Milkfish Mayhem

Our day started with bones inside St Francois…

“It’s gone,” Toby said with a melancholy look on his face. We had been well and truly defeated. “Did we make the wrong call on which way to go around the coral head?” I asked. The answer was there in the expression on his face. Toby had just hooked and, thirty minutes later, lost his first milkfish. Veteran guide Wayne had repeatedly warned us that “these fish play dirty” and that is exactly what had happened. We had already navigated one major coral drama and survived it. Then we were towed around the lagoon back to the school of fish and, truth be known, had probably relaxed at the wrong time. The fish turned away from the main threat but wrapped us round a deeper single coral head no bigger than a folded garden umbrella. We were napping enough not to be sufficiently alert to know which way the fish went around the head and we chose the wrong way. Sean dived in with vain hope but the fish was indeed gone.

Alphonse remains as good as any saltwater lodge out there or better…

Despite their rather tame name, milkfish are a highly respected adversary among fly fishers. Battles which have gone on for three hours or more have ended in defeat. Rods are broken regularly, leaders snapped like cotton leaving anglers bereft. Hooking a milkfish is only 25% of the process. Once hooked, guide and angler need to communicate and work together constantly to navigate holding on to the fish. At first long runs have to be handled as the fish stays with its school which has spooked, then, as it breaks away, every feature on the bottom is a potential hazard and needs to pre-empted and negotiated. Then the final battle of wills begins and this is when rods get broken as, in their desperate efforts to secure the mighty fish, anglers pull that little bit harder. They say that one needs to pull as hard as the tackle allows all the time and if you don’t, the pain and anxiety just goes on longer. Battles of over an hour are commonplace but success rates less than 50%.

The fish were feeding like trout. They would come up on the finger, or pancake, flats facing into the tidal current with mouths open supping in algae and plankton which had been building over recent days. Once they had reached the tidal side of the flat they would drop back and swing round to the other side and begin the process again.  Milkfish or Chanos chanos are sole living species in the Chanidae family. It is one of the most highly developed species of fish that swim. Their range goes from the east coast of Africa through India and south-east Asia, where they are farmed for food, through to Indonesia and the Pacific Islands. They are perfectly developed to do what they do with massive caudal fins, a highly streamlined, hard-scaled torso with secondary fins next to the main fins which fill in the tiniest of imperfections in the otherwise perfect streamlined form. Their giant eyes can see the smallest organisms and have a very thick rubbery protective covering. The mouth opens wide like a whale shark to maximise intake of zooplankton and algae.

The head and eye of a milk..

The milkfish now sits amongst the most revered fish that can be caught on a fly rod. They do not produce lactic acid when hooked which means they do not tire as easily as other fish. They also have a fused gill which goes around two thirds of the torso. This large rubbery structure allows the milkfish to pump vast amounts of water processing plentiful oxygen thus tiring less. Though some shrimps have been found in their stomachs they are predominantly algae and plankton feeders therefore very difficult to catch with traditional saltwater patterns. They come on the Alphonse flats in numbers and it is possible to catch them, sometimes with small Charlie-type patterns but more often with algae patterns with a tiny tungsten bead to get it down on the bottom in the milkfish’s path. These fish are hoovers, so do not expect them to turn or follow a fly. I have seen it once or twice but those were blue moon days. The best way to catch them is when they are surface feeding on algae bloom or plankton. The flies have a tiny blue sparkle in them and rightly so when in a plankton situation because you can see the natural blue sparkle in the water. In this instance the angler needs to get the fly in the path of the group of fish and hope that the fly will be sucked in by one of them. The key is to keep the line tight to avoid sinking but not strip and stay in maximum contact for when the take comes. A sinking fly is far less effective than one staying hanging in the top foot of the water column.

Arriving at flats lunch…

We were on St François Atoll, the main fishing area for the Alphonse group of islands which includes Alphonse Island, Bijoutier and St François – it is where the milkfish story began and remains the best place in the world to catch them. Alphonse is the nerve centre of the company which has wisely re-branded itself from Alphonse Island Fishing Co to Blue Safari. It now operates the majority of fishing lagoons in the Seychelles including Alphonse, Desroches, Poivre, Cosmoledo, Astove and Farquhar. The Blue Safari brand includes all manner of water activities including diving, free diving and variants of same such as diving with manta rays and sailfish etc. Their portfolio of dive sites is world class with their atolls akin to marine parks they are so full of life.

