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February 20, 2008

the Shadow of the Dragon

Fish the volcanoes of India's Andaman Islands for an unforgettable adventure

A Two-Volcano Day
Those old enough to have seen Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic film, South Pacific, would be hard-pressed not to think of Bali Hai -  or perhaps in a more contemporary vein, Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong - when seeing on the horizon the austere, classically conical shape of Barren Island jutting from azure depths, smoke rising from its rugged peak.
Our anchorage that first night, next to Barren, brought no particularly memorable catches for Coe, his partner Apple Sansamak and friend Tom Darwin, all residents of southern Thailand, and photographer/angler Rob Sherman of Los Angeles. Still, we all enjoyed after-dinner action in the cockpit from a variety of species, including a big, striking "Maori perch," small dogtooth tuna, snapper and the inevitable sharks. At one point, what pretty well had to be a dogtooth tuna laid waste to Sherman's tackle; only getting cut off on the bottom of the boat prevented a likely spooling. 
The next morning we sailed to Narcondam Island, India's other active volcano. The 70-mile run meant an extraordinary "two-volcano day," as Pearce put it. Narcondam differs from Barren in that it's a bit larger with more reef area around its perimeter. But it's similar with sides that plummet into the depths around the seamount - so when Pearce trolls blue water for big fish on the 100-fathom perimeter, the boat remains quite close to the island's jungle-covered slopes.
Pearce capitalized on a couple of remaining daylight hours when we reached Narcondam, quickly locating giant trevally smashing yellow fusiliers (small, bright, reef-loving fish that school commonly in tropical waters). While second captain, Kiat, a Thai native, guided the Riviera toward the action, anglers joined Pearce on the broad bow of the Riviera, heaving big poppers into the fray; hookups came fast, and the action was intense. Using one of the boat's 20000FA Shimano Stellas filled with 80-pound braid on a 7 1/2-foot, heavy graphite rod, Sherman launched a big gold, ruckus-raising Halco Roosta Popper Haymaker an impressive distance. Cranking it back hard, he was rewarded with an arm-wrenching strike. After a memorable battle, Sherman brought in his first giant trevally, ever; at nearly 50 pounds, it proved a good initiation.

Man-Size Tuna
As dusk began to descend, Pearce opted to troll Halco Crazy Deep divers and Rapala Countdown Magnums along the drop-off around the island. It didn't take long before rods started bouncing and reels started shrieking under the strain of dogtooth tuna, those sleek, elongate, chopper-jawed predators that - unique among large tropical tunas - love nearshore, rocky reefs. Though these initial hookups weren't monsters, doggies to 30 pounds or so (such as one that clobbered my big green Storm WildEye Swim Shad), dogtooth can always be counted on to be very tough opponents. We also connected with some lovely, large rosy jobfish (long, streamlined members of the snapper family) eager to attack our lures.
Pearce made a drift to allow jigging enthusiasts Coe and Darwin to drop the iron, and I tied on an oddity I'd brought: a huge 14-ounce spoon made by Dave's Big Jigs in Alaska, as wide as my hand. Nothing struck it on that drift, but when Kiat fired up to make the short run back for another drift, I left the spoon out to wobble far behind the boat.

It hadn't wobbled long before I suddenly found my hands very full. As I tightened the drag on the Van Staal VS 300 spinning reel to max out the pressure I could apply with 80-pound braid, it quickly became clear that this fish would take some time to bring to the boat.

Ultimately, it did come to the boat, and Pearce and mate Ali had to work together to haul the huge dogtooth into the cockpit. We estimated it to be at least 150 pounds, making it my first real trophy for the species. 
It's not hard to believe that even larger - much larger - dogtooth wait to be caught in the Andaman Islands' waters because there's so little fishing pressure. The region has been declared a national park by India and widely off-limits to large-scale commercial fishing. This is not to suggest there's any real enforcement over such a large area, but from Pearce's experience, that sort of fishing doesn't seem to be prevalent. (I did see three small Taiwanese longliners sitting at anchor in Port Blair; they'd been confiscated a year earlier when caught fishing illegally in park waters.)
No doubt much larger GT also swim the waters we fished. But visiting anglers who want to focus on trevally may opt to head down to the south Andamans. That's an area we didn't have time to fish, unfortunately, but from photos and conversations with Pearce and Coe (the latter having fished there in 2006), it's a very different experience than the steep, rocky edges of the volcanic cones - vast stretches of thick coral reef in shallow, clear-turquoise waters where you can sight-cast to hulking trevally as well as coral trout and other species.