GUEST BLOG BY CHARLOTTE CHILCOTT:
I’d been watching the Nubian Flats reports and teasers from the minute the first one quietly slipped into my inbox several years ago. I’ve always been a wanderer and the lure of travelling still runs strong so I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the fact that this intrepid group of anglers had picked such a seemingly random country to explore. Sudan has, to be blunt, a less than stellar appeal and (to me at least) wasn’t the most obvious place as a fishing destination. Fishing adventurers Tourette may be but they are also researchers and while they often seem to be going off piste, they do find gems in unexpected places (Gabon is another good example). Would they have gone on a whim? Not likely. Italians in particular have been heading to coastal Sudan for a long time, primarily to dive but a hardy few had been popping and jigging for trevally and reef species and for those in the know, the opportunity was there.
Two years in, and with the realisation that they could just keep on exploring this vast area, the first commercial fly fishing trips to Sudan ran last year with Peter and Lutz taking their respective groups and their feedback only fuelled the desire to get out there myself.
When my other half blithely announced he was off to explore Romania and Austria on his KTM with a bunch of friends, I needed no further justification for a holiday of my own. With Sudan in my sights, I called Geoff, who I’d fished with several times in the Seychelles and who is as fascinated by triggerfish as I am. With a fishing partner for the week, I settled down to wait. And plan.
Aside from fishing somewhere new, what made Sudan so attractive? Triggerfish. They are not the only target species here by any means; aggressive GTs prowl the drop offs and pinnacles and do maraud their way across the flats. Bluefin trevally hunt the edges, there are significant reef species to target, sailfish hunt between the pinnacles and permit feed on the flats. Very occasionally very big bonefish are seen and even more rarely landed, but triggerfish are here in huge numbers. My love/hate relationship started long ago now on Alphonse and had a significantly long “dry” spell, broken in March this year when the Alphonse triggers were being unusually co-operative.
Triggers are picky and unpredictable and, in my view, are a vastly under-rated target species. When induced to take, they fight hard and dirty. The testing bit is to get them to take. Sometimes they come in hard and at other times the take is so delicate it’s akin to trout nibbling on a nymph. They might grind your crab into the sand before eating, they might just inhale the fly on their way past it. You can do everything right and they ignore you. You can get it totally wrong and they’ll take the fly. They will spook at something half a mile away or let you walk right up to them before casually heading off. They are absolutely fascinating and while I’m as keen to land a GT as the next person, that wasn’t why I was here. I had come for triggers.
After a chat at the Sportfish Show, and having waxed lyrical about my passion for triggers, Tom Haskins very kindly tied me a bunch of crabs in varying sizes and colours to take and try. I have to be honest, I owe Tom a lot of beer for those crabs; they rocked.
Packing without a Seychelles weight limit of 15 kg was novel and getting to Port Sudan was straight forward on Emirates via Dubai with luggage checked all the way through. Once in Dubai I hopped on the transfer bus, and headed to Terminal 2 to meet up with Geoff. Normally quite effusive, Geoff was a bit more restrained than normal, greeting me with a polite handshake and nod and it wasn’t until we walked off to find a coffee that he said quietly “I didn’t want to give you a hug in case I got arrested and I want to go fishing”. Heading for the counter, I spotted Mark Murray, Tourette’s head guide who was joining us and, as you do, we had a greeting hug. Behind, sounding quite a lot like Grommit crossed with the prophet of doom, said Geoff “oh no I’ll be fishing on my own at this rate”. The last time I saw Mark was in Tanzania the previous year when I had lost my voice and was trying to fish for tigerfish with a fever (not the fishing kind!).
Trying to spot the two Italians joining us, Ottavio and Filippo, we boarded Fly Dubai and four hours later landed in Port Sudan. Dry heat. A lot of dry heat. A very welcome change to the humidity to the Seychelles and the grey chill of England. Formalities were straight forward and very well organised. Luggage took a while but eventually we had it all and we headed off to our bus. Windows open, luggage loaded we rattled off for the three hour drive across the desert to the coast, picking up Adil (our Captain) Mohamed Ahad (Mr everything) and several big jerry cans of fuel on the way.