As outlined in a previous blog, Alphonse comes of age, it is no longer just a fishing destination. It caters for and looks after non-fishers and divers admirably to a very high standard. This is no longer a small, amateur outfit. Blue Safari now has over 150 staff including 32 guides or captains, 18 conservation/dive guides/instructors and operates 42 boats. The latest addition to the portfolio is two super-villas on Alphonse which, combined with world-class fishing and diving must be one the best private accommodation options out there. More on that another time. Both the fishing and the diving is world class and their branding is timely given the way the world is waking up to the value and vulnerability of the oceans.

It was my turn to go for a fish. We had yielded our spot to Barrie who was broken three times and had three others come off before success. We needed to find more feeding fish elsewhere. We worked a big group that were doing exactly as Toby’s fish had been doing, feeding their way up the current on the small flat and then circling back. We had multiple superb shots getting the fly right in amongst them but no takes and each time the group would melt away to reappear somewhere else. Wayne Haselau was our extra guest-guide today with Sean Wampach, partly because we are friends and partly in his guide training capacity. We had never caught a milkfish together and were keen to set that straight. It is fair to say that Wayne can be considered a part of the aristocracy of South African Seychelles guides. He was one of the first to guide Alphonse under the US-Fly flag which began in 2000. He is part of the first generation of a stable of guides that has been coming out of South Africa ever since. The pioneers were Wayne with his friend and co-conspirator on cracking the milkfish code, Arno Matthee and Vaughn Driesel in the Seychelles, Keith Rose-Innes who came to work with me on the Ponoi in 2001 and is now the MD of Blue Safari. Derek Manson who joined the Nick Zoll team at Bella Vista on the Gallegos and later came to me on the Ponoi and Mark Taylor who also went to Bella Vista before guiding in Norway and marrying and living there and running Osen Gard. These last three form a web of running fly fishing lodges as well as Shilton reels and Flyz Inc.

First in a series of five videos interviewing one of the pioneers of milkfish Wayne Haselau… to watch the other four click here

Generation Two were the likes of Van Der Merwe (now General Manager Alphonse Fishing Co), Babich, Boyers, Mayo and Lucas. Gen Three might argue they were even better! The likes of Topham, de Bruyn, Marshall, Musgrave, Pretorius, Reid, Simpson, Webb and Christmas are all names that would put fear into any fish in the Seychelles. These guys are slowly getting married and either bringing their partners into the industry or moving on, making way for the next generation which might be led by a Zimbabwean, Ashby, only time will tell. I will let these guys fight it out on which generation was the most talented but as an onlooker with perspective on many levels, all of them deserve recognition. More than any nationality these guides have taken saltwater fly fishing to a new level and made things possible that were thought not. Between them they have brought us the ability to catch milkfish, triggerfish, Indo-Pacific permit and multiple other species including the Giant trevally which was hitherto an occasional lucky catch at Christmas Island.

They have brought us the NYAP popper, the Flexo-crab and Sand prawn, all patterns we take for granted today. It does not stop there. Guiding in these atolls is probably the toughest guiding job there is out there and requires skill and an acute understanding of the tides and habitat these fish frequent. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, it requires a superb attitude to safety and aptitude for skippering boats not only in coral infested lagoons but on the blue as well and Seychelles waters can be as dangerous as anywhere. They have gone about their business with unwavering enthusiasm and skill despite being poorly equipped at times. As one said to me, he would meet the generation above in a tackle shop in South Africa and call them Sir and pray that one day they had the chance to follow in their footsteps. These are not the only guide legends of the Seychelles. Serge Samson from the Seychelles, Yousef Shaek from Bangladesh and Matt Solon, or ‘Irish’ as he is known, all match their South African colleagues and have put in many years and still do.

