Stéphane and I had been talking about prospecting for at least six months. We’d scoured the coastline of New Caledonia on Google Earth to identify promising locations, particularly large expanses of light blue water with access from the coast, which are either coral or sand flats, and, finally, we had the opportunity to explore one of them.
We were spending the weekend in Bourail, a small town on the East coast of New Caledonia around two and a half hours drive North of Noumea. This was a family weekend, so we had a morning to explore what we hoped would be “the promised land”: A spot we had only seen through satellite imagery but which looked absolutely ideal. Another friend of ours, Cyril, mentioned that he knew how to get to the dirt road that led to the coast and he offered to show us the way. So at 8:00am on a Saturday morning, we loaded our gear into Stéphane’s car and followed Cyril’s pickup.
After about twenty minutes of winding through the Bourail countryside we came to the turn-off, where worn tyre tracks headed off from the tarseal into the grass and coastal brush. You could feel the excitement building: we didn’t have far to go now. With Cyril leading the way, we bounced our way through a maze of paths and tracks, between trees and over roots, until we reached the coast. I checked on the GPS and it looked like we were a couple of kilometres up the coast from the spot we needed to get to. But we jumped out to look over the new water and give Cyril an impromptu fly casting lesson, since he had never held or cast a fly rod in his life. About half an hour later, Cyril headed off and Stéphane and I decided that we should probably jumping back in the car and follow the beach down the coast, since we new we’d be too tempted to cast at anything that moved if we decided to walk down the beach towards our ultimate destination.
So off we went again. Along sandy trails under the gnarled coastal trees filtering the dappled sunlight through to us with the occasional flash of blue as we wound closer to the blinking dot on the GPS that marked “the spot”.
Ten minutes later we were there. Both of us scrambled out of the car and onto the light golden sand of the beach, fringing a beautiful sand flat bordered on one side by an immense bed of seagrass and on the other by the deeper blue of a channel which ran from a small stream mouth.
Not twenty metres from the shore, we could see a large moving shadow, like an oil slick on the water: thousands of sand smelt (Atherina Presbyter) grouped together in ankle deep water. What a sign: a school of baitfish the size of a double bed, just ideal for attracting larger predators.
We rigged our rods and waded out onto the flat. Stéphane headed more or less straight out from where we had parked the car and I went further left, around the waiting baitfish, toward the confluence of the current flowing from the channel and the incoming current of the rising tide.
Immediately I heard Stéphane shout out. He had spotted a decent sized stingray which came in for a closer look before gliding away. I had my eyes fixed for any sign of movement, and there was movement almost everywhere. Groups of smaller fish were cruising the shallows 20 feet in front of me, with some larger shadows further out. It was just too tempting not to make a cast and see what would happen. I tied on a size 6 white and light blue clouser, stripped out line, made a couple of false casts and laid out a 50 foot cast trying to lead the moving shadows. One strip and I could already see three or four of the shadows peeling off to investigate. Two or three more quick strips and the shadows were now clearly visible fish, following my fly and getting closer as I stripped again and again, crouching down to keep my profile low. Then one darted forward and I felt the tug. Strip strike, but too late to set the hook. The fly was still in the water so I continued to strip until I had the leader in the tip-top and the fish finally turned away.
I didn’t have a fish but I had a huge smile on my face. This is what it was all about, sight casting in crystal clear water to moving fish. Pushing further out onto the flat I spotted another group of fish cruising. I presented the fly, leading the group by around 30 feet and let the clouser settle to the bottom. When the lead fish was around 10 feet away, I gave a small strip. Again, there was an immediate reaction as three fish all darted to investigate. But this time that’s all they did, following the fly throughout the retrieve until I was basically jigging it through the water with only the leader out of the guides.
And that’s when I heard Stéphane shout our again: “We have to go, now”! You’ve got to be kidding, I thought to myself. I had made two casts, we had hardly even begun to explore this wonderful new spot and all I knew was that, apparently, we had to go. I saw Stéphane heading for the shore. I reluctantly began to follow suit. I had reached the beach, just in front of the car, when all hell broke loose in the school of baitfish we had seen earlier and which were still just metres from the shore. Little silver fingers were flying everywhere and Stéphane shouted to me to have a crack. I frantically stripped off line and cast into the midst of the chaos. Nothing. One more cast I thought. A couple of false casts later fly and line were again in the water, less agitated by now and I began a quick strip. There was a tug on the end of my line, I struck hard, felt the tug and then… nothing. I’d missed it. “Come on, we’d better go” said Stéphane. “What’s going on?” I questioned. As it turns out, and as he explained to my as we piled back into the car, it appears I had (unwittingly) the volume turned down on my mobile phone. Having given up on me Cyril had called Stéphane. It was 9:50am and we had 10 minutes to get off the flat and back to the main road, or we’d be blocked all day by thousands of mountain bikers who, as it happened, were congregating on the very same dirt tracks we had driven down earlier for a series of races. Now you may ask why on earth, with this wonderful new spot which promised some spectacular sight fishing if the four total casts I had made were anything to go by, we would go racing off and not simply settle in for a wonderful day prospecting every inch of our newfound playground. Well, that’s because we had another spot to explore which would allow us to get back by our agreed-with-family 12:30pm deadline (and conserve our credit to go fishing another day). We had also very clearly had proof of what we thought: this new flat was wonderful and we’d definitely be back to fish it thoroughly another day. Our appetite was whet but most certainly far from sated.
