Madagascar – September 2011 : Part 1

Written by: Graeme Field
Photographs: Graeme Field
Agent: Madagascar Fishing Adventures

Our September trip really started with a bang. We'd just received our new boat, a beautiful sleek 28 ft walk around Magnum powered by sexy 150Hp Mercury four stroke engines, and were taking it on it's maiden fishing trip. We were still waiting for the new Lowrance HDS-8 echo sounder / GPS combo to arrive (and be installed), so we were pretty much fishing blind below the surface, but were navigating using my hand held GPS with waypoints programmed in from previous exploratory trips. We were out on the deep drop-off, and bets and banter were going around about who would be the first angler to land a fish on the boat, and what species it would be.

The three contenders were myself, head guide Brandon King and our new lodge manager Jason Sheppard. Brandon was jigging deep for doggies, I was churning the surface to foam with a big rooster popper, and Jason was twitching a stick bait on the edge of a current line. The bets were definitely leaning towards GT's, doggies or king mackerel, but no one anticipated that Jason's stick bait would soon be leaping across the surface of the ocean, firmly embedded in the scissor shaped jaws of a good sized sailfish!

We shouldn't have been surprised though, because on our trip in April the sailfish were so prolific that they were latching onto poppers and even bonito spoons. And September / October is the second sailfish season each year, so we were back in the thick of it.

After an awesome fight, Jason finally landed the magnificent fish – his first ever sailfish, and on a stick bait to boot! Not a bad way to christen "King Julien" (named after the ring tailed lemur in the movie Madagascar).

He next day the rest of the crew arrived at the camp, fully laden with more of our tackle and equipment. The five of us spent a few excited hours ripping off packaging tape, tearing open boxes and organizing rods, reels and lures in anticipation of 10 days of exploring the waters of north western Madagascar. A day was set aside for installing the new equipment and finally we headed off fishing.

The purpose of the trip was twofold: to have fun and catch some fish, but also to explore the area in detail, chart everything properly on our GPS and build on our knowledge from previous trips. Our plan on the first day was to head to the same area where Jason landed the sailfish (and where we'd previously had good GT fishing) but we didn't get very far…because we'd only just got out of the main channel when we stumbled across some big patches of fusiliers huddled on the surface. Fusiliers are usually being pushed to the surface by GT's or king mackerel, so the boys started throwing some plugs around the edges of the school. And who should make an appearance? None other than Mr Sailfish. And this is where things got interesting. The more we looked, the more sailfish we saw on the surface, just free swimming an feeding on small pods of baitfish. Never had we seen free-swimming sailfish in such numbers, and the majority of the morning was spent sneaking up on them and throwing stick baits to them. We had some fun and got a few to bill the stick baits and follow them to the boat, but they were feeding on really small baitfish so weren't that interested in the bigger stick baits we were throwing at them. But there were loads of them, and on a different day they'll pounce on the lures.

We decided to head for some of the pinnacles and drop offs, and spent the rest of the day doing a variety of different fishing and landed some small doggies, king mackerel and reef species on light jigs. It was a still day with the usual dead flat seas and on the way back in the afternoon we again started to find schools of fusiliers on the surface above the inshore pinnacles. Cruising slowly we zigzagged from school to school, throwing poppers around the edges and were soon rewarded when Francois hooked and landed a 30lb GT. Jason had just handed him the popping rod because he needed a break – what bad timing!

The next few days were spent in much the same manner; Brandon and I covering as much ground as we could while Francois, Jason and John sampled the fishing. We landed the odd good-sized couta, blue fin trevally, small doggies and reef species on the pinnacles we fished, and had some real fun with the schools of bonito on the surface. Bonnies are exciting to catch, as they churn the surface to froth as they plough into the small sprats, birds diving all around them. You usually get one or two quick shots at them before they sound and pop up somewhere else, but every now and again the school stays on the surface for a few minutes and you find yourself surrounded by a football field sized school of fish. The guys had some fun on the light rods and tiny spoons, the drags zinging as the bonnies tore off into the depths. The cool thing about fishing for bonnies is that although they can get monotonous after a while, there are often other fish with them, and it's always a pleasant surprise when a big barracuda or green spot trevally hits the spoon. John and Jason both landed some pretty big cuda on spoon, and Francois got a few nice bonnies on fly.

We also spent quite a lot of time looking for sailfish on fly. And catch them we did!

The thing with fishing for sailies is that you have to be patient. Some days you put the teasers out and a sailfish is on it before you even have a chance to put the rod in the rod holder. Whereas some days it takes two hours just to catch a stupid bonito for strip bait, never mind a sailfish. Even in the most sailfish rich waters of the world, there are long boring trolling periods while the skipper searches for the fish. But when that bill comes waving out of the water behind the teaser, those long hours are forgotten in an instant as the crew and anglers leap into action.

