Chance return to the bijagos
For the freshwater fly fisherman who is an avid predatory fish enthusiast or the one who already practices on our coasts for sea bass, West Africa and the Bijagos archipelago are not necessarily among the destinations of which he secretly dreams. In the collective imagination, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean or even some Pacific islands are at the top of the list: Bahamas, Florida, Cuba, Belize, Seychelles, Christmas Islands, etc.
As I have often had the opportunity to land my flies on the flats of these countries, I know well the ins and outs of these “sight fishing” which mainly concern bonefish, but also tarpon, permit and other species that can be caught on the fly.
To succeed in these beautiful countries, you must be there at the best season, the most wanted, therefore the most expensive, have a good to very good casting technique in double haul, and have the means to afford the services of a good guide operating most often by boat, from a well-known lodge for the fishing territories to which it gives access ….
However, success is never guaranteed and it is not enough to pay the price of excellence to catch the fish you dream of on every trip. Those with a limited budget who want to get “value for money” often return frustrated, if not disappointed.
The climate change also reinforces the randomness of the fisheries in paradises that were “stable” in the late 90s and early 2000s. Nowadays, one can very well “screw up” by having signed a check with 4 zeros…
Specialist in fly fishing for sea bass, which occupies a good part of my guiding season in Brittany, I have had for more than 10 years the opportunity to train many fly fishers to the subtleties of saltwater fly fishing. With a fly rod, the transition to salt water is very strong in emotion, as the fighting power of marine species is tenfold compared to fresh water. It is often a real revelation for the passionate who often have the feeling of entering a new world, with infinite resources. Once you become an experienced sea bass fly fisherman, you start to get interested in tropical fisheries. It is a logical process, for fly fishing as for casting. You only have to go on YouTube to understand how the fighting spirit of tropical species exceeds anything known in temperate, fresh or marine waters, except for tuna and sparidae.
It is thanks to a client and his wife who have become friends that I returned to the Bijagos, exactly 29 years after having put my flies there for the first time during a reportage, and then having gone back the following year with a group of friends, as crazy as me. Philippe and Stéphanie Porcher, to name them, had come for a little fishing trip in the Monts d’Arrée in May 2021 to console themselves for the cancellation of their annual trip to Ireland because of Covid-19.
They tell me about Kéré and the organization of Laurent and Sonia Durris, the owners of this small private islet of 1.7ha located in the North-West of the archipelago, between the islands of Caravela and Carache, where they have been returning every year for the last 15 years. Their eyes shine.
Knowing my skills in fly fishing and my experience of the archipelago, Philippe explained to me that although some fly fishers had obtained more than encouraging results, everything remained to be done to develop fly fishing in Kéré and to make this true paradise known. Laurent, perfectly aware of the enormous potential of his paradise, wanted to develop this technique and make it a plan A, whereas it was only a plan B, or C, after lure and bait fishing. He needed the expertise of a fly fishing professional to confirm his hopes. We had to meet. Philippe quickly sent me a stream of photos and some recent videos and I quickly had an irrepressible desire to organize guided trips there.
Having already a solid experience of the archipelago with a fly rod, I was not confronted with a totally virgin ground, but more than a quarter of a century had passed since my last trips, the fished area was not the same anymore and the fish populations could have been reduced due to the conjunction of anthropic and climatic factors…
The information gathered here and there allowed me to leave confidently, as this North-Western part of the Archipelago was subject to a lesser pressure of professional fishing, so that the fish stocks always seemed exceptional.
Everything was still to be discovered and validated in terms of fly fishing in Kéré according to the fishes sought and the type of fishing practiced: the right flies, the right lines, the right class of fy rods, the leaders, the fishing strategy according to the tides and the weather conditions, etc.
A first trip with a few good and loyal clients was organized in the wake of this course at the end of October 2021 and what I discovered there largely exceeded my expectations.
Whatever your level of casting and your experience of saltwater fly fishing, you will find your happiness at Kéré.
Fishing around Kéré
The island itself enjoys a position blessed by the gods since it is located at the entrance of a wide channel separating two very large inhabited islands, Caravela to the North and Carache to the South. The tidal currents caress the shores of Kéré twice a day. As can be seen on the aerial photo, they are mostly rocky on 4/5 of the islet’s circumference, only the southwestern side is sandy. This is where the beach and the small harbor are located and it is towards this softer and sheltered shore that the infrastructures, the restaurant and the bungalows are oriented.
