In the Trachinotus genus there are 20 species worldwide, which make up the group of fish known as pompano, permit and darts. Of those, some feed by tailing, which means that they tilt their heads down and feed on the bottom, in shallow water, where their tails break the surface. Those ones are generally referred to as Permit. Only 4 of these species have been regularly caught on fly or artificial lure, being sight cast to while they are feeding. These challenging fish have earned a reputation as some of the most difficult and sought after species to catch on fly or lure, and have become known as ‘Holy Grail of flyfishing’ to those who seek them.
There are guys who have spent a huge amount of time stalking and fishing for some of these shy and elusive fish, in various places. Brandon King from Arabian Fly is one of them. One thing that all the permit species have in common is that they are generally found exhibiting this tailing behaviour in specific areas. There are a number of criteria which they require, but one that stands out is that they prefer undisturbed sections of coastline that see relatively little human activity. This is in many cases on remote islands, with large areas of food rich shallow water. In other cases isolated and remote beaches can be home to these finicky fish.
In his explorations along the coastline of Southern Oman, where he is based, Brandon has come across a species of the Trachinotus family, Trachinotus africanus - also known as southern pompano, feeding by tailing in the shallows. This is pretty exciting, as this species is one of the largest growing of the Trachinotus genus. It is also exciting, as this behaviour, although witnessed in the past, has never been seen in water calm enough to present a fly or light lure in.
My own fascination with the elusive africanus started way back in the 1970’s and 80’s, when my dad and I used to fish the surf of KwaZulu Natal and pompano were one of the highlight fish that we caught. I loved their powerful fight and odd shaped head and as a keen artificial lure angler from an early age, I dreamed of catching one on a lure someday. I remember standing at the big open ocean tank at Durban aquarium as a boy and watching the big pompano swim by the window, monsters in excess of 20kg’s, cruising around and around. While snorkeling at Cape Vidal one day I saw pompano coming up onto the ledges and ripping mussels off, just a quick and tantalizing glimpse into their world. It was a fish that I was very interested in, and Brandon was aware of my fascination.
Brandon spent a bit of time figuring these fish out in Oman, and became the first fly fisherman to successfully target Southern pompano by sight casting to them with a fly and catching them. Having personally decoded a new species and adding it to the list of the most sought after fly fishing targets out there, he has joined a small but elite group of flyfishers.
The fish that Brandon caught was no fluke, as he went on to catch more, and his wife Clare (herself an accomplished flyfisher) also caught some of these elusive fish under Brandon’s guidance. He then started taking some of his flyfishing clients and giving them a shot at these challenging fish, becoming the only fly fishing guide on the planet to be guiding his clients onto this exciting new quarry.
Early on when Brandon saw and identified africanus tailing in the shallows, he contacted me and we had discussed possible methods and techniques that he could try to get one to eat a fly. Once he attained this success, he let me know immediately, and I started planning a trip to Oman to see this first hand and have a go at catching one myself.
I came prepared, as Brandon and I had spoken, schemed and planned for months leading up to the trip, and I felt that I had my options pretty well covered. I was keen to catch one on light spinning gear, which was what I had always wanted to do. I had managed to get some fantastic crab imitation lures from Australia, the Cranka Crab, expensive, but very realistic. The heaviest one that they make is five grams, so I knew that I was going to have to use very light tackle to be able to cast those crabs the required distance to reach the feeding fish without spooking them by drifting too close with the boat.
The coastline in Southern Oman where the africanus roam is quite different to any other type of coastline where one would traditionally search for permit species. While most permit hunting takes place over shallow sandy flats, the Oman coast is mostly fringed by big sandstone cliffs, which descend right down into the sea. At the bottom of the cliffs big boulders and ledges are encrusted with beds of brown mussels, one of the africanus’ favourite foods. My first impression of the terrain was that it looked like a rugged and difficult area to target such elusive fish.
We cruised along the base of the cliffs on our first morning by boat, searching for signs of feeding fish. “There are some” Brandon pointed to a shallow ledge at the base of the cliff where foamy water swirled over shallow mussel beds. As the water pulled back we saw slender tail sickles break the surface as the shoal of fish fed with their heads down.
