Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Early Days in the Seychelles

Michael Melford of National Geographic, Dr. Russ Dilley and Scott Heywood  enjoy dusk after another superb day!
 Long before the Seychelles were famous and long before there were the five-star resorts, the Seychelles were visited by a only handful of lucky anglers each year. In the decades preceding Y2K, most of these anglers fished the Seychelles from a liveaboard the Tam Tam. The majority of these trips started from Alphonse Island which is now the home of a luxury resort. The hand-built Tam Tam was owned and operated by the eccentric Englishman Martin Lewis. Logistics and bookings were handled by his lovely wife Anna. After my first trip to the Seychelles, I described the results adventure in glowing terms:

Northeast of Madagascar and east of Nairobi, in the vast expanse of the western Indian Ocean, lie the idyllic Seychelles Islands. The 115, mostly coralline islands, are sparsely spread over 1.3 million square kilometers. Southwest of the main island Mahe, about an hour by air, lie three postcard perfect coral atolls and the best bonefishing on the planet Earth.

There is no way to adequately describe the bonefishing in the Seychelles. You may see more fish here than you will see the whole remainder of your bonefishing career. When you tire of bonefishing, you can pursue giant trevally or smaller bluefin trevally that savagely attack poppers or large deceivers. If all this fishing becomes too easy, you can go for the rarest of all Seychelles' angling prizes, the acrobatic milkfish. Milkfish rarely have been caught on a fly. But this elusive fish is one of the strongest found on the world's flats and when hooked, dazzles the lucky angler with blistering runs and huge thrashing jumps.

The flats are all hard and easily wadeable. Comprised of packed white sand and crushed coral, these hard-bottomed flats are interlaced with beautiful pale blue channels that give fish access to the flats. On the fringes of the tide, where the water meets the land, lies the best tailing bonefishing on the planet. The experienced angler will immediately gravitate towards these areas especially on the rising tide where bonefish tails glint suggestively in only inches of water.

But perhaps the most important accolade we can heap upon this island group concerns their unspoiled beauty. If you were to design the prototypical idyllic coral atoll, this would be it. These islands are stunning with huge palm trees leaning out over perfect white sand beaches that slope onto pale turquoise flats. Hawksbill turtles, fairy terns and soaring frigate birds constantly monitor your activities. Each island's lovely lagoon is encircled by waves crashing in on the atoll's reef sending a fine mist into the bluest sky imaginable.

...If you choose to make the commitment of time, energy and money and if you are willing to endure the hassles of international travel and the disorientation of jet lag, you will be rewarded with acres of tails glittering in the soft, saturated equatorial light of a completely deserted and perfect coral atoll. 

It is hard to explain how good the fishing was back then. I was lucky enough not to only fish these atolls but also Cosmoledo, Astove and Farquhar in the "early days". In those days, bonefish were literally everywhere. In fact, on my first trip to the island of St. Francoise there was never a time when I, along with National Geographic photographer Michael Melford, could not stand up in the skiff and see a bonefish. We tried, but it was impossible... we could always see one which meant we could always catch one. The bonefish on St. Francoise then never met a fly they didn't like. It was literally too easy.  Back on Alphonse, the only buildings were the remnants of an old copra plantation. We caught 60 lb. trevally on the beach in front of where there are now luxury cottages. The fishing is still excellent, but it is not as ridiculously good as it once was.

I am often asked, "How good was it?"
Try this:
1. On the shoreline of St. Francoise, bonefish would tail only inches from shore in the wavelets. If you stood on shore and cast 18 inches off shore, you could strip a crab fly out of the water and onto the sand and enticing bonefish to literally climb out of the water up to their anal fins. When almost beached, they would give up their pursuit and flop clumsily back into the surf.

2.) We caught bonefish on grasshopper flies, on trout nypmhs (from the depths of a chestpack), two at a time on dropper rigs, and on bare red hooks.

3.) We could often get close enough to touch tailing bones with our rod tips and came damn close to touching tails (we called it "counting coup") with our outstretched fingers.

4.)  We once calculated how many bones we could catch in a day. We figured it took us 7-9 minutes to land a 6 lb. fish if we "horsed" it in. We thought it would take us one minute to find a new fish after landing the previous fish. Therefore, we could realistically catch a fish every ten minutes or 6 in an hour. We could fish ten hours a day, therefore we could catch 60 bonefish a day. No breaks, no screwing around, no lunch. Tough work, but a job is a job.

5.) When we saw rays they often had dozens of bones weaving in and out of the mud that the rays were stirring up.  Less often rays not only trailed dozens of eager bones, but also bluefin trevally and Indio-Pacific permit.

Three huge bonefish weave in the wake of this ray. Thee are 20 more smaller bones behind these three monsters!
6.) We had dozens of 40 +lb. GT's (along with two or three 9-10' lemon sharks) cruising off the back of the Tam Tam. The GT's would eat anything: fish guts, oranges, paper plates... they were so aggressive we had to make sure we never put our hands in the water! The GT's could calculate a thrown object's trajectory and would race to the spot where a fish head for instance might hit the water.  How a fish learns to do this is impossible to know, but it is indeed an impressive skill for a fish.

Donald cleans a snapper as the GT's wait for  a snack.

The GT's would defer to the sharks whenever a fish head was offered.

7.) We could catch huge sea turtles on the flats where their speed was diminished by the shallow water. Initially we took  a ride on the big turtles after taking them to the edge of drop-offs and hanging on. That lasted until a 10' tiger shark knocked me off a turtle and we brainiacs learned why so many turtles only had 3 flippers.

8.) In addition to bonefish, GT's and milkfish, we caught many other  spectacular specie including: Bawa snapper, bluefin trevally, irridescent trigger fish, parrot fish, Indio-Pacific permit, Capitan Rouge... the list went on and on.

  I will always remember my first trip to the Seychelles thusly: (These words were written below a map I had hand-drawn in my journal)

"After leaving the lagoon of Alphonse Island, we crossed the deep blue waters of the narrow channel, Canal de la Mort, before reaching another reef which protects the tiny island of Le Bijoutier.  Once past this perfect little gem, we entered the lagoon of St. Francois Island.  Around the tranquil heart of the lagoon waves hurl themselves against the outer reef.  At least five wrecks loom ominously on the skyline standing as silent testament to the power of the Indian Ocean.  For the fisherman, they serve as convenient landmarks.  The St. Francois Lagoon is about 8 x 4 miles and is slightly oval in shape.  Between the crashing waves and the inner lagoon lie the extensive white sand flats.  The bonefish hungrily invade this great shallow expanse in search of crabs and worms as the tide pulses in from both the open ocean side and from the lagoon.  The flats consist of hard white sand and packed coral.  They are some of the firmest, flattest and most easily waded flats in the world.  Grass, weeds and coral are minimal although weed beds and crushed coral terraces at the atoll’s rim hold prolific numbers as well as some of the largest bonefish I have found anywhere in the world."


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  2. Hi Scott,

    Great article which I would like to reproduce in a new magazine called SEALife Seychelles, published in Seychelles, of which I am the editor and promoter. Kindly email me with your contact details on and we shall talk.


    Arnold Chetty

    1. Hi Arnold! I e-mailed you tonight! Thanks for the nice comment! Scott

  3. Is Tam Tam still in operation? Would like to book the charter too.

  4. Hi Scott,

    I have lived and worked on Alphonse Island for the past 4 years. I am particularly interested in what the island looked like before the resort opened. If you have anymore pictures of the islands and the old buildings pre 1999, I would really appreciate it if you might be able to send me some pics. You can contact me at: