'What About The Cannibals'

WWMF in co-operation with Solid Adventures -Papua New Guinea

by Justin Maxwell Stuart-Nov 2023

Destination:

Holiday:

“What about the cannibals!”   When I mentioned I was heading to a 'secret' new saltwater destination - somewhere in the southern hemisphere (Papua New Guinea), this seems to have be the over-riding and understandably poignant thought that crossed 4 out of 5 people’s minds.    It was enough to warrant a google search and indeed when I came across a film entitled ‘Visiting the Tribe that EATS HUMANS’, I could not help noticing that it had knocked up an enviable 9.3 million views in the 11 months since it was published.  That, I am happy to report, is absolutely as close as our exploratory trip came to the issue!  Our team consisted of 6 intrepid fly-fishermen, accompanied by our host and guide, alongside his team of local guides, boat crew, cooks, deckhands and or stowaways.  Our mission, to explore hither to unexplored waters for GT fly potential, alongside whatever else we might find!  Our destination, a remote series of atolls, most of which I suspect had never been previously fished by fly-anglers.   It was going to be quite adventure.

Final prep before departure and our first anchorage

My journey from London went via Singapore, a further international flight and from there to an undisclosed and suitably humble airport which was and felt a very very long way from our European winter.  From there, a short 20 minute drive to the town centre and port where we first set eyes on the liveaboard boat which was to be our home and transport over the next 8 nights.   Primarily a dive boat, and albeit lacking in a few home luxuries, it was nevertheless a capable and surprisingly comfortable old girl.  Crucially it did not let us down in any way over the trip.   Having loaded up final provisions,  we weighed anchor and set forth to our first destination, an enchanting looking atoll, which, from our satellite recce, had all the hallmarks of being home to more than a few Giant Trevally.

A decent swell made for slightly rougher seas and slower going than anticipated.  Regardless, the comforts of a flat bed meant the overnight journey, albeit with a reasonable degree of rocking, made a very welcome respite from the numerous and lengthy flights.   Time on board any moving boat does of course offer trolling opportunities, especially as our stately speed was 5-6 knots.  James, the ‘ships mate’ and assistant chef was not going to waste the opportunity. As we pondered flyline options, knots and generally let the anticipation build, he was keeping busy with big-game rods armed with teasers out the back.  As our anchorage appeared over the horizon the big multiplyer reel sung its song and a good-sized sailfish performed an acrobatic dance.

The smaller of the tenders, towed behind the motership, was quickly pulled in and a fighting, photographing and landing party was deployed, whilst everyone else watched from the upper deck of the boat.  The action had the effect of acting like a calling card to the larger than expected compliment of native crew, with people emerging from all corners and parts of the boat to watch the excitement, and possibly with a view on supplimenting their family diest for weeks to come!.  The sailfish was duly landed and released, a first for James and a little insight into just how productive the surrounding waters could be, especially for the opportunistic angler.

James with the Sailfish caught en route to our first anchorage

The anchorage where we spent the next night was beyond spectacular.   Entirely sheltered from the wind, behind cliffs that rose vertically from the sea, it was an oasis of calm.  Birds wheeled above the azure waters below with white sand and coral giving way to a vertiginous drop off with the sea a contrasting cobalt blue beyond.  I would have happily spent the entire week / whole winter, living, swimming, diving and fishing in that one spot.   It is hard to imagine anywhere more idyllic, more beautiful and more pleasing to the soul. It also provided a fantastic source of fresh fish for the table, ranging from dogtooth tuna to a giant sweetlips.  All cooked to perfection, whether as sashimi or otherwise.

This being an exploratory trip, we were unconstrained by the more typical morning rituals of an extended breakfast or the sort of necessities when running a lodge over a full season, with enough time for the guides to recuperate along the way.   This was more of a race to see and understand as much as possible over the following 6 days.   Look, fish, move on! 

