un-landable bones, most are 5lbs upwards and the area is a minefield of coral. We got our nice bone but were broken by a dozen more but it was a superb day to end the week.
As I have mentioned, the requirement to walk long distances on some tough flats thus requiring some good fitness in the heat and the minor issue of the post sun-down mosquitoes are really the only negatives to Astove. There were tons of positives. The crew, the Rob/s in the kitchen, Kyle and Jess, my old mate Serge, Stu and the only Bangladeshi fly-fishing guide in the world and great character Yousef Shaikh. What a team! All the rooms, the bedrooms, dining room and sitting room where guests retire for post dinner drinks are perfect for the locale and of course it is a six-man lodge so superb for teams of friends to have to themselves. Slams of some sort were caught every day of the week by a team who, by their own admission felt Astove to be beyond them physically. I would return in a heartbeat and hope to perform better. So few of us fish the flats regularly enough to perform at our best on the first day. We are not quick enough to make the necessary casts and not aggressive enough with the strip-strike (if we remember to do it) and not hard enough on the fish when they are on. Triggers, trevally etc require a fight rather than being played and it is difficult for us to go straight into that. For most of us, fishing places such as Astove is a rare treat and therefore preparing ourselves through practice with the correct gear is so important. We cannot mimic the takes or power, but we need to do all we can to make the best of the precious six days we have in extraordinary places like Astove.