There are few things as exciting as seeing those long, slender tail fins breaking the surface, as the water pulls back, and for a few quick seconds they thrash about in a shiver, sending sprays of water, as the fish, flashing silver, twist and turn, tearing mussels off the rocks. The swell is gentle, with just enough force to churn up some sand off the bottom. The foamy, white water around the mussels and rocks sucks back in anticipation of the next swell to follow. In that moment, a slender, pale sickle breaks the surface, then another and then two more, suddenly there are more than ten fish going into a quick feeding frenzy, feeding together in a tight pack- making the most of the sucking water dragging at their broad bodies and giving them extra force to rip and wrench mussels from their beds.
I had time to double-check everything before making my cast, as Brandon eased the boat into range. I took a deep breath and flicked the little crab towards the fish. A soft gust of breeze puffed just then and blew the lure off course and it landed a few feet to the side of the feeding fish. I quickly retrieved it, my heart beating furiously, and took aim for another throw. The next throw landed short and Brandon warned me that we were drifting closer and that the boat would spook the fish soon, there was time for maybe one more cast. I lined them up and flicked again, watching the little crab sail through the air and land right amongst the feeding fish. My heart almost stopped as I expected them to take off in a panic, it didn’t happen, they continued to feed and I took up the slack line, keeping contact with my lure. I felt the line go tight and lifted the rod, unsure of whether a fish had picked the crab up, or whether it had snagged a rock. My rod dipped as the hook set, I was on!
The fish left the ledge and came towards us, moving into deeper water. I picked up line by reeling quickly, then the fish turned and took about twenty metres of line in a quick and powerful run to the side, before heading directly back towards the ledge where I had hooked him, back to the safety of the shoal. I tried to put as much pressure as I could on the fish, but my tackle was too light to turn it. Suddenly there was that sickening feeling of the line going slack, as the thin braid had touched a mussel or rock under tension and parted with no warning.
I was at once disappointed, yet elated. I had hooked an africanus from the first shoal that I had cast at! Something that I hadn’t expected. Surely it couldn’t be that easy? I couldn’t wait to have another go.
Well it turned out that I had got pretty lucky with that first shoal of fish. We continued our patrol along the cliffs looking for more fish to cast at, and although we saw more feeding fish, I was unable to get another one on the end of my line. Some of the fish were visibly tailing like the first group, while others were conspicuous simply by a flash of silver from beneath the water. The tide changed and the opportunity was over for the day, we would have to try again tomorrow.
Over the next couple of mornings I managed to hook another fish on each session, losing both in the same way as that first one, to the sharp rocks and mussels. I was beginning to see that it would definitely be easier to get one on a fly rod. The thing with fly-fishing is that you get to present a virtually weightless lure with any line strength of your choosing. With the spinning setup, I was committed to using very thin braid, which would part the moment it touched a rock under any tension. It is definitely easier to get an accurate cast with a fly rod, as you can gauge the wind effect and distance with your false casts. Flicking such a light lure anywhere from forty to eighty feet with a little spinning rod is tricky enough, add to this the need to land the lure accurately and gently in the right zone, timing it to land with a breaking wave, to stop the fish spooking from the splash, and you have a real challenge on your hands.
An advantage of the thin braid is that you can cast over the fish, then bring the lure back onto them gently, without spooking them. A fly line going over the fish would definitely result in panicking the shoal. What I love most about fishing with braid is that the fish fights so much harder than any other way. The thin diameter has so little drag in the water that it doesn’t tire the fish out quickly and you really get to feel the power and speed of the fish.
The tailing fish are the ones that you can see clearly and from some distance away. There are others that give you the odd hint of a flash, through the blueness of the water over the sand next to the rock. There are still others that you can’t see, but they are there. There could well be in excess of 30 fish on or around a rock the size of a king size bed. All of this creates a great opportunity to drop something that looks tasty in amongst the feeding fish. africanus loves a crab. He eats mussels with gusto, but should he see a crab, he will gobble it up with equal relish.
With a concentration of fish you get positives and you get negatives. The upside is that the competition factor offers the fish less chance of being circumspect and refusing your offering, and there are a number of hungry mouths in a small area. The downside of course is that there are many pairs of sharp eyes, and a naturally skittish fish, which when exposed and vulnerable in very shallow water becomes positively paranoid. They will spook in an instant from anything, the clunk of an outboard motor changing gear, to the splash of the landing of a lure or fly, the fly sinking in its vision can also spook it, seeing the line, or worse having it land over them, the scratch of a snagged lure on the rocks and mussels, the boat could be pushed just that tad too close by a swell, or gust of wind and spook them. One sniff of danger and the shoal is gone. The positives of a group of fish definitely outweigh the negatives in this case, if you can land a gentle, accurate cast amongst those feeding fish, your fly or lure has a decent chance of being eaten.