It was Wayne who hooked and landed the first ever milkfish with a guest at Alphonse. He and Arno Matthee developed flies now called the Milk Magic and Milky Dream and their variants. I now found myself standing waist deep in water with him focused on a new group of milkfish hoovering their way up the tidal current on a 25-metre flat before circling back. This was a group of large fish and Wayne wanted me to basically nymph them. The fly had a tiny bit of sheep’s wool in it to aid buoyancy and I was to send it ‘upstream’ give it a pull to get it below the surface and then manage my line to stay in touch but create no drag. We could not believe we were getting no takes but I felt I was not going long enough, the wind was tricky. I upped my game and went longer so that the fly would drop right into the zone where the fish were beginning their cycle working their way up the current. Finally the line tightened and I was into a fish. One giant fish seemed to be holding in the current, it was so big Wayne and I found it hard to believe that of all the fish rotating through their feeding cycle, we had hooked the giant, rarely the case but it seemed that way. Sean and Toby came forward with the boat as we ran back to them bracing ourselves for what was about to happen. We were in a vulnerable position. It was a huge fish and off the flat was a sandy  enclosed by coral heads and we knew we could be broken easily – there was little we could do but get as close to the fish as possible with the rod as high as possible.

Someone has to hold the rods when the fish is being photographed!

Thankfully, it seems like the fish did not really know it was hooked. As we approached it was nonchalant and just casually followed its school which drifted off the flat, over the coral heads and into the deep of the lagoon. We followed with great sighs of relief but it was not long until the fish picked up the pace and we were well into the backing. It was still following its school. Our next obstacles were more mini-flats and coral heads which we negotiated by placing the boat where we did not want the fish to go. It was necessary to head it off from time to time which meant some feisty acceleration and speedy winding. Twenty minutes passed in a flash and we could not believe we had survived and were still attached to this mighty fish. It was beginning to settle into a pattern. Thankfully it stayed on the surface pulling us across the lagoon with a fly-line and about 30-yards of backing out. Whenever it was headed in the wrong direction we used the boat to steer it to safety. It was now becoming conceivable that we could take the fish all the way across the lagoon to the sandy flat on the other side. What was required was patience and perseverance.

The flank of a bluefin trevally…

On the hour mark fish and boat had made it all the way across the lagoon. The big question now was would it go on to the flat or turn. We really felt no more in control than when we first hooked it. There was no sign of weakening, no rolling or anything, the fish just kept going and we followed. We hoped it would go on to the flat, it removed the depth dimension option for the fish and the threat of coral but it introduced the ability for the fish to streak across the flat and leave us behind. We would lose the versatility of the boat and the ability to follow at speed. On the fish powered, there was no hesitation when it reached the flat. We followed by boat as far as we could but it was time to leave the boat and follow on foot. All of us jumped off. Wayne with the net, Toby the camera and Sean in support. At about 200 metres on the flat Wayne, who had a damaged knee due to an accident at home, knew he could not continue so the net was passed to Sean. If we reached that stage, this was going to be Sean’s first netting of a milkfish. We needed a much bigger net but that was a problem we would address later. Still the fish powered on and we followed. Now we had a short line, maybe ten metres and getting shorter but there was still no ability to turn the fish. The tide was going out and the fish was headed for what would become a dry flat. We just needed to stay with it and be patient. However, we realised that the leader was tangled in the fish’s tail and with every smack of the tail, the leader was taking a beating. We began to feel that the leader had a limited life. We now felt we had to make our move.

My old friend Wayne and I with the giant fish…

As the water level reduced, so the fight began to turn in our favour but the fish was still very powerful and with that power, the leader was taking a beating. Understandably Sean was at a loss as to what to do. The fish would not allow him to get near and when he did it was not as if the fish was rolling to be netted. It was still powering on across the flat. Wayne was shouting to Sean to put the net over the fish’s head to stop it. That was against all my instincts of netting a fish but as I witnessed no sign of the fish rolling or losing power it became clear to me that that was Sean’s only option. With Wayne barking encouragement and instructions from a distance and me staying as tight as I dare Sean began to dance with the fish deftly jumping over the fish or leader as it sought to avoid his net. How he did not make an error or get caught out by the fish I will never know. Finally, Sean was able to put the net over the fish’s head and stop its progress. He had to lift the rest and try and get as much of it as he could into the net. The cry went up and we had finally landed this mighty milk.

Much of the great battle was filmed – see the drama here!

With the water dropping it was necessary to walk her back off the flat to a safe place before taking some photos and releasing her. We were all exhausted but elated and delighted to see the fish make its way off the flat safely. It is rare that those “we are going to need a bigger boat” moments actually end in triumph but this time it did. We did not weigh the fish but it measured 130 cm from nose to the end of the tail. We guessed about 40lbs.

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