Red Herring in the Red Sea

Red Sea atolls 2 small

A message from Rob Scott came via email: “We have two last minute spots on the Nubian Flats if any of you guys want to go?” I was chewing my nails behind the computer. I knew I was walking a tightrope with time. Short-notice invitations come with a discount, but they get snatched up…I couldn’t resist the thought of four Red Sea regular catches on fly, a decent triggerfish, a big giant trevally (GT), an above-average bluefin kingfish and a twinspot snapper (bohar snapper). I had to make a decision quickly.

Red Sea atolls looked 'fishy' from the aeroplane.

Red Sea atolls looked ‘fishy’ from the aeroplane.

My wife saw right through my foolish grin when I popped into her office and she said: “Don’t tell me, another budget trip to Arab country?” What she didn’t realise was that her joke was spot on. I confessed to her tongue-in-cheek question and expected a bomb to go off, but instead she replied with a friendly voice: “Please do it, you won’t bump into another offer like that soon”. I returned to my desk and checked the balance in my current account. There was just enough cash to cover the trip. “OK, I’m going!” I thought out loud and replied to Rob’s email with a very excited ‘yes’.

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The Nubian desert is a desolate place.

The Nubian desert is a desolate place.

'Sunset' feels extraordinary long in Sudan due to the hazy air.

‘Sunset’ feels extraordinary long in Sudan due to the hazy air.

I never sleep well on aeroplanes and the insomnia left me in bad shape. Myprodols helped to soothe the chronic headache on the first three days of the trip, but the tablets blurred my vision so badly that I couldn’t tell the difference between a juvenile bluefin and a bonefish fighting at the end of my line. It was the second bluefin trevally that I hooked on the flat we fished in the morning. It amazed me how the electric blue lines on these fish turned pale grey on the white sand. The fish ate a small tan Merkin crab that was meant to catch a triggerfish, but at that stage I appreciated the pull from any kind of fish.

Bluefin trevally underwater 4 small

Bluefin trevally underwater 3 small

Bluefin trevally underwater 2 small

Bluefin trevally underwater 1 small

The previous day (the first day of the trip) was a quiet one for me and one of few days on which I drew a blank in tropical saltwater. It reminded me of a trip to Zanzibar many years ago, the only difference being that the fish were wiped out by subsistence fisherman around that island.

Overfishing wasn’t the reason that I caught nothing in the Red Sea, but I had to change my approach to prevent zero-fish days. My new approach was such that any fish that crossed my path in the water became a target.

For some inexplicable reason (or reasons) the triggerfish were, by and large, absent in the shallow water and the few yellow margin triggers we saw were absentminded, showing little interest in our flies. Mark Murray, head guide of Tourette Fishing, mentioned that the yellow margin triggers displayed odd behaviour and suggested that their tail-chasing antics may be part of a spawning ritual. Besides the distracted fish being a problem, there was wind.

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Baracuda small

By the time Mark and I had finished photographing the bluefin trevally on the flat, the wind had picked up and we had to endure gusts of approx. 50 km/h on the lunch break rendezvous to the mother ship, the Scuba Libre, and back to the flats for the afternoon fishing session. As much as we held thumbs for calm water, the weather forecast indicated that a cyclone was passing by and that we had to deal with strong wind for the rest of our trip. This did not help lift the spirit on the Scuba Libre, since all the guides and anglers on the trip were already having a tough time finding and hooking fish, respectively.

Nicola Vitali, owner of the Scuba Libre, took Jeff Tyser and myself under his wing and guided us for the duration of the six day fishing trip. Although Jeff and I had been to tropical islands before, our fishing experience in these conditions was as limited as our Arabic vocabulary.

Coral trout 2 small

Coral trout 1 small

Coral trout 3

Coral trout 4 small

Bohar snapper 1 small

My fresh approach to the fishing made a difference though. Whether we spotted a juvenile trevally, a triggerfish, a puffer- or boxfish, or some other LSJ (little silver job) swimming across the flat, a crab fly was flung in its direction and the fish mostly responded positively by eating it. Jeff also put in the time to fish blind while standing on the edges of the coral reef surrounding the islands. The bottom dropped beyond three hundred metres in some of these places and Jeff’s attempts to draw strikes with a 6/0 black brush fly in the blue water seemed like a red herring to me. Instead, I decided to wait and save the energy in my shoulder muscles until we saw fish near the surface or edge of the reef or until fish gave chase to the GT Ice Cream that Nicola used to tease large predatory fish with to the shore before casting my twelve weight rod.

