What do a couple of Lincolnshire farmers, a retired Colonel, a retired banker, a tailor, a diamond dealer, a film critic, a retirement home owner and, finally, a tackle shop owner, have in common? The clue is in the last occupation – a love of fly fishing. And so, it was with great ease that my team settled down to dinner in Mahe before the great Farquhar adventure began.
Farquhar Atoll lies at 9 degrees south, 770 kilometres from Mahe, the main island of the Seychelles with its capital Victoria. At 12 (E/W) x 17 (N/S) kilometres, it is the largest atoll in the Seychelles totalling 17,800 hectares. There are ten islands; the two main islands are North and South Islands and these make up 97% of the land mass. Banc de Sable is the most easterly island and Goëlettes is the most southerly. The atoll was named after Sir Robert Farquhar in 1824. He was the Governor of Mauritius when the atoll was captured from the French in 1810. The atoll was leased to Monsieur Boudet who used it for the mining of guano and establishing a coconut plantation. Various leaseholders continued to work Farquhar for guano, coconut, dried fish and maize, all of which was collected every six months. In 1965 Farquhar became part of the British Indian Ocean territory and had a population of 50 producing 24 tonnes of copra every year. The atoll was returned to the Seychelles for a price of 30 Seychelles rupees and full independence was gained in June 1976.
Farquhar also has great wildlife heritage. In 1897 Commander Stuart Farquhar discovered a colony of roseate terns. It was not until 100 years later that these terns were re-discovered. In 2006 a previously unknown colony of black-naped terns were discovered at Banc de Sable, this is the largest population on any one island. Studies by the Seychelles Fishing Authority have shown an abundance of some grouper which is about three times greater than in any other part of the Amirantes. In particular, the density of Napoleon wrasse is phenomenal. Goëlettes Island is visited by upwards of 10,000 Sooty terns (or brown noddy) each year and, although not named, was the scene of the now famous BBC Blue Planet II footage of giant trevally taking tern chicks off the water.
We did the usual overnight at the Eden Bleu Hotel (very easy for a quick stay if coming in and leaving the next day and decently priced) and headed to the IDC, or Island Development Company, hanger beyond the main part of the airport. There we were weighed along with our luggage ready for our flight. The whole weighing issue does frustrate people but there is a purpose and that is safety. These flights are heading out into the Indian Ocean and the balance between weight, people and fuel has to be right. If you take two sets of fishing clothing and maybe one set of clothing for evenings and wear your fishing clothing the night before, you can get by easily if you are not overloaded with tackle and camera gear. As predicted the flight was 90 minutes and uneventful and we landed into a somewhat windy day blowing out of the east. There was all sorts of gloomy talk about the monsoon coming early because the Sooty terns had arrived at Goëlettes Island early but bottom line, the wind was the beginning of a front moving through which was going to impact four of our six days fishing. The guides were right, over half of the expected tern numbers seem to have arrived already, and as the week went on and we fished around the island, which was deafening at times, one could see a stream of birds arriving from the south.
A short 10-minute tractor ride and we were settling into our rooms. You may or may not be aware that Farquhar was hit by a 350 kph cyclone in April 2016. Consequently, the island’s accommodation was damaged beyond repair. New accommodation had to be built with the 2018 season being the launch of the new facilities. I thought they were very good; nice and spacious, good-sized bathrooms, an inside and outside shower, big open verandas, lots of cupboard and storage space etc. They needed extra hooks and proper drying lines inside and out, some nice pictures on the walls and two big dustbins full of water outside each of the three duplexes. One for washing boots and one for dumping rods and reels. This has to be the best and easiest way to wash gear quickly.
