ARTICLE – CHASING SHADOWS – COCOS ISLAND BONEFISH
by Nick Hocking
Linnaeus first described the Bonefish (Albula vulpes) in 1758 and, since then, it has become one of the most famous sport/game fish species on the planet.
Pound for pound they are one of the toughest fish in the ocean and are especially challenging on fly gear.
The name bonefish can be translated into “white fox”, a fitting name given how cunning and stealthy the Bonefish actually is.
Many similar names and descriptions have blessed this elusive species over the years. “The ghost of the flats!” is a favourite of mine.
Bonefish can be practically impossible to spot at times and, when hooked, are capable of lightning fast bursts of speed that leave many anglers with pounding hearts and burning fingers.
Another rewarding facet of chasing them is the pristine environments in which they are often encountered.
Tropical islands full of mouth watering coconuts, surrounded by warm, crystal clear, inviting waters are more often than not the setting for many bonefish encounters around the world.
The Cocos Keeling islands, around 3000km NW of Perth is certainly one such place and its laid back, tropical atmosphere, combined with shallow, crystal clear flats, make it an ideal location.
There are six main islands forming the group which surround an enormous maze of shallows.
Turtles, sharks and many fish species can be seen cruising through the crystal clear, turquoise waters with the lush, green, tropical jungle bordering and creating a truly amazing fishing oasis.
Luckily, one of my wife’s family friends was getting married on Home Island during the month of October so I figured that was a good enough excuse to check the place out and see if all the fuss about bonefish had any merit.
Targeting an elusive species of fish in an unfamiliar location is often a daunting task for many, with the rate of success often matched by the amount of careful planning and preparation undergone before departure.
Remember the 5 P’s – Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!
And after talking to many anglers who had visited and fished the area successfully in the past, I managed to come up with a relatively simple plan of how to catch my first bonefish on fly.
I arrived at the islands with some leader material, one #8 WT fly outfit and a fly box full of assorted fly patterns, painstakingly hand-tied from wild goat hair.
The idea was to travel light so I wouldn’t be tempted by all the sensational blue water fishing also available throughout the area and just concentrate on wading the shallow flats in search of a world famous sportfish. Armed with my rule of P’s plan, I was instantly overwhelmed by the captivating beauty of the place and the friendliness of its people and, after speaking with a few Cocos Malay locals, they pointed me roughly in the right direction.
I set off in search of my elusive bonefish. During the long walk I had plenty of time to think about how strange they all thought my method of fly fishing had been and tried not to stare at all the large, thinly meshed nets hanging from the balconies and fences of every home I passed. Maybe I was on the wrong island?
As I began to wade out through the warm, tropical, turquoise water and strip fly line from my reel, I couldn’t help but feel like a child again. Not knowing what to expect or if I was even in the right place or doing the right thing!
The area I had been led to was a large sandy lagoon at the southern end of the island.
This appeared to be the perfect location, yet after four hours of wading and staring at nothing but sand and the occasional shadow of a fleeing unknown, things were getting a little frustrating to say the least!
After becoming increasingly tired of chasing shadows and covering the entire flat by foot, I decided to undertake the long walk back and seek more local knowledge.
I was soon informed that the bonefish only frequent the lagoon on high tide and, as the tide had been falling all morning, I had been basically wasting my time, great!
I was also told about a point that the bonefish passed by on their way out from the lagoon so, after securing a quad bike to get around on, I decided to race up for a quick look.
I again entered the water with a feeling of youthful curiosity and began to make my way out to the small, sandy point which was around waist deep with a healthy, vibrantly coloured reef system growing on top.
The water was flowing steadily across the point and out into a deeper channel as the tide receded out from the large, sandy lagoon leading to it.
There was little wind so I positioned myself at the end and began to scan the deeper water out from the dropoff.
At first there was surprisingly little sign of fish activity but, as my eyes slowly adjusted through the polarised lenses, an aquatic world of wonder was soon revealed.
Hundreds of small, brightly coloured fish were buzzing around their picturesque looking coral homes. Giant clams with bright purple lips, inviting but dangerous to touch and a myriad of marine organisms and creatures that would amaze anyone. Wow what a place!
There must be some fish here somewhere?
