Let’s get some details straight before we start this adventure. We were a party of three, all paying our way. This was a business trip for me but there was no obligation to be complimentary and, to be honest, if somewhere I visit is poor, I simply do not write about it. Our first team member was Dom Quinlan, a Frontiers guest fishing the salt for the third time. His previous two visits have been Los Roques and Alphonse Island where he sadly suffered rare poor weather so did not get a full six days on the flats. Next my son Hamish, aged 23, who has done some salmon fishing with me but this was his first time fishing a single-handed rod other than very short line fishing in Iceland and certainly his first time in the salt. Before departure he announced that his two target species were bones (should be easy) and a barracuda. Not a species known to be in huge supply on Providence! We saw three for the entire week. Lastly, myself, I have been about a bit but I certainly do not fish the serious bumpy, GT hard core salt every year. I wish I did. In summary, we were not the world’s most experienced team which is important to know. On Providence, unless you pay a supplement, you fish in teams of three.
Our journey was London/Dubai/Mahe with that middle of the night stop to change planes in Dubai. It sounds worse than it is. We arrived early morning and had the VIP meet and greet service which is worth having if you are not travelling in the front of the plane. From there we transferred to the Eden Bleu Hotel which is absolutely fine for a one or two-night stay. First tip of this blog, if arriving early on the Emirates flight, spend the extra money to ensure your room is available upon arrival. We were tired when we arrived but they could not give us our rooms so we ended up sleeping on lobby furniture from about 0730 to past midday. Lunch was simple but OK. I did look at other hotels which range from €2,000 a night to €100 a night. I felt the Eden Bleu was the perfect option being comfortable, having a pool and close to the airport. There is a spa, which is not part of the hotel but close by, and we had a great dinner at Bravo which is no distance to walk and had a good, varied menu from lobster and fresh fish to meats and pizzas.
In the morning we were up early as we had firm instructions to be at the IDC (Island Development Company) Terminal no later than 0800. Dom and Hamish used just over half their 20kg allowance because you really only need three outfits, two fishing and one for the evening and that is it. The rest of the weight can be used for tackle. I used up their allowance with my cameras etc. You do need to ensure you are not overweight. They do actually weigh you and your bags. IDC have a monopoly on all flights to the outer islands but do a pretty good job with nice aircraft. We had to hang around a while but soon we were off on the 1hr 45 min journey to Farquhar in a Beechcraft 1900 (450 miles south of Mahe) where we were to meet the Maya Dugong or MV Dugong, a research vessel which was to be our home for the week.
During our brief transfer on Farquhar we got to gasp at the devastation of the 350 km cyclone which flattened almost every tree and building on the island. Some of the guides were on island for the storm, hunkered into a tiny concrete building for 24 hours. On a more positive note, we saw the new buildings which look good and it will not be long now until Farquhar is up and running as a land-based operation again. We also met the school of very large pet giant trevallies (GTs) as we were boated from the island to the Dugong. Soon we were headed north to Providence Atoll, 380 miles south-south-west of Mahe.
Unless a very luxurious set up, live aboard fishing is not top of everyone’s list so arriving on the boat was a big deal. However, live aboards can be very good value. We fished until dusk and the guides were very generous with their time. We had requested to be three in a cabin as it was more fun and they obliged. There is no doubt it was small for three people but it would usually be for two. All rooms have en-suite bathrooms. By the time we had sorted ourselves out, put away all the stuff we were clearly never going to need and got our tackle to where it was going to live all week, the room got bigger and more manageable.
All rooms had air-conditioning as did the dining room which made the boat perfectly civilised. The hot water was reliable, it got a little thin if you were the very last to shower but to be honest, it did not matter. The Upper deck, where the majority of the socialising took place, always had a breeze so that worked well too. Soft drinks were free, beer, wine and spirits were charged on a tab basis. The dining/sitting area was spacious and comfortable and often a good place for a bit of peace and quiet. The lower deck, where our tackle was stored, boots kept, waterproof jackets hung etc, could not have been better for purpose and the facilities for washing all your gear with fresh water at the end of each day (strongly recommended) was superb. I basically rotated two core outfits of shirt, shorts, leggings and socks and washed them each day. I mostly washed them myself after fishing but the boat offered a superb, free laundry service each day and you got your stuff back each evening. I re-used my waterproof coat and bags (both essential – coat for spray and bags for tackle and cameras) but washed them in fresh water every evening. Even the very back of the Dugong, the platform right at the stern, was ideal for fishing in the mornings, evenings and at night and plenty of fish were caught from a 12-ft Bull shark to GTs etc. I did not fish much but one evening I had two superb big-eye jacks that fought like hell!
