In 2016 Fantala, the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the SW Indian Ocean hit Farquhar atoll. The result was nothing short of almost total devastation with continuous winds of 360mph destroying all the buildings with the exception of the cyclone shelter, stripping trees of their bark, topping or toppling in the region of 95% of the mature trees and stripping bushes and shrubs of all their leaves. Hugely excited as I was about visiting this fishing mecca, I confess to being nervous at coming to an environment stripped bare of its surface life and character, even if the primary pursuit was below the waves.
GT GT GT tends to be the repetitive chant of anyone coming to fish the Seychelles. Rightly so as these incredible fish are the first encounter you will have when you look out to sea in front of the newly built guesthouse’s on Farquhar, an unexpected dividend of the ravages of cyclone Fantala. Predominantly dark black in colour ‘the Pets’ as they are known cruise menacingly around the dock. These fish are huge, some maybe as large as 160cm, and whilst these are strictly out of bounds to angler’s, they gave total justification to the forensic examination of knots, backing, loops, leaders and general re-rigging of gear that the guides performed to all of the rods on the first afternoon of arrival.
Farquhar, however, is absolutely not all about the GT’s or Geet’s as the South African guides, in particular, refer to them. Farquhar is certainly known for its really big GT’s but the variety of fish species and indeed aquatic life is part of what makes Farquhar so special. One specific character which stands out from the others is the Humphead Parrot Fish. ‘Bumpies’ as they are known are coral-eaters. During the high tides they cruise the submerged flats, driving guides to distraction as they are easily mistaken for a GT from a distance and equally are immune to any offering you may tempt them with. Come low-tide they represent something different to the fly-angler, a chance to catch a huge fish with a selective feeding habit, on relatively light tackle.
The Bumpies we pursued typically ranged in size from around 60-120 cm in length. Consolidating into shoals of around 5-50 fish, during low-tide they cruise the outer reef flats in knee depth water. Their exposed teeth or beaks are like vices. Adult fish are reputed to eat their way through 5 tonnes of living coral/year. Even on a dull day with leaden skies, Bumpies can still be spotted from a distance as their solid green tails wave clear of the water whilst feeding. If you thought there visibility was restricted to what lies below the water you would be mistaken! Every now and then a Bumphead face and eye will protrude clear of the water to see what is going on in our dimension!
With an element of stealth, it is usually possible to creep to within casting range of a shoal, although be warned they do have a habit of miraculously being able to keep just 1 metre outside of your comfortable casting range. A 10 wt fly-rod is recommended with floating line and 25lb tippet. Crab patterns seem to be the most effective, although it is as likely that when a fish takes, it is due to its similarity to a piece of coral, more so than that of a crustacean. Ideally, the fly is cast behind the lead fish to lessen the likelihood of the shoal spooking but drifted with the current into the path of the bulk of the shoal in general. When their trails are waving in the air they are feeding and that should represent your best chance. It is important to keep in contact with the fly so any slack in the line is gently stripped. Opinions as to the best means of presentation differ. Some guides suggest that the fly should be just left as it is, others a very gentle occasional pull, as if a ‘tasty’ chunk of dislodged coral has been allowed to tumble in the current, a free offering from the disturbance caused by the preceding feeding fish.
At this stage, if you were mistaken into thinking that the 5 tonnes of coral/year meant that the Bumpies were hoovering up every rock, pebble and inanimate object in their path then think again. As with Permit and Triggerfish, hooking a Bumpy is a significant achievement and in total contrast to the voracious appetite of a GT. Where they differ from Permit or Triggers is that you can pursue a shoal or multiple shoals of Bumpies all afternoon. When you spook them, the water will erupt in a Tsunami like fashion, but as often as not they will reform and be waving their tails again having relocated 20-50 m distant.
At this point I will stray from the ‘how to do it’ manual above, info primarily gleaned from the guides, and relay my personal experiences. I can unquestionably say that like anyone fishing the Seychelles I had my sights set on a big GT. They have however received an abundance of coverage, not least by the incredible Blue Planet footage of GT’s bursting from the sea to consume juvenile Sooty Terns, filmed off one of the islands at Farquhar. My interest was piqued by the lesser referred to but no less equally formidable prize of a Bumphead Parrotfish!