Each duplex has two rooms making a total of six rooms for ten rods thus affording the opportunity for two singles. The dining area was equally spacious with a large table in one part of the building, a sitting area and a nice big bar with great fridges. We ate breakfast inside, lunch on the water and dinner outside. It all worked very well except the lunches were poor. This could be so easily remedied with a ‘make your own’ buffet in the mornings. I was so impressed with the freshness of the ingredients but they were ruined by lunchtime. Dinners were always plentiful and good. They have wine and spirits for sale while soft drinks are on the house. I am pleased to say that they have aluminium water bottles to avoid plastic. While we are on that subject, if you ever have any doubt about the amount of plastic circulating the world’s oceans, walk the beaches of Farquhar or Astove or anywhere else similar. On occasion plastic was being washed in as we walked the reefs looking for trevally.
Finally, a shout out for the lodge staff who did a great job and were very helpful and friendly.
Having had a very thorough safety briefing from both the Island Manager and the Head Guide Matt, it was lunchtime. After lunch was the big tackle set-up session with the guides, often the moment of truth about whether, in the guides’ opinions, one has been sold the right gear. With Tom from Fin and Game with us we were prepared to give him some stick but sadly (or positively) we were presented with no ammunition! The ideal equipment is a 9 wt and a spare and a 12 wt and a spare plus great reels which can handle being dumped in saltwater. By way of explanation, you should have two rods with you at all times. If you see something, one gets thrown into the water and sits on the flat while the other is used. Tom at Fin and Game clearly knows the rest. We had elected to fish with different people each day. This caused some consternation among the guide team because it was complex for them and they worried that we would repeat guides and/or areas on occasion which did happen and probably did handicap some, but what we lost we gained in a great time amongst friends. The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing, testing out the tackle and fishing unguided close by. In my case I discovered that the reel seat on my 12 wt was rotating which made things pretty tricky. We looked at taking the rod apart but that was proving too difficult given the equipment we had to put it back together again. We ended up drilling through the reel seat into the carbon and putting a screw through. It was unorthodox but it worked and held firm during the week.
On our first day, the wind was harsh but there were areas we could escape it and the sun remained out for much of the day. By lunchtime we had bumped into bonefish, cast to two big permit, two GTs (one huge) as well as some triggers, catching one. As the weather deteriorated in the afternoon so did the fishing which slowed. Our last area was right in the wind along some reef flats facing east. Matt, our guide, was really hoping to find trevally but nothing until suddenly one magical all-revealing wave peeled back and there was a large school of big-eye trevally and six GTs all right in front of us. Sadly, they were as surprised as we were and spooked before we could get a line out. But there was success elsewhere in the team with two or three first GTs, two first Bumphead parrotfish and some nice bones. The weather was not ideal with the wind but I feel that the day was representative of Farquhar. It is not the easiest fishery, if you want easy, the plethora of Alphonse bones is the way to go but there is a wealth of species and if one works at it, success does come. There are and will always be red-letters days and Farquhar has its fair share (with some really big GTs) but I am a believer in judging places when the going gets tough – that was what we were enduring and yet there was much success to celebrate.
Day two brought almost no sun and more wind hence conditions grew tougher and in my boat’s case we resorted to fishing over coral heads otherwise known as bombie-bashing. This is not what one comes to the Seychelles for or is it? I have to admit that I really quite enjoy it because I love seeing and catching all the different species and their strength is simply awesome. My first proper take resulted in being broken on my 120 lb test leader. We then drifted into some superb habitat and I caught a fine African Marbled grouper. Our guide Jarod netted it while my boat partner Richard was battling with a Bohar snapper. With his snapper came another Marbled grouper trying to eat his snapper. I cast to it and hooked it. Then, while I was trying to land it, up came a huge Camouflaged grouper and grabbed my fish so I was pulling the head and it was pulling the tail and Jarod could not try and net them both as there was already a fish in the net. Richard could not help because he had his snapper on. This is often how this kind of fishing can be. As I have said, not what you come to do necessarily but great fun if conditions are against you. We ended our week with 26 species which I’ll list at the end of the blog. We finished our day on the flats hunting bumpies and GTs but the light was poor so we ended back over the coral and landed a really nice big Marbled grouper. Again, that evening amongst the team, there was success, some more GTs, bumpies etc.