Once settled in, we had lunch, an excellent and important safety briefing and then spent the next few hours (the journey to Providence was about 5 hours) tackling up and trolling off the back of the boat catching tuna, wahoo, job fish etc. The staff/crew on the Dugong were as nice and helpful as they could possibly be. I only have good things to say about all of them. The food was fine but could have been better. Simple things like eggs to order (instead of piled into a dish), searing the wonderful fresh fish we caught and serving it with lemon instead of over-cooking it creole style, maybe a toaster if it was possible, even a grill but I do not know if grills and boats go together. I am told I am fussy but that was my view!
Tackling up was interesting. Some key points here. Although the pre-trip says #9s the preferred rods standing in front of the guides are a #10 and a #12, or even two 10s and 12 and I would agree with that choice. One #10 for milks, one for bumpies/bones/permit and triggers, the same fly seems to be fine for all of them basically, and finally the GT #12 for trevally and grouper. They recommend the Airflo Super Dri lines, our Rio saltwater lines became sticky and soft and were stripped easily and had to be thrown away. They do have rods for rent on board at $150 per outfit. Do not underestimate even the 15-inch grouper, they pull like all hell and if you do not hang on or even walk backwards, they will be in the coral and then you have a problem. The next key comment was to put away any fly, except GT flies, without a weed guard. That was sound advice but it probably needs to be that blunt in the pre-trip, currently not mentioned. Providence does have lots and lots of turtle grass and even with weed guards, the grass is an issue and caused following fish not to take multiple times. Leaders, we used 130lbs for the #12 and 23lbs for the #10. The guides were keen to make up all the leaders themselves and they stripped all the line off every reel to check the joint between backing and flyline.
They doubled the loop to loop, going round twice instead of once. All credit to Tom at Fin and Game, none of his knot work was redone! You are given a list of flies to bring and most are available from Fin and Game but they also strongly recommend buying a set from them for $237 a set and they do have more flies on the Dugong. Lastly, reels, I asked which reels they favoured and I was told NOT Hatch or Nautilus and the reason they gave was that they are not 100% sealed and therefore, as the week goes on, because they are in the water a lot (which they undoubtedly are) they start to yield line sporadically, sometimes too quickly, other times reluctantly and therefore you get an inconsistent drag. My heart sank, I had just invested in an 11 Hatch but I have to say, it performed superbly all week. They favour the Wade reels, which they have designed and sell and there are some key design features which do make a lot of sense, and the Charlton. We used Hatch, Einarsson, Tibor and Hardy reels and they all spent a lot of time under the water and all performed well.
We began the week with neap tides moving to springs mid-week. The Dugong anchored near Providence Island which is the furthest away point from Farquhar. It is a 3km island at the north end of the 50 km atoll. At the other end of the atoll is Cerf Island which marks the southern-most point of the atoll. There is no land in between only flats. Around Providence is where the best bonefishing is and with the neap tides and Hamish’s inexperience, bones seemed the place to start. Breakfast is at 0730 and we leave the boat with our guide around 0830. Once away from the Dugong, the guides give a full safety briefing covering how the engine, radio and sat phone works and what to do first and as a back-up in case of an emergency. Finally they explain the plan for the day and of course you are welcome to adjust it. Our guide was Matthieu Cosson whom I knew from our days on Desroches. He is a top man and guide and was perfect to get Hamish started. We also had Jerry with us, a Seychellois guide also from Desroches. He was in training getting to know Providence. We headed to the bonefish flats where on arrival it began to pour with rain. Despite this the fish were remarkably easy to see and the bones are a really good size. Mine averaged about 24 to 26 inches which is 6 to 7lbs and Hamish caught his first couple of bones too.
As we moved across the flats Mattie was surprised to see Bumphead Parrotfish (or ‘Bumpies’) on the flat as they are not usually in this area. Dom hooked up but got broken on the coral and while I was photographing that, Hamish and Matthieu hooked another one and had a hell of a battle, having to swim to stay with it across some of the channels. It was pretty amusing to see Hamish into a massively strong bumpy swimming to stay with it only three hours into his first flats experience. To their credit they got it, what an achievement!
