Posted by: 1000fish | July 17, 2018

The Gorgeous Swallowtail

Dateline: January 26, 2018 – Watamu, Kenya

Can a single fish justify 19,000 miles of flying? In my case, probably. But it would need to be a really, really weird fish. And any of you who have met me know that my standards for weird are extremely high. Just look at Cousin Chuck.

Thursday brought a change of boats and guide. Kenya had given me seven new species and four records so far, and while this was certainly solid, I knew there were a lot more fish out there. Every great trip needs a “signature fish,” and this hadn’t happened yet. Still, I slept well Wednesday night. Maybe it was the confidence of knowing I was heading out with a bottom fishing specialist, or maybe it was the Scotch and Ambien. Either way, Captain Calvin du Plessis believed we could find some weird stuff on the deep reefs, and it seemed like he enjoyed the challenge. We had traded numerous texts and calls, and I didn’t even need a Red Bull to get wound up in the morning, although I drank a couple just to make sure.

You can reach Captain Calvin at or

The Medina Palms at daybreak. There were no fish in the pool. I looked.

The wind had finally laid down, so the morning was still and beautiful. (But my brother-in-law Dan would still barf.) Calvin had some deeper reefs in mind, about 90 minutes out of port, so I settled into a deck chair and watched the coastline grow dim in the distance. I was hopeful that my Stella 20000 would finally get a challenge, although there are no dogtooth in this immediate area. When we pulled to a stop, I dropped a jig, got a jarring strike, and managed to reel up another personal best coronation trout. Calvin was thrilled for me.

I never, ever get over how beautiful these things are.

Ever, ever, ever, ever.

With my rather limited attention span, when the jig didn’t get hit on a couple of casts, I started dropping bait. Quickly, I made like Cousin Chuck in a singles bar, and hooked up with something big that had no interest in meeting me. When it surfaced, I was thrilled but bewildered. It appeared to be a positively huge spotted unicornfish – clearly a world record – but I had caught spotted unicornfish in Hawaii. I sighed, but there was a surprise coming in a few hours.

As far as I knew, it was Martini’s record I would be breaking, so at least it would stay in the family. (Details in “Homonyms, Pomfrets, and the Pier Panther.”)

Late that evening, when I was online back at the resort, I discovered that this was actually a reticulate unicornfish. So it would a new species and a record, and I would leave Martini’s spotted unicorn intact. (For exactly one month and 26 days.)

The pink Pristipomoides scourge took over, so I went back to the jigs and promptly got my personal best ruby snapper. The sheer size of this fish took some of the sting away from the fact that this was yet another species I have caught in Hawaii. (And Brunei.) Still, I couldn’t argue with the quality of the fishing. Calvin was thrilled for me, and there were high-fives all around.

These were big fish, and everything in this family pulls hard.

I took a moment and looked around. The weather had turned nice, and I was in a beautiful location halfway across the globe, and these are both good things. But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking that the trip still wasn’t as exotic as I thought it would be. I am not a fan of “exotic” in terms of dysentery, poisonous animals, or insurgents, but I had pictured Kenya as less comfortable but loaded with weird fish that would never dream of showing up in Kona. I petulantly mused that I would trade my air-conditioned suite for an air-conditioned queen room in exchange for a few more species, but even I realized that the Fish Gods do not make bargains like this. I needed to focus on fishing hard and hoping that luck would go my way.

Calvin mentioned that we could catch some deepwater anthias nearby, and I was definitely game to add one of these small serranids to my list. We motored into about 550 feet of water, and I started changing my rigs over to some smaller hooks in the #4 range. Calvin stopped me and told me to leave on the 5/0 setup on my rod. This bewildered me, but he lives here and I don’t, so I just took his word for it. I presumed there was a misunderstanding and we were going for something big. I remember chuckling to myself and mumbling “That must be a darn big anthias. Ha ha.”

I freespooled my bait to the bottom, and a few seconds later, I got hit hard. As soon as I lifted into it, I knew that I had hooked the biggest fish of the trip. Now it was up to me not to screw it up. The fish battled most of the way up, with hard, head-shaking runs, and on several occasions, it stopped me dead on 40 pound gear and tried to head back to the bottom. In the last hundred feet or so, the pressure change caught up to it and the fight was a bit less exuberant, but still heavy. I predicted a 20 pound grouper. Calvin predicted anthias, which I thought was an attempt at humor. I mumbled “That must be a darn big anthias. Ha ha.”

A moment later, I saw a flash of bright orange color deep under the boat. Then I saw yellow, and whatever the fish was, it was definitely large. As it slowly came out of the depths I couldn’t quite make it out, and I just kept reeling as we drifted along. Finally, the fish surfaced in a brilliant explosion of orange, pink, and yellow. My brain attempted to process what I was seeing, and the best I could come up with was a big lyretail. “It’s a big lyretail!” I exclaimed. “No,” responded Calvin. “It’s a darn big anthias.” My brain still tried to work through what looked a lot like a very lost eight pound decorative goldfish.

It hadn’t occurred to me that an anthias could be this big.