Coral trout 6 small

Coral trout 5 small

It was between the teasing that Jeff made a ‘gazillionth’ blind cast over the drop-off and his line went tight on a big fish that dragged him right to the edge of the coral. I was convinced that a GT had taken the fly, but when Nicola tailed the fish after a short but intense fight he yelped: “Dogtooth, dogtooth, it’s a m$%#!@ f&%$#@* dogtooth tuna!”

Jeff caught his red herring after all and it was a great privilege to watch the event happen in real time. We captured the moment on ‘film’, which made history as one of the first (if not the first) and very few dogtooth tunas that had been caught on a blind cast from shore.

Jeff Tyser with a dogtooth tuna 1 small

Jeff Tyser with a dogtooth tuna 2 small

The fishing remained slow for the rest of the trip, but Jeff and I slowly accumulated our trophies, which included the dogtooth tuna, a lovely twinspot snapper, a couple of cracking bluefin trevally, a good yellow margin triggerfish and a big houndfish. The latter was a fish on my bucket list – I had seen many big houndfish in the tropics and even hooked a couple before this trip, but the thin and bony beak, preventing a proper hook set, was the reason I never landed one. Other, less prized fish species (a.k.a. ‘trash fish’) that we caught on fly included striped mackerel, peacock grouper, coral hind, redmouth snapper, big-eye trevally, yellow boxfish, black spot emperor, juvenile great barracuda and many juvenile bluefin trevally. The only fish that eluded us was a decent GT.

Jeff Tyser fighting a bluefin trevally 1 small

Jeff Tyser with a bluefin trevally 1 small

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Bluefin trevally underwater 5 small

Ryan Wienand, one of the accompanying anglers, hooked and landed a lovely juvenile GT, which was the only GT of the trip, on the first afternoon. Jeff and I had close shaves with these fish throughout the week, but sadly we never landed one.

Jeff had an encounter with a big GT during one of the evening tease sessions. The fish came after the hook-less plug and then ate his well-presented fly right on top of the shallow reef, but the fish carried on swimming towards him and he never made sufficient contact to set the hook. Similarly, a GT of between eighty and ninety centimetres ate my black brush fly on a sand flat and carried on swimming towards me at quite a speed. Although I could feel tension on my line, it wasn’t enough to embed the hook in its jaws. The fish spat the fly out before I could connect with it properly. I was confused about the good opportunity that somehow slipped through my hands.

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Stripping basket small

Boxfish small

The day after that incident I encountered another big GT on the same sand flat in a similar scenario. We watched how three big stingrays approached us in waste deep water. There was a greyish/blue blotch hanging around them. I immediately knew that the blurry blue thing was a GT, but it approached us so quickly that by the time the letters ‘G-T’ came out of my mouth, the fish was already a rod-length distance from us. This made me realise that GT are apex predators in shallow water and those fish that haven’t been exposed to reckless anglers can be oblivious to our presence.

Instead of scurrying off the flat like a triggerfish, the GT examined each of us, like an African child that had never seen white people before. I felt alien in its territory.

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I gathered myself and made a cast, placing the fly gently ahead of the inquisitive fish. It swam straight to the 8/0 black brush fly and swallowed it on the second strip.  This time I was ready for the strike and walked a few steps backward on the sand while setting the hook hard with both hands. I was completely absorbed in the moment and watched as the GT took the fly and turned sideways so that the hook caught flesh in the corner of its mouth. The passage of time, which was in fact a split second, felt like minutes passing by. When the fish had turned one hundred and eighty degrees, there was a nylon-stretching sound and a loud bang as the fly line parted behind the shooting head.