Things were quiet at high tide so that was the time to break for lunch. Dom was growing a little frustrated having lost his bumpy and then a really good GT which would have been his first. You do need to have your other rod strapped to you (under your backpack or fanny pack strap and into your pocket) at all times. Due to messing about with cameras I was caught without a rod or with the wrong rod on numerous occasions when great opportunities came my way. We fished the dropping tide in the afternoon and caught three nice GTs and had more shots at bumpies, permit and more GTs. The key to the bumpies is that they generally spook if you cast across them so you need to get in front of where they are going (easier said than done as they change direction all the time) so your fly is the first piece of tackle they come across. If you achieve that, you have a very good chance and they will hoover up your fly and you will simply feel a slow pull as the school of fish carry on feeding. When you hook-up, all hell breaks loose and the entire school make for the deep water and this is when you have to stay with them. The best place to hook a bumpy is well on to the flats so you have a chance to stop it before it leaves the flat and gets amongst the coral. What a great day, Hamish’s first bone and bumpy and Dom’s first GT.
Justin Rollinson was our guide on Day Two along with Pete, another lovely Seychellois guide in Providence training. It was a tougher day with good light through most of the day but though we saw a lot, the fish were in a mood and time after time would not play ball. It was the day the tide doubles so the difference in high tides is not 50 minutes but 100 minutes. The guides wondered if that was an issue. We did pick up a GT or two and it was my turn to get frustrated with the Bumpies but as can happen, on my worst cast of the day I got lucky and got a good fish well up on the flats. Dom lost a second Bumpie but Hamish got a nice Bohar snapper.
Day Three with the legendary Tim Babich and Jerry was sadly poor weather with rain and cloud all day. But we did OK with some triggers, good bones and some GTs in the morning. Then things got tougher with high tide and we had a tough afternoon though we did see fish.
Thankfully the weather settled down on Day Four with Wesley De Klerk. The Dugong had moved south, closer to Cerf and we were headed further south again when we spotted a good school of milkfish feeding nicely. I hooked up quickly but someone’s knot broke.
Dom hooked up and it fell off. Dom hooked up again and it fell off again, then I finally hooked up properly and endured a classic 50-minute battle before landing about a 28lbs fish. We got back at them and soon Dom was in but the fish was not strong and he had it in in 10 minutes. We got in them again, even better this time, but they simply would not take Hamish’s fly. We finally gave up and moved on.
Once nearing the flats we found a good school of Bumpies and Dom had the perfect approach and hooked one. This was for third time lucky having been busted on the coral twice and he got it.
Now the attention turned to Hamish and a GT which was becoming a little bit of a bogey for him. He and Wes spotted some fish and walked forward leaving Dom and I in the boat. We spotted a nice fish for which I jumped in and ran after as it was headed off the flat. I made the longest, most speculative, cast of the week into the dark water just off the flat and began stripping. I hoped there was a chance the GT might see it and he did and came after me. A great fight and we landed him. While playing the fish we saw Hamish hook up in the distance in the classic cast, strip, the water boils, the rod goes tight and straight and the angler tightens. He was in and then suddenly the fish was off again. This time it was not Hamish’s inexperience. We took some shots of my fish and soon Wes saw some more GTs coming our way. Hamish and Dom were up. Dom lost it with his casting which gave Hamish another great opportunity. He laid it out there, strip, attack, strip-strike and he was in proper again and this time the fish stayed on. It was wonderful to see it all in front of me, a proud Dad!
We continued to hunt GTs and bumpies but the day faded rather and we started to head home. The wind was up but Wes spotted some more milks and Hamish was given the opportunity. He did not miss this time and looked like a pro landing a really good 30lbs fish. What a day, first GT and milk for Hamish, first proper bumpy and milk for Dom, a GT and milk for me!