In front of the beach, towards the southwest and the Ninquim channel that separates Caravela from Carache, there is a huge sand bank that adds to Kéré’s playground. At low tide, it is separated from the beach of Kéré by a channel of about fifty meters wide at the most in which the tidal currents, flood or ebb, rush in. A few minutes of paddling allow to reach it and to access other hot spots for fly fishing. We will talk about it later.
Rising with the day, the magic of Kéré immediately hypnotizes the nature lover because we are here in the heart of a protected ecosystem where many species of birds live, first of all the very graceful collared doves, their cooing is a very sweet morning awakening. A small detail that is important, there are no snakes or “beasts that bite” on Kéré, a rarity in West Africa. Laurent and his team take particular care to ban and eliminate any stagnant water on the islet, and at the same time eliminate mosquitoes whose contingent is almost non-existent here, in comparison with other islands of the archipelago where I had stayed before.
When the dawn coincides with the high tide, the heartbeat of the passionate fly fisherman inevitably increases at the almost daily sight of spectacular hunts of Jack Crevalle (Caranx hippos), the biggest ones, which give a hard time to the schools of mullets hiding in the coves of the island. These hunts can also be the work of the numerous barracudas that hunt on the lookout all around Kéré and the predators often validate their predation at the edge. I saw some crazy hunts at less than 10 meters from my terrace!
Let’s talk about the fishing around Kéré which could justify the trip as the variety of fishing situations offered and the species likely to attack your fly is great.
Apart from dawn and dusk, moments that should never be neglected with a line class 10 weight rod and bulky flies that move from the water and trigger the appetite of the marauding hunters, it is necessary to stick to the best moments of the tide to make the carbon bend in a regular way.
The second half of the flow, either in the morning until 12/13pm or in the afternoon until sunset, are the most prolific moments.
The conjunction of the currents makes the forage fish come closer to the edge, especially on the beach, and its two ends, one giving towards Carache, the other towards Caravela. They are sometimes so numerous that we can observe a real wall of greenish fry rather translucent pushed towards the shore by predators. In the first row, a school of elops or Lady Fish (Elops senegalensis), the only other member of the tarpon family, which is almost at home in front of Kéré. They are superb sport fish which are perfect, with a 7/8 weight outfit, to experience your first emotions as a fly fisherman in the sea. Their extremely profiled caudal and their fusiform body explains a high swimming speed. Their size varies from about fifty centimeters to more than one meter and they are very pugnacious and jumping fish. The larger specimens are less gregarious and fewer around Kéré.
In the middle of the Ladyfish school, other species join the frenzy, especially the Senegalese jacks (Caranx senegallus), the pompano jacks (Alectic ciliaris) and the bonito mackerel (Scomberomorus tritor), as well as Jack Crevalle (Caranx hippos), Leerfish (Lichia amia) and Law Croaker (Pseudotolithus brachygnathus), which can venture out into shallow water to hunt in declining light conditions.
Other species leave their preferential rocky habitat to participate in the feast: African Red Snapper (Lutjanus agennes) and groupers are also part of the feast.
I also inaugurated a new species on the fly, a kind of toothed halibut…the Smooth flounder (Citharichthys stamflii).
Philippe had told me about this fish which he was convinced was catchable with a fly because of its hunting character. I thought it was a huge stroke of luck when I caught the first specimen in 2021. However, I repeated the oddity in 2022 with two other fish caught within ten minutes of each other on the beach of Kéré. The fight is not uninteresting but it would be necessary to target them specifically with equipment lighter than a rod of 10! On the other hand, the Clouser in size #2/0 did not scare them!
No less than a dozen species, all as pugnacious as each other, can seize your fly at about 15 meters from your position. The problem is that among the species I have just listed, some have sharp teeth and require the use of toothy critters leaders (barracudas, bonito mackerel at the top of the list) but above all it is frequent that to this large community table (it is not good to be a fry or a mullet around Kéré), join much larger individuals and there the rods of the 7/8 weight class, even with a reel featuring a very good breaking system, are no longer enough.
To have a real chance to get a favorable outcome, the fight with any fish of several kilos, requires the use of a 9 to 10 weight set-up.