At first the three of us thought that the rod had snapped and we simultaneously stared at the Sage Salt twelve weight. The rod was still in one piece. Then, Nicola’s voice thundered abruptly through the pumping wind: “Porca Madonna, cazzoCAZZO!”; “I break my balls wading these flats and this sh!t line, THIS SH!T LINE loses the fish!” Nicola pretty much summarised the quality of that fly line. He grabbed hold of the end of the Airflo Super Dri Giant Trevally Fly Line that was still attached to my backing. There was a clean break where it had parted. My heart sank as I watched the fish swim casually off the flat, like a dog returning to its kennel after the kids got a bit too rough at play.

FU9A5331

FU9A5338

My last shot at a GT happened the next day, which was the final day of the trip. I was stalking a big triggerfish in knee deep water when an unidentified, blue reef fish swam slowly along the bottom towards me. I lobbed the crab out to what looked like a four kilogram parrot fish and stripped the fly gently as it sank. The fish shot to the surface and turned sideways as it sucked the small crab pattern down its gullet.

A four kilogram reef fish had turned into a GT of double the proportions and was now attached to my reel with six kilogram line. I burst out laughing as it surged through the shallow water, the floating nine weight line painfully burning my stripping hand as the slack slipped through my fingers. I was very relieved when the line went slack as the #2 hook lost its grip just before the GT reached the sharp coral edge of the flat.

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Yellow margin triggerfish 1 small

Yellow margin triggerfish 2 small

Yellow margin triggerfish 4 small

Yellow margin triggerfish 5 small

Triggerfish can inflict nasty bite wounds if not handled carefully...

Triggerfish can inflict nasty bite wounds if not handled carefully…

Nicola giving the triggerfish an unhappy look after it bit his palm.

Nicola looking bitter after the fish bit his palm.

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For more information about fly fishing trips to the Red Sea, and conventional tackle trips to this destination, please visit www.tourettefishing.com

Helpful tips that I picked up on the trip:

  1. A small stripping basket is very handy when carrying line over coral flats (even floating lines can get tangled in aquatic vegetation or coral); it may also be used as a temporary storage space for smaller fish species when getting a camera ready or when removing the hook; do not try to strip into the basket when actively fishing for large predatory fishes, including trevally, snapper or tuna, it will hamper your fishing;
  1. Always (as in always, always, always) carry a twelve weight rod when wading in knee deep water (or deeper); GT of a metre or more can access shallow water and these fish give the angler limited time to make a cast; other, smaller reef species, such as triggerfish for instance, give you enough time to switch rods; also, big bluefin trevally, larger snapper species and grouper will eat the streamer on the twelve weight rod;
  1. Purchase the Rio Leviathan 70 lb+ core or Rio GT floating 12 wt lines for big saltwater fishes; the guides in the Red Sea confirmed that five Airflo Super Dri Giant Trevally Fly Lines snapped in one week – they are weak and not recommended;
  1. Always cast a fly in the direction of a stingray; multiple fish species feed around them and you are likely to catch a fish when a fly is stripped over the stingray(s);
  1. Always use barbless hooks when fishing in tropical saltwater; the fish are strong and can easily cut your line on coral, shells or sharp limestone edges.

Nubian harbour 1 small

Nubian harbour small

Nicola with a beautiful GT that he caught just prior to our arrival.

Nicola with a beautiful GT that he caught just prior to our arrival.

The author with a large houndfish.

The author with a large houndfish.

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4 Comments

  1. Platon June 23, 2015 at 6:32 am - Reply

    Nice one Leonard, it sounded really tough but you did fabulously under the circumstances, and what a fine trigger. Jealous . . . as I just didn’t get the photo!

  2. Chris Bladen June 23, 2015 at 8:31 am - Reply

    Thanks Leonard – informative read! Looks amazing despite the conditions you had.

  3. Richard Morton June 23, 2015 at 9:55 am - Reply

    Awesome report Leonard! 🙂

  4. Conrad Botes June 23, 2015 at 6:27 pm - Reply

    Excellent post and photographs Leonard! It made me wish I was back in Sudan, despite the difficult and very challenging conditions we had, fishing it mid April this year. I loved Sudan and the Nubian flats; the colours and contrasting landscapes, the friendly Sudanese, colorful Italians and hardcore Saffas! Above all, I miss those triggers!!

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