And that was how it was with us. Because we wanted to cover lots of water and explore as much of the area as we could, it took a while before we hit the hot spots, but then all hell broke loose. First up on the fly was Francois. When there are 5 or six red hot sailfish fighting over the teaser it's hard to miss. But the teaser guy has to get the tease just right, the skipper has to maneuver the boat correctly and the fly caster has to get the cast spot on. I was on the wheel, Brandon provided a textbook tease and Francois made a great cast. Fish on, a few mad jumps, fish off. Teasers out, fish raised, hooked, fought, landed, released. Ditto for John straight afterwards. Then Jason was up, the first time he had ever picked up a fly rod. The first cast he ever made with a fly rod was gobbled up by a sailfish. He fought it well for about 10 minutes before the hooked pulled. No fault of his own – some fish just stick and some don't. It would have been pretty insane if he followed up his one-out-of-one sailfish on a stick bait with a one-out-of-one-ever sailfish on a fly!

After a few days on the reefs around Sakatia, it was time to head out the infamous Castor Banks, about 38 miles from Sakatia. The boys had enjoyed a day off, spent resting the bodies and snorkeling the delightful coral reefs right in front of the lodge. Rested and recuperated, they were ready for whatever Castor could throw at them. Or so they thought...

Castor is a huge under seamount that comes up from over a thousand meters deep to less than 20 meters on the plateau. The endless drop offs team with fish, and it's here that the big dogtooth tuna and GT's lurk.

After a 4am breakfast we slipped out of the main channel just as the east sky was getting light, and after a cruisey ride of just under two hours, the boat slid to a halt above the first of the reefs marked on our GPS. While the drop-offs are continuous, fish tend to congregate around certain areas only, drawn to these particular spots by jagged pinnacles of reef, swirling currents or congregations of baitfish. This is where an experienced skipper is worth his weight in gold – knowing where those spots are, knowing which spots the fish are likely to be at on any given day, and even on which side of the reef are holding due to prevailing conditions and tides.

We got it spot on. Three jigs went down in unison, and three jigs stayed down as Brandon, John and Jason all went "vas" immediately. Up came a dogtooth tuna, coral grouper and bohar snapper. Next down, everyone in again, and another three different species – big bluefin trevally, rosy jobfish and long nose emperor. Six species in two casts each! Welcome to Castor banks.

After the very first drift we'd totaled about 10 species – including a tropical yellowtail, GT, dogtooth tuna, swallowtail grouper and the six species mentioned above. Next drift produced fewer fish, but Jason and Francois both got smashed up, and John landed a 20kilo GT after a solid tussle on his borrowed jigging rod. The boys wanted to stay, but we had more reefs to explore so off we headed towards the southern tip.

The best way to find new structure is to troll for sailfish in likely areas. So it's really a case of first identifying areas that are most likely to have some good structure, and then working those areas with the sailfish teasers out and your eye on the echo sounder. If you spot something on the sounder, stop ‘n drop to see what's down there. So other than fishing reefs that we'd previously found, that was our modus operandi. And while there were some dull periods where nothing was showing, it was more than balanced out by some of the chaos we found ourselves in when we went over a hot spot.

That chaos ranged from having pods of 5 or 6 sailfish slashing at our teasers at once, to a vicious attack from a small black marlin, to a school of dogtooth tuna ripping into our teasers, in the process giving away a prime piece of reef where huge numbers were holding, and we spent the rest of the afternoon battling these ridiculously strong fish. I dropped a fly down a few times, got sorted out by a couple of doggies, landed some rosy jobfish and a large black tip reef shark that I was hoping was going to be a decent sized dog tooth tuna. We didn't fly fish much as we were trying to cover as much water as quickly as possible with the jigs and poppers in order to explore as much of it as we could.

Skip forward to the last day, again out at Castor banks, on a brand new reef we had just discovered which boasted the perfect drop-off and structure for a drift. Starting in a depth of 50 – 60 meters and drifting into 20 meters of water, we got smashed by doggies, trevally and rosy jobfish on almost every cast. It was carnage. I was dripping with sweat and I wasn't even fishing! Just landing fish, taking photos, maneuvering the boat and releasing fish was a sweaty, tiring, full time job. Jason and John both landed some decent sized doggies and everyone got smashed up a few times. The highlight was probably Jason's last doggie, a decent fish of about 20 kilos. But he hooked it on a small 5000 series reel, 50lb braid and a light tiger special rod. There was much huffing and puffing and running around the boat, a lot of colourful language (especially when the knot on the reel was reached - twice!). Some skilled skippering and fast reversing saved the day, and he somehow managed to hang on and get a few turns of line around the reel. Jason is rather excitable at the best of times – and when I get a chance to post the video clip, you'll see him actually kiss me. I've had nightmares ever since.

It stared with a bang, and it ended with a bang. Our boat worked like a charm, we found some insane new spots, everyone caught their fish of a lifetime and much humour and fun was had by all. Perfect weather, perfect seas and the perfect fishing lodge in a stunning setting made for a fantastic fishing trip. Madagascar is THE place to be!

Contact us today to book your trip with Madagascar Fishing Adventures and join Brandon King on "King Julien" for the saltwater experience of a lifetime.

Check out Jason and John's version of the trip on the Trip Reports page. Our November trip report to follow soon.

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