Rob Sloane joins Dean Butler in search of bonefish, close to home.

Bonefish! Philippe our guide confirmed that the three unmistakable shadows crossing the sand patch out in front of us were the real thing. Far more conspicuous than I had ever imagined, like big Western Lakes browns they were headed our way.

Peter Sharp was in best position to make a cast, so I left them to it, with Philippe pointing and anxiously issuing instructions in his clipped French accent. Like a dutiful client I was listening and taking mental note of all that was said, but while their attention was focused I quietly made my escape and circled around towards another flickering shadow that had my name written all over it.

One cast into the teeth of the wind—yes, close enough—a moment to let the fly sink, then a short strip to grab the fish’s attention. The body language was oh-so-familiar as the bonefish lunged forward to take a closer look. I just knew instinctively that it was going to eat the fly. It did, and I was barely able to utter an astonished “I’ve hooked one!” before orange backing began trailing off into the distance.

Shouts of congratulations from the others encouraged me to risk a nervous smile in their direction. It was my first cast at a New Caledonian bonefish and I was seriously hooked!

Bonefish do run hard, fast and long, it’s true, and they do make that fly reel sing ever so sweetly. Having survived three runs of more than a hundred metres and found time to chat to the others along the way, I began to relax and feel quite confident about the outcome, that is, until I actually saw the fish in the water at close quarters. It was huge!

Never having caught a bonefish before I had expected Philippe to hold my hand, or at least stand alongside and lend support. But he stayed with Peter, still waiting for the other bonefish to reappear, turning occasionally in my direction to laugh and shout some advice about rod angles and the like.

“Aren’t you going to help me to land this thing?” I pleaded.
“That fish, it is not even tired,” he replied with a grin. “When it is ready, you tell me. Then I will come.”

At one stage my hooked fish swam right past Philippe and in his inimitable style he confirmed that it was indeed a good one. “That is a fooking big bonefish, Rob, more than ten pounds. Now you believe what I tell you?” he laughed, “It’s the fish of a lifetime.”

Soon Peter was hooked up too, so Philippe came over at last to pat me on the back and offer encouragement. Minutes later he was able to take hold of the leader and wrestle the fish out of the water.

If Philippe could not stop smiling, imagine how I felt at that moment. I couldn’t believe the size and beauty of the fish, its power and strength, its sleek silver flanks gleaming in the sun.

As I gained more and more independence in the days that followed, to both see and land fish unassisted, I was in some sort of fly fishing heaven . . . a stiff breeze, bright sunshine, sandy clear-water flats and these truly magnificent fish on the prowl. So far removed from polaroiding trout in Tasmania’s Western Lakes, yet at the same time so similar that all the old familiar skills were brought into play.

It was Dean Butler’s tireless research and exploration which eventually led him to New Caledonia (some 1500 kilometres off our north-east coast and equidistant between Australia and New Zealand) and to the far Northern Province where he found a kindred spirit in Philippe Leroux. Formerly a photojournalist, Philippe’s passion for far away places, indigenous cultures and exotic fly fishing led him to the region a few years earlier and to the remarkable personal discovery of big bonefish on endless sub-tropical flats.

When Dean invited me to join him on his second exploratory visit to the area it was an offer too tempting to refuse. Bonefish so close to home; how could this be possible?

Our group, ably led by Dean and his wife Corinne, included Peter Sharp from High Country Fly Fishing and Mark Williams who is well known to readers of Fishing World magazine. Libby and I joined them from Tasmania and after a short two and
a half hour flight from Sydney we were in New Caledonia with its curious blend of French and Melanesian culture.

The transfer north by road was a rather gruelling five hour trip, mostly in the dark, punctuated by some attempts at sign language and high school French. Basically we did not have a clue where we were until next morning when we awoke to find that our accommodation was set amongst coconut palms, right at the water’s edge, with ‘proper’ boats pulled up on the beach in readiness for the day’s fishing. In the distance, the early morning sun revealed extensive sand flats, full of promise, with a deep blue ocean and rugged islands far beyond.

Tales of other flats and other bonefish, including several double figure ones caught by our party during the next six days, for me, pale into insignificance compared to that first fish of the trip. It will remain a cherished memory. That it was caught so close to home at a virtually undiscovered destination made it all the more satisfying. Dean and Philippe, I am in your debt.

Philippe had some interesting ‘rules’ which all made a great deal of sense. If he saw fish moving away he told us not to cast at them, knowing that we could wade around for a better approach. Spook them by casting from behind and they will leave the flat in a hurry, taking other fish with them.

