A lot of things were off the cards last year… freedom of movement and association, travel, even booze (if you live in South Africa). For UK-based, former Springbok, Bob Skinstad and friends, there was a brief moment in the molasses of lockdown time, when they were presented with a golden opportunity to experience some of the best saltwater fly fishing on the planet at Cosmoledo in the Seychelles. Not everything that goes on tour, stays on tour.

“Cosmoledo.  Two weeks.  December. It’s back on. Get on it Skin, ‘cos you’re in.”

That’s a big, big WhatsApp message in my world, especially when it’s come from my friend, cricket international and fly angler, Justin Kemp (aka Kempy).

Justin was introduced to fly fishing late. He’d grown up fishing but after being a bait skate for so many years, his move to fly was started by myself and few friends. But, in a true Jedi/Star Wars parallel, the student has completely surpassed the master.  The human Goliath Heron of fly fishing is unstoppable. It’s not just his own fishing, but after he and his partners took over Upstream Flyfishing in Cape Town a few years back, it’s become what he does now. With a capable crew, a well-stocked and well-run shop, and working as a tour operator, Upstream has created a reason to be excited for many long time fly fishing enthusiasts.

Former Springbok rugby player Bob Skinstad and former Protea cricketer Justin Kemp with a triggerfish caught by hand

Former Springbok rugby player Bob Skinstad and former Protea cricketer Justin Kemp with a triggerfish caught by hand

That message from Justin meant a lot to me because it came at the end of 2020, with its travel restrictions, lockdowns, family illnesses etc., a long and difficult year for everyone. Because I had fished with most of the guys joining this tour before, and a few new big names were also invited, it was a trip that absolutely couldn’t be missed. The crowd was top class and I already knew what to expect from the fishing.

After you’ve experienced the first visual, brutal take of a Cosmo GT on fly, the raw power and early thrust, seen a clumsy angler dancing the tangled line jig on the foredeck of the skiff, with millimetres and milliseconds of luck between losing and taming a fish, you’re hooked on that high for life. Once you’ve tried to stop the zig-zagged sprint of a trigger fish or felt the long, swinging tail bounce of a deep, downward running milkfish bending line off your rod, there is only so much satisfaction you can get from a river brown rising to a mayfly, a tussle with a sluggish carp or another introductory lesson at a hatchery for your very keen offspring.

   

As I put my phone down and started my mental packing, my memories were triggered. Senses on high alert, I could feel the tremors already. This was going to be an extra special trip.

For most of the year, the very idea of a two-week trip to Cosmoledo in 2020 seemed impossible (for obvious reasons). But fishermen and mates have a way of achieving the impossible. Luckily there is always the chance of things coming together and they did. I had a valid Covid-19 PCR test so, when, for a brief glorious moment both the Emirates and the Seychelles fell into a collaborative joint travel corridor, an opportunity opened up. The tour was on!

 

Cosmoledo with Bob Skinstad

Bob Skinstad and Gary Neill with a bonefish double-up at Cosmoledo

Lockdown Break in the Clouds

From my rugby career to my life post-rugby, tours, in all forms, have been an irreplaceable part of my annual calendar.  Dates to work towards, they are the tonic that make the day-to-day drudge bearable and they make the pure time with family, work and everything else all the more pleasant.

“Tours are an irreplaceable part of my annual calendar.  Dates to work towards, they are the tonic that make the day-to-day drudge bearable”

The most important part of a tour is the friends who join you, who share a common passion. Sometimes it’s a golf tour or a sports tour to a major event, but fishing is often one of my main reasons for going on tour. I have found that, if you love to fish and love to travel, you do not run out of places to go.

The team and tour rules change from destination to destination. The jolly goings on are a huge part of why our trips are a success but, on this one, they were only peripheral to the main meal. How could they be anything other than a bowl of nuts before the grouper fillet, or a popcorn bite to the lamb shank main? The real achievement was the hard work of the guides and staff, because for us, just being at Cosmoledo, the best of Seychelles, made this tour the unbeatable one.

 

Paradise at last

It’s a long trek from Weybridge in Surrey, but a worthwhile one.

(big deep breath)

Seven hours on Emirates; a solitary beer in the bar at Dubai International; four more hours on Emirates; customs (with PCR!!) a catch up at the IDC lounge in Mahe; board an island hopper; an hour to Alphonse; another beer 90 mins; to Astove; a quick beer and about an hour (weather dependent) by boat to Cosmo.

Some of the team had flown across from South Africa via Johannesburg while a few more had jetted in via Air Cadiz, stopping for a night of prawns and stories on the beach in Mozambique before joining us on the runway at Astove. The early rapport was good, the fish were nervous and rightly so. Everyone on this trip could fish.

A raised coral atoll that runs 17 km in length from east to west, and 12.5 km from north to south, Cosmoledo is only 5.2 km2 in area, but the lagoon and the reef flats have an area of 145 km2. You are not going to run out of water to fish. The closest island is Astove, 35 km farther south.

Ray Cadiz with a permit from Cosmoledo

Ray Cadiz with a permit from Cosmoledo

The main eco-camp at Cosmoledo is set up on Wizard Island.  All the accommodation is in incredibly comfortable, prefabricated container-like rooms,  with showers and ablutions added on to each one.

The guides and camp staff share similar digs but they are tucked away, near a camp mess area, and aren’t part of the main accommodation and pathway.  You feel like it is just you and your friends on the island.  There is a central dining and leisure area with Wi-Fi, bar, emergency comms and a small store of provisions that you might need for going about your day with some replacements for fishing equipment, hats, shirts and general paraphernalia.

The food is exceptional. Having seen the small boxes of provisions that come in, I really don’t know how they do it.  Obviously fish and other sea food options are readily available but what they do with the very little they have is absolutely outstanding.

Every day a fantastic breakfast is served from 7am. Anglers enjoy a traveler’s meal on the boat, which the guide will get you to stop and enjoy.  On your return from fishing and a freshen-up, you come back to the main tent pre supper and an evening time gathering begins.

My first day nerves were shattered by an 8.15 am strike on a small, angry, black, fast torpedo of a GT. Missed. Shit! First cast, first mistake and then those self-same nerves were settled by more fish coming round the corner. Never mind, chin up!

The light breeze provided a bit of respite on that first day and, fishing with an old friend Matt Ferrey, it was easy to get going because the fish were playing their part. All the first-timers on GT were into the thick of things very quickly, and kept getting hungrier and reaching for more.

For the rest of Bob’s story, get stuck in to issue 25 of The Mission below. As always, it’s free.