In Searching for the Promised Land: Exploring New Fly Fishing Waters in New Caledonia I had been fortunate enough to very briefly explore a new fly fishing spot on the West Coast of New Caledonia’s mainland. A month or so later, the opportunity was there to head back for a day’s fishing, thoroughly explore the flat and exorcise the frustration of having only been able to send out a couple of casts during the previous visit. So having checked the tides, set the date and negotiated with our better halves, Stéphane (my co-fly fishing fanatic) and I loaded our gear into the boot of the car early on a Sunday morning and set out on the two-and-a-half hour drive North from Noumea in excited anticipation of a great day ahead.
We had struck beautiful weather. It was 25°C (77°F) at 7:00am, the sky a clear Pacific blue and the wind non-existent. It looked like we would have truly ideal conditions. The drive North passed quickly, with a rapid stop in the village of La Foa to purchase lunch supplies (three baguettes, salami, pâté, a few slices of prosciutto, water, ice and… a couple of beers to enjoy during whenever we decided to stop fishing and have a bite).
With the final part of the drive approaching, we wound our way back over dirt tracks, under the gnarled branches of seaside trees and through ruts filled with fine white sand until we emerged onto the beachfront. The tide was still an hour from being fully out and we saw before us the expanse of rippled sand, golden in the sunlight, stretching toward the dark green of the turtle grass beds and the turquoise beyond. Lacing our flats boots and rigging our rods, we wondered excitedly what we would find and, above all, what we would catch.
We had decided to fish our way out, and so Stéphane and I found posts just on the beach-side border of the turtle grass and scanned for movement. We had already seen small schools of baitfish in the shallows and I quickly spotted a larger fish speeding away, moving too fast to cast at but nonetheless a sign of what we hoped would be things to come. I had made three casts towards flickering shadows when I got my first strike of the day: a hard tug on the end of my leader that actually pulled fly line from my stripping had. I struck back but I had missed my chance. Working our way over the grass bed, I got our first fish of the day. A tiny long nosed wrasse which took my tan shrimp without hesitation. Not much of a prize, but we were off the mark!
Only a couple of minutes later and it was “Fish On” again, this time for Stéphane who brought to hand a beautiful Picasso Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus), high in colour and which punched well above its weight and size in the fight.
I continued to fish the edge of the grass bed and spotted another Triggerfish following my fly. I crouched low as it darted towards the fly, pulled up and abruptly changed positions. Letting the fly sit and drop for a couple of seconds, I then gave a short, quick strip and watched the Trigger dive in and smash the fly. A short fight later and I too had released what must be one of the more striking tropical species back into the turquoise water of the flat.
Working over the the seaward side of the grassbed, we now found ourselves on a hard, white sand bottom surrounded by cristalline, knee high water, the surface only slightly ruffled by a soft breeze. Small coral deposits dotted the area and, casting towards one of the larger outcrops I felt a huge strike on my line. Strip striking hard I set the hook and saw a large dark shadow thrash in the water thirty feet away. Holding the fly line in my left had I pulled my rod hand back again quickly to ensure I had a firm hook set. The fish began to run and I could feel the fly line peeling through the fingers of my stripping hand toward the reel when… all of a sudden I saw the end of my leader pop into the air, the 16lb fluoro floating on the breeze and no fly in sight. I had broken off! I watched the grey/blue blur of the fish speed towards the deeper water and shouted (or more accurately, swore) in frustration. My disappointment was only compounded when I heard Stéphane confirm what I had suspected. He had seen my bust off and watched the fleeing fish flash by him: a decent sized Trevally. [I have now come to the conclusion that 16lb leader is certainly too light for flats fishing in New Caledonia, given the variety of species and the likelihood of having to make a quick cast to good sized fish or some of the toothier flats dwellers, and I have since reverted to consistently using 20lbs as the default minimum on my #9].
Stéphane then hooked a Bluespotted Cornetfish (Fistularia commersonii) in the following minutes, and a small grouper which hit his fly just seconds after the Cornetfish was released, without even having to make a cast! I continued to target channels between the coral and saw the water froth behind my fly. Stripping slowly I felt tension go onto the line and struck. A couple of minutes later, I had taken what would be the first of several Blackspot Emperors that both Stéphane and I would hook that day.
Heading back to the beach, we set up our impromptu lunch spot in the shade of a windblown tree, folding chairs and cooler at the ready. We mused over the morning’s fishing as we ate, watching schools of baitfish flicker through the shallows mere feet away. There’s not much that beats sitting with your feet in the sand, some ice cold drinks and an unspoiled vista spreading out before you, with the promise of more fishing to come!
After our late lunch, we decided to fish the inshore flat which had now been covered by the incoming tide. I headed off to see if I couldn’t fool one of the smaller predators I could see racing through the baitfish and sending them flying, like silver slivers shattering from the surface. I changed flies to a size 6 white and chartreuse clouser and cast across within a couple of feet of a panicked group of sand smelt. Very slowly I began to strip line in, just keeping my fly above the sand and occasionally scuffing the bottom and this technique paid off, as a shape darted in to inhale the fly.
An hour or so and several more fish later, it was time for us to pack up and start the drive back to Noumea. We had started the day in the hope of finding a fly fishing “Promised Land”, a hidden gem within easy reach. But the reality is that you have to work hard and make your shots count to regularly make trophy sized catches. So we had a mixed feeling of satisfaction and some disappointment as we wound our way homeward. Satisfaction at a successful day numbers-wise, with over twenty fish from at least seven different species caught and released over the course of five or so hours. But real frustration at having let the “big one” get away and not getting a chance at another. Still, we decided, we had only partially explored the immense flat (hope springs eternal for a future return trip) and it truly was a privilege for us both to be the sole other humans in sight as we waded the turquoise expanse under the golden tropical sun, watching our fly lines unfurl between sky and sea and marvelling at the natural beauty of the aquatic life and the surrounding vista.