”So where are the life vests?”
The words came out of his mouth as soon as we set foot on the majestic pinisi that we had managed to rent on short notice, after learning that the one we had initially booked for this expedition had encountered some unexpected engine problems and wasn’t going to be operational for another 6 months at least. Austin looked at me with eyes dead serious, before drifting his gaze across the back walls of the boat looking for clues of where they might be stored. Considering the current conditions with the sea looking like a mirror and a ship catered towards luxury honeymoon charters and high end diving excursions, his concern about the life west situation may have seemed a little over the top, but considering our previous trip to Napo City some 18 months earlier, it did make a lot of sense. On that trip, with a much smaller, less equipped and in general more primitive mothership, we were surprised by some extreme weather conditions creating a swell that ended up us almost losing our ship. We did on that 36 hour journey across the sea (a trip that normally takes appr. 18 hours) lose all our fishing vessels and the actual mother ship had to be rebuilt from scratch. In all honesty I would call it a not so small miracle our ship didn’t go down that time. We ended up standing in a group, life vests and waterproof backpacks strapped on, packed with nothing but passports and water bottles, ready to jump the ship at any second, for 20 hours straight. With this in mind his concern made a lot of sense and the fact that he hadn’t hesitated for a second when I suggested he should be part of the return trip as we had unfinished business to take care of, says a lot about his character. The fact that we now had a ship double the size and instruments informing us about every change in the weather pattern also helped calm his nerves a bit. Not to mention the Bintangs.
Napoleon City is one of the places you don’t just stumble upon randomly on a map and go ”Hey, this looks nice, let’s go there”! This place you have to search for. And if you actually find it and pick out the details that makes it so interesting for Giant Trevally addicted fly anglers, you gotta figure out a way to get there. It took us approximately 2 years to figure out the first trip and once we overcame the mental hurdles after almost going under during this first venture, we knew we were all coming back. This place is any GT anglers wet dream and to be part of the first team ever scouting it with a fly rod, trying to figure out patterns, tides, paths, and all else is a dream gig. A tough one for sure as everyone that ever tried to hunt GT with a fly rod will know. Your window for knowing whether a spot is actually a spot is very short and during a week all tides and conditions are not lined up in a perfect pattern. Arrive at a spot 30 minutes too late and you may never see a fish and discard it as a potential fly spot. Hit it on time however and you may experience the best 30 minutes of fishing in your life. It may also cost you a rod and reel, but it will be the most fun you ever had losing 2000 bucks worth of gear.
Prepare for the worst – hope for the best
Based on our previous scouting experience to Napo City we’d hand-picked a bunch of hardy anglers from all corners of the globe, able to handle anything thrown at them by mother nature, to help us out with the second part of our scouting efforts at Napo City. As it turned out, this trip would see none of the chaos our first attempt went through. This time it was all smooth sailing and the whole experience was more like an exotic, tropical cruise, rather than an adventurous, living on the edge, exploration. Our pinisi (traditional Indonesian sailing ship) came with comfortable bedrooms with aircon and private bathrooms, gourmet meals, bar, lounge area with big screen TV loaded with an endless amount of movies for anyone needing a break from the daily “no pepper added” fishing stories. In short, our multi tools and survival kits remained unpacked.
We arrived in Napo City when it was still dark. Knowing we would anchor outside the entrance of the lagoon at a very interesting section of the reef I was awaiting dawn standing in the front of the ship, popping rod in hand. As soon as it was light enough to make out the surface of the water my lure was in the air, heading towards the reef. Although I could merely manage to cast around 25 meters due to all the ropes and masts, giving me virtually no space to swing the rod, it only took two casts before the surface exploded and something hit the popper with brutal force. Unfortunately I didn’t set the hook properly and the fish was lost. Another cast and now my body is shaking, pumped with adrenaline. Pop Pop Pop but nothing. As I lift my lure out of the water I look down and cross my heart, there is a silver colored Volkswagen Beetle turning just under my popper and swimming back towards the reef. The GT that for some reason did not hit my popper was nothing short of an absolute monster, and my heart was racing. By now some of the crew had woken up (probably from my high pitched screaming when I saw the legendary Kraken under my rod tip) and was following my fishing with great interest. Next cast and as soon as my popper hits the water the surface explodes again. My Shimano Stella 18000 is screaming and I am desperately trying to reach the break, in the process I accidentally put my finger on the line resulting in a proper skin burn. At some stage the fish stops, turns, and swims back towards the boat. I desperately try to keep the tension while trying to set the hook again since I knew the hooks on my popper are, well in lack of a better word…crap! As the fish is swimming right under my road tip, remember I am standing at the front of a pirate ship approximately two meter above the surface, I see that it is a huge dog tooth tuna. The second I start screaming again it comes off and the fish slowly keeps swimming away. The crew all goes aaaaaahhh in unison, find their Gudang Garam (cigarettes), and lose interest. I make a couple more casts and have a school of Bluefin Trevally repeatedly hitting my popper before I decide to call it. The energy and adrenaline I got from those few casts was exactly what I was looking and hoping for and I couldn’t wait to grab my fly rod and get an even more brutal pounding by a GT on the flats.
