Dateline: January 18, 2016 – Malé, Maldive Islands
Day three opened with a 4am crisis of confidence. Sure, it was great to have added the Maldives as my 87th country. And it was nice to have six species and a record in the bag, but I had hoped for a lot more – this is the nature of the species-hunting game. Self-doubt is magnified by the square of the distance one has traveled to go fishing, and this was about as far from home as I could get.
The Alpha Royale, ready to go at 6am.
But I also knew I was here, and that every day could be The Day. After all, I wasn’t owed anything – this is fishing and it was pretty much up to me and the luck of the draw. Perhaps, I thought, I should just be grateful to be in this beautiful place and have a shot at more fish. The Fish Gods do not like whiny ingrates, and so, I set myself to fish and fish hard all day.
It worked out.
It was a gorgeous morning, and as we headed out of the harbor, I learned that you can make REI oatmeal using Red Bull. We set up in a reefy channel, and between a few triggerfish, I got the first species of the day – the Maldivian Grubfish.
Captain Waheed smiles at my grubfish. He was bewildered by my fascination with small species, but if I was happy, he was happy.
After trying a few jigs on a deeper edge, I convinced the crew that I wanted to fish right on top of a reef – what they would think of as a snorkeling area. They took me on to a gorgeous blue patch between two atolls, and laid an anchor so that the boat was over shallow coral but was casting distance from much deeper water. I could fish for tropical reef critters to my heart’s content, but leave some bigger baits out that might attract something more substantial. With my underdeveloped attention span, I absolutely love this kind of fishing, although this sort of multi-rod hyperactivity makes the Zen types like John Buckingham tear their hair out. (Details HERE.)
The magic spot. Shallow reef on the right, deeper structure on the left.
After I dropped some slabs of cut bait in the deep water, I started in with the sabikis. My first catch was something I had admired in books for years – a rockmover wrasse.
These creatures hunt in pairs – one moves the rock and the other eats whatever comes out, sort of like cousin Chuck and his wife at a buffet. This one’s partner waited near the boat until I had safely released him.
Before I could rebait the sabiki, the big rod’s clicker started going off in short bursts. I set the hook and got a surprisingly hard run. I was able to turn the fish after it hit the reef a couple of times, and when I got it up to the side of the boat, I was absolutely stunned. It was a blue and yellow grouper, one of the most beautiful of the grouper species.
The day was looking up.
I reset the big bait and got back to the sabikis. After a few small triggerfish, I got a zigzag wrasse – the fourth new species of the day – and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.
The zigzag wrasse.
When I looked up, I noticed quite a few fish swimming on the surface behind the boat, apparently attracted by all the activity and bait in the water. I wasn’t sure what they were, and they wouldn’t hit a sabiki, so I rigged up a weightless hook and let it drift through them. It took a lot of casting, but after about 45 minutes, I got one to bite. I couldn’t believe what I swung into the boat – a spotted unicornfish. The trip was now officially worth it.
These are one of the coolest fish EVER.
They have a horn.
Don’t grab them by the tail.
Next up was a dash-and-dot goatfish. I almost threw this one back, as it looked a lot like the doublebar goats I had been catching all morning, but the deckhand Shahadath stopped me and told me to have a closer look.
Adding to my goatfish collection. As I am sure you know, a goatfish was my 100th world record a few years ago. Details HERE.
As we got well into the afternoon, the reef stuff started slowing down, so we let the anchor rope out a few yards so we could fish a bit deeper water. We did get a few triggerfish and plenty of repeats of the earlier species, but after an hour or so, I pulled up a gorgeous blue-spotted orange grouper.
These are called coral hinds, and I was up to seven species for the day, exceeding the total of the previous two days. I was thrilled.
We weren’t done. The next grouper I brought up was a blackfin, also a new species.
I didn’t even have time to pull down my sun mask, but trust me, that’s me under there. Who else would be photographed with an eight inch grouper?
A few minutes later, I got a vicious hit that broke off my terminal tackle. This annoyed me, so I set up a heavier leader and a bigger hook, and figured I would teach whatever it was a lesson. I got broken off again. So I went to a 40 pound leader, and a few minutes later, brought up a surprisingly hard-fighting unicornfish. This species was the bignose unicorn, which I had already caught in Fiji, (ugly details HERE) but this one was big enough to be my second world record of the trip.
