New Caledonia, Part I – by Mat McHugh

I found Mat McHugh‘s name on a message board talking about New Caledonia.  He sent an article to me and said I could use it.  It happens to be about 9000% longer than most of my blog posts.  So, I’ll be breaking it up in a few different parts.  This article first appeared in Fly Angler Magazine in 2008.

Mat McHughs is Director of Fly Odyssey, a UK based  company that does what the name implies.

This article is deep and very involved and the subsequent editions of this article involve, at least in part, the same trip that spawned articles from both Charles Rangeley-Wilson and Peter Morse.

New Caledonia Trophies
Mathew McHugh finds trophy bonefish in New Caledonia.
What is it about a trophy fish? Fly fishers, more so than any other discipline of fishing, have an obsession with the definition of what is and isn’t a trophy. Each species that we fish for with a fly has over time, somehow, developed a benchmark weight at which point any fish caught over that weight is considered a trophy. For a trout it’s 10 lb. For tarpon, 100 lb. Probably the only fish that has not had a weight attached to its trophy status is the permit. They are all trophies. For bonefish, that other pinnacle saltwater fly rod species, the magic number is 10 lb.

There are few places in the world where bonefish exceeding 10 lb are found in large numbers. There are always rumours of new destinations and trophy bonefish but few stand the test of time and most suffer the affliction of exaggerated weight syndrome. The Florida Keys and northern Bahamian islands of Andros and Abaco are renowned big fish producers and it seems that the Pacific has its fair share of big fish waters. Reports of trophy bonefish leak out of Hawaii, French Polynesia and the Cook Islands but thereis one place that has earned a legendary status for big bonefish…New Caledonia.

New Caledonia as a potential bonefish fishery was brought into our consciousness in the early 2000’s by Dean Butler who fished the region with Phillipe Loureux, the man who made the first attempts at establishing a bonefishing operation in the Northern Province around the Boatpass region. Phillipe and a few very intrepid anglers were the first to uncover the potential for bonefishing in the region.

Dean Butler’s interest in the region was developed as he flew over New Caledonia and noticed the large expanses of shallow flats surrounding the many islands that make up New Caledonia. Dean, having spent time looking for bones in Australia, was intrigued by these shallow flats in this little known South Pacific group of islands. His research dug up Phillipe’s contact details and resulted in a trip that saw Dean land a 9 lb bonefish on the first morning’s fishing, with the first cast of his first visit to New Caledonia.

Since that time, a sprinkling of anglers have visited New Caledonia, including many of Australia’s most respected fly fishers, confirming that there were bonefish throughout the Loyalty Islands and the southern coral cays. Yet the place never really took off as a bonefish destination and reports out of Phillipe’s operation went cold. Reports of guys fishing DIY varied from excellent fishing to hard going. Outdated reports still make up the majority of information that can be found on the internet when you undertake a Google search of bonefish in New Caledonia and much of the knowledge gained through Phillipe’s exploration of the north is now lost as he makes honey high in the New Caledonian mountains.

The latest incarnation of the New Caledonian bonefish fishery has been instigated by Richard Bertin, whose previous life saw him manage Charles De Gaulle Airport. A lifelong fly fisher who, having been posted from Paris to manage the Tontouta Airport in New Caledonia, took to casting a fly at bonefish. Richard immediately saw the potential that Phillipe had previously uncovered and has invested in getting bonefishing in the north back into the spotlight. Richard’s new operation uses the local Kanak guides that are the
cornerstone of any successful fishing trip in the north.

There are two options when it comes to bonefishing. A fully guided trip that guarantees access to flats that hold bonefish with a guide who knows what to look for, or the Do-It-Yourself approach which offers no guarantees at all. My first visit to New Caledonia in early 2006 was the latter and part of a cunning plan that fooled my partner into thinking we were going on a tropical holiday when in reality I was planning to catch my first bonefish.

The trip that we took was to Isle Des Pines. Extensive research had revealed that a few anglers had fished Isle Des Pines by themselves and it was possible to catch bonefish there. At the time of my trip to Isle des Pines there were no guides working the area and access to the flats was by sortie en mer or water taxi. Locating and organising a trip across to the flats was an adventure in itself and ensures that you will be the only person there. Mine involved hiring a mountain bike from our residence, then cycling the 10 km to Gite Manamaky were it was rumoured a man named Christian offered boat trips to tourists. I arrived with rod in hand as a group of local fishers were loading up their boats and attempted, with a poor grasp of French, to find a boatman. After several confused looks and some laughter  as I tried to get my message across by mock casting a 4 piece rod tube, a man shot off to a nearby house and returned with Christian. We organised to meet at nine the next morning and he would drop me on the flats and return six hours later.

Isle des Pines has absolutely stunning beaches with some of the finest, whitest sand imaginable. I spent the remainder of the day lying on one of them dreaming of the sand flats full of bonefish waiting in these turquoise waters. That night fly boxes were reorganised, leader connections tested and a bag packed with the essentials; sunscreen, hat, polaroids, fly lines and camera. I reread articles on spotting bonefish: they are invisible, ghost like creatures requiring bionic vision to spot. Look for shadows, silver flashes, and nervous water. I soaked it all in, but it really has no meaning until your own eyes register these things.