We were back with Mattie on Day Five and decided to have a species day. Mattie had a clear plan and it was all going very well until a major squall got up and stayed with us pretty much for the rest of the day. Fishing for the groupers and snappers is really good fun and as I have said, do not underestimate these fish, they are immensely strong and very beautiful when you do land them. We had a great morning, it was a pity the weather collapsed on us. This was however the day Hamish’s casting evolved into proper double-hauling and he was visibly enjoying his fishing more with new-found ability and confidence. He was rewarded with a nice GT caught all on his own in the pouring rain. I got lucky and had a big milkie on the way home. Finally the sun came out and the fish jumped over fifteen times in the sunlight, it was spectacular, especially drifting past the Dugong with the jeering, jealous crowd watching!
Our last day was with Justin and Pete again. We were headed to the very southern tip of the atoll known as the Badlands. There are beautiful flats there but riddled with ‘bommies’ or coral heads making landing the big fish that hang out there very difficult. The good news is there are some big groupers, wrasse and snappers here as well as proper GTs. It was deep wading but very attractive fishing.
It took a while to navigate through the coral-laiden areas to where we wanted to be which was near where the breakers were crashing but once there, we started to see huge Napolean wrasse and trevally immediately. I got lucky with a couple of nice GTs and a Bluefin trevally and some groupers. Dom got a nice GT, and then broke the magic 100 cm mark for a GT so huge congratulations to him. Hamish was struggling. Fish following etc but no clean takes and hook-ups. We even teased some monsters in but they just did not hit his fly for some reason.
Soon the prime tide conditions were over so we retreated to a sandy peninsula hoping some GTs would come by. Hamish and Justin went out deeper on to the flat. Dom noticed they were into something in the distance. To everyone’s disbelief Hamish was into a good barracuda. If he landed it, he had achieved his rather crazy objective. Land it he did and that completed quite a full house of species. For his first ever six days on the flats he had achieved a bone, a bumpy, a milkfish, a GT, a trigger and a barracuda as well as Bohar snapper etc. Dom was not far off but missing the trigger and barracuda and I was missing the barracuda. Such an achievement is a real credit to the guides.
Our team of three caught the following species:
Triggerfish (2) (Yellow Margin and Moustache – others caught the Giant.
Giant trevally (14)
Bluefin trevally (6)
Big-eye trevally (2)
Bumphead parrotfish (3)
African Marbled grouper
Blue spangled emperor
White blotched grouper
Green Job fish
Most other teams did better than us through greater experience and this was the total for the week:
16 Bumphead parrotfish
various other trevally, groupers, snappers, job fish, sharks and wrasse
This is a true adventure. There is no getting around that you are in the middle of nowhere and should you fall ill, it is five hours (back to Farquhar) to the nearest possible source of help. I guess a medic could fly out in the plane that picks you up but if not, you are another two hours from real help. Providence is a truly wild place with very little evidence of man. There is even very little sea debris washed up. From the time we left Farquhar to our return I guess I spent about 20 minutes on land and that was a brief GT steak out on a beach. All the other fishing was from a boat or wading. You are going to get wet. Wet in the boat moving around the atoll, wet wading and wet wading deep or even swimming channels or deep bits on the flats to get from one place to another or chasing fish. You do need to abide by the safety advice you are given but the attitude and awareness of safety is very good. I did not witness any casual attitude to safety. If you do not mind a smallish bedroom, likely shared, are OK on the sea, do not mind missing the finest food for a week and want to have an adventure, this is a great trip for you. If you want the home comforts, need internet (I rented a Sat phone I used ten minutes a day) or do not have sea legs, this may not be your scene. For me, I found it uplifting to experience such a wild place.
Having said all that, one of our party, a wonderful guy from the US, was paralysed seven years ago. He has recovered enough to be out with us and on the flats doing his thing. He was fragile but he did superbly well and caught lots of great fish and the crew and guides looked after him superbly. While on the subject of other guests, we had a great team with us. We were three Brits, then there were three Americans and six South Africans, not a bad egg amongst them. Thank you guys. If you ever read this, it was a pleasure being with you.
If I am honest, I thought we would catch more fish and they would be easier to catch but we had plenty of chances and we did sit back and chill allowing one or other of us to focus on a species without pressure. It also needs saying that these fish need some catching. This is not a 20 or 30 fish a day fishery and never was. You do not just chuck your fly in and something grabs it. We also had three pretty tough weather days from six. Actually our results were pretty good for the weather we had. The guides said that they expect to catch between 80 and 120 GTs in a week and the weather took us to the low end of that expectation plus some inexperience on our and others part. Being three to a guide was fine but it did mean two of you were doing nothing while one was focused on milks or whatever. That is double the time-wasting. Of course, when on the flats we were all fishing and spread out but when after milks or GTs in deeper water we elected to put one person up (other boats did two) to give them the space to cast. We were very lucky to have an extra guide for four of the six days and this was a huge help to Hamish. Pete and Jerry were particularly kind and helpful to him.
