Socotra Archipelago Exploratory: 4 October – 11 November 2014

Further to a brief Facebook post in October 2014, which you can read here:

below is Ed Truter’s official report on the Socotra Exploratory

Socotra Archipelago Exploratory – 4 October to 11 November 2014

The idea behind the Socotran exploratory was to evaluate the shore-based fishing potential (predominantly for fly fishing and light spinning) of the area, while our host operator, Wild Sea Expedition, did the same offshore but with the emphasis on popping for monster GTs. Although Wild Sea Expedition has extensive experience in the archipelago on the back of regular visits since 2010, some of the outermost areas had not yet been visited and the mission was thus to spend serious time fishing those.

I’ll start by saying Socotra is not for sissies. The climate is harsh and the relentless heat and zero shade resets one’s primal instinct to treasuring every drop of freshwater. One is also totally dependent on the locals for all support services, in our case that was fishing boats and the sambuk (motorized dhow), which was our mothership that accompanied us while we toured, camped, and fished the islands. At a friendliness, welcoming level, the locals were great and good fun. At a bargaining and negotiation level, the locals’ bizarre reasoning strategies and rip-off tendencies when setting services costs were tiresome to the extreme. Security concerns were a non-entity both in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, and out amongst the islands. Although the area has had Somali piracy problems in the past, coalition naval action and improving political stability in northern Somalia has virtually brought piracy in the Gulf of Aden to a standstill for some time. Basically put, Yemen is just another country full of friendly, peace-loving people going about their daily business and trying to live a normal life as best as they know how. Even the current political uprising in Sana’a should be seen in this context and is largely unrelated to radical or hard-line Islamic movements in other parts of the Middle East.

And the fishing? Before I get there, a brief geography lesson. Given the islands’ locations in the paths of the Indian winter and summer monsoons, they get pounded by high winds and heavy seas for eight months of the year, which together with the deepwater setting, results in a complex current regime and upwelling. The upwelling drives a ‘nutrient engine’ that nourishes an exceptionally rich food chain. So, what we observed on the ground was unusual for a tropical setting: almost no coral, algae covered reefs, abundant intertidal, filter-feeding invertebrates, and a huge biomass of bait fishes. The baitfish included species I do not typically associate with the tropics like anchovies and mackerel as well as the to be expected scads, fusiliers, kawakawa, garfish, mullets, herrings, etc. Then there were uncountable acres of swimming crabs and other creatures in abundance like squid. I don’t think I have ever seen that much bait anywhere, an observation emphasised by breeding colonies of seabirds and including flocks of pelagic cormorants numbering thousands of birds. The waters’ richness also manifests itself in how everything in Socotra grows bigger-bodied and heavier in a length to weight ratio than just about everywhere else. For example, I saw a local fisherman with three golden trevally taken on handline each of which exceeded the 14.75kg world record, and I could tell similar stories about our team’s experience with rainbow runner, bohar snapper, and so forth.

The islands all have a calm (sheltered) side, often with sandy beaches and bays interspersed with rocky points and a ‘wild’ (seaward) side that is typified by steep, rocky shores including sea-cliffs and deepwater points. With the amounts of baitfish visible in and around the various calm-side points and bays, one would expect some pretty wild fishing and there be the conundrum: for reasons that I cannot fathom, the bigger predatory fish avoided the calm shorelines in any number and instead spent most of their time feeding offshore. One would think that some of the bays we fished would offer ideal opportunities for a constant procession of gamefish to drive baitfish against the shore, but this was not the case. There were certainly times when predators did hound baitfish against the shore, but it did not happen as often as one would expect if considering the numbers of GTs, bohar snapper, Spanish mackerel, green jobfish, golden trevally, yellowspotted trevally, groupers, etc. that were seen and caught by the teams fishing just offshore. Whatever the dynamic is that is at play, and it’s most likely something to do with the powerful currents that wrap around the islands, it is probably more efficient for the big predators to follow the current s and feed offshore, perhaps co-operatively in schools of predators (as was often observed), than to feed against the island edges. It may have also had something to do with the season and spawning activity, and a different time of year might show another picture

Long story shorter, here’s a species by species summary in alphabetical order of most of the fishes and situations we experienced on the trip as a whole, so that is spinning, vertical jigging, and fly fishing, shore-based and off.