That’s when it hit me. It was an anthias. A huge, fluorescent, magnificent, impossibly beautiful anthias. I had failed to consider that the anthias on this deep reef are mega anthias – their genus is actually “Meganthias.” (And their common name is “Gorgeous Swallowtail.” Look it up.) It would clearly be a world record, but much more importantly, it was perhaps the most beautiful, improbable thing I have ever caught. And for close to five minutes, I was actually silent. (Which was the true miracle of the entire trip.) Exotic had happened.

I must have texted this photo out 500 times when I got back to port. It has its own Facebook account. I show it to strangers on airplanes.

We stayed in the same area and managed to catch a couple of smaller swallowtails.

Even five months later, I can’t believe I caught this.

The small ones were extraordinary as well – not as stunning as the first one, but a stark reminder that I was indeed 10,000 miles from home. I had done what I came here to do. Everything else would be a bonus. That one fish alone, that one moment when I saw what it was, made the entire trip worth it.

Gratuitous Swallowtail photo. These are apparently exceptional eating, so each of the crew got to feed their extended families for a couple of days.

And there were some bonuses. A few miles away, in deeper water, I got a nice hit on a jig. I was hoping it was going to be a rusty jobfish, a species Martini had caught right under my nose in Hawaii last year. But it turned out to be something so much more satisfying, because instead of irritating Martini, I got to annoy Marta. The fish was a longtail red snapper, yet another Hawaii fish, which Marta had caught and I had not.

And mine was much, much bigger.

Marta and her longtail, August 29, 2008. That is a very young Jack Leverone in the background – he has since grown into the hat.

Late in the day, we made some drops in very deep water – over 900 feet. Along with some of the inevitable pink snappers, I got a pair of seabream-looking things that turned out to be blueskin seabream – my 11th species of the trip. It was an excellent finish to what had been an epic day.

The blueskin seabream – a big thanks to Dr. Jeff Johnson of the Queensland Museum for this and so many more IDs.

I celebrated at the resort with a fresh grouper dinner and some indefinite number of beers.

My final day in Kenya was a Friday, and after a day like Thursday, I wasn’t worried about getting much. I had gotten a bizarre impossibility, and I was as close to content as I ever get.

The sun comes up over Turtle Bay. I took a walk along the beach before we headed out, and saw at least four species I hadn’t caught.

Still, we had one more day on the water. We started in the shallow reefs, and I knocked off two new species quickly. The first was a monocle bream. I keep thinking I’ve caught all of these, and then a new one will turn up.

1000fish welcomes the Thumbprint Monocle Bream to the species list.

The second new species, which came a few casts later, was a nod to universal justice. On this trip, I had caught – repeatedly – two species of hawkfish that I had also caught repeatedly in Hawaii. This fish was a hawkfish, but finally, a different one – the speckled hawkfish. It would be my 13th and final species of the trip – taking me to 1768 lifetime – but the day was young.

I was very happy to see something new come up.

I also got a male cigar wrasse.

The males are much more ornate than the females – it’s sort of like New Jersey.

We spent the rest of the day drifting through a series of reefs and dropoffs. I dropped bait and jigs, and in between about 50 solid grouper and snapper, I got two more records. The first was another rosy goatfish – half a pound bigger than my goat on day one.

I like goatfish. Oddly, I do not like goats. Marta would like a pet goat, which I think would be a bad idea.

I also got a two pound coral hind – my eighth record of the trip. These records not only put me into competition for the 2018 IGFA all-tackle record award, but this particular one also broke Marta’s last remaining world record. (Set in May 2017 in Egypt.) It took me eight months to break this one, which is long by our standards.  (I broke her first world record in two days, and I broke her second in roughly 30 seconds.) Perhaps some of you are just now figuring out just how unhealthily competitive I am. A world record is certainly worth sleeping on the couch for a few nights, especially in the summer, because the air conditioning in our bedroom has failed.

Truthfully, she doesn’t care that much, as long as I don’t put any more fishing awards in the house.

We could have moved out to some deeper water late in the afternoon, but I have to admit that the action was so good where we were that I never considered it. Great fishing is great fishing, and Calvin had guided another amazing day.

Yet another nice coronation trout.

A big tomato cod. I caught at least 20 this size, most on the bass rod behind me.

Calvin’s crew – fantastic guys who thought of everything I needed before I even knew I needed it.

The sun had started going down, and I knew it was time to head back to port. The score for the trip would end up 13 species, eight records, and one guarantee that I would return, likely with Marta, to look at some of the wildlife and clear out a few more species. I hated to start taking the gear apart and cleaning it, but it was time. It all went so fast, and still, except for when we landed that one fish, I never really felt like I had gone that far from home.




  1. You are so right! That Anthias is just outstanding

  2. […] We got one fish of note, which you very careful blog readers know was hinted at in the “Gorgeous Swallowtail” episode. It felt like a small amberjack – hard fight and some reasonable runs – […]

  3. Aloha Steve! I live in Honolulu and New Zealand, and I have been carving fish species for a living almost 50 years now. I saw an article about you, holding a Ratfish. I once carved a Ratfish for famous Alaska artist Ray Troll. I also carved a Sarcastic Fringehead for
    famous marine scientists Sylvia Earle, and a Cermillion Rockfish for Milton Love. See my carvings on my Facebook albums and website.

    • Milton Love and Ray Troll are two of my favorite people. Well done!



  4. […] My second species of the day and 1835 overall. This is the general size of anthias species, which is what threw me off so badly in Kenya last year. […]

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