The trip to the flats was quick. On arrival, Christian pointed o the vast expanse of sand covered in a foot of water and mumbled something in French. My French hadn’t improved overnight but I took this to mean that if I where to find a bonefish anywhere this would be the place. There were miles of flats to fish and to finally set foot on one was the culmination of several months worth of planning. Out of the fly box came a tan Gotcha that was quickly tied onto a 9 ft length of 15 lb monofilament. I was bonefishing.


Big New Caledonian Bone courtesy of Mat McHugh

When you are doing anything for the first time, a degree of uncertainty, self doubt and quite often mistakes will encroach on your initial attempts. It would not be long before my first lessons in bonefishing would begin. After walking perhaps 20 metres down the flat I spotted my first ‘shape’ swimming straight towards me. I had already stripped off 40 feet of fly line that was trailing behind as I walked the flat. A quick back cast and delivery of the fly in front of the fish resulted in the fish swimming straight over the top of the fly and continuing onwards. It didn’t stop until it ran into the end of my fly rod. First lesson learnt; that’s what bonefish don’t look like as the 2 foot black tip whaler scarpered from the gentle prodding of the rod. This continued as I cast at schools of mullet, dart, small GTs and golden trevally.

This bycatch, while being good fun, proved a distraction and ultimately the focus on catching bonefish had shifted to getting a bend in the rod from a variety of tropical species. By the end of my first day on the flat, I had learnt two valuable lessons. The first was that to catch a bonefish would require the willpower not to cast at everything else that was swimming by. The second was that while I still had not spotted a bonefish I was pretty sure that every other piscatorial offering the sand flat had to offer had been revealed. I now knew what not to cast at.

The next few days were spent enjoying what the island had to offer, including some fun flicking flies off the wharf in Kuto Bay, but my mind was preoccupied. I had organised another trip to flats with Christian so there was one final opportunity to find the bonefish that had lured me to this island. A resolution was made to myself that even if I did not make a cast for the whole day, I was NOT going to cast at anything other than what I considered to be a bonefish.

In all forms of fly fishing, confidence in what you are doing plays an important part in actually catching a fish. A lot of the time this confidence is bolstered by knowing the fish you are targeting are actually there. So, when after walking down the edge of a sand flat for 15 minutes I spotted my first bonefish, a pod of three cruising at high speed on the edge of the drop-off, I actually believed for the first time that there was a chance at catching one. My cast landed about a metre behind the tail of the last of the three fish and no notice was taken of my fly. The fish were moving so fast that by the time the fly line was aerialised for a second shot, they were out of sight.

My attention was now focused well ahead of my actual position in the hope of picking up the cruising fish much earlier and therefore being able to present a fly well ahead of the fish. It wasn’t long before another opportunity arose.

I picked up two fish swimming along the edge of a weed bed and made a short, quick cast. As they approached the fly a quick strip of the little pink and green hammerhead saw a GT charge the fly and then charge off into the distance with my orange dacron following. I had broken my earlier resolution, but it was one of those sight fishing moments that keeps you fly fishing, with all the suspense and exhilaration of the take unfolding right before your eyes.

The tide was beginning to fall off the flat so I concentrated on searching the edges of the drop-off hoping to find fish making their way back into the deeper water. Several hours passed without any sign of a fish. A burning desire to find one of these mystical fish was the only thing that kept my eyes focused on the water and even that was beginning to fade, when it happened. A shape was moving slowly with the outgoing tide. A quickly attempted cast resulted in the fly wrapping itself around the fly rod. I had blown it. With one eye focused on the fish and the other sorting out the mess of tangled leader I tried to regain some composure. After what seemed like an eternity, I was set for another shot.

The fish was moving slowly from side to side; obviously feeding. Two false casts and the fly landed forward of, and a little to the right, of the fish. Allowing the tan gotcha to sink, I began a short strip retrieve. Before I knew what was happening, the line tightened and there was a moment of clarity that I will never forget…I think I have hooked a bonefish. This initial thought was soon confirmed when I looked down to see the knot attaching the backing to the spool. Lifting knees high I began to chase the fish in order to get something back on the reel. It has been written many times before by more accomplished fly fishers than me, but the first run of these fish has to be seen to be believed.

Eventually after a war of attrition and prayers to every god imaginable about knot strength and hook holding properties I beached a bonefish. A fish of 31 inches that I estimated in the 10-12 lb bracket was more than anyone could ever hope for as an introduction to this most addictive form of the sport.

PART II, Coming Soon.

Not Small

Another NICE bone from Mat

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  1. Can I go 2nd week May?

  2. Any chance I can go fishing for bones?

  3. Excellent piece

  4. Hey Ken, I’d ask Mat McHugh about the fishing. He wrote the article, but I posted it. I don’t think he’s reading the blog for questions.


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