The days before Easter saw urgent consultation of Lefty Kreh’s book ‘Fly Fishing in Saltwater’, much thought, many adjustments to fishing tackle, and a rush to tie some new flies – all somewhat hampered by an urgent mission to Malawi, which meant I was not as prepared, once again, as I would have liked.
The weather at Easter on the coast, despite forecasts of rain, was hot and sunny, and I managed to get seriously sunburned whilst snorkelling, despite applying huge amounts of sun tan lotion. We did have the highest tide of the year – so high that it almost flooded the dining room and bar. There was plenty of time to snorkel, swim, dive (which we didn’t do because the kit hadn’t got back from up North to investigate the Red Tide), sail (Belinda almost decided to go windsurfing – but got hooked on her book in the end) and, of course, to fish.
One of the main purposes for returning to Kiwayu so quickly was in anticipation of the Koli-Koli still being around, enabling me to have another crack at them with a fly. I also thought that I might go out in the big boat in pursuit of sailfish. When I was getting on the plane with Belinda I told her that I thought that it would be a bit optimistic to have such terrific fishing again, and that that was just something that only occasionally happens. When we got down to Kiwayu, this thought was confirmed by Jaak and the fishing crew down there, who had not seen any Koli-Koli for a while, although they had caught a few Yellow-Fin Tuna. They hadn’t seen many Sailfish either. However, the fishing, for me, turned out to be wonderful.
At supper on the first evening, having spent a tranquil afternoon exploring a new beach, we made plans for action the next day. I decided that, whatever, I would go out with Ali and the small boat, armed with fly rods, and accompanied by ‘Mission Control’, and that, if that didn’t work, I would go out in the bigger boat on the Sunday or Monday.
We had a relaxed morning, walked along the lonely beaches, went snorkelling, saw many varieties of interesting reef fish, and then after lunch which, is quite late and fairly leisurely I got myself set up with the fishing tackle; this time ensuring that there would be no broken rods, no broken knots, no lost fly lines and so on. I had three quite powerful fly rods set up, two with floating lines and one with a fast sinking sink tip. At four o’clock, on the dot, we set off, with Belinda immediately becoming a little nervous as we negotiated the large waves breaking over the reef. They were still quite large when we got to the other side, but by the time we reached the area known as the sandbanks the sea was a bit calmer. We couldn’t see any birds moving – or any fish either, and whilst not being pessimistic, I was not quite so optimistic. We eventually started fishing in an area where Ali had some success with the Yellow-Fin the day before.
Within seconds, literally, of sticking out the two flies – to troll, (trolling because we couldn’t see anything to cast to) – Belinda’s line went out as though it was attached to a giant bonefish. I told her to pass me the rod, quick, but she got all stubborn, and said ‘…I hooked the fish, and so it’s my fish, and I’m going to play it...’ I explained that all I wanted to do was tighten the drag because otherwise in the next few seconds her fish was going to be gone and I didn’t want to lose my fly line as well. So I tightened the drag for her, and she played a Yellow-Fin for the next ten minutes on the double-handed rod until suddenly it all went slack and there was nothing. When we reeled back in, the fly was gone and there was a tell tale corkscrew of nylon at the end. I couldn’t believe it, after all the effort that I had gone to, to make sure that the kit was in good working order. Whilst I was tying on a new fly, and muttering to myself, I gave Belinda the other rod, and we carried on trolling in the area. I hadn’t even finished tying on a new fly, when Belinda hooked another Yellow-Fin, which once again she played for about ten minutes on the single-handed fly rod. I should say that it played her, because although the drag was set to a decent level this time, we weren’t able to recover much line, before it, too, came off. Once again, the knot had come undone. This was getting ridiculous, and I’m a slow learner! I tied on another new fly.
Ali saw some birds diving in the distance so off we went at high speed to fish that spot. When we arrived, the action seemed to have stopped so yet again we let out the fly lines to troll, until we saw some fish to cast to. Belinda took one rod and I stuck another between my knees whilst I sorted out a tangle with the third rod. This time, Belinda immediately hooked a fish, and I, also, hooked a fish with the rod stuck between my legs. Both were Yellow-Fins, and both dropped off after about two minutes. Mine just came unhooked, but once again the nylon on Belinda’s had slipped, so the score stood at Yellow-Fin 4, Holdsworths 0. Finally I realised that it was not just my knot tying - and I was, by this point, taking some flack from my rather disappointed wife! - but nylon which was slipping, and so I changed two of the leaders to 20lb Maxima, which was the strongest that I had with me.