We also picked up a very big stone, having stopped and rejected some smaller stones. In Sudan, women on board are “not good” to quote Adil so to counter any bad luck I might have brought with me, they needed an appropriately sized stone on board to balance that out. Initially, I was a little put out that the chosen stone was so big but with my innate clumsiness, it probably was about right.
Mohammed Col, our embarkation point, is a rather bleak military zone so photographs aren’t allowed. The process of unloading the bus (and the stone) and transferring to home for the week sadly goes unrecorded but it was quick and smooth and before long we were on board the Scuba Libra.
We settled down to unpack all the fishing kit on the upper deck. Each of us had a crate so we could stash spare reels and fly lines; saving having to hunt for bits and pieces in the cabins. Bags almost empty, we headed to our allotted cabins, found room for everything and regrouped for dinner. On board as the guide team were Stu and Mark, both South Africans and both well attuned to these Sudanese flats and Italian Federico (Fede) who is one of the owners of the operation and the MV Scuba Libra. We were in good hands.
Saturday’s start was unusual, both in time and manner. There was a time when 0530 was when I’d roll in on a Saturday morning, not get up to go fishing and I’ve never woken up to find a man with a big spanner leaning over me to secure a porthole! We were shortly to be underway, leaving our mooring to head north east. After breakfast we had plenty of time to tackle up, check knots and choose flies before reaching our mooring and getting out onto the flats around 0800.
Day one on the flats was easy underfoot, the wind was strong (about 25 knots) but visibility was good and I was stunned by the vastness. The flat we were wading seemed endless and on either side of us, around small points, were equally long flats stretching off into the haze. Team Italia with Fede, Ottavio and Filippo had headed out with us and we weren’t to see them again until we returned to the Scuba for lunch. I think we all enjoyed the respite from the wind and we headed back out late afternoon, fishing until roughly 1730. With Mark and Stu, Geoff and I tried to get our eyes in and get to grips with the wind – Geoff with more success on the later than I. By the end of the day, Geoff had landed a lovely titan triggerfish of about 5 lbs and had lost a bigger yellow margin trigger at the net. Ottavio and Filippo had caught some small reef species but triggers were scarce for them. We had seen more triggers in a morning than I normally do in a week on Alphonse. The yellow margins were plentiful but were totally uninterested in us. Possibly showing mating behaviour in a run up to – or during – spawning. They were more interested in one another than in settling down to feed. The titans, on the other hand, were feeding and I hope I never lose that breath taking moment when you spot a feeding trigger’s tail. As for me, well, I had been tested and found wanting; not managing to convert my opportunities but I was too overawed by my surroundings to be despondent, just more determined. Whilst I wasn’t expecting to see bonefish, I have to admit it was “odd” not seeing them on the flats but I couldn’t get over how many boxfish were on that particular flat. They were everywhere. Blue, yellow, brown, black they were there in abundance but with sneaky titans often hiding amongst them.
Day two, Sunday, we headed out to fish further down the flat, heading back to the Scuba for lunch. Again a beautiful clear day but the wind had dropped to eight/ten knots and the water was cold and clear. We were heading up towards a small island, linked by a sand bar and behind which the water was a stunning turquoise. Munching the trees on the island was a family of camels and the night before Mark had said that he would love a shot of a trigger landed with the camels in the background. I sent Geoff off with Fede to fulfil Mark’s photo request. Mark meanwhile had wandered up towards the camels. They were moving down the sand spit with the smallest camel splashing and playing and trying to get Mum to join in the fun. Eventually, worn out, it slumped onto the sand and the rest of the group followed, staying in their mother/child pairings and settled in to watch these strange creatures waving sticks in the air.