With us on this trip we had a total of 9 anglers. One boat and two anglers focusing on GT popping around the outer reefs, looking for big fish encounters in the deeper water and along the reef drop offs, with the remaining seven focusing entirely on fly fishing, moving around in different areas trying to locate spots and places where we were likely to run into geets, triggers, napos, and more. Some of the fly anglers had tried Giant Trevally fishing before with various success, while others were more familiar with searching for bonefish, triggers and various smaller trevally species. Everyone however had been well informed about the mission and the fact that finding, hooking and landing a GT will not be an easy task.
Our first fly session was an afternoon session on the day of arrival. Teams of two or three were sent to various spots we had marked on the maps as potentially hot on this type of outgoing tide. Myself and Austin, together with our camera guy went to a particular part of the atoll that we thought could be interesting as it had a huge flats area inside of the reef where we speculated geets would move in and hunt when the tide was right. On this outgoing tide we figured it would make sense to stay close to the shallow reef separating the inside flats from the open water as any fish on the flats would likely start moving out again, passing over the shallow reef sections and start patrolling the outside of the reef. Less than five minutes into our session we are just above knee deep when we see the first signs of commotion in the shallow water. Austin is quick to react and gets 20 meter of line out in a second. The hunting GT is moving away from us and doesn’t react to the fly. We lose him in the afternoon glare but before we know it Austin spots him again, this time less than 15 meters away from us, bullying a school of baitfish. Austin gets his fly out just behind the GT who seems to get spooked and takes off like a rocket, a second later it turns and comes flying back towards us, smashes the fly and its on! I hear equal amounts of a screaming reel and a screaming 6’2 tall Atlanta local. A couple minutes later the fish is landed, photographed, and released and we are howling and hooting like we just won the Champions League! It certainly felt like it at that time. As the tide keeps pushing out, exposing the reef along with the light disappearing rather rapidly, the activity along the inside reef edge increases. Bluefin Trevally and GT’s are hunting in shallow water and making a push over the shallow reef, exposing parts of their fins in the process. I see a fish moving quickly from the flats across the shallow reef section separating the flats from the open water, and make a cast to the outside of the reef hoping he took a right turn on his exit. The fish hits my fly before I can even grab the line and I curse myself for being sloppy. I make three more blind casts in different directions and BAM, fish on. Anyone who has never fished for Giant Trevally and are worried about how to set the hook, you can let those thoughts go. What happens most of the time is you strip strip as hard as you can and all of a sudden the line is ripped out of your hand and you are holding on for dear life, hoping the line is not tangled in some strap from your backpack or anything else you may be carrying. Once the fish has been landed and released we agree it’s time for our Finnish camera man Sampsa to give it a try. There is a lot of activity and it seems we have timed the session perfectly. Sampsa is a very experienced and accomplished fly angler but his experience with tropical saltwater fishing is none. I hand over my 12 weight rod and two minutes later, as I am filming him casting along the reef he gets his first taste of what this is all about. Line is flying out and Sampsa is trying to lift the rod to no avail. The rod stays in a straight line and the reel is screaming. “What da fxxk is this” comes out of Sampsa’s mouth as he is trying to figure out what to do, then pop….the fish is gone along with the fly. The 130 lb tippet is snapped in half. Reality kicks in and Sampsa comes walking back slowly, leader in hand and an expression of confusion and shock in his face. “I don’t know what happened! What was that?” We both laugh and tie on another fly, this time one of my favorite flies from Salar simply called GT, in purple and black. We move along the shallow water on the reef and see movement in the tiny wave faces rolling against the reef. Sampsa makes a cast and it takes a second before it’s all happening again: A violent strike and Sampsa screaming in surprise, loose line flying in the air before the reel starts spinning. The fish never stops running and 20 seconds later with literally no backing left on the reel the line goes slack. Another broken leader and another fish not making it to the hero shot folder on my hard drive.
During the rest of the week the fly team managed to land 11 Giant Trevally, 5 Napoleon Wrasse, many species of triggers, snappers, job fish and more. However, it’s the fish that we lost that will hunt some of us for years to come. Fish that we simply could not stop, fish that we couldn’t trick into biting, or for other reasons never managed to land. Walking across a shallow flat making my way back to the small vessel waiting to take us back to the mother ship on this final afternoon session of the trip, I am walking towards Austin who is standing completely still, arms crossed against his chest, rod still in hand but not moving. Austin had abandoned our initial plan for the afternoon halfway into the session, deciding to follow his gut feeling about fishing a certain channel where he on our initial trip 18 months earlier caught his first GT on fly. We’d been scoping this channel out during the week but for some reason still hadn’t given it a chance. Now, on our last session Austin had decided it was time. I walk up closer and when he is still not moving I walk up and stand next to him.
