Encounter with Bonezilla – New Cal’s Bonefish
There are moments in our lives that etch indelibly in our memory, just as there are destinations that do the same, New Caledonia is such a place for me.
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I joined mate Will Jephcott and David Noble from Ocean Blue to travel to the very north of New Caledonia in search of the huge bonefish that are legendary in this friendly, French speaking archipelago.
Due to the complex nature of local tribal permissions New Caledonia is not a destination within which you can easily self-guide. In the past there had been some guided fishing opportunities available in the North of New Caledonia that ceased operation a few years ago. I had however recently learned of a new guiding operation involving a Northern Kanak tribal “elder” Benjamin Damas and sportfishing guide Etienne Piquel and I was keen to experience big bonefish first hand.
New Caledonia’s capital of Noumea is such a short plane flight from Sydney that you could be forgiven for driving to the domestic terminal at the Airport. With only a short diversion, Will ably steered the car away from domestic toward International. We then travelled 2.5 hours North East into the Pacific aboard Air Calin.
Once in Noumea Etienne met us with his cheeky grin, a car and a boat in tow. Etienne spoke perfect English and his effusive personality and contagious enthusiasm were a delight. Added to the mix was a healthy dose of Aussie-style humour that lead to light -hearted sledging in no time at all……this was going to be fun.
The drive North from Noumea is around 5.5 hours long and as we weaved along the West Coast we caught glimpses of the turquoise blue waters of the coastal lagoon. The lagoon covers a total area of around 24,000km and is one of the largest in the world. Flyfishing opportunities in and around this lagoon have barely been explored and surveying the vast expanse of tropical water and coral bommies certainly got the heart racing. Etienne told stories of gargantuan GT’s and other reef ”ooglies” such as Coral trout, Red Bass, Yellowfin and Dogtooth tuna inhabiting the lagoon and beyond.
Towering mountains, paperbark swamps and streams inhabited by Jungle Perch were all part of the scenery as we meandered our way through small towns and villages. Our destination was the area of Poingam , north east of the community of Poum. Shortly after arriving we settled in for a cold local beer, some fantastic fresh local fair which includes spit roast venison and local fish washed down with a bottle of complimentary aged Bordeaux, things were looking grand.
The following morning we planned to take Etienne’s boat to the flats to wade in search of bones. The tides were higher in the early mornings making for difficult conditions due to low light coupled with deeper, waist deep water, however, as the sun got higher and the water drained off the shallows the fish would be mobile and visible. After a short boat ride we slipped into the water on the edge of some great looking flats. The first thing to notice is the terrain; there are weed beds, sand bars, drop-offs and coral outcrops. Some of the sand was fairly barren whilst other areas were dotted with holes and burrows of all manner of crustaceans and worms. Cruising fish would be most likely to follow natural features such as weed lines and drop-offs, whilst feeding fish were more likely to be found where the holes and burrows were located.
It pays to hold your gallop and let your eyes adjust to the flats rather than wading at high pace. You need to immerse yourself in the whole environment and adjust to the little nuances that are part of the conglomerate of shades and shapes around you. Bonefish are called ghost of the flats for a reason and it’s more likely you will see bones as a smudge or slight contrast on the bottom, fast wading is also a great way to spook fish. The other thing to consider is that there are far more fish here than just bones. Multiple Trevally species including huge Gt’s and Goldens, Barracuda, Mullet, Sharks and Emperor cruise these areas and can divert your eyes. October/November see’s aggregations of Stingrays on the flats and whilst these pose little threat to waders they certainly attract bonefish as they stir up the sand.
Using Ben’s help was invaluable, especially whilst our eyes adjusted the first few days. Spotting bonefish is as much about trained eyes as it is about 20/20 vision. Ben’s ability to spot fish was a fast learning curve for Will and myself.
It was barely 20 minutes when Ben was calling to Will as some bonefish cruised some thigh deep water just out of casting range ………ain’t that always the way.
My first encounter with a bonefish was brief. After spotting several maybe/maybe nots cruising out wide I wandered to an exposed sandbar. A thigh deep drop formed a perfect highway and I spotted a pair of Trevally heading my way. A short cast and the fly was inhaled, both a smaller and larger Trevally joined the action and Will took to joining the mellee with a few casts. As I brought the Trevally in for release I looked up to see a green torpedo riding down the drop off. A double figure bonefish was right in front of me. Shaking the Trevally free I planted a rather unconventional cast in front of the fish, one twitch and the line went rigid. Within milliseconds the Bone disappeared, along with my fly. I suspect my pliers damaged the line as I freed the Trevally, the leader broke seconds later on that bonefish……….damn.