The guides were true professionals. They knew their subject, had superb eyes and were always focused on your doing well. I know of no other guide who swims for his guest’s fish, or dives down into the coral to pull a fish out of its hole or dives down to retrieve a fish that has rolled over and not recovered properly. Their focus on your succeeding was sometimes to a fault as they could get frustrated with our lack of performance. I do not think there are enough very good fishermen out there to provide them with a season of good anglers so they are going to come across the less-skilled angler and they need to control their emotions when another GT or milkfish opportunity goes amiss. Their job is to provide those opportunities, if we mess them up, that is not their fault. Along with their colleagues we are experienced enough to know that the results of the day are more likely related to our ability than their skills. As all guides should, they need to remember that people are on holiday. Yes, they want to catch fish but they want to relax and have fun too.
I do believe that it is incumbent upon us to try and arrive prepared. A basic ability to double haul helps immeasurably especially with a 10 or #12 with bigger, heavier flies which we are not used to. Practice strip-striking, strip a fly into the ground or grass or a fence post and practice the correct strike avoiding lifting the rod. This is the key to success with almost all these saltwater species. Ensure we have the right gear, it is a long way to travel and a lot of money spent to turn up with the wrong gear. If we are going to do these things, let’s prepare and equip properly giving the quarry and the guides the respect they deserve. This type of fishing is also pretty physical. As mentioned in the safety briefing hydration is vital. You walk a long way and are in the sun all day with no access to shade at all. When you hook some of these fish, you have to be tough and strong and it often pays to walk backwards to ensure you hook the fish or stop it going into the coral. Then of course you can have some pretty serious battles for up to or over an hour. There is also the casting of bigger rods and bigger or heavier flies. Finally, there are times when you have to run across the flats to get into position for your shot, particularly GTs.
Lastly, but by no means least, one of the greatest pleasures to a trip like this is simply enjoying the marine life that is all around you. Masses of turtles, fish eating each other everywhere. It is like a marine park and that is a very special experience too and should not be missed.
Would I go back? Certainly. Would Dom? For sure. Providence must be amongst the very best places to catch big GTs. It is an incredible place to fish. Finally, would Hamish, perhaps the most improved fisherman of the week but nevertheless the novice? Even more so now that he knows what to do. I know that feeling, you have had a taste, feel you can now do better. It makes you hunger to return to right some of those silly errors that haunt you.
A big thank you to all the crew of the Dugong and the Flycastaway guides.
Nappy rash cream for anti-chafing – you may not use it but BRING IT
# 12 for GTs plus backup
# 10 for bones, milks, bumpies and triggers
# 10 as a second rod for the above or spare, a # 9 would do if you have a # 9 and do not want to buy another # 10
Suitable reels with Gel Spun backing
130 Suffix Shock tippet
23lbs or 25lbs Seaguar Flurocarbon
Selection of flies…
Best GT flies was Black Poodle and GT Brush in Black or Dark Green
Best bumpies/bone/trigger flies for us were Velco Crab and Avalon Crab
Best milkfish fly was Milky Dream
2 UV Proof Flats Shirts – Patagonia. Simms or Columbia
2 pairs of Lycra cooling shorts or tights based on preference
2 Pairs of UV Proof shorts
At least 2 buffs but more is better as the hot weather ones do fall apart plus useful to have one pulled up and the other around your neck
2 pairs of Sungloves
1 fish holding glove
1 rain jacket
1 pair of flats wading boots
2 pairs of wading socks
1 pair of Gravel guards
2 pairs of Polarized sunglasses
Sunscreen – at least SPF 30+
2 Hats or caps
Waterproof backpack or bag or both
Soft towel or tissue for glasses and lenses
Pliers for unhooking fish, tying knots and squishing barbs
Clippers on lanyard
Clothes for evening
Washbag to include shampoo and shower gel
Cash to pay for drinks and flies – lower denominations
Camera preferably with water protection
Cash for tips $500 for the guides and $150 for boat crew