In the meantime, Ali had spotted birds diving again, and had moved to a new spot. I stuck out the free rod for Belinda, and I carried on changing the leaders on the other two rods. Whilst I was doing this, the pheromone thing was working overtime, and Belinda hooked another fish, which put up an incredibly dogged fight, even under heavy pressure from the double-handed fly rod. Eventually it, too, dropped off – this time just coming unhooked. Yellow-Fin 5, Holdsworths 0!
By now, we were tossing about in big waves amongst a patch of boiling fish, diving birds, and hunting dolphins. Whilst I prepared to cast with one rod, I gave Belinda the other rod, which, unsurprisingly, immediately attached itself to a hard fighting fish. I reeled in my line – was I ever going to fish? After about 15 minutes we landed Belinda’s fish and we were slightly surprised to see that it was a relatively small 7lb Koli-Koli. Belinda, however, was extremely pleased. The Koli-Koli were moving on the surface nearby. I passed one rod to Belinda, and started casting myself. Unfortunately, on the rod that I had given Belinda, I had forgotten to adjust the drag. A couple of casts later, into the swarming mass of fish, I hooked a bigger Koli-Koli, and as soon as I had hooked it Belinda, too, hooked a fish, which went off like a rocket, and, of course, with the drag set fairly low the handle was whizzing around at high speed. Despite my previous warnings, and my urgent shouts, the reel handle made crunching contact with Belinda’s thumb and wrist. Much yelping from Belinda, and probably a distinct lack of sympathy from her husband, as the fish came off the line. Mine was still on, and as the sun was beginning to sink below the horizon, I eventually landed it. This was a fish of about 10 kgs. After landing and unhooking it, the fly and a small amount of line had blown over the edge of the boat, with the fly drifting near the surface, provoking another Koli-Koli into snapping it up, and charging off – but I’m afraid that I lost that one. The evenings do seem to be the best time for fly fishing for the Koli-Koli – when they seem to be much more active on the surface.
We now decided to head back home, but we were very happy having had solid action for two and a half hours. I was somewhat disappointed at losing all those Yellow-Fin, but we decided that we would come out again the following day. I think that I was certainly happier than the other fisherman there, a Spaniard, who had been out in the big boat for most of the day and had only caught one Yellow-Fin, and a small shark. As well as his lack of fishing success, he seemed to be having problems with his all-female retinue, wife, two young daughters, and an extremely voluptuous girl that Belinda and I assumed was the nanny or au pair. The two young daughters and wife, judging from the noise coming from their table, which was next to ours, seemed to be having a particularly ‘Latin’ sort of day, and he was wearing a very hang dog expression.
The following day, more meals, more snorkelling, etc., and eventually I was back in the small boat with Ali, but without Mission Control who had decided that her wrist was out of action, and that the waves coming in over the reef looked a bit too daunting. I couldn’t understand how anybody could not have been utterly enthralled by the previous day’s action, and even with two wrists out of action would not have wanted to go out again. It also presented me with a problem because I was not sure how I was going to control two fly rods at once, if I did any trolling.
We motored off into the deep blue sea, with waves even bigger than the day before and on our way to the favoured spot we came across this device – I don’t know what the technical term for it is. It was a floating buoy with an aerial, and surrounded by the remains of a net. Apparently, what it was, was a fiendish Japanese appliance for attracting fish to a net – the buoy with the aerial emits beeps that attract the fish. This one had broken away from its net and mooring, and was floating free on the open ocean, followed by a multitude of fish. We had a terrific half an hour casting a fly to towards the huge schools of fish around the shreds of netting. I must have caught ten, but nothing very large – biggest were a snapper of some sort and a highly active Rainbow Runner, both about 4lbs each – most of the rest were Koli-Koli of about 1.5lbs, but on a light rod they were terrific sport. I would have happily carried on fishing there for the rest of the evening, but Ali decided that we should try for something bigger, and so after cutting away the beeping buoy and putting it in the back of the boat we decided to head off for where we had seen some birds circling.