On our second day, Krister my fishing partner and I fished ‘Wreck Flat’, one of the outer reef flats that make up the rim of Farquhar Atoll. Watching these ‘cow sized fish graze nonchalantly over the area is a sight in itself. They cruise at a gentle walking pace until disturbed, and so with a degree of caution, we manoeuvred our way into position, with the wind behind us and just up-current of the closest shoal. The sheer size of the fish is a distraction in itself, most of which will be larger than anything an average angler will have fished for, let alone caught on a fly-rod. I had the first opportunity and after a number of casts that dropped just short, my fly landed in the perfect position, intercepting the pack but gently enough not to spook them. With my heart in my mouth, the shoal surrounded, mauled, ate and inevitably ignored my brightly coloured orange crab imitation. As I was to discover this was the norm, not the exception! Over the next 2 hours we pursued shoals around the flats where we were given the opportunity of delivering scores of ‘good’ casts that had fish hooking potential.
The infuriating proximity and opportunities provided by the Bumpies could and can be enough to quash any further inclination to pursue them, especially when given the opportunity to cast for a GT with an appetite for flies like few other species. However, on that first afternoon, Krister hooked, albeit it briefly, a Bumphead and with it the inevitable onset of Bumpy Fever!! The following day we found ourselves back on Wreck Flat. For my part I was entering into that dark zone where initial confidence and optimism was morphing into doubt, verging on insecurity, brought on by a fish that seemed oblivious to the best of my attempts. Our guide for the day, Nic, who was currently roaming the ocean reef with Krister punctuated my gloom with activities that included intermittent aerial fist pumps and high five's although at what I could not tell. I should also add that my tried and trusted 10 wt, with a decade of service under its belt had inexplicably blown up…literally with 3 of the 4 sections shattering instantaneously on hooking an unimpressively sized Emperor fish. My 8 wt bonefish rod and reel had been requisitioned, hardly the tools for fish that averaged out at over 20Kgs.
And then it happened. Activities beside Krister and Nic had resulted in the nearest Bumpy pod to them erupting with the ensuing white-water tsunami as 50 or so fish departed from their vicinity in haste…towards me. As they started to slow down and reverted back to feeding formation it was apparent that they were going to stream past within an easy 20ft cast of where I stood. As they flowed past in a loose two abreast line formation I made my cast. 5 fish passed, 15, 20, 30, 40….and then almost imperceptibly one seemed to deviate from its formation and my line went tight. As I had been told to expect, initially the fish just carried on paying no heed to my tentative exertions as I lifted my rod, all the time terrified of the knobbles of line shredding coral that were now becoming exposed as the tide reached its lowest point.
I think Nic was as surprised as I was to see me suddenly attached to a fish which was now just starting to become aware of its predicament. As my Bumpy started to pick up pace, the terror of being attached to this mighty, powerful and elusive fish, with nothing but my puny 8 wt, with a reel that had a drag set to stop nothing more than a Bonefish took hold. I stampeded after the fish, determined not to let it strip all the line from my reel whilst applying as much side-strain as I could to pull the fish away from the shoal and almost certain disconnection if they made it to deep-water. Thankfully the guides take nets with them when patrolling the flats and I am quite certain that without Nic’s assistance the outcome would have been very different. After an adrenaline surged fight like few I have had in recent years the fish was netted. My first Bumpy! I was ecstatic.
Farquhar is a wonderfully diverse fishery. The tales made by any pair of anglers on a single week could fill a chapter in a decent book. To mention just a few achievements, Krister on his first-afternoon saltwater fishing, let alone in the Seychelles, hooked and landed a Triggerfish, made all the more memorable as he was fishing solo. Triggers may be a fraction less flighty than permit but none the less pernickety in their eating habits. Guides love them in particular due to the challenge that they present to get one on the hook and whilst they may not look as impressive as a 120 cm GT, they are considered one of the most notable achievements in any week.
We fished for GT’s in just about every way imaginable, waiting in ambush for them to make an appearance whilst standing in the surf, drifting the flats searching for their ominous grey outline or seeking out Rays which are frequently tailed by one of more GT’s. My highlight GT came just after having landed my Bumpy. As we made our way back to the boat in ankle deep-water, an 8ft nurse shark emerged from a shallow channel that drained the flats. Flinging my redundant 8 wt into the water, I unclipped my 11Wt, and after frantically stripping line launched a cast in front of the shark. Almost instantly two GT’s burst out from its flanks, the larger GT of maybe 1 metre or more in length surged at my fly, somehow missed it, (assuming I did not pull it out of its mouth in the heat of the moment), only for the smaller GT to nail it. I had no idea what might have followed, whether the entire episode would have resulted into a surging shark entangled bloodbath. The unknowns of fishing in this environment is undoubtedly one of the appeals!!
As I later learnt, Nurse sharks are bottom feeders and the GT’s flank them, darting in to attack any fleeing prey in a similar fashion to their behaviour with Stingrays. The commotion with the bigger GT missing and then subsequently hounding the smaller fish with my fly in its mouth was a formidable spectacle, especially when conducted in very shallow water and in rods length proximity. I was happy to conclude the day with a Bonefish to make a ‘Bumpy Slam’.
