A’ to the K’ – a fly fishing mission to an unknown tropical destination

Abd Al Kuri

There are few unexplored fishing destinations left on Earth. The few rivers and saltwater fisheries that are untouched are mostly in parts of the “old world” where the local, 3rd world country logistics make it unlikely tourist attractions.

I am talking places where “no white man has set foot before”. I recently had the opportunity to visit one such place.

The ‘Socotra-islands’ are Yemeni territory in the Gulf of Aden and being situated 58 miles from the Somalia coast line, it’s a place that will only attract the serial fisherman. A very excited Edward Truter sent me an email about a trip to this place earlier in 2014. He exclaimed that this was one of the last frontiers where big GT’s and bonefish could be caught. I am talking 20 lb bonefish on fly. The island is placed in a tropical ocean where the currents of the Red Sea, and the Omani and East African Indian Ocean meet. He predicted that the up-welling of nutrients and lack of fishing pressure in the area might be a recipe for extraordinary salt water fishing.

The trip sounded very affordable at the time and I started budgeting for it early in the year. It was only a week before I left when I realised that the budget had grown way beyond what I expected due to extra expenses on flight changes and fly tackle to prepare for fish of unknown size.

Nevertheless, I spent the cash and committed to what seemed like an opportunity to make history by catching a GT of over a meter and a 20 lb bonefish from the same beach in a place where fly rods were alien to the locals. The Tourette Fishing crew, Ed Truter, Richard Morton and I, finally set foot on the island three days after I left Cape Town. The three of us were accompanied by French and Italian spin-fisherman hosted by Nicola Vitali from Wild Sea Expedition. After all, it was Nicola’s knowledge of the area and his “pervert dream” to find new drop-offs where he could guide clients to catch big GTs and break the current IGFA World Record GT of 71 ‘odd’ kg that brought us there in the first place.

Abd Al Kuri landscape 4 small

Abd Al Kuri landscape 1 small

It was a desert landscape much larger than what I expected. The highest mountain peaks were high enough to gather clouds in the midday tropical heat. The brick red and creamy yellow rock boarder-lining white sand and a turquoise sea was beautiful to the eye, but it was a harsh environment where even the local Arabs came begging for a drop of fresh water while we were out on foot, searching the 3 km-long beaches for fish.

On our daily fishing excursions to spot a 20 lb bonefish cruising the shoreline of a sandy beach, we found areas which seemed completely devoid of fish and then also areas where one couldn’t stand still for 30 seconds to catch breath between the beach sprints chasing after patrolling predatory fish species. The latter spots were fun to fish, but they tapped my energy and flattened my battery towards the end of the trip.

Fighting a bone 1 small

It was a very unique type of fishing where, for instance, I ran up to 300 meters in full sprint after a shoal of bluefin trevally, after which they turned the fly down; as the burning sensation in my airways started to become bearable while catching a breath of fresh air, a big three-spot pompano swam past in the opposite direction; after the pompano was successfully hooked and landed, a GT of approximately 1.2 m swam to the shoreline to investigate the commotion, but it ignored a fairly well-presented fly (unfortunately the few GTs we saw from the shore did not take our flies, instead they moved to deeper water with a human swinging a fly rod like a stick to a swarm of stinging bees chasing after it); then, a monster salad fish appeared out of nowhere and jumped on the fly; fighting a decent fish was a welcome break; but as the salad fish was landed, two big king mackerel swam over the sand flat and close enough to me to get a shot at them; the fly was frantically removed from the toothy maw of the salad fish and flung in the direction of the mackerel, but they were too fast to even take notice of the fly that landed a meter behind them; and then it happened, an emerald green fish the size of a 24 lb king mackerel swam to my feet and investigated my presence…”It must be a bone”, I thought to myself as I rushed yet another cast to get the fly into the zone of the holy grail, but the bonefish got a fright and bolted off. This happened on two occasions and one of these huge bonefish rushed to the fly and gave it a good look (I swear my heart skipped a beat), but it turned the Tailer’s Delight down.

