Fly Fishing the Red Sea
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Mike Tyson
As we departed Dubai international on a southward bearing, I reflected on my first trip to coastal Sudan; a land of endless flats, fish that defy the imagination and memories that last a lifetime. The red sea in Sudan carries with it a potent allure unlike any other and, as I stared out at a bed of clouds as dappled as the sands beneath, I wondered at how many places where moments of connectedness to an ancient Africa unmarred by human history and presence were left. The Red Sea, peppered with islands, pinnacles and bommies (a submerged offshore reef) bristling with opportunity, sped by beneath the window within arm’s reach. As water makes way to sand and dust, one sees neat little squares and lines indicating human presence even out here in the most far flung corner of the human termitorium.
According to Edwalk Lieske and Robert F. Myers in their book A Coral Reef Guide to the Red Sea, the Red Sea has the third highest level of endemism in the world at just over 15%. It boasts over 1000 species of fish, 230 species of hard coral and an outrageous visibility of 15 to 50 m. This is due to an annual rainfall of between 6 and 60 mm resulting in insignificant and episodic inflow from catchment areas. It is approximately 2,270 km long, between 100 – 350 m wide and roughly 3,040 m at its deepest point. Though not without the usual humanitarian problems, coral bleaching, pollution, destructive fishing practices, overfishing and invasive species, the Red Sea in Sudan is still as intact as it’s ever going to be. Egypt sadly has destroyed most of its portion due to excessive hotels and diving pressure, Yemen is inaccessible due to civil unrest, Eritrea and Djibouti for the most part
are dirty and overpopulated and lastly Saudi Arabia is a police state leaving Sudan as the likely choice for Red Sea wonderers including, courtesy of Tourette Fishing, fly fishermen.
The wondering band of fly fishermen this time was made up of mostly second timers and we were out on an exploratory trip for a whole two weeks. Kevin and myself made up the south African contingent, Mike and Pieter from the USA, Jean Louis from France and Thomas from the Netherlands. With Stuart Harley and Nicola, the mankini loving Italian, guiding at the helm we were in for one wild trip.
The first two days were spent on a magnificent stretch of coast lined by 300 m wide coastal flats with its mountainous backdrop layered against the horizon. Last year this stretch of coast really put my resolve to the test when I only landed one triggerfish in nine opportunities. This year was no different mostly due to the conditions. Apart from Jean Louis and Peter’s four triggerfish, we did nothing but exercise our frustration, warm up our casting muscles and tune into the mesmeric beauty of the flats. Heading out into the choppy sea each morning meant you were shivering and wet before you hit the ground but our enthusiasm and excitement burned brightly. With twenty knot winds coupled with the occasional thirty knot gusts the fishing was tricky, but every 20-30 m presented a fresh opportunity at a wily triggerfish.
The second day was more eventful when two giant trevally (GT) and one bluefin trevally
made good their escape. Each strike was a hard and fast reminder that one had to beat these fish mentally before presenting the fly. They are so powerful and so fast in their execution that it’s difficult to explain. However, at one point I noticed three bluefin cruising along the shoreline towards me scouting for baitfish. Hotfooting it across the rocks I intercepted them and fed them a crab pattern on the 9 weight. In two seconds, I was into the backing, the sweet sound of the Orvis heralding absolute bliss and the reason for being here.
On the third day, we leapfrogged each other along the coast in two teams covering serious ground en route to a stretch of oceanic reef. Nicola, Kevin and myself began the morning by teasing. This involves casting a hookless popper which is brought in at speed
simulating a fleeing baitfish that hopefully encourages the large predatory trevally to follow to a distance close enough for a cast with the fly rod. We walked alongside the shore break on fairly level ground dodging the occasional hole at the reef edge, constantly scanning the waves for any cruising fish. Action soon followed when I lost a respectable GT after the 1.2 mm leader parted like butter just short of the hook. I then lost a small bluefin and landed a second. A few casts later I came eye to eye with my old nemesis; a one meter plus giant hovering casually in the waves. A fish of this size eluded me on my first trip to the Red Sea and I was determined to catch one. With my jellified adrenaline-pumped coordination long since tamed I was ready for her when she rushed in and dispatched my fly with no warning. I set the hook with gusto as though I was trying to win a tug-o-war against an angry Scotsman three times my size. In an instant, the fish disappeared back into the dark depths from whence it came leaving me celebrating, swearing and shouting like a monkey denied its banana. Then the line popped. 65-pound braid with a 300 grain shooting head just separated. I could still see the fish in my mind engulfing the fly with that big white mouth three meters from where I was standing. As I stood there trying to reason with what had just happened, I noticed that my fly rod was in a sorry state. Two eyes separated from the rod and the one closest to the real was bent at an odd angle, no longer resembling the fine piece of fishing equipment it was meant to be. I’d done it perfectly and yet the one meter plus GT still left me beaten. I’d come out swinging, confident in my experience and preparation and yet it mattered little. The Red Sea had punched in the mouth and it was only day three.
