(This is the unedited version of the article published in the September 2012 issue of Rod and Line magazine)
Click here to watch a video of the trip.
It may be easier for me to say NO to a pretty lady than to an invitation to go fishing with a bunch of blokes. “Eh, Juan Wei, come la join us on our Maldives trip” suggests Nick Ooi of Tacklebox Adventures. My replies over time were “No la”, “Not this time”, “Maybe next year”. And then… on the eleventh hour… resistance was futile.
The first time I went to the Maldives was fifteen years ago. The island archipelago have seen tremendous change and growth ever since. The capital island of Male from an idyllic and almost laid-back “fantasy island” now resembles a smaller version of Hong Kong with buildings crowding every available space.
Eagerly looking forward to my return trip on March 2012 is an understatement and I have been inexplicably consumed with visions of foot-long fish. No, not fish that measures 12 inches long but rather fish as long as my leg, their backs half sticking out of the water, so willingly munching on flies and fish fighting off other fishes to be the first to strike at my lures. That’s right. I’ve got a real fish itch now.
It didn’t help either when a fishing buddy on the same trip mentioned there was so many fish on a previous trip to the Maldives they had to push aside fishes just so they can wash their hands. You know he is joking, right?
We arrived at our first fishing spot which are two small islands separated by a vast flats at about 3pm with just two hours of fishing time left, and during the run out tide. We were not expecting much but surprise surprise as all it took Irhamy was two casts to land the first fish of the trip. And to sweeten the deal it was a hard-fighting decent sized Bonefish. The bonefish being the main target fish of most anglers of the trip and is among the “must-catch” fish of every fly-fisherman.
So it would appear we hit the ground (or waters) running and our trip was off to a promising start. Expectations were naturally running high thereafter.
Alas, who would have guessed that had our Maldives trip was anything less than the 7 days it was, it could have turned out to be a huge letdown as the fishing turned out to be very slow the following three days. No one knew what was going on. Sure, there were fish-on every now and then but far from what was experienced before.
Pretty soon we were starting to feel the heat and some opted to return to the mother-boat after just half a day of fishing. One afternoon some of us gathered inside some bushes hiding from the scorching sun, taking the opportunity to get to know each other better and I even took a short nap dreaming that the boat will come pick us up soon.
While we were scratching our heads on the islands, luckily the jigs were bringing some cheers to the party.
Back on the mother boat in the evening some of us would put our jigging gear to work after cleaning up and gulping down a sumptuous dinner. The captain repositions and anchors the boat at promising spots for the night and on the first night we hit a school of giant trevally (GT).
The new Abu Garcia Tournament Evo rod and Penn Battle 5000 reel combo is the first one to be put to the stress test. The spot was only about 30 meters in depth and the first GT took the Adhek Bali 110g Ghost Jig that I was lazily slow jigging. Shahril followed shortly with a bigger specimen of about 15kg. Double hook-up on the get go had everyone on board screaming like excited school girls after a difficult day on the flats.
More GTs followed in quick successions until the current picked-up and the bites stopped with our jigs not hitting the sweet spot any longer. Tired from wading the flats for long hours we were more than contented with the fun the GTs provided, albeit not for very long.
I know some of the guys would get up and back to jigging during the 2-3am peak tide hours but I chose to recharge for more fishing on the flats the next morning.
Din and Shahril also had great success jigging the island reefs resulting in the subsequent days pulling up big coral trout and long nosed emperor plus more giant trevallies.
If there is a single fish species that every angler on the trip will catch, it must be of the trevally genus. Banded trevally, giant trevally, island or orange spotted trevally, and you-name-it-trevally are all quite abundant but by far the most caught is the bluefin trevally. They are practically found almost everywhere and ranges from small half a kilo fish to those weighing a good couple of kilos.
Like all trevallies the bluefin trevally is no slouch and will put up a good fight when hooked. Coincidentally they are also the most beautiful of all the trevally species. Notably, the bluefin trevally responses better to fast retrieved lures or fast stripped flies. Two-handed retrieve of the fly line is called for or you may just see a frustrating follow that ends in anti-climax aka no strike. It is most exciting, while standing thigh-deep in water, to see four, five or more electric blue streaks charging towards your lure or fly in gin clear waters. You never quite know what will happen in the next split seconds.
Stalking the Triggerfish
Triggerfish can be commonly seen at many reefs and flats, sometime in pairs, or more. It is said that each triggerfish have their own characteristics and attitude that I find most intriguing. Most will fight hard and dirty when hooked while some are said to put up little resistance. At times they can be wary and get spooked easily but on many occasions will swim so close to you that you can bash them with your fishing rod!
I had a few go at some triggerfish but they did not stick around or showed much interest in my offerings until at this particular island where I was fishing at a small drop-off from the flats to the reefs. It was just after lunch and a triggerfish was looking for food at the sandy bottom of the flats. It would periodically swim off into the reef only to merrily reappear a short while later much to my delight.
I spent almost one hour stalking and casting at this particular fish. Earlier attempts at casting “charlie” flies at it will only attract a short glance before it turns away from the fly that is slowly sinking to the bottom. If it spots the fly moving at the sandy bottom it will sometimes rush forward to have a look only to turn away as soon as it gets a clear look at the fly.