On arrival, nothing appeared to be moving and so we stuck out two fly rods to troll until we saw something on the surface. It is hardly fly-fishing, but this is definitely the answer, when you can’t see any fish moving, although we could have put out the two heavy-duty trolling rods and kept the fly rods until we saw something moving on the surface. The fish, though, seemed to prefer the fly. The difficulty was managing two rods at once, and being greedy, I wanted to maximise my chances. After a few minutes, I found out exactly what the difficulties were. I hooked a fish with the rod that was stuck between my legs, and so I handed the other rod to Ali to reel in the line, whereupon he hooked a fish. The fish on his rod dropped off quite quickly, (although I was pleased to see that the fly remained on), and so we could concentrate on the fish that I was playing. At that stage, I didn’t know what I had hooked, but it had taken out an awful lot of line. We followed in the boat, and eventually I managed to recover a bit. Soon, though, the fish went off again, but it dived deep, and my backing was disappearing at an alarming rate. It felt incredibly powerful and didn’t seem to give, even when I was applying maximum pressure. No namby pamby stuff or delicate playing – just as much force as I could apply. I was using the single-handed rod, and my left arm soon became knackered from the strain. After 20 minutes we landed it, and on the one hand, I was very pleased, because it was a Yellow-Fin – my first on a fly, but on the other hand, it was not the 50 pounder that I thought that I must have caught, weighing in at only about 15lbs. I could not believe that a fish of this size could be so tough. I thought that the Koli-Koli were strong, but the Yellow-Fin on a fly rod are amazing. No wonder they are called the buffalo of the sea.
Off we went again – to another area, where we had seen birds, although they were not so obvious as the day before, or as obvious as on the previous trip. When we got to the area where the birds were we could not see much evidence of fish so we just stuck the lines out and trolled for a few minutes – me with one rod stuck between my legs and holding the other. Ali shouted to me to hold on tight because he thought he could see some fish, and sure enough, the line on the double-handed rod started whizzing away at high speed. I passed the other rod up to Ali to wind in, and, yet again, as he started doing so another fish took. Life became extremely chaotic as both fish charged away and lines crossed, disappearing around and then under the boat. Inevitably, we lost one of the fish, but mine stayed on. This time the fish was bigger, but this time I was using the double-handed rod and this was a great advantage. Nevertheless, it took much longer to land, even though at one stage early in the fight we got it close enough to the boat to gaff. Unfortunately, Ali missed then, although not the second time. Eventually we got it in – it was about 20lbs.
It was time to return. As we surfed through the reef at the entrance to the lagoon, we had a shot at catching the Giant Trevally that lurk around there sometimes when the tide is high, but no luck. It didn’t matter because I had had fantastic sport already.
There you have it. I had two terrific days fishing – more than I could possibly have hoped for. I am a convert to fly fishing in salt water, even if it is quite often trolling. It is actually very pleasant, going out for a two or three hours in the evening, and having time to do other things during the day – although whilst we were there this time, they were having quite a lot of success fishing on the creeks during the middle of the day. If you want any details don’t hesitate to contact me. If you want to contact the lodge at Kiwayu directly, their email address is Kiwayu1@bushmail.net., but it is not a cheap place to stay. It is easy enough to combine a trip there with any package that you might take out to Kenya, and it is an excellent way to round off a safari trip.
Some comments on techniques and tackle:
These are the comments of an amateur salt-water fly fisherman. I don’t profess to be an expert on this sort of fishing at all, and probably many of the things that I say are subjective. I think that I have been on a fast learning curve. Some of the important things that I have discovered, related to my recent fishing experiences with the Koli-Koli and Tuna are:
The importance of the guide: Second only to a tolerant wife, the guide is the most vital ingredient to successful fishing. This applies to any fishing anywhere in the world, but it is extremely important for people such as me, who are only in a place for a day or two, to quickly find out where the fish are. It is a false economy to save money by not employing a guide when one is available, and there is usually someone that can guide, who, even if he does not understand your techniques, knows where the fish are. In Kiwayu, Ali was an excellent guide. Although he did not know a lot about fly fishing, he knew enough to position me in the right places to cast, and most importantly, he knew where the fish were and he could handle the little boat well. He was also a very enthusiastic fisherman himself, and he almost understood why I wanted to go after fish with a fly.