The Scuba Libre had passed us some time ago and it was now our turn to play catch up once we’d found our way off the flat into open sea which was a challenge in itself. By this time the swell had significantly picked up. With what remained of my shredded confidence I sat huddled in the bottom of the boat. Losing sight of the Scuba Libre every time we went into a trough, I’d lost track of time and distance. I remember Pete shouting to Jean Louis above the wind while they sat on the cooler box at the aft, “at least we can be shielded by the young guys from the spray.” At which point a wave drenched the entire boat. Soaked by waves and water we chopped our way back to the mother ship which never seemed to get any closer. Cold and shivering but still finding it within oneself to grin and laugh as we endured the comedy of the situation. This was living.
That day I did however, manage my first titan triggerfish supposedly the trickiest of the triggers. Frustrated by continuously losing to these fish I persisted. With the 12 weight seemingly out of action I knew I was going to get down and dirty with the chameleon of the flats.
Maybe it was my luck that the village idiot had to swim out in front of me but what followed had certainly never happened before. I spotted two titans swimming casually along tailing intermittently. I move to intercept them and presented my fly. Halfway through the retrieve I hooked mother Africa. They had not spooked so I leopard crawled up to the rock and unhooked the fly with my rod tip. Idiot one was 4 meters away and had miraculously not spotted me. For a fish with a reputation for wariness I couldn’t believe what was happening. Presenting the fly a second time encouraged him to swim over and hammer it into the sand with his teeth. Keeping my nerve, I stripped slowly while he kept battering the fly into the sand as though he had a grudge with all things crustacean. As the leader met the rod tip I set the hook. Like a dragster he tore across the flats taking the whole fly line with him. I was ecstatic.
Balancing on the reef, fighting swell and flinging poppers into the Nubian sunset with my newly repaired 12 weight is how that day ended. We fished a multi-layered reef with a false bottom of coral surrounded by the deep blue. It was a sea of colourful transparency. The coral coupled with the swell provided some fairly treacherous footing so one had to be cautious, slow and deliberate while walking. After being dropped off some way from the channel so as not to spook the fish we positioned ourselves at the edge of this tiny break in the reef and fished the same spot all afternoon. Landing my first twinspot “bohar” snapper proved to be quite a comical experience. He snatched the popper from beneath my nose and dove straight down. I couldn’t move him so Stu donned his goggles and jumped off the edge. After realising that he was in competition with
four or five sharks he returned to the ledge as quickly as possible and did what he could from the relative safety of the coral edge. Thankfully the snapper dislodged itself and came to the surface. As if that wasn’t enough I almost had a bareknuckle boxing match with a 120 centimetre GT on two occasions. As I dredged the Nyap popper through the surface towards me I was anticipating an explosion of water with each strip. Sure enough the biggest GT I had seen to date smashed the popper in a black rage as it reached the edge. I was actually thankful the hook did not set as I’d be left staring at more than just a broken fly line.
The same fly line was stripped to the core the next day by a different GT. We were walking the edge of a coastal flat south of the entrance to an inland lagoon scanning the shore break for any cruising fish, occasionally throwing the tease. It wasn’t long before I spotted one sitting in the waves; an image of predatorial perfection. My orange semper slapped into the next wave 10 meters in front of it and it was in its mouth by the time I’d finished the second strip. The fish, approximately 90cm in length, rocketed out to sea dragging the length of my fly line through some coral with predictable results.
This magnificent lagoon with a long narrow entrance, was where we had anchored for the night. It was a picturesque cove ringed by high sand dunes protected from the wind and swell. A prominent sand spur which pointed its way into the channel midway between the open sea and the lagoon itself was where we concentrated most of our efforts, as it had harboured one or two big fish in the past. It was off this spur that we threw poppers into the channel long into yet another desert sunset. If I had to measure my life in moments this would certainly be among my most unforgettable.