The eternal dilemma when operating on the beach and its surroundings during the feeding frenzy is to choose between quantity and quality. The one who wants to catch a lot of small to medium size fish inevitably takes the risk to be “spooled” without return if he is connected with a real jack in the sense of the term, i.e. 4 kilos and more, or to find himself “tanned” at the bottom because the beautiful Red Snapper or the lovely Grouper decided to swim back home!
It is not the end of the world but after tens of “small” fish, certainly very pleasant to catch and fight, our expectations increase, which is perfectly legitimate. To be spooled out is nice, but it is much more when you can admire, touch, caress, weigh, photograph and then release a beautiful African Red Snapper or a nice Jack Crevalle…
Everything depends on each one’s expectations and experience. My role as a guide is obviously to privilege the pleasure and the practice of my trainees, but as soon as the ability to steadily cast a 9 or 10 line at a good 15 meters becomes reality, I encourage those who wish to do so to go further.
In all objectivity, a fly fisherman used to properly cast 6 to 7 weight reservoir/lake rods or 8 to 9 weight bass and/or carnivorous fish sticks, with an average mastery of the double haul, will quickly be able to switch to a saltwater fly rod suited to the 9 to 10 weight line class.
A few adjustments in the tempo and loading of the rod, training with the shooting basket and you’re in “warrior” mode. Nothing painful in this case. It’s just the way you handle the fish that changes.
For all the fishing from the shore, in wading, the fishing action is classic. You move forward in the water in order to gain a few precious meters, but keeping a high position in relation to your target. Everyone knows that casting a fly, sometimes weighted (clousers) cleanly and delicately with water in the plexus is utopian. The ideal is to have the basket placed at hip level and the water up to the crotch. This way you can run your line with a narrow loop high behind you, which makes good use of the rod’s bending potential, generates high line and leader transfer speed, minimizes the number of false casts and allows you to reach a good distance without too much effort.
The configuration of the spots and the fishing action have most often a common denominator: a sandy coastline scattered with very abrasive rocks, bordered by a feeding current more or less strong depending on the tide. The reefs are home to numerous small fish and crustaceans that attract predators.
The challenge is to bring the fly down, thanks to its weight and to the line, below the shoal of forage fish that is cohesive on the surface. The apprentice hunters, elops mainly, are in the upper layer, but the biggest predators are much more stealthy and attack coming from the bottom, without their presence being visually detected. This is often the strategy of the larger jacks and red snappers.
You cast as far as possible, let it sink while controlling the sinking of the fly, rod tip in the water, keeping the most open angle possible between the rod and the line, for an optimal sensitivity, then, when you think you have reached the right fishing depth, after a few seconds at the most, you retrieve the line by long progressive strips, keeping short pauses to allow the fly to tip downwards.
The strike is hard and brutal. It may seem as if you have hooked the bottom (it happens too!). The way to proceed is then precise. Do not give anything at the beginning! It is necessary to prevent the Jack from taking speed, especially if the current is strong. For rock fish such as locally called red carp (snappers) and groupers, it is necessary to lift them off the bottom to prevent them from returning to the cavity of their favorite rock. This is what I call the warrior mode. The main mistake is to try to put the line on the reel too quickly. You lose the tension, especially when the fish decides to come back to the fisherman, and then never loses the opportunity to unhook or make a nice slalom between the rocks: the best leaders and tippets do not always resist.
The pre-setting of the reel drag and its control during the fishing session are essential because a badly adjusted drag is a potential line jam but most of all several tens of meters of line which escape uselessly. If there is a little current, whether is is ebb or flow, the lesser carangidae of 5 kg and more will give you the slip in a few seconds.
The carangidae, thanks to the height of their body, coupled with their extreme velocity, know perfectly well how to use the current to flee out of combat range. By this I mean that this type of fish, when you can’t follow it in a boat and pull on it in a vertical axis, becomes very quickly uncontrollable. Beyond 40 to 50 meters of backing out, that is to say a length of line of 70 to 80 m separating the fish from the fisherman, things are very badly embarked, and I do not speak to you about the category of Jack Crevalle of 10 kg and more. During my first trips to the Bijagos, I had some bitter experiences of great frustration. It is true that the equipment of that time did not have the performance of today’s, but a very large trevally remains a huge challenge for the fly fisherman at sea.
There are many other challenges for fly fishermen when fishing from the shore around Kéré.
