Nosy Be a Perfume Island in Paradise.

Article by: Fred Steynberg

Madagascar, known as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”, lies 400km off the Mozambican coast.  Still relatively unpopulated, the island has huge sections of unspoiled coastline.  I have always wanted to experience Madagascar firsthand – its rich wildlife, and the possibility of it being an attractive fly fishing venue, since I had heard that the conventional fishing was outstanding.  Accompanied by my good fly fishing friend Clint Mansfield, I recently had the chance to do just that on a visit to the magical Island of Perfumes, Nosy Be, on the northwestern shores of Madagascar.

Vanilla Hotel on Nosy Be Island

Arriving inland by air at Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, we were greeted by the friendly staff of the Country View Guest House which is situated on the outskirts of town.  A short trip in an aged Renault took us to a neat and cosy establishment where we had breakfast and awaited out transfer to Nosy Be.  Connecting flights are often untimely, making this a useful spot to overnight, relax and visit the renowned local craft markets.  Our connecting flight landed at a small airport 25km from our first fly fishing venue, the Vanilla Hotel, on Nosy Be Island.  A mere 75km in circumference, the island boasts an abundance of rich natural heritage, with calm, protected, crystal clear turquoise seas and white sandy beached lined with palm trees.  The preferred languages spoken and taught in the schools here are Malagasy, French and even Italian, although one can usually find a friendly person with some command of English to assist.  We were ferried along narrow roads through tropical forests to the hotel, while being told about the island’s natural resources, the perfume plant ylang-ylang, the lemurs, vanilla and spices such as pepper and coffee plants which seem to grow everywhere.  Constructed of local wood with a roof of stacked and plaited coconut branches, the Vanilla Hotel is in keeping with a paradise resort and lacks nothing in its three-star luxury.  Meals were a spread of tropical fruits and sumptuous seafood, served on a vast verandah overlooking the tropical garden which petered out as it reached the beach and flat seas beyond.  I could not help thinking that it was all just a bit too special for two exploring fly fishermen!

Our fishing charter boat arrived early the next morning and collected us literally 20m from where we had enjoyed breakfast.  A short trip over flat seas took us to the famous Grand Bank, less than 6km from the shores of Nosy Be and running almost the entire length of the east coast of Madagascar.  The Grand Bank is rich in both pelagic and reef fish species, and water depth averages 13-16m on top of the bank before dropping-off, sheerly to 150m and deeper.  Nosy Be and the surrounding areas are known for their productive ‘espadon’ or sailfish catches, often spotted while targeting other fish species.  

Our skipper put us onto large shoals of yellowfin tuna and striped bonito, which were feeding on small silver baitfish no longer than 5cm.  Feeding in a frenzy the size of two rugby fields, these fish refused all the flies normally productive under such conditions.  Later on we found an imitation which closely resembled the baitfish and thereafter were well rewarded.  Fly fishing is a relatively new concept in Madagascar, especially fly fishing off a boat.  It took quite an effort on our part to explain fly fishing approaches and operations to the crew, with our flimsy fly rods and small flies in hand.  However, these operators are serious fisherman and it did not take long for them to understand exactly what we wanted and what part they could play in assisting us.

Club Venta, Yacht Seaducer and Fishing World Charters

On the afternoon of day three we were transferred for the night from the Vanilla Hotel to Club Venta, about 10km further north at Andilana Beach.  This hotel has 300 rooms and caters mainly for French and Italian tourists.  From the moment they arrive, visitors are entertained with water sport activities and nighttime shows, and the restaurant had the biggest spread of seafood and local dishes I have ever encountered, all exquisitely prepared and presented.  The next morning we were fetched by taxi and taken to Ambataloaka Beach approximately 20km south, where we loaded our luggage onto yacht Seaducer to spend two days exploring the areas and islands south of Nosy Be.  The skipper Woody and his capable and entertaining crew of three run a tidy and efficient yacht.  After explaining the itinerary, Woody set off without us to an island four hours away where we were to meet later that day for lunch.  Clint and I were left to fish from a Fishing World Charters’ boat for the next two days.