These fish turn dark very quickly out of the water, which is a shame because they are beautiful creatures. So I made sure to catch another one and photograph it immediately – and do note that they were all released safely.
This is honestly the exact same species – they just darken up quickly when they are out of the water.
As it got later in the day, I realized that I had completely forgotten to eat lunch. In order to avoid awkward adventures with local cuisine, I generally pack a bunch of REI freeze-dried camping meals, which only require boiling water and a plastic spoon. Just as I sat down to some reconstituted beef stew, my light rod started going, and I jumped up to reel in yet another species – the Diana hogfish. So the beef stew ended up cold, but this didn’t bother me at all. It tasted like filet mignon. (NOT filet minion, which could be upsetting if you’ve seen “Despicable Me.”)
That’s nine for those of you counting along at home.
The sun was going down, but I had a hard time convincing the crew to head in – they wanted to stay out and try to get me one more. (God bless ’em for that.) But I actually wanted to fish the harbor. This bewildered the guys, but they pulled us up to the dock just after dark and I whipped out the sabikis. It was awesome. In 11 minutes, I pulled up three new species – the bridled monocle bream, the goldspot emperor, and the tapered-line cardinalfish. Most importantly, the monocle bream was on the “black list” – the fish Marta has caught that I have not. This was an important triumph, and for those of you who point out Marta’s was bigger, get your finger out of your nose. She was down to 10 species that I don’t have, which is 10 too many, but it is very important to note that this is not important to me merely because I am pointlessly competitive. It is important for other reasons which I can’t think of just now.
Take that, Marta!!
The goldspot emperor.
And the tapered-line cardinalfish.
When all the damage was finally tallied, I had come up with 12 new species in a single day, which qualifies as “epic” in my book. This, in short, was why I came here. It was magnificent, plus there was one more day to go, and now 1500 was only two away. Mohamed the tour guide met me at the dock and took me to dinner – I was so wound up I could hardly eat. I must have shown him the pictures at least a dozen times, and I was finally comfortable texting some friends and telling them it was going well. Marta responded “Take an extra week!” I slept well that night, and Jaime was not in my dreams.
So how do you follow up a day like that? Hopefully with another one.
Steve with the crew of a commercial tuna boat. They had no idea what to make of me fishing sabikis in the harbor. And why is is that Steve refers to himself in the third person in these captions?
We opened the final day on some sandy reef edges, the bottom clearly visible through about 60 feet of sky-blue water. I knew I needed just two more fish to get to 1500, and I was, to put it lightly, amped up. My first few hooksets were perhaps a bit too exuberant, and I had to take a breath and just get back to focused, consistent fishing, rather than hitting myself in the nose. I am one of the few people you know who could drink a Red Bull to calm down, but that’s what I did. After a few triggerfish, I pulled up a monocle bream that looked unfamiliar. Digging into the books I carry for just such an occasion, I discovered that this was a yellowstripe monocle bream – a new one.
Now I figured I pretty much had to get to 1500, and fairly soon at that. I thought back to #1000, that coalfish in Norway, only five and a half years ago, which seems like an eternity. I remembered some of the other milestone fish – 1100 was a golden tilefish with the Arosteguis. 1200 was a flounder in Mexico. 1300 was a blackline tilefish with the Arosteguis, and 1400 was a sheepshead minnow, caught with Martini last March. And I couldn’t help but wonder what the next one would be, and how in the heck I would get it without an Arostegui nearby.
It came about 20 minutes later, and, poetically, it was a close relative to the species that got me started thinking about species hunting. It was a roving coral grouper, cousin to the coral trout that I had seen in an encyclopedia when I was about seven years old. I never forgot that fish, and I made two trips to the Barrier Reef – about 30,000 miles of flying – to catch my first one. When I finally got it, all I remember thinking was how awesome the fish was. No thoughts of jet lag, lousy airline food, flight delays, blown out fishing trips – just the triumph of getting that fish. This felt exactly the same – I was ecstatic. If anything, I was more ecstatic than I was back then, because adding new species gets quite a bit harder when you already have a decent list. Trust me on this.