On google earth we had seen an oceanic bommie some ways east of the lagoon mouth in the open sea. It was an atoll of virgin unfished water approximately 80 meters long and 40 meters wide presumably unfishable in big swell. With not a breath of wind to ripple the surface, Mike, Stu and I throttled out in its general direction, a pod of dolphin scything through the mirrored surface around us. We jumped off onto the atoll not quite believing what we were about to do and where we were about to do it. A platform of multicoloured coral (giant iridescent blue clams were the most striking) surrounded by transparent depths visible for 40 meters at least, the distant horizon and the fact that we were waist deep in the middle of the ocean all lent itself to one unimaginable scene of peace and tranquillity. The plan was to begin teasing the windward edge with big flies. As we walked unsteadily on the uneven surface, we admired a school of medium sized bluefin, in all their iridescent magnificence, as they swam between us unphased by our presence. I picked up the 9 weight with a tan clouser and tagged a few of them in quick succession. Once released they went straight back to their holding
pattern as though nothing had happened. After I’d had my fun my attention returned to the tease. On the first retrieve an orca sized bohar breached the surface at the edge of the atoll in spectacular fashion. Stu had his work cut out for him as he struggled to keep the tease ahead of at least three of these behemoths. Making more noise than a traditional French Polynesian whaling team, all three of us were shouting at once for no particular reason, as these fish rapidly zoned in on our flies hungrily searching the water for baitfish. Mike promptly hooked one, his rod at an impossible angle as I frantically thrashed the water next to him hoping for a bohar double up.
That afternoon we walked the coral beach for GT in the waves. We bumped seven or eight at close quarters but on three or four
occasions we had feeding frenzies. The first was the most spectacular. It involved at least 15 bluefin and 2 big GT’s. As the tease landed the water all around it just erupted. Stu could not pull the tease in fast enough ahead of the white water and dark shapes beneath. The GT’s beat the blues to the flies and we both set the hook as though we did this for a living. I promptly lost mine while Mikes battle continued. I cast again and again with mounting frustration, each time eliciting more chaos from the water in front of me. Finally, a good sized bluefin swallowed the fly, ending the madness. I finally landed it as did Mike, a good 93 cm brute. A little further on we had a similar scenario with several hordes of 80 cm bluefin boiling up the water in front of us. Like wild wizards we laid our flies out again and again amidst the hysteria, but to no avail. Eventually two fish followed my fly in before I finally landed one. Tachy Psych syndrome must have kicked in because in that moment it felt like my perception of time had slowed. All I saw was a big white mouth engulfing the fly on the crest of the wave before the inevitable return to the sea at a splintering speed.
On our sixth day we leapfrogged the mother ship and took lunch out with us on the fibres. With a steady south wind of 10 knots, the sun behind us and miles of coastal flats ahead of us, we were once again blessed with virgin water. The day kicked off in typical Red Sea style, with a bang. Every triggerfish fell on the crab as if it were the only crab in the Red Sea. Stu and Kevin walked closest to the shore while Mike and I walked a deeper line. They found a school of five bonefish. In relation to the wind and the sun they were perfectly positioned to present the fly. Kevin hooked the 10-pound matriarch but sadly lost it due to his line snagging on his straps, something I’m certain will haunt him for the rest of his days. While this was going on Mike battled a 6.5-pound bonefish and I simultaneously fought a respectable yellow
margin triggerfish. We netted our fish; an unusual double up combination. That afternoon we teased up multiple trevally and snapper. Two bohar were landed as well as two bluefin. Another school of 100 cm plus GTs sabotaged the flies on one tease. They came again three times after the initial onslaught bringing with them the usual pandemonium. None were landed.
That night Nicola had to contact Global Rescue and arrange a medivac for Jean Louis; a stark reminder about the realities of fishing in such a remote and inhospitable place. Jean Louis had fallen and broken his ankle. When the realisation that he was not going to be able to continue began to sink in all he said was, “but I have a new line!”. It was heart-breaking. In a matter of hours Global Rescue had formulated an evacuation plan and a Landcruiser materialized out of the desert at the edge of the lagoon to pick him up and take him back to Port Sudan where he would catch a flight back to France.