Switching to a crab imitation fly tied by Irhamy did the trick. It immediately showed more interest at the “crab” but was still cautious. The thing about the triggerfish is you have to present your fly right in front of its nose or most of the time it will appear to not see the bait.
The triggerfish will not take the whole bait into its mouth or gulp it down at one go. Instead it will munch at the bait and you can feel it actually biting down at the hook. I had to use two crab flies before I managed to hook this fish. It just took chunks out of the first fly rendering it mostly useless. This is sight casting at its upmost fun. Seeing the fish turn around to chase after the crab that is being stripped away. Looking at the fish tip its head down and feeling it at your fingertips through the fly line. For a brief moment you ask yourself “Should I continue stripping (line)?” “Should I pause?” and “Do I strike?”.
I finally saw the fish turn around and the fly line begins to tighten from my fingers. Once hooked, the fish took off but it did not go into hyper speed mode. Instead, like a locomotive it started to build-up speed gradually and I began to feel its weight and power. Many times it tried to swim for the reef but it was too far away. It then started to go directly for a half submerged tree stump and that caused some anxious moments for me. Luckily I either managed to stop it just in time or manage to turn its head every time it got close.
Finally it was Raining Bonefish
Some of the islands that we fished at are truly a piscatorial paradise. I was informed some are also nurseries for various species of fish. That explains the high concentration of sharks and rays at some lagoons. There were a few shark encounters that caused some anxious moments, too. We laughed about them later but I am very sure it wasn’t so funny to the persons involved during the moments.
It was only during the later part of the trip that the bonefish showed-up. Much to the delight of the fly guys. One of whom came out with the exclamation “It’s raining bonefish!”.
Bonefish counts in the double digits per day were being landed. David was the champ with five landed on just one single session alone. Even first timers Din and Shahril was hooking and landing some good sized bonefish. They even had the thrill of watching sharks maul down one of the released bonefish, too. Everyone was having their boner. Except pretty old me. I felt it though. The bonefish. I had a couple of them on my hook and felt their runs. But they will not stay on the hook long enough for me to hold them in my hands for that all gratifying hero shot. No happy ending for me I suppose. At least not in this aspect. But overall I enjoyed the trip tremendously.
It is a real hoot to fish with a bunch of like-minded guys who shares the same passion and who are constantly on the lookout for the well being of others. It needs to be like that when you are all basically stuck on the same boat (literally) and marooned on the same deserted islands day in and day out for one whole week.
I think Sek and Stefan are the only ones that came with trolling gears. Although trolling is not the main agenda it can be done from first leaving the airport to the first island destination which is a good eight hours boat ride away. Why waste any opportunity to catch some fish, right? For those unfamiliar, the Male international airport is an island itself and the moment you come out of the arrival hall you will be greeted by water. Other times to troll is when we move between islands and during the channel crossing from one atoll to another.
The boat cruises at about eight knots and pulling skirts or baited skirts and konaheads are most ideal. Bibless lures can also be used.
Some of the fishes hooked on the troll this time was a couple of small tuna and a billfish that did not stay connected for long. Trolling can obviously produce some giants but you have to stay alert and having a reel with a loud ratchet would help as the noise from the boat’s motor coupled with the generator may drown out the sound of your reel screaming as it pukes line.
To sum it all up, I find this type of trip is something every angler should experienced not just for the fishing but also to take in the beauty of the islands and all. A friendly warning though, you may get hooked!
In the Tacklebox
Jigging: If you were to bring only one setup for jigging it should be a PE4. Knowing jiggers, you will of course be packing something lighter for a ‘more sporting’ challenge and something heavier ‘in case’ the big ones are biting. The most used jigs weigh between 80 to 150 grams. Glow-in-the-dark jigs are good in the evening and bring those UV torch if you have one.
Casting: Pack what you are confident with using. You never quite know what you may catch while casting. 7 foot rods and 2500 sized reels spooled with 40 pound lines will be an all rounder. Bring plenty of spoons as losing them to reef and fish will be a common affair. You can also cast small poppers and soft plastics at the flats, surf and reefs.
Fly Fishing: The most commonly used are weight 6, 7 and 8. I used a weight 7 Temple Fork Outfitters BVK rod and BVK II reel throughout the trip. Tippet was Scientific Anglers 20 pound fluorocarbon tapered leader. 12 pound Tippett will also be suitable for most fish. My backup reel is a Ross Reel with 7 weight line and 8 weight rod which did not see action. Some of the guys packed with them anything from weight 5 to weight 10 setups.
Clothing: There is no room for dressing down in this sort of fishing situations. Quick drying protection against the sun for apparels and a pair of good comfortable wading boots is a must fishing on the flats. Don’t neglect a good pair of socks. I thought I could do without them but my feet started to suffer after three days.
When on the flats we spend 80% of the time standing in knee to thigh deep water with some bottom are covered with rocks or coral while sandy bottoms can potentially be a hiding spot for stingrays. Other standard essentials are Buff headgear, a good long billed cap or large breamed hat, and a pair of polarised sunglasses not only as shade but to help spot fish.
More tips, later… Food, Sight, Company and more.