Boats, big or small? There are plenty of well-equipped and well-crewed big game fishing boats on the coast of Kenya, which are happy to indulge fly fishermen. There is an excellent boat at Kiwayu called ‘Elusive’. However, for the sort of fly-fishing that I was doing, although a big boat is much more comfortable, and if you work it out on an hourly basis, not much more expensive, it is not always ideal. Going out in the small boat can be an advantage - if you don’t have to go too far out to sea. The advantage of the small boat, on my trip, was that it was much more manoeuvrable, which is highly important if you are trying to follow a strong fish, with a limited amount of backing. Furthermore, it does seem to create less of a disturbance when you approach shoals of fish. They definitely do not seem to be so frightened of a small boat. The disadvantage is that there is much less room for playing a fish, for loose coils of line, for spare rods, protection from the sun and so on. You also feel much more vulnerable when you are bobbing about on those large waves in a small boat.
Techniques: This is only what I have observed on my few trips, and what I say should only be taken in this context. The fish seem to prefer a fast moving fly near the surface. I experimented with the fish around the fiendish oriental buoy. If the fly moved slowly, they did not seem to be interested. Neither was there very much interested when the fly was fished deep, although I do know that many people catch fish by letting the fly sink to a reasonable depth before retrieving it. When I stripped the fly fast across the surface, the fish seemed to be triggered off into a competition to catch it. The faster one stripped the better it seemed to work. When I arrived at a shoal of fish moving on the surface, casting to the fish and stripping back quickly, seemed to guarantee a take. Sometimes the fish did not take a firm hold and you could see the fish continuing to follow. If you carried on stripping, you would get a second or third take, if you stopped – nothing. When I could not see any birds moving or fish near the surface, and therefore had nothing visible to cast to, I would let the fly lines troll out of the back of the boat until we saw something, but very often if we were in the right sort of area we would hook a fish trolling with the flies. There was no problem hooking the fish on these occasions – they hooked themselves – the problem was turning the boat around quickly enough before you got to the end of your backing, and bearing in mind that the boat is travelling in one direction and the fish in the opposite, it does not take long to empty your reel. Even hooking a Yellow Fin or Koli-Koli after casting and retrieving from a static boat required a terrific amount of backing to be available. Many people would not regard trolling a fly line as fly fishing, and they are quite right, but as far as I was concerned I wanted to catch fish, preferably by casting a fly, but in the meantime rather than waste time doing nothing I was happier to troll – and what fun it was! I could have trolled with the proper trolling rods, and this would have been a better option when it came to playing the fish, but on the days that we were successful, the fish seemed to prefer the flies to the plastic squid.
Reels: Everything that you have ever read about the importance of reels in saltwater fly-fishing is probably true. For what we were doing, you must have something that is designed for saltwater conditions and it must have a powerful and smooth braking system, and room for plenty of backing. It also needs to be quite robust when it is subjected to bouncing around in the back of a small boat. This is what worries me about reels that are machined with fine tolerances. My System 2 reel did not work at all well, with the drag being rough and inconsistent – either too strong or too weak, but it is not designed for saltwater fishing, whereas the JW Young and the Hardy’s Sovereign 2000 were outstanding. The JW Young reel had an excellent brake, which was well positioned and easy to apply. The Sovereign 2000 also had a strong smooth brake, but the control knob is not so well designed and is a bit fiddly particularly when you have wet hands.
The big difference between these two reels, although roughly the same size, is that the Sovereign had much greater line capacity. With the JW Young reel, I very quickly got near to the end of the backing on several occasions, which was OK if one could follow the fish – a bit difficult if the fish dives deep as well. In this respect, the reels with large arbors are a disadvantage. There is no doubt that you can catch small fish using smaller reels with inferior braking systems, but one of the most exciting things about this sort of fishing is you never know how big the next fish will be – so you need to be well prepared. My one problem with most fly reels, even some of the more expensive ones, is the damage that they do to fly lines, and nowadays I have yet to come across a reel that has a good line guard. I sometimes think that fishermen do not have much say in the design of fly-fishing reels. The protection, or rounding off of the line guards on fly reels are invariably badly positioned, in as much as they do not allow for line being pulled out at an angle or they have nasty little gaps with sharp edges, which can strip the plastic off the fly line in no time at all, and in some cases, as I experienced quite recently with an expensive reel, cut right through it. This was all brought home to me when I saw the speed at which the Tuna pulled the fly line off the reels and the heat that was generated by the friction. Just put your hand in the way if you want to find out for yourself. Once upon a time Hardy’s used to have reels with circular line guards that I thought were far superior to anything. It is a pity that there isn’t something similar these days.