Meanwhile, Geoff and Fede had disappeared up towards the island in search of triggers and I was walking slowly up the flat on my own, occasionally using a rock or a boxfish as target practice. I spotted a trigger some way out, moving right to left from one area of turtle grass to another where I lost it completely. Meanwhile, the boxfish was still hanging around so continuing with target practice, I put my fly right in front of it, gave it a twitch and then recast at the second boxfish which had appeared behind it. It didn’t follow the fly but something about it made me pick up and recast. Putting the fly, one of Fulling Mill’s Cuban Shrimps, just to one side I stripped veerrrrry slowly and watched it follow. I stripped again. Again a follow. A tweak. Nothing, my boxfish turned away. Again, something about it made me pick up and recast. Another agonisingly long, slow strip. Just as I started that strip I saw the shape properly and realised it was a titan. Thank heavens for small mercies because if I’d noticed that beforehand, I dread to think what disaster I’d have created. The titan kept following, I saw the head go down, the tail came up, I watched it twist and bang. Fish on and running! I think I shouted for Fede but can’t remember. Watching my line, I wasn’t going to lose this fish to a tangle but it all ran smoothly and keeping tension and my line high to avoid the coral, I stopped breathing. Fede had quietly appeared and was close by as panic was beginning to set in. I REALLY did not want to lose this fish and after a short, but fraught (on my part) fight, Fede scooped it up, I could breathe again and we had a beautifully marked, pale titan in the net. Duck gone. I had my titan. Mark had his shot. All was well.
We headed back to the boat for lunch and sailed as we ate. Post lunch I slept up on the upper deck, snoozing through two barracuda that team Italia brought in for the kitchen. Once moored, we were back on new flats for the afternoon and although we saw significant numbers of triggers, we had few follows. With hindsight, I think most of them were yellow margin triggers, still totally disinterested in anything put in front of them. Walking with Fede amongst big patches of turtle grass, and with the light now dropping, I cast at a dark spot that Fede had pointed out. I stripped slowly, had a short follow before the trigger lost interest. I picked up and cast again. It was a very dark titan which followed, nibbled then followed again. I saw the head go down. I felt the bite and struck. Nothing happened. I had tension, my line was running slowly and Fede said, very quietly, “he doesn’t know he’s hooked”. As he said it, the titan took off, getting my line back on the reel as he headed out. Rod high, again to avoid the coral, it didn’t feel right. My trigger was shaking its head. Run. Shake. Run. Shake. It wasn’t right but the fight was done, the head was up, its nose and teeth just out of the water as I brought it towards Fede and the waiting net. Disaster struck, the hook slipped and the net remained empty. Happy nonetheless, I’d hooked and played my second fish of the day but the remainder of the afternoon was quiet. Thank you Tom, it was your fly and it had clearly been bitten hard but was intact and the hook was fine. Geoff had a few follows but no serious interest and we headed home. Filippo and Ottavio had had a tough day, with triggers behaving badly and they headed off for their nightly snorkel before dinner.
Day three, Monday, dawned very still and very hot. Too still really and not enough current. Geoff and I set out to dredge and to pop the drop off, Ottavio and Filipo went off with Fede and Mark to fish the pinnacles. We had little success and when Stu saw a sail inside the reef, we sacrificed a Brushy to for my big pink tube fly. The teasers went out. We putted up and down. Up and down and eventually called time.
We sat in the deep water opposite the pinnacles where Ottavio and Filippo were snorkelling and taking some great underwater footage of the corals and the drop off on their Go-Pro. Watching that footage later that night, we were amazed at how clear the water was. Far below them, swimming lazily in the streaks of sunlight was a magnificent shark, far down but absolutely clear. Done with snorkelling, they returned to shore, rejoined Mark and Fede and headed out to the edge. Filippo hooked and lost two GTs, one quite quickly and one after a decent fight. Ottavio lost a big bluefin trevally at the leader. Meanwhile, away from the excitement of the pinnacle, Geoff and I were above a big and cheeky school of queenfish. Geoff was having a whale of time, bringing in one fish after the after; my tan and white clouser wasn’t as enticing as the chartreuse and white clouser Geoff had on and as soon as I swapped over, I joined in the fun. Geoff hooked and landed a small dog tooth tuna in amongst the melee of queenfish. For a small fish, no more than 1 lb, they put up a worthy fight on a 12#! Ready to move off and leave room for team Italia to hit the queenfish, the 12# with the sacrificial pink sailfish fly was disassembled and a popper put back on. The rod had just been set down when Stu spotted the tip of a sail and we were treated to the glorious sight of an airborne sailfish. It’s all about timing. A few minutes earlier and we’d have been in the game. As it was we weren’t and we retired back to the Scuba for lunch (and a nap).