Amberjack: good numbers taken vertical jigging when other fishes allowed the jig to reach the deeper levels the amberjack preferred.

Barracuda: large individuals offshore eating the GT lures, and smaller ones along the beaches that mostly bit off our flies. No number of really big ‘cuda typical of what one sees on the flats in some places were spotted along the beaches.

Barred trevally (Ferdau’s trevally): catchable numbers patrolling the beaches as singles. They were good fly takers on bonefish gear and we caught them up to 3kg.

Bigeye trevally: plentiful in schools feeding on sprats in mixed sandy and rocky bays, but few fish bigger than 3kg.

Black trevally: common catch from the boat on spinning and jigging gear, a number teased in and hooked from the side from deepwater points.

Black sweetlips: one taken on fly, sight-cast to in a shallow bay. Some others spotted and one sizeable one caught by a local sight-fishing and handlining a lure that was home-made from a strip of white plastic. An interesting species that it would be nice to see more of.

Black marlin: one hooked and lost while vertical jigging.

Bludger trevally: fair numbers taken vertical jigging.

Bluefin trevally: ubiquitous and one of the most temperamental fishes in the ocean in my experience. We found them in singles to small groups patrolling the beaches and reef edges, most of the time they would not eat a well presented fly. At certain, deepwater point/cliff locations we found schools of big bluefin. These schools numbered 100 to 200 individuals and were usually on the hunt and willing to eat. I remember how on one big-surf day we found one of these schools so tightly crammed into a small, shallow gulley that it
seemed as though it held more fish than water, and most of the fish had their backs in the air—a crazy thing to see.

Bohar snapper: many were taken as by-catch while spinning with big poppers for GTs offshore with groups of snappers often rising behind a single popper. From the shore a few were hooked from shallow, rocky points between stretches of sand and then good numbers teased and caught off deepwater points. Interestingly, teasing from the shore with sinking stickbaits brought in more fish than did the more standard, surface skipping and popping lures used for teasing.

Bonefish: in fair numbers over clean-sand areas along some beaches. Note, the beaches are calm environments with low surf but are not sand flats. The bones were typically 6-9lbs with the biggest a 75cm/11lb fish and we saw some that were considerably bigger. The bonefish in the area feed a lot on fish and can be seen molesting the baitfish schools. Most of the fish we spotted were in waist-deep water and caught on #2 Clouser minnows tied sparse, but one little-piggy bonefish even ate a 8/0 GT Semper. It was also possible in some areas to catch bonefish by just blind casting into likely looking channel and swash areas along the surf zone.

A number of bonefish were caught on sizeable spoons cast on spinning gear, fished close to the bottom. Interestingly the bonefish we caught did not have the electric blue highlights on their fins, unlike any of the other bonefish species I’ve seen in the Red Sea, Caribbean, and South Pacific.

Bream: possibly Acanthopagrus berda but certainly Acanthopagrus somebody, in the surf near Ditwah Lagoon (Socotra) and happy to eat a fly.

Emperors: various species taken off the boat while deep jigging. Many smaller species taken off the shore on fly and a few of the bigger ones lost due to being instantly reefed on 9wt gear.

Flame jobfish: in plague numbers on vertical jig, most of them 6-12kg.

Golden trevally: good numbers offshore, big fish taken mostly vertically jigging or fishing live swimming crabs on the surface. No sure sightings of adults from the beach but many babies taken on fly.

Green jobfish: a very common by-catch while GT fishing from the boat and generally on the big size. A couple were teased up on big poppers within casting distance of deepwater points, so catching them from shore is not unrealistic (this applies to a number of the typical offshore fishes in the area when fished for from the cliffs and deepwater points that are typical of the islands).

