If we look at Saltwater Fly Fishing, we should realize that it is starting to be kind of an old thing. Despite the tackle market is becoming more and more technical, the Internet is also helping anglers learn virtually anything about any destination. Over 40 years have passed, Billy Pate caught all six Billfish species on fly, and it has been about 20 years since the Seychelles guides found out how to catch Milkfish and Bumphead Parrotfish on the fly. At this stage of the evolution, we see many new things. It is true that the gamefish species are not infinite, but it is also true that the world is big and many people want to chase new species on a fly rod.
In the past twelve years I had the chance to explore a large area of the world where human pressure is almost non-existent. I have been lucky enough to find some special spots, unique fishing, and trophy fish. I started to have a good picture in my mind, which hopefully will grow and mature during the next few years.
What I see as the main limitation of targeting some species is their small distribution area. Generally, these species are sensitive to and suffer from human pressure and pollution. Hence, they are only present in remote areas, which doesn’t mean you can’t go out and try to catch them every day.
What I would like to do in this article is to talk about fishing for and the personality of several interesting species I encountered over the past years. These underrated species are becoming more popular in the general Saltwater Fly Fisherman’s opinion; but there isn’t a lot of information about these unique species.
Let’s start at the best known of the “underrated” fish, the Triggerfish. Triggerfish can be found in both the Indian and the Atlantic Ocean. There are several different types of Triggerfish, and each of them have unique character. The Triggerfish is starting to become popular as a gamefish due to their moody and unpredictable behavior. On top of being technical and visual, they are a very riveting fish to stalk on the flats. What makes them so special is the individual attitude – you never know how a single fish will react, and the spectrum of their reactions is almost infinite – you never know what to expect from them, but you know you have to cast accurately, or otherwise you will spook them.
Balistoides Viridescens (Titan Triggerfish)
The Titan Triggerfish lives in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, while without a doubt, the best fishery is in the Red Sea. It likes reefs and structures such as coral bommies and is thus more abundant on flats and lagoons close to reefs and drop offs. In general, they are more aggressive than any of their cousins, having a lot of character. You will be able to spark their interest into your fly unless you cast directly on their head and spook them.
Pseudobalistes Flavimarginatus (Yellowmargin Triggerfish)
This is my favorite Triggerfish species. It is not only one of the coolest looking fish ever, but also the most technical and most difficult to catch. The Yellowmargin Triggerfish likes to be on clean, sandy, soft-bottom flats and is often found in super shallow water where they almost have to swim sideways. Probably because of this attitude they have developed a higher suspicion, in general harder to catch, and presentation is very important. Longer, thinner leaders with small shrimp flies will get the job done better than anything else.
Canthidermis Sufflamen (Ocean Triggerfish Caribbean)
Also known as Ocean Tally, this is the Caribbean cousin of the other two. It is not as beautiful, but it can grow huge. The main differences are that while Titan and Yellowmargin are very unpredictable, these fish are more “black or white”, which means all impossible or all catchable. Generally, I have seen that if they are difficult on the flats, you can always get a bite on the reef as the surf makes them more aggressive. Use a stronger leader, these guys are big! On average they pull less violently than the Indian Ocean cousins, but they are heavier and more durable. They also have smaller and weaker mouths, so they tend to drop the hook easier. A short shank hook helps a lot. In Los Roques we saw some monster-sized Triggerfish with their tails sticking out of the water in hip deep water, catching Ocean Triggers is an open point on our agenda.
Pseudobalistes Fuscus (Blue Triggerfish)
I need to spend a few words on this fish. It has been a dream for us to catch one for years. We had seen them, and we had a couple of shots at them in Sudan. Somebody claimed to have hooked them on the reef, but nothing has been proved. Then we found them again in Socotra, finally caught two, and hopefully more will come in the next season. They are slower than the other Triggers – still moody but they seem to care less about flies and lines. I am looking forward to studying them more!
Napoleon Wrasse (Cheilinus Undulatus)
This is in my top-3 of saltwater fish. It is moody, it is beautiful, and it grows big. Normally, we can target them ranging from 5-25kg on the fly. It’s omnivorous which makes it more interesting since they are going to take everything from a crab to a brush fly. The main problem is to find a consistent fishery for them since it is not abundant, and it doesn’t cruise the flats that much. I’ve been lucky to find a place in Djibouti where I go every time I am in the area. From a 9wt and 25lb tippet to a 12wt and 150lb tippet, for Napoleon it is only a matter of interpretation. We had a 15kg fish follow a crab to our feet and refuse it, while another fish with over 20kg took a GT fly and broke us off in the reef. We caught several smaller fish (5-10kg) on crabs or bigger prawn patterns in very shallow water. I consider it to be the coolest, most unpredictable, and most presentation-dependent fish I ever stalked. I could spend an entire trip on them.
This is one of the lesser-known fish families, even if one species in this family, the Blue Bastard, became a bit popular recently. There are different species of Sweetlips in the Indian Ocean, and they live in different territories. They are all shy and very tricky to catch and considering various factors, I consider them to be the hardest fish to catch.
Plectorhinchus Gibbosus (Brown Sweetlips)
I found the Brown Sweetlips only in the Socotra Archipelago. They feed in small bays with rocky/sandy bottom flats. Often with Parrotfish, they move very slowly, and they are difficult to see. However, I have found them in skinny water flats where they are just impossible to catch (and of course more attractive). On top of that, it looks like they don’t easily notice a fly, so you must cast, cast, and cast again, of course always in front of them, as close as possible. The take is extremely gentle, it feels like a weed from the bottom, so there is a good chance to miss the take. Sometimes, you might find them happy, they see your fly and just take it. Basically, any crustacean pattern will do the job, but I also caught them on small Gotchas, proving once more that presentation beats fly pattern choice.
