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OUTFITTER CRITIQUE: FANNING ISLAND
A Group Trip to La Belle Etoile
Michael Cemblast recently sent us an incredibly detailed report on a group trip to Fanning Island, where they caught around 300 fish, by 7 anglers, over 5 days. This report is comprised from the notes and the remarks of the group as a whole and provide multiple perspectives on La Belle Etoile—a lodge ran by Pegasus Lodges that calls the lodge “…rustic and comfortable, and offers a perfect immersion into the beautiful, simple culture of Fanning Island. Michael and his group had this to say about the trip:
In total, this was an amazing and challenging experience. To begin, it’s important to point out that on a scale of adventure travel tolerance, I rank about a 5. For context, the “River Monsters” TV show guy would be a 10; Theodore Roosevelt would be an 8; and the Sarah Jessica Parker character from Sex and the City would be a 1. So, some of what I experienced on Fanning Island is a reflection of my own endurance limits, and some is a reflection of what La Belle Etoile entails.
Through it all, I am thrilled to have been able to do it, which is a sentiment I’m sure many of my other invited guests share. Travelling to a lightly inhabited coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean with no tourist infrastructure is by definition going to be a different kind of trip. If someone has that frame of mind, then I think Fanning is a great adventure for certain people to experience. However, in my view, the Pegasus website currently conveys a trip that is considerably more high-end than the one we experienced, for a variety of reasons that I will get into below.
The bonefishing resource is a 10 out of 10. A few from our group have fished in Andros (Bahamas), the Seychelles, the Yucatan, Belize, etc, and they caught more fish and bigger fish on Fanning than anywhere else—and that’s on top of the existing netting practices on Fanning (some of which are still going on in restricted zones, according to the observations of some in our group. This group fly-fished almost every day, and the average fish was 5-7 pounds. A handful of 9s and 10s were caught as well, and many fish over 12 pounds were simply lost to coral heads and fly hooks that could not match the strength of those monster bonefish. One guest caught 26 bonefish on his first day. The rest of us fly-fished or spin-fished in the flats just one morning, and managed to catch a few as well.
The wind was manageable, particularly since the guides had us walking downwind. The flats are easily wadeable, and the guides placed us well, according to wind direction, tide directions and water levels on the flats we fished.
The fly fishing group thought that one of the guides was world-class—as good as any guide they have fished with anywhere—and they also had good remarks about two other guides as well. All three could locate and mark fish sufficiently for their guests. There were other guides who were still in the learning phase, and got low marks from the group, but all agreed that they had the potential to improve. On one trip to the Irapa flats, it seemed like the timing was off, since the captains returned at dead low tide, which wasn’t necessary and made the return trip something like 1:45 instead of an hour.
The ocean fishing for major pelagic species was good, but not great. Several of us ranked the experience a 7 out of 10, but that is probably due to the fact that we had only gone on a couple of fishing trips outside the US for pelagic species, and were very excited to catch any yellowfin or wahoo. The scenery was amazing, and the ability to catch huge fish less than a mile from shore was a lot of fun.
One guest ranked Fanning a 5 out of 10, since his bar is considerably higher—He has gone on several trips to Christmas Island, and a wide assortment of trips to other Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific locations. As one metric to think about, he estimates that all of his Christmas Island pelagic trips averaged 10-12 major fish per day, per boat (wahoo, tuna or mahi). Over the 9 boat-days that were fished in the ocean on our trip to Fanning, we averaged 3.3 pelagic species per day, and, at times, several hours went by without a strike.
There could be several issues affecting catch totals, including:
• One guest fished Christmas from Thanksgiving to March, and believes that summer could be slower in that region.
• The inflatable boats have limited range and speed compared to boats used elsewhere. We mostly fished from the inlet up north, around to the airstrip and within a half mile of shore.
• Inflatable boats are very tight quarters in which to fish, and we did lose some fish while passing multiple hook-up rods around to avoid tangles. Also, when tangles did occur on the boat, they took much longer to clear than usual since there’s no room to get up and move around.
As an added experience to someone going on a surfing vacation, a bonefishing vacation, or a generalized island vacation, the pelagic fishing should be more than enough to provide some additional fun and excitement. It certainly did for some of us, and we loved eating the fish we caught. However, as a draw for very experienced pelagic anglers with multiple location choices (many of which are easier to get to), someone will need to have a better week than we did.
For inshore fishing, we targeted GTs. We did so by casting towards the beach from the boats at depths of 20-40 feet. On most days the swells were not too bad, although balancing is hard in the smaller inflatable boats. The GT fishing went hot and cold, but overall, was very encouraging. Quite a few of them were caught, and a few more were lost when the GTs cut the lines in the reef.