I began casting the fly out into the deeper section, before allowing it to sink and beginning a retrieve. After a couple of casts the fly line came tight and I was into my first Cocos fish.
It did turn out to be a bit of an anti-climax however, as a small brightly marked cod species sprung from the water and landed behind me after striking a little too hard.
Releasing it and settling my nerves, I fired off another cast and again it was rewarded with a small, toothy cod who now had the fly looking like a crumpled mess hanging from its raspy jaws.
Out came the fly box and a new offering was selected, along with a new location to cast at, preferably with no small, fly destroying cod species present.
The cast laid out beautifully and, as the fly was slowly sinking to the sandy bottom, I felt a short, sharp knock, knock. “That’s a bite!” I thought and instantly struck hard.
Everything came up tight and I was in business. This again frustratingly turned out to be another anti-climax as a small yellow snapper swam into view and was quickly released.
I was watching the snapper swim away when I noticed two big, black shadows hurtling towards it. This could only mean one thing – GTs!
Sure enough, the two big Giant Trevally monstered the poor defenceless snapper and proceeded to charge around at my feet looking for something else to harass and devour.
My brain surprisingly snapped into sensible mode and told me to “cast away from the trevally Nick!” rather than hook one and kiss my only fly line goodbye.
Believe me, the temptation was there, but the ever present urge of catching a bonefish was far greater so I cast away from the big trevs, landing the fly into an area of broken reef and sand to my right.
After allowing the fly to sink I began a slow, steady retrieve.
The fly line sprang taught and began to race through my soft, wet fingers with a speed and force unlike any I had previously encountered!
Instantly the pain of the fly line burning through my fingers registered and told me to scream then, just as fast as the fish took off, it turned and came straight back.
This had me now stripping relentlessly to keep up. What had I hooked? I peered into the water where the fly line entered and couldn’t see what I was attached to.
“Surely it couldn’t be one of those GTs, maybe it is a bone?” I thought as I struggled to hold the fish at the rod tip. Big mistake.
Soon the fish was off on another finger blistering run, this time taking out all the fly line and over 120 meters of backing in what felt like a second!
To say that I was far from relaxed during this gruelling moment would be a serious understatement as my mind battled to comprehend the speed and power of what I was now attached to, let alone the fear of it being eaten by one of those giant trevs.
I worked hard and soon had the fish leading nicely back toward the point. I figured if I could get the fish onto the other side of the point and into the shallow lagoon, it may stand a chance of not being eaten.
This all went to plan perfectly and soon I had a gleaming, silver bonefish lethargically swimming along at my feet. I reached down and comfort lifted my prize to safety before yahooing proudly and wading back to shore for a quick photo.
It truly felt like the first fish I had ever caught!
The level of self satisfaction and accomplishment felt by tying your own flies and leaders before finding your own fish without the use of a professional guide and landing one is an indescribable feeling that needs to be experienced before it can be truly appreciated.
Now this is where the rule of the 5 P’s should be taken into careful consideration!
Upon realising that I had stupidly left my camera back at the house, I quickly threw the fish and fly outfit into the carry tray attached to the handlebars of the quad and turned to take off for the camera. CRACK!
Not the best sound I’ve ever heard, in fact it was almost sickening as I realised what had just happened. I had just experienced one of the most amazing and enjoyable fishing experiences of my life and now, thanks to a broken rod, didn’t have the necessary equipment to continue. I was devastated!
I putted back to the house with a long face and snapped off a couple of dud looking shots of an unhappy angler with no fly rod and a very tired looking bonefish which was eventually revived and released.
Much to the disgust of the locals mind you who readily eat them regardless of all the bones.
It was nothing some five minute Araldite and a bit of dodgy repair work couldn’t fix and the next morning saw me bonefish bound once again, albeit with a slightly shorter and weaker fly rod that still worked sort of OK.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how the only thing making the fish I had caught yesterday visible was the strangely shaped shadow left as it moved along slowly.
Taking this into consideration, I managed nine more bonefish over the three days of fishing, along with some sensational by-catch species including blu fin trevally and silveries.
Most of which were photographed awkwardly by yours truly on my wife Kartini’s camera due to my second rule of 5 P’s mistake, leaving the camera battery charger back home in Perth.
Achieving magazine quality photos is hard enough at times, without having to go it alone up to your waist in water and miles from shore, but this was an issue I just had to deal with after Kat decided it wasn’t such a great idea for her to join me.