The roving coral grouper – species 1500.
After I got done dancing around the deck, Captain Waheed told me he wanted to try some medium-deep reefs – about 80 feet. I was worried about triggers, but he explained that the area held some other strange fish he wanted me to see. Needless to say, I gladly followed advice from a guy who had guided me to 20 species in under four days. What followed was a deliciously spiteful 20 minutes. Marta, you might want to skip this part.
Keep in mind that Marta has memorized her list of fish she has caught that I have not, and she often reminds me of them for no good reason. I accept this viciousness with the dignity and grace you all expect.
We started drifting bigger baits in very heavy structure – I lost a couple of rigs right away, but then I started catching fish. The first couple were triggers, but then I saw something orange coming up. I thought it might be a bigger coral hind, but I was thrilled to see it was a white-edged lyretail grouper – another type of coronation trout that Marta had viciously caught in front of me in Fiji. Do I remember the lovely beaches, the great food, the amazing people of Fiji? No! I remember that fish. And now I had one.
If redemption was a fish, it would look like this.
Speaking of ruined vacations, I take you to Aqaba, Jordan, in 2009. Marta, in a clear act of spite, caught a six-spot grouper just as I was having a nice day of fishing.
Marta, Red Sea, December 31, 2009.
More than six long years later, the Fish Gods gave me some justice.
I helpfully texted this to her immediately. I will pepper-spray the first person who mentions that hers was bigger.
I also got some much larger coral hinds.
Orange fish are cool.
In less than 20 minutes, I had taken the “black list” down by two more, to a still-unacceptable eight. This was the high point of the trip, but we still had more fishing to do. For the late afternoon, around the time I finally remembered to eat, we moved onto some more shallow coral reef structure. We had plenty of sunshine, and looking down 15 feet or so to the bottom was like looking into an aquarium, without those pesky security cameras. Among dozens of fish – and quite a few nasty breakoffs – I got a memorable new species. This was the tripletail wrasse – I fish I thought I had caught several times, as it has some very similar-looking relatives, but this one was finally it.
Check out the pink spots on the head. The fish were even more beautiful than the scenery.
I was sitting on five species for the day, including a major milestone, so when I noticed that it was getting to late afternoon, it didn’t bother me too much. I ate more REI food (I recommend the chili mac) and kept fishing, and I got a couple more surprises before the day ended. The first was a banded Maori wrasse – another tropical beauty I had only seen in books.
I caught about a dozen of these – either a school had moved in or I had one very dumb fish.
Then the triggers came back. But I did not curse them, because I had 24 fish on the scoreboard and I was just having fun. I got about ten of them, a mix of bluethroats and redstripes, and then I had something pull down a bit harder. When I landed it, I was surprised to see another redstripe trigger, but this one was the biggest I had ever seen, which isn’t saying much, but when I weighed it, it crossed that magic one pound mark and became the third world record of the trip. The triggerfish had paid me back for all that free tuna.
The world record redstripe. If this had only been the first trigger instead of the last, I might have had a better attitude. But that’s not how the Fish Gods operate.
I let the trigger be my last fish, as I didn’t see how I was going to do any better than that. I sat back for a minute and just took in the scenery and watched the sun set. I had finally come to the Indian Ocean and would take home a big batch of new species – I couldn’t have asked for more. Well, yes I could have, but I would have sounded like a whiny ingrate, like I probably did for the first half of the trip.
Sunset over the Maldives.
We pulled up to the same dock I had left four days before with such high hopes. I took my time cleaning up and packing my gear, and, I confess, I did put one rod down while I was putting the other ones away, because I just can’t help myself. And the Fish Gods rewarded me with more more small surprise – a tiny scorpionfish, which was both species #25 and truly my last fish of the trip.
The genus is parascorpaena, but I only see one of them.
I finally said goodbye to the crew – my constant companions for four days. They had worked tirelessly to make it a great trip, and it was. I knew I would see them again – there was still plenty more to catch here, especially in the more isolated atolls to the south. The first couple of days had added a bit more drama than I had wanted – that’s fishing – but my dream of 2000 species was alive and well.
http://www.villageholidaysmaldives.com/ or email Mohamed at email@example.com