For the early birds, stalking the many barracudas lurking in the shelter of the submerged rocks to hunt mullet is truly exciting. These magnificent sport fish (be careful with your fingers when unhooking) can weigh more than 10 kilos. Long filiform flies in sizes 3/0 to 6/0 and anti-tooth leaders in titanium or steel, all retrieved at full speed in rolly polly, are the keys to success.
Night fishing can also provide some very nice surprises by operating with sinking lines and retrieving flies on sandy bottoms: law croaker, from the family of the meagre, are very active at night.
Fly fishing by boat
Since 2022, we have been operating with 2 specific fly fishing boats (not like the Caribbean skiffs) ideal for 2 anglers each with a not too high freeboard and quiet 100 HP/4 stroke outboard motors. Each boat is operated by a French-speaking marinheiro (whom we have trained to meet the specific needs of fly fishermen: engine cut drifts, approaches bypassing the chases, etc.)
The boats make it possible to reach the best surrounding islands within a maximum of one hour of navigation (depending on the tidal coefficients and the strength of the current), to the most productive sandbanks and not the least, to fish efficiently the hunts that occur in the open water, between the islands or to approach the fish in chase, unreachable from the shore.
Using powerful rods of class #11 or #12, heavy sinking lines, and large flies, we can also consider prospecting the edges of reefs known for their great abundance of various fish species. The famous “magic rock”, a few minutes of cruising from the beach of Kéré, would deserve to be investigated with artificials flies.
It is by boat that the chances to get a take and to defeat a big Jack on the fly are the greatest. First of all, you can access sectors generally frequented by these fish at a specific time of the tide and known by the marinheiro and the fly fishing guide. These are often rocky points whose structure is discovered at low tide, the beginning of the rising tide being often the best time to put a fly there.
I am thinking in particular of the Ampicha point, north-east of Carache, where we caught several beautiful Jack Crevalle while fishing between the rocky heads, as well as on the north-east point of Caravela or in the rocks and sandbanks of the north of the magnificent island of Unhocome (Illha de Unhocomo), the most western of the archipelago, which we reached after a good cruising hour.
The fishing days around the more or less remote islands are done when the conjunction between mild weather conditions, i.e. calm sea with little wind, and favorable tidal range, are guaranteed.
It is an immersive experience in the heart of a still virgin nature. You can access kilometers of clear sandy beaches, marine flats, coves with clear waters, framed by rocky points, estuaries, bollond exits, sandbanks as far as the eye can see, all bathed by the nutrient-rich waters of the Atlantic Ocean: a feast for the eyes and a limitless playground for fly fishermen.
The fishing action is mainly concentrated on the most emblematic species, jacks and African Red Snapper, but for those who want to get off the beaten track, there are countless other species to catch with the fly: rock fish of all kinds, hunting flatfish.
When to come fly fishing in Kéré
The month of November, when I organize my exclusive guided trips, marks the beginning of the dry season. This is the best time to stay in Kéré because even in the heat of the day, there is a pleasant breeze which, in the absence of clouds, allows you to endure a blazing sun.
This is also the period when the biodiversity of fauna is the most abundant and visible, which allows unforgettable visits and ecotourism hikes, another great specialty of Kéré. We are not here in a village reserved for die-hard fishermen. You can come with your family and enjoy the infinite possibilities of Kéré and the archipelago.
The Bijagos have an incredibly varied nature (savannah, palm groves, white sand beaches, mangroves, tropical forests, …) and a unique biodiversity in the world. This is why in 1996, the whole archipelago was classified as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO and two national parks were created: the Orango National Park and the João Vieira and Poilão Marine Park.
The Orango Reserve is home to marine hippos, endemic to the Bijagos. The reserve of Poilão is the first site for the laying of turtles in Africa. It is a magical sight to see dozens of turtles laying eggs and to see the baby turtles courageously launch themselves into the sea.
In exclusive partnership with Laurent Durris (M’Îles vagues de découvertes) and Pollen Voyages, one of the most serious tour operators based in Brest (APST Guarantee Lic. IM029100010), I am re-launching guided trips for 4/5 fly fishers in November 2023. 7 full days of guided and supervised fishing / 8 nights on site. Places are limited and non-fishing companions are welcome.
Further information :
Interested readers can contact me : [email protected]