The fly has to be on or near the bottom—that’s the most important aspect of presentation—so it must be cast well in front and weighted to suit depth and movement of the tidal current. Otherwise the procedure was reasonably straight forward. Animate the fly with a short line-strip when you think the fish is close, then watch for its reaction. If in doubt you can creep the fly forward until you feel some resistance, then set the hook firmly with the rod tip low.

The ideal shot is directly head on with the fish moving straight towards you, into the current. Once you have made the cast keep the rod tip down and pointed at the fish to minimise movement of the fly line in the wind and current.

Once hooked up you have less than a nanosecond to clear loose line, then hang on and listen to that sweet sound as the lightly set drag does its thing. Another of Philippe’s rules was to keep your feet planted and not charge off across the flats in pursuit
of a hooked fish—unless backing was about to run out. Again this helps to reduce the chances of spooking other fish nearby. Remarkably, in a week’s fishing I didn’t have any fish break off by finding coral or burying in weed. Once hooked, flies stay put in their rubbery mouths and despite the distance travelled, in these waters at least, they fight very clean. On 12 pound tippets the others lost a few fish, but mostly on initial impact or through suspect knots.

Bringing the fish all the way back across the shallows to the initial hook-up point also helps to tire them out, making them easier to handle when the time comes. These are big fish, so your heart is in your mouth when you’ve got one back at your feet on a short line.

Once you have brought the fish to the surface by changing angles, applying maximum pressure and making it work hard against the rod, it’s just a matter of grabbing the leader in one hand and plunging the other arm around the body of the fish to lift it out for the mandatory photographs. For a trout fisherman this was marginally easier than grabbing hold of a well greased pig, and no doubt looked about as elegant—I even ended up with bonefish slime on my hat!

The fly-rod used can be relatively light, even for these very large bonefish, provided you have several hundred metres of backing and a reel with a smooth and robust drag. As Philippe pointed out, they run so fast and far across shallow water that the reel does most of the work, not the rod. The Crazy Charlie style flies we used were not bulky or heavy to cast. We all used 8-weights, but 6-weight rods would have done the job.

Having done so much lake polaroiding for trout I found at times these broad-backed bonefish were reasonably easy to see. In deeper water and poor light they were tough, but in the shallows in full sunlight their dark moving shadows were hard to mistake.
However, their ability to appear and then disappear in the blink of an eye was a little disconcerting—presumably their reflective sides help to hide them as they change direction or move closer to the bottom.

The worst enemies in any form of flats fly-fishing are strong wind and heavy cloud cover. We had plenty of both. Tides are also critical. Bonefish disperse widely and can be hard to find at high tide when miles of flats are covered by waist deep water.

We found them more concentrated and catchable as the incoming tide brought them back onto the flats. If this coincided with clear skies in the middle of the day then good fishing was virtually guaranteed.

Our guides often suggested we stay in one place, knowing that bonefish would move past in predictable fashion with the tide. In this regard the importance of local knowledge can’t be overstated.

When clouds, wind or tide intervene there are plenty of other good fly fishing prospects around the reefs and tiny offshore islands in this untouched part of the world. The species assemblage seems similar to the same latitudes in Australia with tuna, kingfish, mackerel, queenfish and a diverse range of trevally species including some enormous GTs.

A final word of caution to temper my enthusiasm. Like any trophy fishery this one is particularly challenging and recommended for the fly fisher with established sight fishing skills and good casting ability in windy conditions. As all the bonefish fishing we did involved long hours of wading, a reasonable level of fitness and stamina is also important.

The entire operation worked like clockwork, allowing for the island’s laidback pace of life. Accommodation was comfortable in rustic bungalows with private facilities. Food at the Poingam resort was excellent and all locally harvested from the surrounding land and sea. The French wines weren’t bad either—you can’t beat a nice chilled Beaujolais.
The cost of the package including airport transfers, all meals, accommodation and guided fishing is quite modest at around $3,500 for 7 days. This compares favourably with most fully guided charters and lodges in Australia—airfares were $850 ex Sydney. Certainly this package is far cheaper than a week at any established American bonefish destination.

I doubt this would be a suitable do-it-yourself excursion because the French economy and New Caledonia’s isolation make it relatively expensive, for us anyway, and the fishing rights are controlled by native Melanesian ‘Kanaks’ who generally speak little
or no English. There are very few fly fishermen in NC and their knowledge of and access to bonefish on the flats is very limited.

Several of our guides and helpers were indigenous locals. In the far north they live in essentially a traditional fashion and, not surprisingly, they have a natural instinct for spotting fish on the flats. Non fishing members of our party were entertained by the locals and had a great time swimming, walking, boating, relaxing, sight seeing, wining and dining—all very hard to take in an unspoilt South Seas setting far from the influences of footy finals, corporate collapses and terrorist attacks.

For more information contact Dean Butler’s Sportfishing Adventures
Phone 02 4984 9294

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