Anxious and eager, we set off on our first full day, not long after first light, armed with a strong cup of coffee, a rushed bowl of cereal, a packed breakfast sandwich and a huge dose of anticipation.  Our two teams of three were split between two boats.  One of which was a more upmarket sport fishing boat with twin 80-HP engines, radar, sonar and some soft finishings, the the other an absolutely traditional fishermen's long-boat.  Undeniably authentic, but equally something that would not look out of place amongst Somalian pirates.  Refinements could follow on future trips, for now it was trying to work out the potential.

 

A reset for the soul! Beautiful, enticing and dramatic.

As the grey tentacles of dawn retreated, the gloom made way to blue skies and light winds.  Our first stop off was in the lee of the main part of the atoll that we were fishing.  A ragged and volcanic shoreline sheltered some inviting water complete with countless large coral bommies.  Without decent sptting light, at this time of the morning we happily fished two rods at either end of our boat.  My two Finnish team mates for the trip Antti and Lira were first up, Antti with a popper and Lira with a streamer.  

The first bit of action was quite typical of any large GT encounter, an explosive take to the popper followed by...mayhem.  With the low light and subsequent limited water visibility the fish took without any warning and what followed was a ferocious and abrupt battle as line was ripped from hand and reel.  The violence however quickly gave way to the wretched steady but unmistakeable pull of a line and fly hooked solid to a rock, even if the lingering hope remains that the fish is so large…it is like a rock!

Unseen due to the low-light and no more than 10m or so from where we were fishing was a very significant drop off, the GT had of course used its brute strength to muscle over the edge in its first unstoppable pull, and that was that.  Recovery of fly and line simply by pulling when using 80lb leader is never going to be possible.  With knife in hand an early morning swim was required.  We all became quite good at diving down to recover fish, flies and line over the course of the week!!  

Fishing the coral bommies

The next bit of action came from the other boat.  Felix found himself attached to an extremely large fish.   From afar I spotted the action and flew my drone over.   Sometimes viewing the action, but not hearing anything, can give you quite a different picture from what is actually taking place.  As I hovered above I saw Colin, our non-native guide and host, do what I had done 45 mins earlier, strip off and dive into the water to retrieve what I assumed was fly-line snagged around a coral bommie (definition-an outcrop of coral reef, often resembling a column, that is higher than the surrounding platform of reef and which may be partially exposed at low tide).  Assuming I had arrived too late I, ‘returned to home’.  Little did I know the action was just getting started!

The fish had indeed snagged the line around the bommie, but the fight was far from over.   Colin freed the line and the pursuit continued, at least until the fish found another bommie and the same trick was repeated.    Out of options, but not without plenty of additional drama, Felix successfully brought the GT to the boat, the result, a 117cm long fish.  For those not in the know a 100cm GT is considered a trophy fish.  In Atlantic Salmon terms…a 25lber.   At 117 cm you are definitely in or around the ‘30lb salmon class’, a truly spectacular fish on a fly-rod and a huge achievement. 

Felix with his 117cm Giant Tevally, secured after a truly epic and very lucky fight!

I will not attempt to go over all the details over the following week other than to cover some highlights.   One day, on the edge of a drop off, it was being surrounded by dolphins, as we played a GT to the boat.  On another it was cruising over a shoal of 5 or 6 large sand sharks, each with a length of 2 - 2.5 M silouetted against the white sand of the channel below us. Any number of reef fish and Bluefin Trevally interspersed the day’s activities, exotic and hard fighting, all requiring absolute maximum pressure to stop them disappearing into the reef structure, sometimes succesfully, others requiring a diver!

We visited successive sandy spits that seemed to form out of nowhere, being buffeted from either side by opposing waves. Others were postage stamp islands, barely deserving a name or a place on a map, but with majestic coral surrounds emerging from cobalt blue water, sometimes 100m deep, in places drop offs which plunged vertically down to 1,000M or more.  