Something about wading around waist deep in shark infested waters didn’t seem to tickle her fancy for some strange reason?
The silveries, as the locals like to call them, were an especially interesting species with their strange, funnel-like mouths, designed for vacuuming prey items from beneath the sandy bottom.
Their large, powerful tails provided them with surprising power too.
Other common names include purse mouth, pony fish or silver belly (caught around Quobba) and they’re a common food source of Ospreys.
This trip would have to have been the most disastrous writing episode yet successful fishing trip of my life time!
The good certainly made up for the bad and overall it was an experience that I would relive in a second if given the chance.
Looking for the shadows of fish rather than the fish themselves was the key to success because bonefish are virtually impossible to spot in most conditions and require the skill and guise of a truly professional angler to hook and land on fly.
They really are “The Ghost of the Flats” and long, accurate casts made from up wind of the fish are crucial, as is camouflage clothing and a silent approach.
Light blue hats and shirts to match the sky and sandy coloured shorts and shoes to match the sandy bottom are ideal.
Most of the bones encountered in the first couple of days took off like lightning bolts as I tried to get close enough to see what they were.
In the end I was casting at everything that looked remotely similar to a fish. Rocks, weed, bird shadows and even blind casts into the unknown would all produce hookups in one way or another.
Local knowledge, as always, plays a key role in success and, after being roughly pointed in the right direction and putting in some serious hours, I managed to eventually work out where the bones would be at certain stages throughout the day.
Being restricted to wading also made it quite difficult to keep up with the constantly moving schools.
A small boat fitted with an electric motor or even poled along silently would be ideal for following the schools, as they move throughout different areas, although the shadow of a boat may also spook the fish and prevent fly anglers from getting close enough for an accurate cast.
Fishing with twisted tippets also seemed to help whilst chasing finicky fish in shallow, clear water and enables anglers to fish with much lighter tippets than normal.
Two thirds of the tippet is twisted, leaving one third of single line to which a fly may be attached using a simple loop knot. This allows for tippets as light as 8-10lb to be used with an incredible amount of stretch provided by the twisted butt section.
Standard 8-10lb tippets do not have the added amount of stretch a twisted tippet does and are less likely to cope with the lightning fast take and run of a big bone fish in shallow water forcing anglers to fish heavier.
I personally found a twisted 15lb tippet was a great all-rounder for the area.
The environment in which fish are hooked in also plays a key role in tippet selection with heavier tippets to 20lb being required for handling larger fish in rugged conditions such as sharp coral reef.
Fly pattern choice was also crucial with size 2, gotcha/clouser styled flies tied in white and brown or tan deer or goat hair with a pink chin proving to be most successful on the Cocos Island bones. Thanks Sewelly!
Fly line choice is relatively simple with floating lines preferred for shallow, knee deep water, wet tips for medium, waist deep water and clear intermediate or slow sinking lines for deeper water above chest or head hight.
Fly rod choice is also simple with most rods able to be used, even after emergency repairs due to quad handle bar incidents!
Sharks also proved to be a bit of a pest whilst wading alone and seem to become much bolder during low light periods and, of course when fish are hooked.
Catching bonefish on fly in the Cocos Keeling Islands for me was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life!
The overwhelming and captivating beauty of the place, along with the friendliness of the local people should certainly see more anglers heading there chasing shadows in the near future.
Just don’t forget the 5 P’s before you leave!
Oh yeah, and by the way the wedding was pretty good too …
Calm seas, clear skies. Nick Hocking.
Nick’s 10 Tips for Chasing Shadows!
- Twisted tippets allow you to fish lighter and get more bites.
- Wearing gloves or finger guards will prevent line cuts and burns.
- Try to fish in a group or pairs rather than alone, this helps to keep the sharks at bay as does stomping and screaming like a lunatic!
- Wear camouflage clothing and move silently.
- Seek local knowledge to get you started.
- Wear rock hopper boots to protect feet from sharp corals and stonefish.
- Polarising sunglasses cut through glare and help to spot those elusive shadows.
- Try making long, accurate casts from an up wind position.
- Look for shadows and movement rather than actual fish shapes.
- Take a spare fly rod and your camera battery charger!