The weather was yet worse on day three and for my boat it was back to the bombie-bashing for the first part of the day. However, it was a great example of not pre-judging the day and allowing it to flow and develop. We had fun over the coral but then the tide allowed us to get into an area we hoped to find some Napoleon wrasse. Our first drift produced nothing so we anchored up and had some lunch. Pete saw a GT coming up on to the flats and heading our way. David was our man selected to make a cast which he did with perfection. It was as text-book GT flats fishing as I have seen. Spot the fish coming on to the flats, prepare, make the cast, strip, strip and crunch and David was into a big fish either side of a metre. It headed off from whence it came and David began to stick it to him. It was a pleasure to watch until the line broke. There was talk of ‘did he pull too hard?’ but I believe the conclusion was simply bad luck. David was gutted, we all were.
But the day did not end there. We spent two hours over low tide looking for Napoleons with little success, some other species but no Napoleons. Then the tide began to move and we positioned ourselves to take advantage by going to the closest point to the reef breakers and drifting with tide and wind into the lagoon. We began to see GTs but few in range. I could not help but work some of the coral heads as we drifted by even though we had just had to do a re-rig for David who was spanked by another Bohar. A giant fish appeared from nowhere and took my fly, we were not 100% but it was likely a Napoleon. I laid in to the fish and pointed the rod to use the strength of the leader to try and stop it disappearing into its lair but the join between fly-line and leader snapped like floss. That chance for a big Napoleon had come and gone in a flash. We went back up the flat to take another run with tide and wind after my re-rig. Pete told us to cast to whatever we thought was a fish which, under the poor light conditions, was great advice. Casts were flying everywhere and as we were coming to the end of our drift I made a cast to what I thought must be fish. Chaos broke out. A nice GT took my fly and there were GTs zooming in every direction. David came close to a second hook-up. Soon we needed to focus on my fish which was making its way through the channels between the shallower turtle grass and coral head flats. We were getting left behind. We arrived at a bigger clear expanse and our GT had turned and was headed back against the tide to the reef. There were Napoleons whizzing in every direction and David had an opportunistic crack at them as we passed through and pursued my fish. It was not a giant at about 85 cm but the power was impressive. We reached a cul de sac and it was now a case of having to stop the fish because if he made it over the flats then we could not pursue it. Twenty minutes in and we finally turned the fish and soon it was brought to hand. They are truly magnificent predators.
Our hearts were sinking as we headed to bed. We were now at near cyclone in terms of classification of wind speeds and it was pouring with rain. Our gear had to be taken inside and rods were stowed in the showers. The weather in the morning had good and bad news. It was not raining as predicted but the wind was howling. There were only a few places we could get to. We headed west to try and get in the lee of the main island but as we made our way the wind came around and so the island, as we had planned it, offered little shelter. It was pretty dodgy to be out in the lagoon in such weather. I admit, I was nervous, we were three big lads in a small boat and in seas like that weight makes a big difference. Our guide Nic did a great job and that is what training and licencing is for. I suggested we go further and go around the end of the island. We moored the boat and began to walk. We could at least see because of the shelter and, to our surprise, the sun came out and the sky began to clear. I walked and walked and the further I went, the more promising it looked. I found myself close to the reef near a nice channel coming in off the surf. It had to be a good GT spot. I decided to stay there a while, after all it was my best hope given the weather. At least the sun was out and I could see. I started to make a few blind casts having seen a bluefin come out of nowhere. I cast and then spotted a big GT. I made the decision to leave the fly where it was and gamble that the fish would come on a little and then I would strip. I made my first strip and I could see the fish brace itself for attack. My heart was in my mouth, finally a big Geet that seemed ready to eat and Whoooomf! Did it attack! Now I was standing there with line peeling off my reel and nobody was in earshot and barely in sight. I waved and shouted as the line continued to lighten my reel. I saw the mighty fish splash in the surf, surely this was going to be another disaster story. Now I could see Dom and Nic coming in the boat but what were they doing? They pulled up about three hundred metres away. Now I really began to wave and shout obscenities and finally they seemed to realise and back in the boat they got and headed my way not a moment too soon. They later explained that they were just going to enjoy watching until they realised I was gesticulating! The reel was still going and was looking decidedly thin on backing. Now we were able to chase, now there was a chance. We had to get as close as we dared to the surf to try and retrieve the fish and we tried to get as directly in line with it to minimise any curves that might get in the coral. Slowly, we got the fish closer and closer and finally Dom was able to slip the net under it. As is so often the case with a big fish, we thought it was huge but in reality it was 104 cm. A magnificent fish but not a giant.