Diagramma Pictum (Silver Sweetlips)
So far, we only found one kilometer of coast that holds this fish constantly in shallow water in Sudan – nowhere else yet. They cruise and tail, they feed happily, but just like their cousins, they seem to be blind and getting them to eat the fly is a mission. An exception was the first-ever Silver Sweetlips I’ve hooked, which took the fly while still sinking and then reefed me. These fish are cruising and tailing actively but for some reason, they are very slow on flies. More than any other Sweetlips I’ve seen; they are just beautiful, and they pull hard too!
Pomadasys Commersonnii (Spotted Grunter)
The Spotted Grunter is popular in South Africa and fishing for them is different and very challenging. We found a spot in Socotra where we target them regularly in super skinny water. They are very tide dependent. In general, they are present on the flats only in the morning, but if they are there, you will find them in good numbers (sometimes in hundreds). The highlight of fishing for Spotted Grunter is that you will find fish of 3-4 kg in extremely skinny water (30 cm) in pure sandy flats. We use lightweight gear – a good 6wt rod with a 0,25mm leader and a tiny fly (#8). This fish will follow the fly quite frequently but are never easy to catch. All this makes fishing for Spotted Grunter as good of finesse flats-fishing as it can be.
Plectorhinchus Caeruleonothus (Blue Bastard)
This species was only very recently discovered in Australia (2015) and the name says it all: They are bluish-gray colored bastards. I have spooked them by only attempting to cast, I have seen them take a close look at my fly and then bail, I have seen them swim up and gulp a sinking fly on a first cast while on another occasion, I put multiple casts on the nose of the same fish for about 20 minutes only to see him remain totally unphased by it. About 40 casts and 4 fly changes later it dipped on my fly and took off. One thing is for certain: these slow-moving, thick-lipped creatures are as unpredictable as they are fascinating. We usually use 10wt rods and a static presentation with heavy shrimp or crab fly will increase your chances of hooking up and landing one of those bastards.
Parrotfish are gaining a little popularity, and they are undoubtedly one of the coolest saltwater species to catch on fly. They tail, they take flies, they pull hard, they are technical, and they have personality as well. The only downside: they play dirty, and they might reef you!
Scarus Ghobban (Blue Barred Parrotfish)
We found a high abundance of these fish in some areas around Socotra, but they can also be found in Oman and Bassas da India. They are the biggest Parrotfish after the Bumphead Parrotfish, but they are a lot cooler than their bigger cousins. They tail, they cruise, they are very active, and they like to take flies, but everything has to be done properly. Some days they are happier than others. We hooked them on crabs but also on shrimp patterns. I even hooked them on a Gotcha pattern, (again, presentation beats fly pattern choice). They have personality. Some fish will follow the fly all the way to your feet and others might drop the fly and then strike again. They are similar to Triggerfish, a bit less crazy but much bigger and as beautiful as no other fish in the ocean.
Scarus Guacamaia (Rainbow Parrotfish)
We encountered these fish in Los Roques and they seem to have the same attitude of their Indian Ocean cousins. They are less in numbers, which makes fishing for them harder, but when they are “on” they are happy to take a fly. At the same time, they are happy to cut your leader with their beak. Once hooked, they are extremely wild. They are insanely ugly and pretty at the same time. We only hooked a few and lost all of them and now they are very high on my bucket list.
Lethrinus Nebulosus (Spangled Emperor)
The Spangled Emperor is carnivorous, bottom-feeding fish which grow to 80cm and 8kg in size. It can be found in both inshore and offshore areas, mostly around coral bommies or oyster encrusted rocks. The good news is that they occasionally venture into shallows, where we can sight-fish for them on fly. If you find them on the flats, they will be very spooky but hooking them is the easier part as they are usually not too fussy and will eat a well-presented fly. While small baitfish patterns seem to be slightly more effective, they won’t turn up their nose on a crab or shrimp fly either. Once hooked, you are in for a fight. These brutes are one of the toughest and roughest fighters you will come across and they will do anything to break you off. These golden turquoise blue beauties are a special fish to catch on fly.
Lethrinus Elongatus (Longnose Emperor)
The Longnose Emperor is a common species of the Indian Ocean flats. The Emperor lives around rocks and corals, normally found in shallow water. They are extremely pale and ghosty, generally cruising fast on the bottom and not easy to recognize. Emperor fish are picky, requiring great distance and placement of your fly. These fish will take any pattern you choose; however, shrimp patterns have always produced more Longnose then crabs. This fish is usually pretty aggressive, they have attitude, so be prepared to have stealth. Once hooked, they will empty the line out of your large arbor reel. Pound to pound they are possibly stronger than any other species catchable in the salt, making Bonefish look weak… It is too bad I lost a big one in 30 cm of water, they have definitely become one of my biggest flats fetishes.
Nicola Vitali was born in Italy and has been fishing ever since he was four years old. Since his love for fishing started at a young age he’s traveled all over the world to fly fish exotic places. Vitali, a multi-language speaker is the founder of Wild Sea Expeditions where you can find him managing trips in Sudan and Socotra. Photos by Robert Pljuscec, Johan Persson Friberg, and @finsoutflies.