Grouper: lots of tiny groupers taken over rocky rubble but some sizeable white-blotched grouper off the boats hitting teasers and on big GT poppers.

Grunter: schools of one of the spotted species but not sure which exactly, tailing in the Ditwah Lagoon on Socotra and cruising the adjacent surf and eager to chase the right fly.

GT: in big numbers and big sizes. Average sized fish caught spinning offshore, based on length to weight calculations, was 37kg, with fish over 50kg being caught daily and some fish over 60kg caught. A complete dearth of smaller GTs with none observed smaller than 20kg. Very few GTs were sighted along the beaches and those that were, had total lockjaw when presented with a fly. Off deepwater points it was possible to spin, tease and/or just fish blind for the odd GT cruising by. In thisway one of our clients, Hilary Robinson, landed a 132cm/46kg fish that ate a black Semper fly at his feet. Hilary is to be congratulated on this great catch (his first GT!) and the little adventure, especially trying to land the fish on a tiny ledge amid a heaving sea and that involved a lot of swimming, will not soon be forgotten by all involved. The lack of coral reef and the rounded nature of the gneissic rock reef, which is also covered in algae, greatly reduces the options for a fish to cut one off. Catching big fish in deep water from the rocks, and especially if one uses the height advantage offered by the steep terrain, is thus a viable option.

I must at this point also apologize to Leonard Flemming who joined myself and film maker, Richard Morton, during the first ten days of this trip, as I told Leonard it would be nearly impossible to land a 100lb class GT from the rocks in deep water and that he shouldn’t think about trying it any further. But, given the nature of those particular rocks, and 20-20 hindsight of what we saw and learned after Leonard left, it’s certainly quite repeatable.

Indo-Pacific permit: a few singles and triples sighted out of the blue in the beach swash, no great shots offered when we were rigged with the right setup but some curiosity shown in the Clousers chucked at them as they went by.

Kawakawa: caught while vertical jigging but also large shoals of small individuals around deep, rocky points with breaking waves; easily caught on fly from said rocky points.

Milkfish: very large numbers with no shortage of big ones amongst them. Most of the time we found them in small schools moving haphazardly around the open sea feeding on diffuse, white plankton on or near the surface. We tried many conventional and unconventional fly approaches, one or two of which may have attracted some attention, but it’s hard to say. As we spent most of our time fishing from shore, we had few opportunities at stacked up fish on current-lines, which is the easier setup for testing ideas and getting eats. The odd milky was seen patrolling the sandy shorelines.

Pompano, large-spotted and small-spotted: very common along the beaches. The small-spotted were tiny fish that hung around in schools in sandy bays near rocks and were a pain in the arse, often grabbing a flycast at other fish. The large-spotted were better-sized fish that patrolled the beaches in singles or small groups and easily took a fly.

Rainbow runner: in fair numbers close inshore. Though none were hooked from shore, it would be possible if one put in the time. Some very large specimens (e.g. 15kg+) taken from the boat on vertical jig.

Redlip parrotfish: in good numbers over shallow reef and along steep rocky shores. Difficult to present the fly to due to surge and swash, but a number were hooked on light-coloured crab imitations. None were landed, all of them either reefed us or the hook pulled, but as these fish are so plentiful and up to at least 20kg, and if the
code can be cracked, they could offer some great action.

Rusty jobfish: very common on the vertical jig, but not in the ‘a-carpet-of-fish’ number of the flame jobfish.

Sailfish: present in good numbers in some areas. Often seen free jumping from shore and although not actively targeted, a number were raised on GT poppers and one was hooked and landed.

Salad fish / doublespotted queenfish: very common patrolling the beaches at speed in singles to triples. Some fish up to 3kg and eager to eat a well-timed and placed Clouser. Great sight-casting fun.

Sharks: various but in deepwater, offshore, and mostly caught by local commercial fishermen for whom it is their livelihood. Sharks were not a problem as tax agents or a wading risk.