Fishing World Charters is a great asset to any fly angler visiting Nosy Be. Both the skipper Reynolt and his deck hand Commando know the surrounding reef, islands and drop-offs better than anyone around. Armed only with our fishing gear we set off in search of sea birds; a telltale sign of pelagic fish hunting below.  The sea was alive with feeding fish, and we stopped regularly at large shoals of bright yellow and blue fusiliers which were nervously trying to escape whatever was rounding them up from below. We would cast a couple of poppers around the shoal and sink flies below the baitball and, if this produced nothing we would move on. Spectacular views of dorados half out of the water, in full-speed pursuit of their quarry and sailfish leaping out of the water kept us amused as we headed for lunch.  While we tucked into our spread, Woody and Reynolt shared some fishing stories with us. Apparently the trip just before ours had a group of four Italian conventional fishermen casting large poppers with spinning rigs off the boats. Within two days they had managed to land two large ignobilis of over 40kg and two of over 50kg. These ill-tempered giants are what most trophy hunters are after – and these were about as big as they get!

We spent the afternoon session hardly 200m from our lunch venue.  Clint and I had the time of our lives with a school of smaller ignobilis, bluefin kingfish and large smallscale needlefish. The kingies were all around the 3 -4kg mark and eager to eat our small Clousers in water 6 - 10m deep.  After tussling with a couple, we turned our attention to a commotion within hearing distance from us. Large king mackerel and ignobilis were having a feast on what seemed to be the same fish we were catching. We managed to get to the spot just before they sounded and had a quick cast. Two ignobilis of about 20 - 30kg turned on my fly after the fist strip, but unfortunately the one that took the fly somehow managed to spit the hook out.

Ignobilis are plentiful around these parts and are a species always worth hooking, but we were hoping for something a little different.  At sunset, and with our arms and shoulders stiff after the day’s action, we returned to our mother moored between the twin islands of Nosy Iranja which are connected by a strip of white sand approximately 30km from Nosy Be.  The larger of the two islands shelters the tomb of the Princess after whom the island was named, and is a sacred place for Malagasy people. The other, smaller island boasts a lodge with one of the most romantic settings on the Madagascan coastline.

On our last day we were up early and heading even further south aboard the ski-boat.  There were great schools of feeding tuna and bonito, but opted to fish the drop-offs for the last time for any hidden potential.

By mid-morning, after Clint and I had failed to hook much more than a couple of reef fish and bluefin kingfish, I changed from the 12-wt rig to a 14/15-wt.  It felt a little like over-kill, but I needed to give it a try.  My third or forth attempt at dragging a modified Fire Clouser up the drop-off produced a dead stop at the end of my line. From experience I knew that rock cod-type fish often like to pounce on anything that remotely resembles an edible morsel.  If they are strong enough, they will dash for a hole or cave on the drop-off, often resulting in a fly or line being lost.

A split second after the hit, I lifted the powerful rod to its full flex, and I could feel the fish desperately trying to run for cover.  However, the rod had the upper hand and I managed to keep the fish off the bottom. The fight lasted no longer that fifteen minutes and the fish never took more than 20 meters of line at any one time, but it was a constant, powerful downward pull all the way.

Eventually, just before reaching the surface, it gave in, and up came one of the biggest leopard groupers I have ever seen - a great prize on a fly rod, weighing more than the 15kg BogaGrip could indicate.  It took a long time to revive the fish sufficiently to ensure that it would safely make it back to the drop-off.  

The next fish I hooked was a fantastic marbled leopard grouper, a third of the size but no less feisty.  Clint also managed to hook into a solid fish, but lost it in the deep.  After lunch and a couple of hours before dark, Clint and I set off with the Seaducer’s tender to where the current washed around a corner of an island.  With small Clousers and sinking lines we fished drifting parallel to the rocky point, until it was too dark to see the yacht in the distance.  Every drift produced two or three yellowspot or bluefin kingfish - the cherry on top of our outstanding excursion.  What a blast it was.

Madagascar exempts from natural cataclysm and is called The Pearl of the Indian Ocean lying only 400km off the Mozambican coast. The island of Madagascar is larger than most realize and is relatively sparsely populated with huge sections of unspoiled coastline still abounding. Our 5 day visit was not long enough to explore the little island of Nosy Be but gave us a fantastic incite to a wonderful destination.

For more information to Nosy Be and surrounding islands, contact Greg & Charmaine Horn of Marine Safaris
Tel: 012 991 7885
Fax: 086 671 9834
Cell: 083 654 1367
Email: info@marinesafaris.co.za
www.marinesafaris.co.za