Groupers of every colour and description make up some of the variety that can be caught whilst casting around coral bommies. Regardless of size, if you assume the species that congregate close to the coral heads need anything less than full attention, be warned. The moment after they have demolished your fly, they will charge into the coral with all their impressive might. Once in a hole they open and then lock their gill plates making their removal from a bolthole nigh on impossible. Cutting the leader is usually a better alternative than pulling until something snaps, typically your fly line when using 130lb ‘GT proof’ mono. The only remedy is to give absolutely no quarter, applying immediate and maximum pressure to prevent them from finding refuge! It could be a 5lb Grouper or a 70lb Napoleon, you have been warned.
With a great bluewater fishing area just 5 mins boat journey from the lodge, there is always the option of chasing sailfish, raising them to trolled teasers or bait and then luring them to within fly-casting range. That certainly is the theory, however on the two 2-hour sessions Krister and I embarked on, a Sailfish neatly and swiftly removed and consumed our chain of teasers on the first occasion and devoured our Skip Jack Tuna on the second before we had a chance to lure them 1 meter closer to the boat, let alone get a cast to them. Excitement and unpredictability is never far away! Regardless of our failure in this dimension of the trip, to be able to so easily embark on a diversion such as this, especially if the tides preclude some other activities on the flats, only adds to the wonderful tapestry of fishing options available.
A final word should be mentioned as to the state of the biodiversity above and below the water on Farquhar following the cyclone. The growth rate in tropical conditions is phenomenal and dense green vegetation has now recolonised all the areas that were devastated. The topless stalks of mature coconut trees remain as a very visible reminder, but the ground vegetation is stronger than ever. Amongst those seemingly unaffected were the magnificent Aldabra Giant Tortoises. Obtaining weights of well over 400kgs and commonly living from 80-120 years they are quite a sight, and easy enough to track down.
Turtles are everywhere, with the Green Turtle, the second largest after the Leatherback being relatively populous at Farquhar and frequently seen during then day. These and the Hawksbill, another behemoth amongst the other Turtle species are an endearing visual spectacle. Sharks are another common visitor that quite frequently make their way on to the flats. Black Tip, White Tip, Nurse, Lemon and Bull sharks...the list goes on. The guides treat all sharks with respect, but it would be fair to say that in terms of a snack, an angler’s ankles do not seem to be high on their list. Nurse sharks are a GT magnet and they will always warrant your absolute attention and a well-placed cast. Keeping out of the way of the larger Lemon and Bull sharks does of course make sense. There is however something absolutely spectacular about watching a 10ft+ Lemon Shark cruising around in 2ft of water, with its signature three fins prominent, whilst Turtles and Bumpies thunder off in opposite directions.
The timing of the tides, moon state and of course season play a large part in any trip. Farquhar is a large atoll, the central lagoon covering 170 sq. kms. The push and pull of the tide is considerable and at times the entrance to some of the flats felt as if one was standing in a spate river. The week we fished was the last of the season, not so much due to later weeks being bad, but simply so that anglers are fishing the atoll over the weeks considered to have the best weather. It might be fair to say that the tides over the second half of our week were not considered the most favourable. That certainly did not prevent us all having good fishing with 7 GT's being landed on the final day when the tides were supposed to be less good.
Farquhar, like many of the remote Atolls in the Seychelles, represents a saltwater fly-fishing environment that does not have many other easy comparisons. Their location makes them hard to access and logistically a nightmare to keep supplied relative to most others. There will always be excellent weeks, average weeks and weeks that may drop below the lofty expectations that anglers bestow on them. Experience will play a big part in any trip. To assume that on the first outing you will achieve each and every dreamed of trophy capture and subsequent 'hero shot' will invariably lead to disappointment. Sensible expectations are a precursor for enjoyment! Despite the geographic complexities of running a trip to such a remote atoll, Farquhar is without doubt exceptionally well run and resourced. Guides and lodge staff in general are outstanding, as is the newly rebuilt accommodation. Above all, the beauty of the atoll, cyclone damage included, and all its hugely varied marine life, makes it a destination that will have continued and enormous appeal, so long as it is preserved with the care and thought that it currently enjoys. I am hooked...I will be back!
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Farquhar Atoll was hit by hurricane Fantala in April 2016 which passed directly overhead. The effect was to devastate not only the foliage and vegetation on the atoll but also almost every existing structure. The fishing lodge was obliterated and as a consequence so were planned trips for the rest of the 2016/17 ...