So off we went again (this time slightly faster), skidding through sand ruts, bouncing over roots, taking the wrong track and hastily performing a U turn until we got back to the start of the dirt road. Only to find hundreds of mountain bikers lined up for the start of their race, with hundreds more waiting behind. Feeling slightly self-conscious with my flats boots, fishing buff and cap with a brim full of flies, I walked up to the race announcer to see if they would let us through. I could feel our “plan B” slipping away. Luckily, after a twenty minute wait, there was a lull in the race starts and they waved us through. We were back in business.
Half an hour later, having raced down the back roads, over the bridge across the Nera River, back underneath, down the coast road and right to the end of another dirt track we were at our second spot of the day. On another trip, Stéphane had fished the coral drop off a little further back and we had decided to push on into uncharted territory for us both. This was a totally different spot. Gone was the beautiful sand flat. We were on a rocky shoreline, with mangrove in close, and water which looked wadeable only up to about 10 metres off shore. I spotted some fish moving around in close and threw out a line, thinking I’d present the fly at a comfortable distance. How wrong I was! As fly and line hit the water, fish jumped everywhere. I had obviously startled a far larger group but that was positive too, since there were likely to be some eager predators in the vicinity. Stéphane had worked his way about fifty metres further down, crossing a tiny inlet and casting out from waist deep water. I’d just cast again when I heard him: “Fish On!”. I saw his rod bend, then the line go slack. I could hear the unprintable words across the water as he went to throw his rod down in frustration. But then the line went taught again. “It’s still there, it’s still there. Oh it’s a good fish!” I raced over to lend a hand and arrived just as Stéphane was playing the fish into the shallows: a nice Barracuda. After a couple more runs, I grabbed the leader, then the rod and Stéphane got the gloves on. A couple of photos later, we revived the fish and watched as it made its way back out to the deeper water. Stéphane was justifiably thrilled. He’d taken a very nice fish after a decent fight in a new spot. What more could you ask for.
We decided to press on, as with most fishermen, curious to see what was around the next bend. We had spotted a point a couple of hundred metres away that looked like it had a nice sand spit running off the end. But we never reached the point. As we waded, scanning the water ahead and around, I saw a shadow move. A big shadow. “Is that a fish?” we both whispered at almost the same time. It was 20 feet away and moving towards us at an angle. “Take a shot”, hissed Stéphane. The fish was truly massive and my heart started to race as I fumbled to get my fly ready to cast. By this time, we’d seen the fish go by (and it hadn’t seen us) and the big black shadow had revealed itself: a lone GT which looked to us about 1 metre long had come up onto the fringing ledge from the deeper water. Oh boy! If I hooked this “bus”, there was a chance it would destroy my 9 weight rod and reel. Adapting to the wind direction, I made a reverse cast, just short of the GT. It ignored the “plop” of my fly and continued on its way. We followed it cautiously until it finally turned and began to cruise back in our direction. I made the cast again, probably leading it by far to much in hindsight, let the fly drop and then began to strip. On the second or third strip we saw a bright silver flash as our GT turned tail and sped off. I must have spooked it (or something had). Both Stéphane and I were grinning madly. We hadn’t caught the fish but we had seen and cast to one of the “Gangsters of the Flats” at close range.
By this time, it was 12:30pm and we still had a 10 minute wade and a 30 minute drive to get back to our waiting families. What a morning it was. All up, we couldn’t have fished for more than 2 hours over the course of the morning, but we had very clearly identified two very promising spots, we had sight cast, albeit briefly, to fish in a beautiful flats environment, Stéphane had landed a Barracuda at our second spot and we had crossed paths with one of the apex predators fly fishermen dream about: the mighty GT. Our prospecting had more than paid off. We had found two wonderful spots with no other anglers in sight and we could start planning our trip back to fully explore what did indeed look to be a potential promised land for saltwater fly fishing.