Heading back out to the flat we’d fished the day before, approaching from a different angle having dropped team Italia off on the way, Geoff and I both saw plenty of triggers (Stu saw a lot more). We both had plenty of follows and a respectable number of nibbles but both failed to connect. Walking on the left with Stu in the middle and Geoff on the right, the angle of the light made spotting fish difficult but I was presented with the dream shot. Two titans, far enough apart to both be valid targets, I cast at the fish furthest away. Stripped slowly and poof, spooked and off it went. The closest titan was still there, happily feeding and, rather peeved, I picked up and put my fly down way too close, almost on its head and off he went. I should have taken more time. I should have taken a deep breath and relaxed. I didn’t and I will be haunted by that scenario for a very long time. Full credit to Stu, he didn’t even sigh deeply. Were I him, I’d have drowned me.
What we did see that afternoon were several schools of milkfish. They were feeding, grubbing away in the sand; not feeding on the surface or daisy chaining as I’ve seen them do in Seychelles. There were enough milks to make them a viable target species (more in the south I’m told) and I have no doubt that they’ll work out how to target them; the general consensus being that they are feeding on worms. Something more to add to my fly box.
The sand hung thick in the sky today and we had lost sight of the distant mountains completely all day. The suspended sand results in a strange haze and with the sun low in the sky late afternoon, we called it a day as it was difficult to see. Filippo had landed a very dark yellowmargin trigger on a very small chartreuse and white shrimp while the rest of us had had enough chances but hadn’t made the most of them. Back on the boat, I slunk down to the cabin, still sore at myself for my own stupidity. To my total astonishment, my little area had been transformed; I now had brilliantly colourful bedding, another pillow had appeared, something delightful had been sprayed around and my scattered bits and bobs were all tidy. When I tracked Amadino down to thank him, I got a small smile and was told that “it is all good. Women they like nice things you know”. The big stone was doing its job.
Day four, Tuesday, was blown out. The wind had picked up overnight, pushing between 30 and 35 knots and with the best will in the world, the wind wasn’t going to be anyone’s friend that day. The swell had been picking up all night and I think we were all feeling a tad unsettled as breakfast was a quiet affair. We upped anchor and headed off to a more sheltered mooring behind Big Snake and we all settled in to do whatever it was you did when there was nothing to do. I slept. Stu and Mark tied flies. Geoff watched, picking up tips. Ottavio and Filippo were snoozing on the upper deck, making the most of the wind. After lunch and later in the afternoon, desperate to do something, Fede, Ottavio and Filippo went out with spinning rods and landed a nice barracuda and the remains of a big yellow spot trevally. The rest of it having been eaten by something on its way into the boat.
Day five, Wednesday. The wind had dropped a bit but it was still blowing quite hard. Keento be out, we headed out a bit later than normal, with the two teams fishing opposite sides of the island, meeting eventually to head back to the boat to have lunch and move on. We all had several follows but nothing really determined; I think everything was unsettled by the big change in pressure. We had a big water crossing on which we were accompanied by a pod of dolphins, including a tiny little baby dolphin. As soon as we were safely moored at Marsharifa, we were back out on the flats. The wind was better but it was still pretty windy. Again, the two teams split up, fishing separately around the island. I had several really positive follows from yellow margins but each time they turned away. I tried varying my strip. Long and verrryyy slow, little short hops, a combination of the two and I just couldn’t find the necessary combination. Frustrated I changed my fly, choosing a small tan Flexo but had to discard it after one cast as it didn’t have a weed guard and was impossible to strip without it hooking up. The titan that had initially chased it down, spooked off. We saw no more triggers by the time we’d reached the end of our little island but over on the other side, Ottavio had landed a lovely big titan on what is now “Ottavio’s point”.