The following hours progressed with us spotting numerous bonefish travelling in schools of 5-8, none of which looked under double figures. The wind by now had increased and those buggers just knew which way to swim to give you the hardest cast. We headed home for dinner, beaten by the rising tide and the lowering sun.
Putting it Together
After months of perfect conditions we awoke the following day to a wind front that had hit most of the Pacific, we arrived 2 weeks outside of bonefish season, lesson learnt! Having a choice between wind and cloud I’d choose the wind any day, just give us the sun! The strength of the wind meant our planned day of chasing reef species before hitting the flats was not possible, for the next 2 days we were forced to fish the flats closer to land. We were not to experience the plethora of reef and bluewater opportunities this time. No problem, we had sun and bonefish.
The first sighting was a smudge, about 80 feet away, a stingray possibly? The number one rule with bonefish is cast first and question later. It was a very long cast and the fly was so much at the mercy of the wind I thought it was hopeless. With an absurd amount of luck the fly plopped within centimetres of the mark, within two small strips the line tightened, I lifted immediately to bend the rod and watched close to 150 meters of line exit my reel.
Once hooked it’s a matter of letting the fish run its course, keeping a solid bend, as much line as possible clear of the water to avoid drag and winding quickly to maintain tension. The inertia of the initial take and run is notorious for popping tippets, especially fluorocarbon, so react quickly but gently.
After considerable winding a fish of more than 6kg was in hand, this first fish was certainly very impressive. The following days also brought some smaller fish of around 3.5kg as well as more double figure fish.
By far one of the most memorable fish I have ever seen in my life came on the 3rd day. After landing some impressive fish I was standing within meters of Etienne and Ben with Will and Dave also located nearby. As I swung to talk to Etienne Something caught my eye and we all gasped at the same time. A fish of more than a meter long cruised between us. I distinctly saw the stripes on its flank and the unmistakable green back.
“Are your Barracuda green here?” I exclaimed, refusing to believe what I was looking at.
“NO, Bonefish, Bonefish” came the urgent reply!
“Oh my god…!!”
With the fish so close I dared not cast. The mammoth fish cruised behind me, I held my breath and awaited a cast where my rod movement would not spook it. The opportunity came and the Crazy Charlie landed 10 feet in front of the ambling goliath, but it just kept swimming. I can only assume 30lb bonefish don’t want size 4 flies…………..Aaaargh “where’s that 2/0 clouser when you need it?”
It was one of those moments that stay’s with you for a lifetime and I am so pleased to have had 4 other people who witnessed the fish at close range to convince me I wasn’t imagining it. I now truly knew what it meant when people talked about New Caledonia’s bonefish being some of the largest in the world.
You need to consider the amount of gear you will be able to carry on the flats. Chest packs or waist packs that can be placed over the neck in deeper water are ideal. A small backpack for water, camera, waterproof jacket etc is important. It can get very cool depending on the month so be prepared.
The possibility of encountering huge GT’s on the flats mean a loaded12wt should be on hand. I personally would have been happy with my 6wt and a larger capacity reel for bones however the wind meant the 9wt was my chosen rod. Due to the size of the fish and conditions an 8wt or 9wt loaded with a highly visible floating line is ideal. Floating lines ensure it’s easier to see the fly location than clear tips, however sink tip or intermediate lines are useful when dredging the drop offs. Reels should have good drags and line capacity and you should wind with your fastest hand.
Leaders are best constructed of 5-8kg line, around 9-10 foot long is ideal. I opted for tapered leaders as well as constructing my own at other times. I used 3-4 foot of 20kg but, 3 foot of 10kg followed by 3 foot of my chosen tippet that was mostly clear 7kg monofilament.
Standard bonefish flies will work with most successful patterns being a tan Crazy Charlie and a white and chartreuse Clouser. Flash was kept to a minimum and the ties were generally quite sparse. Don’t discount throwing some bigger flies as these fish are seriously large. Ensure you have a good selection of eye weights with a leaning towards heavier versions. Most the fish were caught between knee and waist deep and the fly must be on the bottom to catch bones consistently.
A spray bottle with fresh water is great to remove salt from polaroids whilst alcohol wipes remove sunscreen smears and the like. Sturdy wading boots with socks to avoid chaffing are essential for wading.
With New Caledonia being so close to mainland Australia it’s amazing how much you feel a part of another world. It’s an infectious place that gets under your skin. The people, the scenery, the economy that seems to run on baguettes and those enormous bonefish that start an appetite that’s hard to fill. It’s not a place for the beginner, rather, the seasoned angler who seeks quality, not quantity. I know for sure that I’ll be ordering another helping very soon.