Spooked permit have different ways of departing the scene. If they just have an uneasy feeling, then they slip off the rock and cruise quietly into deeper water, if they get a real fright, they belt out of there, some jumping unbelievably high into the air, launching like chunky missiles from the water. Their burst of speed is remarkable and they achieve some good height on their jumps. One shoal that was spooked by the boat took to the air, with fish bursting out all over the show. One landed in the boat, and we were able to grab hold of it and take a good look at it before gently releasing it back into the water. Talk about getting teased by a fish!
The good thing, if you are on a boat, is that if the shoal spooks when you hook a fish, this usually results in the hooked fish following the others into deeper water. With braid they sometimes don’t spook though, even when you hook one in shallow foamy water, that one will not necessarily head for deep water. It is definitely an advantage to fight a fish in deeper water, than shallow water over rocks.
There are other africanus that you can cast at, in water a little deeper, but they are also preoccupied with gleaning mussels and crabs from the rocks, their sides flashing bright. These ones are different. They can be single fish, or a couple of fish in one spot, as the shoal is more spread out. They can be extremely wary and just slip away at the first cast, or they can be totally absorbed in their feeding and offer the opportunity to have multiple casts at them. In this case you need to land the lure pretty much right on top of them or they will never see it.
I jumped in to the water in a few different places with a mask and snorkel, there were a lot of africanus around. In fact, I reckon that they must be the most common large fish in the area. When I came across them in deeper water they were quite relaxed, cruising around me curiously and checking me out before moving off. The ones that I found in shallower water generally spooked quickly and left in a hurry. It was fascinating swimming along the bottom of the cliffs quietly, coming around a corner and surprising a shoal of africanus feeding on mussels at the cliff base. Some of those fish were really big and many of them had scratches and wounds on their bodies, presumably from getting knocked around by the surge in the shallows amongst mussels, barnacles and rocks.
The fourth day that we went out looking for the africanus was sunny and calm. Good conditions for spotting fish, especially those under deeper water. Brandon had made me a couple of crab lures on his fly tying vice. Basically he had made them as he would make a crab for fly fishing, then glued a little bit of lead to the underside, giving it just enough weight to cast on my setup - also about five grams. By now my supply of Cranka Crabs was getting low and I was grateful for Brandon’s efforts.
We rounded a section of cliff and came into a bay with some submerged rocks in the shallows. We spotted some tails breaking the surface and started to get ready. It looked like there were four or five fish there, working a piece of rock. I knew that my time was running out and that this could well be my last chance. There was a big wind predicted for the next day, and we would not be able to drift in to the shallows with the boat. I had to make this chance count!
I stood on the bow of the boat, arm cocked, ready to make my cast. There was a gust of light wind and I waited for it to drop before flicking the rod sharply and watched the crab fly through the air towards the feeding fish. It landed perfectly, timed with a surge of water as it went over the fish, so that they were undisturbed by the small splash. I picked up the slack line, working the handle of my reel slowly, keeping in contact with my lure as we drifted. I felt the line slowly tighten and I lifted the rod tip, hoping that it wasn’t the result of having snagged up on the rock. As the hook set, the fish took off hard, running away from the rocks coming over the sand towards the deeper water.
The rest of the shoal also moved uneasily into deeper water and I felt confident that this fish was going to be mine. I got nervous when the fish turned and headed back towards the rocks. I applied the maximum pressure that I dared, trying to turn the fish. The problem was, this was a big, broad bodied, powerful fish and I was unable to dictate to it. Somehow, luck was with me and I got it turned and back into deeper water. I don’t think myself or Brandon had taken a breath since I had set the hook!
After some heart stopping moments, the fish was just below the boat, turning in the water, boring back down, and doing all that it could to avoid the landing net. When Brandon finally managed to slide the net beneath the tired fish I felt like an enormous weight had suddenly been lifted from my shoulders. I was elated! I put my head back and screamed my pleasure. Finally I had caught an africanus on an artificial lure.
We held the fish in the water next to the boat and allowed it to recover. This was a special time. Admiring a beautiful fish in your hands, which has eluded you for many years, is indescribable. I took in every detail. The large eyes, the big forked tail, the broad powerful back. It was an incredible feeling. Letting go and watching the fish swim off, I felt more satisfied than I had in a really long time.
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