My day went on with a trigger and a bone for Grand Slam! Crazy for what was predicted to be the worst day of weather. Back at base, the trend continued despite the tough conditions, another Grand Slam, this time a bumpie, a bone and a GT. A double of bumpies and so on. As a team we were quietly doing remarkably well considering the conditions.
The forecast had told us that day five was due to be terrible winds and rain but the weather was now the best we had seen it. Dare we hope that the front had passed through already? The morning gave us the answer, gentle breezes and an almost clear sky, off we set with great hopes. It was my turn to fish with the bad boy or maybe I should say baddest boy of the group. Gilan the good-time guy! Off we set with G & Ts at the ready, music blaring and his ‘porn star’ shades scouring the flats. We fished a rocky island where I had a trigger and Gilan had some nice groupers. We both had a very close encounter with a “we’re going to need a bigger boat” sized GT. It came within a whisker of taking both our flies but refused.
We moved on to the next island. I was to walk up one side and Gilan and guide Nic the other. They were tackle tinkering as I set off. I saw another huge GT on their side and gave them the heads up. The GT cruised past, turned and tucked itself over some darker turtle grass. All this information was shouted back at the boys. I kept goading them to hurry. They started to walk up towards me and the GT turned and just cruised right into their line of fire. All Gilan had to do was not mess up a twelve-yard cast. He made the cast, the GT missed it the first time and turned and had it the second time. Some major athletic line sorting over the ragged rocks by Nic, and Gilan was into a big fish. Nic went to get the boat while we stood there watching line systematically peeling from the giant Tibor reel for what seemed like an eternity.
Once we were in the boat we were able to give chase and the fight seemed almost like a repeat of my battle with the exception that the fish was another 10 cm at 114 cm! The party well and truly started. We took lots of photos and then went after bumpies and GTs etc. I lost a bone for a second slam in as many days. We had had a great day.
Day six was another day of decent weather and consequently more success for the team. We ended the week with 26 giant trevally, 7 bumphead parrotfish, four triggers and plenty of bones and other species for a total of 26 species. Given the weather and our lack of experience we had done superbly well. There were something like 5 first GTs, 4 first bumpies, even some first bones. Of course, the most important part was a great time had been had by all.
If I was to sum up Farquhar, it is not for non-fishers but the accommodation (especially with a few minor changes) is perfect for fishers. You are not going to catch tons of any species but you are going to get to have a crack at tons of species especially if you are prepared to go with the flow of what the opportunities are at that time. My advice is accept the guide’s advice, they will get you on what you are interested in if they can, but if that option is not on, go and have some fun doing something else and see what happens, don’t try and force it. In hindsight, given the weather, such an approach was probably the key to our success. The guides did a great job. I have not mentioned Erich in these despatches, he was the fourth member of the guide team! A huge thanks to all the team for a great week.
White blotched grouper
African marbled grouper
Humpback red snapper
Black trumpeter wrasse
Picasso trigger fish
Moustache trigger fish
Various (in error)