Pompano 2 small

Salad fish small

We eventually found two beaches near the north-eastern side of the island where we landed several bonefish up to approximately 9 lb (4 kg = 8.9 lb) on sparsely tied chartreuse Clousers (flies of approximately 5 cm in length tied with minimal flash on #2 – 4 hooks). In my experience, the bonefish fought better than any of the other fish species we caught. They did not peel line off at a blistering pace, but they ran far and their endurance was unmatched. Three spot pompano and salad fish entertained us from the beaches between the bonefish dry spells. Other interesting fish species also caught while fishing for bonefish included a type of sand lizard fish and sole.

Ed's Blue Lagoon - one of the beaches where we caught bonefish

Ed’s Blue Lagoon – one of the beaches where we caught bonefish

Bonefish 2 small

Socotra sole small

Orange spotted 1 small

On our hikes between the bonefish beaches we passed numerous rocky outcrops from which we caught lovely spangled emperors, groupers, a small unidentified grunter species, moray eels, juvenile bluefin trevally, juvenile GTs, lovely big-eye trevally and orange spotted trevally. These areas also teemed with shoals of parrotfish, some of which were in excess of 20 lb, but although they seemed interested in some of our “soft” patterns, they refused to eat the flies. I eventually watched how a massive porcupine fish (puffer fish) swallowed a whole white ghost crab the size of a cricket ball and after catching the fish, I decided to try my “hard” white crab patterns to some of the reef species, including the parrots.

Rainbow wrasse 1 small

Rainbow wrasse 2 small

Eel shot 1 small

Grouper 1 small

Grouper 3 small

Grouper 2 small

I dipped the first parrot like a carp while it was feeding on the edges of my rocky vantage point. It swam straight to the white # 2/0 epoxy Velcro crab and chewed on it. I hooked the fish and then all hell broke loose. It pulled incredibly hard and although I tried to keep it close by forcing the fish to swim side-ways it managed to turn its head and bolted in the direction of sharp coral. It snapped the tippet as I tried to stop it. I hooked four more parrots in the two days we had left on the island. All of the fish got away and mostly popped the 0.5 mm tippet (approx. 31 lb breaking strength – which was the thickest they’d accept). Ed carried on fishing soft patterns at the reef fishes and eventually worked out how to catch a big surgeon fish species. He managed to land three of approximately 9 lb, all hooked in the mouth with a small Gotcha.

Puffer 1 small

Bonefish 1 small

Ed's bone small

While hiking back to camp one evening I spotted fish milling in hyper saline ponds a few hundred meters inland from the sea shore. The ponds were likely created by heavy rainfall and exceptionally high spring tides and although we spotted them on Google Earth, we didn’t expect to see fish in them. As you may have guessed, I lobbed a fly into the rotting water and caught a thornfish.

A thornfish caught in a hyper saline lake on Abd Al Kuri

A thornfish caught in a hyper saline lake on Abd Al Kuri

The conventional tackle fisherman hosted by Wild Sea Expedition caught good numbers of big GT (the biggest fish was 55 kg = 122.2 lb) and other trevally species, big rosy and green jobfish, king mackerel, great barracuda, miscellaneous reef fishes (including beautiful grouper) and a nice sailfish of 88.9 lb by casting poppers and jigs from boats. On numerous occasions we heard that they made another “massac satanico” (satanical massacre), as Nicola described a successful session where many big fish were caught.

Ed's Emperor small

We also tried fishing from the boats with fly rods, but the predatory fish feeding frenzies on sardines and a type of red swimming crab were too sporadic and difficult to target with the fly. We did manage to cast flies at shoals of milkfish, which seemed more interested in white foam than Milky Dreams or orange plankton imitations, and we landed some interesting smaller reef species off shore, but unfortunately the big GTs eluded me on the trip.

Coral bass small

Brown trigger fish small

To ensure we didn’t miss our flight from Socotra to Sana’a, we spent the final day on the Socotra Island. I was there to fish of course and while the other guests relaxed in a beach hotel I headed towards the nearest beach for a ‘massac satanico’ of my own.

It started slow after I spotted only one bonefish (which refused my fly) on a 4 km stretch of beach. I eventually crossed the sandy beach and headed inland where a big lagoon was formed between sand dunes on the beach and a rocky headland. There were small stingrays in the deeper channels, but instead of wasting the little time I had left on these temperamental fish I walked to the mouth of the lagoon to look for other fish species.