Our fishing fortunes also took a downward turn. The following day we were battered by 40 knot winds. We walked the flats with little action. Thomas missed a GT that was following a large ray. I slung a popper into the blue, blind casting amidst the desert surrounds raising two GT and landing one orange spotted trevally. Mike and I took the time to walk out into the 9 million square kilometres that was the world’s largest hot desert. We walked onto a sweltering gravel plain covered in shells and sand and wondered at the timeless history of such a desolate place. Returning to the fibres, I took a moment to swim, relax and reflect on these distant surroundings. I marvelled at the sky above that was divided in two. Above the land was a sandy haze whipped up into the stratosphere courtesy of the desert wind while above the sea it was clear.
At least two hours that afternoon were spent sheltering behind a ledge against the shore from the wind. Pieter and Kevin decided to call it a day while Stu and I teased
for each other in big surf, confusing the idea of fly fishing. We had to fight to keep our footing in chest deep water, jumping through wave after wave and casting in between. After three casts with the teasing rod I discovered a new-found appreciation and respect for the fly fishing guide. It was exhausting work. The desert sun disappeared from view while we continued to battle the cold wind and ocean swell hoping for the queen mother of all GTs, but it was not to be. We had one or two enquiries but nothing substantial, however, it was yet another memory that will stay with me for a lifetime. We were putting ourselves to the test and thoroughly enjoying ourselves doing it. It was the cold, I think, that seeps into your bones and tears you further into that ever-elusive moment.
Day eight proved a much-needed rest day. We up anchored and sailed south with the wind and swell. Our destination was a long thin stretch of sand surrounded by smooth flats. Further east of the flat lie three pinnacles. These are oceanic atolls ringed by 60-900 m drop-offs. The objective was to anchor off the flat and spend the next few days fishing all four of these spots, each with its own character. The day was spent resting, recuperating, mending tackle, muscles and wounds. At one point, the largest of the three with an abandoned lighthouse on the southern side, I realised that we had a Dutchman, a Zambian, a South African, and a Sudanese sitting expectantly on this patch of coral while an Italian yelled instruction from the top of the lighthouse. On one of the pinnacles I missed another opportunity at the ‘black rocket’ in much the same way as I’d done on the previous year. We’d sit for hours staring into the shallows waiting for a GT to swim across the windward side of the atoll with the current. Finally, on day eleven Stu threw a tease and I put my back into an 80 cm GT.
After days of wielding a 12 weight my muscles were taking serious strain at this point so he thankfully steadied me as I fought the fish in textbook fly fishing fashion. You have to lock the reel before the fish gains any momentum and pulls itself over the coral edge so it took all the fight I had in reserve. When the photographs had been taken and the fish released I sat back and let it sink in, the last of the adrenaline ebbing into the bed of shells beneath me.
On day twelve we again took lunch out with us. Mike, Stu and I fished little snake island and walked most of the eastern edge of large island, the largest island east of where the Scuba Libre had first moored. There was no wind and it was hot. Early that morning a faint mist hung in the air creating a rather ghostly ambience. Fly fishermen in the mist seemed a suitable title. In total that day, we presented a fly at a school of permit twice, very nearly landing one, as well as to over twenty triggerfish but landed four which is testament to their
cunning and vigilance.
My last session on the Red Sea ended in the same place as the previous year and in much the same manner. We walked the flats on the north-western edge of the island. I caught a titan triggerfish the size of a briefcase, had a close encounter with a big barracuda, threw a lot of verbal abuse at what was likely the only big GT that wasn’t hungry and the biggest bluefin of the trip which attempted to part the Red Sea in its pursuit of the tease before veering off the fly at the last second. Even after two weeks of doing this the adrenaline still flowed.
We had spent two weeks reconnoitring massive coastal flats, islands, atolls and oceanic reefs hunting for triggerfish, bonefish, GT and their equally powerful blue finned brethren; every night planning and preparing, every morning exploring and experiencing this forgotten corner of Africa. Sudan with its white beaches and blue water resembles a tropical sunny oasis but in reality, a desert, harsh, barren and windswept.
Occasionally, you’ll have to work hard for the fish and you may even come off a bit bloodied and bruised but you will be better for it. With mercurochrome to sooth the abrasions from the corral and a cold Bavaria of Holland to balm the ego and confidence, every day, fish or no fish, was a perfect day. Ultimately, what truly makes the Sudan experience unique is the undoubtable sense of adventure inherent to each day and the collection of unforgettable memories forged on the field of piscatorial battle.