 

One of the unbelievably remote sand spits that seemed to emerge out of the ocean

On a good number of occasions Manta Rays swam majestically around us, truly awe-inspiring creatures.  From my quite extensive travels, one thing I have identified is that some of the most spectacular sights that you might come across are considered commonplace to local guides.  Without raising one’s hand to show interest, you can all too easily end up missing the experience, and I am not just talking about an Instagram photo bomb. 

I make a point of travelling with a mask and snorkel amongst my fishing paraphernalia and given the opportunity, will happily dive in and see what is going on down below.  On one such occasion, having spotted some Manta Rays and with the help of directions from those on the boat, I found myself swimming amidst a swirling ball of baitfish with no less than four Manta Rays in attendance.  Although the day was overcast with visibility less than perfect, having them emerge out of the gloom, mouths agape, swim within touching distance, and then turn away with a graceful flourish, was simply magical.  Their size (and they are huge) combined with their elegance in the water is simply overwhelming and cannot be over-stated.  Back on the mother-boat, having a shower and reflecting on the moment I felt genuinely emotional and touched by the experience.

Another extraordinary location. This one was patrolled by three Manta Rays which you can see in subsequent pictures

To unravel a location using a fly-rod takes patience, experience and more patience.  A satellite map recce and a basic knowledge of the tides will only ever get you to first base, even with the very best local knowledge.   The nature of an exploratory trip is that you can only ever hope to scratch the surface of a destination’s true potential, but equally when you do succeed, the reward, having done it to a greater or lesser extent by yourself, is that much greater, the achievement much more personal.  Each and every fish caught and lost was a prize to be remembered, in a location very very few people have had the priviledge of visiting.

All credit to our team of guides for their perseverance with our unique demands as fly-angers.  Although their experience with conventional popping and jigging gear was quite extensive, the lessons learned raising GT’s with a 30cm Rooster Popper, which you can easily cast well over 150M, whilst creating enough water ‘noise’ to wake the aquatic equivalent of a sleeping bear, is unquestionably quite different from a fly anglers capabilities.  When we did experiment with the ‘dark-side’, the results were frustratingly effective!!  

Although this drift did not result in any GT's there was plenty of activity from numerous other species

On the open ocean, you can and should expect anything.  When we moved between locations in the mother-boat, the crews handlines as well as heavy duty game rods were invariably deployed.  On one such move I found myself first to grab the a rod following a take and was enjoying pulling in a reasonable sized Wahoo.  With the fish no less than 20M from the boat there was an explosion in the water, a take which we initially took to be a shark but which majestically turned out to be a Black Marlin.  

For the next ten minutes I fought the Marlin/Wahoo combo.   The Marlin jumped incessantly and pulled ‘like a Marlin’.  During the fight I had to navigate myself to the front of the boat, threading the rod precariously around the outside of the ships stancheons and supports.  Throughout the fight, the previously hard pulling Wahoo was hurled acrobatically around like a rag doll, the line merely wrapped around the bill of the Marlin.  In time the Marlin jumped towards rather than against the pressure I was applying and it slipped its way to freedom, although the Wahoo, still attached, made its way on to our dinner plates that evening.  It might not have been our intention to hook a Marlin along the way but it certainly added to the drama.

 

Two GT's for myself and for Rick

The area we covered was extensive and yet we unquestionably only scratched at the potential.  But what a trip, what an experience.   It is quite a journey to get to, of that there is no doubt, but the waters are rich with aquatic life, the sights and colours as vibrant as you will find anywhere.  I can say with a degree of surety that over my extensive travels I have been priviledged to have seen some truly spectacular places.  In terms of the experience, this expedition was an equal to the very best of those.   In the bigger scheme of things, this trip was a mere starting point, little more than a proof of concept, but the pictures tell their own story.   What is certain is that much more awaits!

 

FUTURE TRIPS: If you are interested in joining one of our follow on exploratory trips, to be conducted over Oct/Nov of 2024, please get in touch to register your interest.

 

 

Sunrise on our final morning

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