Fede, Ottavio and Filippo went off to spin for what remained of the afternoon (landing a very nice three spot trevally) and keen not to be back on board of as long as we could manage it, Geoff and I opted to stay and walk the areas we hadn’t previously fished. Geoff went off with Mark, Stu and I headed across the island to fish the side. With no warning, I crashed to my knees, one leg had gone straight through the sand crust into a cavity. I didn’t know if this island was also home to the constrictors found elsewhere but I wasn’t hanging around to find out.
Back on the flat, we headed out and across, into the wind, initially looking for triggers and after a false start caused by a blue spotted ray. We both spotted birds diving at the edge of the flat accompanied by several large splashes, so we headed out across the flat in the dropping light to see what was what. Stu was carrying my Hardy Proaxis 11# and it made sense for him to get on as fast as possible; I’d already told him that if there was action up there he was to get on and catch something; no point wasting the opportunity because I had to go a bit slower over the coral. The birds and bait fish remained reasonably static and by the time I got there, Stu was already casting into the melee. Straight into the wind, which was still pushing hard, it wasn’t an enviable cast and I kept my distance as I didn’t want to stuff anything up by falling over on the coral! With no reaction to the fly, Stu was just watching the birds when we saw three GTs, coming in immediately on his left. With too much line out, the chances for disaster was high but one hard strip and bang, he had a fish on. Shouting at me that it was my rod, I told him to get on with it and get the fish in which he did after some nifty footwork. I said I’d land it, grabbed my glove and after a miss, tailed his GT. I’m not sure who was more relieved. 83 cm nose to fork, it was a solid steel grey with a recent crescent shaped bite on one side. It would have been interesting to get a weight because whilst not long, it was a stocky beast and quite deep in the chest. Walking back into shallow water, the reason I’d given Stu my rod initially (wind aside) became apparent. I’m clumsy. I tripped over some coral, came crashing down on top of the fish, lost my glove, dropped my 9#, ripped my tights and embedded some Sudanese coral in my leg. All I was worried about was the GT but Stu still had him. Same can’t be said of the glove. Sorry Peter, it’s somewhere off the coast of Sudan. Can I borrow another one please?
Picked up by the transfer boat, we were on uneven coral and bit deep. Geoff hoisted himself in with admirable grace for a man slightly over 69 but sadly the same can’t be said of yours truly. Worried I would break Stu’s proffered leg I tried to get in as fast as I could and ended up sliding inelegantly over the side on my tummy, landing in the bottom of the boat like a large, blue clad seal. I was laughing so much I just couldn’t move and it was perhaps a fitting end to my rather accident prone day. As Stu helpfully pointed out, things happen in threes but we couldn’t agree on whether the seal landing counted or not. A great end to the day and with one day left, I was hoping the fishing gods were going to be kind to us when day dawned.
Day six; Thursday. Last day out. The wind was perfect, visibility ideal and the mountains were absolutely crystal clear. Our last flat of the week was very long and very wide. Not easy underfoot near the edge, a little further in it was hard sand, a little old broken coral but an easy wade. We spread out, going very slowly like a bunch of gunslingers in the Wild West. There were triggers galore; tails waving in the sun with the occasional flash of silver and blue as a bluefin shot past. The bluefin had been around but were not keen to eat and had been a bit “off” but I cast, and stripped and bang. He was on and off and running. I never cease to be amazed at how hard they fight and whilst not a trophy fish by any means, it was a beautiful fish with stunning colours. All that excitement done, we carried on up the flat, now lagging quite a long way behind the others. I had several decent triggers to cast at but they wouldn’t take. They’d follow the fly up the rod tip and turn away so when I had one follow more aggressively than the others, I held my breath and hoped. Long and slow, the leader was in and I had visions of the trigger taking my fly and the tip of my rod but just before it got that desperate, the head went down, the tail came up, I felt the bite as it hit the fly and bang, it was on. And then it swam off. I’d hooked the coral. Urrrghhh!