“Que pasa amigo! All good?”
He opens his hand and shows me the end of his tippet, no fly, but says nothing for another 10 seconds.
“I did it Rick! I fxxxxg hooked him but I just couldn’t stop him! He never stopped.”
“WOW! Did you see it? What happened?”
“Well I saw a silhouette and got my fly there. It smashed my fly and from there on I had nothing. I was ready to swim but then he broke me off. Shit! Everything happened the way it should. I came back to this spot that I’ve been thinking about almost every night since last time and I hook my dream fish. It wasn’t supposed to break me off though. Gaaaah!”
We stand there staring out into the ocean in the disappearing light before making it to the boat and back to our Pinisi. That’s just the thing with these fish. They play dirty and you will lose most of them, especially the big ones when chasing them with a fly rod.
“Don’t worry buddy, we’ll be back in 14 months or so..he’ll still be here.” My attempt to be funny falls flat but luckily I redeem myself when I pull out a warm Bintang and an old donut from my backpack. Yes we actually had freshly baked donuts served on request by the amazing team in the kitchen.
The popping team consisting of Christer and Pete did even better and landed well over 30 GT’s during the week. It should be added that they arrived with some very questionable tackle (terminals and hooks in particular) which ended up costing them a majority of the fish they hooked. Any week link in your tackle will be exposed when GT is on the menu and this is exactly what happened. But even so, they had some great fishing and landed lots of fish. One of the most memorable moments occurred on day 4 of our trip. Coming back from an afternoon session I find them sipping on coconut infused Gin & Tonics around the dinner table. I ask how their afternoon was and I immediately see that something is going on. Pete looks down, a weird smirk on his face and eyes screaming with laughter. Christer clears his throat, looks down and starts laughing. They both burst out in laughter and I wonder what in the heck they have managed to do this time.
“Did you lose a rod?” I ask.
“No, haha, ok ok”, Christer goes. “I’m still a little pissed but not really”. Turns out they came to a corner of the reef with some interesting currents and turbulent water. Christer hooked a fish that broke his line off leaving him needing to tie a new leader on. In GT fishing this means some rather fancy knot tying that isn’t always so easy when you haven’t done them in a while. Google FG knot and you’ll see what I mean. When Christer starts re tying his leader, a quest that takes a couple of minutes where you cannot stop mid way and keep going as you gotta keep the tension on the line and the leader, Pete screams “FISH ON”! Christer puts his half finished leader down, excited to help Pete land his fish. Fish is landed, photographed and released. Back to tying..
”FISH ON!!”..Christer puts his half tied leader down again and helps with the landing. Back to the leader, attempt three,…
“Whaat! Again? Can you land it?”
“No Christer, I need help!.”
“Ok”, goes Christer and puts his third halfway attempt of an FG knot down, not smiling as hard anymore although he is happy for Pete of course.
“What! This is not possible! You need help?”
“Yes please”, Pete now beginning to feel the tension in the boat. Fish is landed and released. Christer goes back to tying..
“THIS ONE YOU HAVE TO LAND YOURSELF”, Christer screams and refuses to put his rod down. Stressed that there is fish biting on every cast and that he is missing out, Christer’s knot turns out a disaster and it takes him 3 more attempts before it’s good enough to use. By now Pete has landed 7 GT in less than 25 minutes and the light is quickly disappearing, forcing them to move back to the mothership. Apparently there was not much talking going on in the boat on the way back but now, with a couple drinks in them the comedy of it all is finally emerging. I am sorry to say Christer but that was by far the best fishing session of all my life! I really mean it, Pete goes, all honest while laughing.
During slack tides we normally took a break from the fishing and spent it snorkelling along the reef, and the volume of fish and the amount of different species was simply stunning. Swimming with Bumpheads, Napos, Trevallies, Parrot fish, Triggers, hundreds of coral fish, and not to mention the turtles cruising around, was somewhat of an unreal experience. It’s easy to go on about how beautiful this place is, how amazing and interesting the fishing is, how healthy and full of life the reef is and so on. But I think we all agreed that what touched us all the most was the hospitality and welcoming we received from the local community. The welcoming ceremony, the blessings and best wishes in our efforts to “Strike”, as they called our type of fishing, and their advice and guidance on where to fish. We would walk along the beach in the scorching heat and out of the blue someone would come running out of the bush, offering coconuts. Small acts of kindness and generosity that made this experience so special.
This expedition was our second trip to Napo City. We are planning to go back for a third time in 2020 and will offer a maximum of 30 anglers to join us. If you want to take part in this next adventure with the Solid team please sign up for our newsmail on our website and receive information about this and other adventures before everyone else.
See you on the water
Rickard and the Solid Adventures team