Finally, cleaning your reel after a day’s fishing, is, as everybody has ever said before me, vital. When cleaning the reel, though, one should consider the environment that one is fishing in – for example if your reel is exposed to sand then oil or grease applied before the start of a day’s fishing, is just going to make the sand stick to the reel.
Rods: The trouble that I, personally, find, with many saltwater fly rods is that they are unpleasant to cast with. I have a nine-foot rod rated for a weight 11 line that I hardly ever use because it is so stiff. I have found the best rod is a 13-foot, 11 weight, double-handed salmon rod with saltwater fittings, made by Omri Thomas in Buckfastleigh. I use a WF 12-weight line on it, and I can cast a reasonable distance, with no time and energy wasted false casting, and feel as though I’m using a proper fly rod as opposed to a poker. It can throw a heavy line with a large fly into the stiffest wind without too much effort, and the extra length keeps the fly well away from you, when it is aerial. When it comes to playing a fish, the double-handed grip makes the whole process considerably less tiring. The other great advantage when it comes to playing a fish is that when the fish gets nearer a boat, it is easier, with the extra length, to manoeuvre it away from such obstructions as outboard engines. It is also an excellent rod to use when casting from the shore into a stiff wind. In fact, it is so good that I can’t understand why nobody else uses a double handed rod for saltwater fishing. Well… I can – the one big disadvantage is that they are rather cumbersome, especially in a small boat. I also use a nine weight 9 foot Loomis with a 9-weight line, and this too is a comfortable outfit to cast with, but hard work when playing a large fish, and it always feels so fragile that you think that it is about to break. I prefer my rods to be varnished all over, instead of leaving the bulk of them unvarnished to reduce flash, as seems to be fashionable nowadays. When a fly rod has been bumped around in a boat in a rough sea, or has had a wind blown fly smacking into it at high speed, I reckon that it needs all the protection on offer, and this includes a full coat of varnish.
Lines: I think that only one of my lines is specially designed for salt water. All the other lines were originally designed for fresh water. They seemed to perform well enough, but I’m sure that the stiffer salt water lines will perform better. I will find out when I get one. I have found that the most successful lines have been WF floating lines. These are infinitely better for casting in windy conditions. There have been very few occasions, even when bonefishing with delicate flies, when I have been able to use a line less than an 8 weight – anything lighter and it is difficult to penetrate the winds. My WF 8 Cortland floater has definitely been the easiest and nicest of all to use. I am afraid that spending a lot of money on lines is also likely to be a fairly short lived investment, with me. So far, I have lost the whole of one line to a fish, I have chopped up another on the outboard, and the others have taken a bit of a hammering when looped in coils at the bottom of a boat or lying on a sandy beach. A line-stripping basket is very definitely going to be my next investment. I do always clean and polish the lines after fishing. I like all my lines to come with loops already attached. After recent experiences, I have developed a phobia for knots, and I try to reduce the number as much as possible.
Flies: On my last two expeditions in pursuit of Koli-Koli, the fish do not seem to have been particularly choosy. What seemed more important than actual pattern was that the fly was fishing well up in the surface, and moving quite fast. The best combination of colours seemed to be chartreuse green and white, yellow, green and white, and a mixture of grizzly, white and dark purple and peacock herl topping. The white in the flies is always at the bottom of the fly dressing representing, I suppose, the underside or belly of the fish, and the darkest colours were at the top. All flies contained plenty of sparkle in the form of lureflash. If you tie your own flies, then do tie them on saltwater hooks. No matter how much you rinse flies tied on fresh water hooks after fishing, they will go rusty. The same applies to materials made of metal substances, such as ribbing, used in the dressings. I found that flies with a lot of body or tail behind the hook often become twisted in the hook, not only causing it to fish badly, but also causing twist in the line.