On we went, new fly on. We’d seen a very big tail waving away a long ahead so we slowly made our way up. Close enough, I cast and stripped but the trigger moved off. He hadn’t spooked, so we let him settle before following again. I recast, let it settle and stripped. Slowly. A couple of sharp hops. Slowly. Then all of sudden, he came in fast and hard, hit my fly and was off. Letting him run, I was grateful that he headed up and inwards with very little coral to interfere. Stu scooped him in the net and we had another, very nice chunky titan. A little later in the morning, Stu spotted the sickle tail of a permit and shouted across to Mark and Ottavio who were heading directly towards a group of about fifteen permit, feeding happily but moving quite fast as they did so. Ottavio cast and recast, but to no avail and the permit kept moving, slightly ahead of them all the time before moving off and dropping into deeper water. Moving on up, still on the inside of the flat, Stu shouted and grabbed the 11#, I dropped the 9# and cast towards a group of what I thought was three GTs. They were moving down the flat at a reasonable speed and I popped my fly about six feet in front of the lead fish, stripping fast diagonally in front of them. They ignored the fly completely and I picked up and recast, stripping as fast as I could, but they turned in front of us and swam off, to pass directly in front of the others, ignoring their flies before heading over the edge.
We carried on until lunch, hopped on board the tender boat and sat down for a much needed lunch. While munching away, Stu and Mark spotted a rare Sudanese bonefish briefly before it vanished over the edge into deeper water. Back out on the flats, we all swapped around and Fede and I headed up the inside when he spotted a titan feeding in front of us. I had the line in the air when he grabbed my arm and pointed at a yellow margin right in front of us. It had been facing directly towards us and it wasn’t until it turned sideways that we saw it. I stripped in some line and put the fly a little too close to the fish for comfort. Both Fede and I hissed an inward breath and froze as the fly settled. One little twitch and that yellow margin pounded on the fly, inhaled it and took off across the flat, heading for the edge and running me right into my backing. It was a little powerhouse and it dived straight into a hole. Left with a tight line, a fish in a hole and lot of coral, really there could only have been a bad ending. Fede whipped of his hat and glasses, rummaged in his bag and brought out a pair of goggles and waded in. I must have looked as astonished as I felt as Fede just shrugged and said it happens often. By now everyone had gathered as we watched Fede dive and have a look. After a couple of dives, his patience was obviously at an end when Mark shouted his name with some urgency, drawing his attention. “FEDE”. “You’ve got an octopus on your head”. We all howled with laughter as Fede’s dreadlocks were full of water and sticking out from his head like a lot of little arms. He was less amused and after that, the triggerfish didn’t stand a chance. One minute nice and snug in its hole, the next airborne in triumph.
A lovely, if startled yellow margin triggerfish and bizarrely, it ended in a group photo. I’ve never seen that before around one fish. Anyway, we carried on, Fede and I moving into the much shallower water, and leaving the others to fish the better line. There were a lot of triggers but we decided to move on up and on the way. I detoured to have a look at one of the large osprey nests. Unoccupied, wedged within the walls of the nest were the skulls of triggerfish (it’s not uncommon to see the ospreys take a trigger off the flats) and parrotfish amongst the scattered remains of many a meal.
As Fede was using the facilities, and I was looking the other way, we spooked a big bonefish and while bemoaning our fate, saw Ottavio hook a triggerfish pretty close to the edge. In horror, Fede and I watched as he played that trigger like a GT. I was shouting “careful, careful” and Fede, much louder than me “piano piano piano piano” with increasing volume. Ottavio’s rod went perilously close to the point of breaking as he wrestled the yellow margin in. It has to be a record landing. That fish was hooked and landed in what felt like 30 seconds. A very dark fish, it seemed that having ignored us earlier in the week, the yellow margins were ready to come to the party and Ottavio was a very happy man. Sadly for us, the party was nearly over and against a backdrop of clear mountains and almost violet light, it was time to make our way back to meet the Scuba Libra at Mohammad Col.
We broke up the tackle, hung our wet stuff up to dry and set off to pack before having one last dinner and getting ready to head home the following morning.
Will I go back? Absolutely. We had a bit of bad luck with the wind but I feel that I’ve had a little taster of what Sudan has to offer.
As for “other stuff”, well …………