I caught my first one ever, which was very exciting, and then caught 4 more in the ocean, and also 2 large GTs in the flats. We caught all of the ocean GTs north of the inlet before the turn towards the airstrip. The biggest GT of the trip was around 80-90 pounds, and the rest ranged from 20-45 pounds. One guest also caught a giant Napoleon Wrasse on a plug.
When there was no major pelagic bite, and no GT bite, we would troll around in 20 feet of water with smaller lures. It was not the most exciting thing to do, but it was fun catching smaller fish when the bite was off. That’s when many of the blue trevally were caught (all of which were 18-24 inches long), along with some of the other random inshore. Some of the cubera were decent sized, as were the coral trout. While barracuda and red snapper can be fun to catch, that’s really a by-catch species at a place like Fanning.
The rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) used on Fanning were a slight point of contention among the group. We all recognize the inherent challenge here; if Fanning customers are primarily fly fisherman, it may not be cost-effective for Pegasus to invest much money in improving the pelagic fishing boats and equipment, and arranging for mechanics to service better boats. Again, as an added adventure to one’s fly fishing trip, it is a nice additional resource, but as a stand-alone operation, the pelagic fishing from these RIBs is a bit cumbersome and it often felt insufficient for the task at hand.
On the first day, one angler tumbled into the water off of the 13-foot RIB, and I had to drive the boat (my first attempt at driving a motorized watercraft) to rescue him. There is very little room to balance yourself on this boat if a wave comes or if a fish shifts position rapidly. Also, The throttle on the smaller motor didn’t work, so every time we wanted to shift gears, we had to remove the cover off of the motor and manually move the throttle. It was a tough way to start the trip.
Also on the first day, another angler deflated a tube section on the larger boat with a hook, which was subsequently repaired. At one point, two anglers almost bailed when the larger boat had trouble handling a steep wave. The boat had filled with water right beforehand (during the first wave). This could have been a big problem if they actually had decided to bail, given the swells and the surf.
The 5-watt handheld radios were very poor quality, and created a lot of unnecessary anxiety amongst the pelagic fishing group. They often ran out of juice after a couple of hours, and their range was poor. A minimum of 25 watts is needed (not just 5 watts), particularly given the riskier nature of the boats themselves, and the isolated location of Fanning Island. To be clear about this, the combination of a dead radio and a stalled motor a half mile offshore could be fatal on Fanning Island. One solution could be to buy the kind that are wired into the center console and which are charged by the motor.
Our group believed that as a matter of procedure, only radios that can reach Bruno’s reliably should be used, and that every time someone is out in the ocean, there should be someone (possibly one of the extra fly fishing guides who speaks English) manning the radio back at Bruno’s, or somewhere else. There were several occasions when a boat radioed for information or assistance and no one answered.
The lodging was also a mixed bag among our group. While we were all very impressed with the hospitality of the staff and hosts, general sanitation and safety were a concern. Three quarters of the guests experienced stomach viruses, bad rashes, and, in my case, a high fever as well. We believe that this was, in part, due to the animals and livestock that inhabit the grounds (cats, dogs, chickens, and pigs), a sweltering heat wave that occurred during our visit, and a shortage of bottled water.
Also, The property is covered in flies, which converge on humans very quickly, and there are a good number of bees and ants too, which penetrate the mosquito nets at night. There’s no good place to sit and relax at Bruno’s and talk about the day, since as soon as you sit down you get covered with flies. There is no laundry service we could identify, so we washed clothes as best we could in outdoor showers. One guests hut was 20 feet from the pig slop trough, which attracted a wide range of insects and produced some really jarring odors. The roosters, cats and dogs also howled and screeched for much of the night, which made sleeping even harder.
Aside from the negatives of our lodging, everyone was very taken with our host Bruce, his personal backstory, and with the host family as a whole. Bruce is a very warm and congenial person, and by the second day, my guests knew all the children’s names and were playing games with them. People were lamenting what would be lost if the lodge were built, since guests will no longer have the intimate feeling of being part of Bruno’s household, and hearing things like Andrew sing while he collects coconut extract, and hearing Bruno’s stories about the history of the local community. At night, his family members sang local songs, which were wonderful.
The dinners and lunches were really, really good. We were served fresh tuna and wahoo sashimi with cucumber; vegetable and sausage pizza; mantis shrimp; meat patties; curried chicken and fish; barbecued chicken and more. It was amazing to see what they could prepare on such short notice. There was also a special brown sauce that tasted good on just about everything!
As for non-fishing activities, some of the guests really enjoyed the snorkeling, inlet swimming, spearfishing, and cultural exchanges with the local community (wedding dances, independence day preparations, etc). The island is a special place, and there are a lot of beautiful spots that the group did not get the chance to explore.