As I approached the mouth I spotted a shoal of slate grey fish feeding on a sandbar in the intertidal zone. I cast a chartreuse Clouser to them and one fish broke free from the school, swam over to the fly and grabbed it ferociously. Several minutes later I had my first Omani bream in my hands. I took some photos of the fish on the beach and waded back into the mouth of the lagoon. I quickly hooked and landed another bream, much bigger than the first and then a big school of ‘bonefish’ swam into the mouth. I made a long cast and the Clouser landed smack bang in the middle of the shoal. The fish responded well and started nosing the fly as I slowly drew it towards me. I felt a gentle take and set the hook. The fish sped off and I watched in horror as the line jumped uncontrollably over the butt of my fly rod. I lunged after the fish, giving it enough slack to stop fighting against the pressure of a taut line. With a lot of luck I unravelled the fly line from the rod and reel and stripped in the slack to reconnect with the fish. The fish was still hooked, but it never made long runs during the fight as I expected from a bonefish. It tired rather quickly and to my surprise I tailed a big spotted grunter. I continued fishing and smashed over twenty fish, which included grunter, bream and large thornfish. It was a marvellous way to end the fishing trip.

The lagoon behind the beach at Socotra

The lagoon behind the beach at Socotra

My first Omani bream

My first Omani bream

My biggest bream

My biggest bream

A spotted grunter in Socotra

A spotted grunter in Socotra

The last night was spent in a Sana’a hotel after I missed all my connecting flights due to a delayed internal flight from Socotra to Sana’a. I awoke to AK 47 gunshots fired in the streets at 10 pm that night. I imagined being trapped in the capital of Yemen for another week due to gang wars, but it was in fact local people celebrating 20 years of democracy. I eventually left the capital after a guided day in the city centre and realised that it was no more dangerous in Yemen than in South Africa. In other words, the odds of getting shot by ‘AKs’ or blown up by bombs is lower than falling prey to a shark in those countries.

To the contrary, the Yemeni people welcome and accommodate foreign visitors that travel for leisure. In short, it is a place worth seeing.

Arabian knife shop small

Sanaa small

PS – for what it’s worth, the Tourette team made history by catching the first bonefish on the unknown island with fly tackle

Note that due to the quality of the fishing in the vicinity of the ‘unknown island’, Nicola Vitali has requested that all queries about trips to the place be done through Tourette Fishing and/or Wild Sea Expedition.

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2 responses to “A’ to the K’ – a fly fishing mission to an unknown tropical destination

  1. Regardless of the intended mission which honestly seemed a tad like asking for that proverbial Christmas pony, seriously, a twenty pound bonefish and a one meter geet from the same beach? You boys had a trip of a lifetime. congratulations! Milkfish and permit on the fly remain the species to be had! That said, I’ve yet to see a legitimate fly caught geet or bluefin. All we caught were juveniles. One thing I notice about Socotra fish, they do not like flyrods waving above them. I took to low angle side casting when targeting them in Socotra. My theory for this is that the locals fish heavily with cast nets and have been doing so for years. The local strategy of the young boys who are extremely skilled at throwing nets is to dive into the sea after the net has been tossed and herd fish into it. These nets are also without lanyards which means they have to be received by diving in. This is an extremely impoverished region, hooks, lines and boats are beyond reach of most of the locals. So these fish have become used to avoiding people on the shore or rocks especially if they are waving nets and rods above them. Just a theory.
    loved the writing in this story,
    You were very brave to fly through Sana’a.
    Did you consider the Sharjah Mukalla flight?

  2. Hi Ray, I saw one very nice permit and two smaller ones (which I spotted in low light, but the tails and bodies looked like that of permit); so that’s 3 permit in 9 days! Just not enough to “work them out” or even get a decent shot at one…Pity though, we did expect to see more than that. Yes, my ‘pervert dream’ of catching a 1 m plus geet and a 20 lb plus bone from the same beach seems like a tall order, but I reckon if one lived on that island or visited it regularly, it would be very possible from one of those beaches. I agree with you about the fish on the Socotra shoreline; wherever there are humans actively hunting fish (with nets or hook-and-line) the fish seem much more sensitive to our presence and spook way more easily. I am not sure whether the travel agent was informed about the Sharjah Mukalla option? Will follow up with Ed.

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