Spanish mackerel: large numbers offshore taken as GT fishing by-catch. Possible sightings from shore over deep, sandy areas. Another species of toothed mackerel, as of yet unidentified, was caught on fly and small lures. These fish were tiny, most under 1kg but plentiful along some sandy beaches and with teeth a lot meaner than those of the narrow-barred Spanish mackerel.

Triggerfish: only one species (brown) and not in the shallows but in deep water, on algae flies, small lures, and bait. Surface concentrations of pelagic redtooth triggers attacked algae flies but were nigh on impossible to hook. Both these triggerfishes are small species.

Unicornfish: very common in schools over all sorts of rocky habitat, most fish 4-6kg and quite easily caught over shallow, mixed sand and reef on a Gotcha. That these fish reacted to a bright, flashy fly like the Gotcha more than anything else, is a bit of a mind warp, but then I even caught a few on stickbaits cast on spinning gear.

Yellowfin tuna: by-catch while vertical jigging. Fair numbers of <15kg fish caught by the locals trolling with handlines.

Yellowspotted trevally: good numbers in plus sizes offshore, mostly vertical jigging.

Other arbitrary catches on fly but interesting for the ‘twitchers’ and species tickers amongst us were the biggest examples of thornfish and mojarra (pouter) I’ve ever seen. There were also flute fish, moray eels, goatfishes, various small sea breams including Diplodus sp. (e.g. blacktail), wrasses, lizard fishes, porcupine fish, garfish, hawkfish, flounder, other grunter and even squid. Conspicuous by their absence but known to be present at other times of the year were threadfin (Polydactylus sp.) and wolf herring.

In summary, and speaking for October/November, the beaches were not the easiest to fly fish as the deeper water complicated the fish spotting. Also, the fish cruising the shorelines generally move fast, which requires some snappy thinking and on-your-feet reactions to convert sighted fish into caught fish, i.e. tight windows of opportunity. Of course, just as in all fishing, a bit of skills practice, psychological prep, and some fitness goes a long way in widening those windows. The deepwater areas offered great opportunities at life-time quality fish, if one was willing to sit out the long periods between high activity, which one should be for fish like that. The offshore spinning was crazy-good. Note too that all the offshore fishing was done from local boats with no sounder or similar technology, so vertical jigging was a rather random affair to fill in the times when the GTs weren’t eating. Goodness knows what might have happened with the use of a sounder.

If anyone is interested in booking spinning trips to the archipelago speak to Rob Scott at Tourette Fishing. If you are a big-GT nut you owe it to yourself to go do this one. If you want to take a shot at just the land-based fly fishing, or a mixed spinning and fly trip, there are options to join an excursion but for land-based fishing you will be looking after yourself re. the actual day to day fishing (i.e. DIY), though provided with guidance by way of where and what to try, but expect it not to be a walk in the park.

Some of what transpired during the first three weeks of this trip was captured on film by Richard Morton, he’s the guy behind Most of his island time was spent in my company and it was good having him along. Richard, his team, and I, will be cutting together a little feature called Shadow Fishing in the Yemen, which is probably not going to be classic fish porn but a rather different kind of diversion. We’ll keep you posted on the edit’s progress. If you’ve not seen it yet, go take a look at the website, there are already some technical content clips posted there that you might find useful.

I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved with the expedition directly and especially to all the clients who joined us and who always showed exceptionally good humour, sometimes in the face of a lot less than perfect comfort levels. One never knows how beyond-the-known trips are going to go and it makes a difference when everyone keeps showing a smile. Also, a big thank you to our Wild Sea Expedition colleagues (Nicola, Federico, and Federica) for their very hard work and dedication to the passion to make it all possible, and to your Yemeni crew (most of them anyway). And finally, thanks to those who helped indirectly and shared of their knowledge and technical tips: Pete Coetzee, Ivan Farneti, Ray Montoya, and Mark Wals.

Edward Truter, January 2015

Ps: though I looked and tried hard, me catching a salmon was not to be.

Photo credits: Leonard Flemming, Steve van den Heever, Richard Morton, Arnaud Pauliac, Hilary Robinson, Frederica Truc, and Ed Truter