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May 28, 2008

Island of Surprises

Discover New Caledonia, French Jewel of the South Pacific

If you were to plan a trip to distant Pacific island destinations such as Fiji or Vanuatu, for example, you'd probably find that most serious American anglers had at the least some idea of where you'd be headed.

But if you should say you're contemplating a trip to New Caledonia, expect the response, in most instances, to be:  Where?
 
That's one of two expectations regarding New Caledonia that you can take to the bank with any plan to visit and fish this  large remote island north of New Zealand. The other expectation, from my recent experience there, is: Expect the unexpected.
 
One striking difference separating New Caledonia from other Pacific islands is its geology. It's one of the South Pacific's largest islands, stretching roughly 300 miles in a long, narrow, northwest-southeast configuration. And while most high islands in the region are volcanic in origin, NC is not strictly volcanic; rather, it's an extension of the great archipelago that includes New Guinea and New Zealand.
 
Another surprising difference became evident once I'd stepped off the airplane   in Noumea, the island's main city. This tropical paradise generally felt far less hot and humid than I'd expected. In fact, in October (its spring season, being south of the equator), many days were pleasant and evenings rather cool when breezy.
 
New Caledonia is also an unusual tropical fishing destination in being trés European - French, to be specific. This distant outpost of France is still a colony, and  a visitor can easily get the sense of being in a suburb of Paris versus on a remote Pacific island. Although the native language is Kanak (the indigenous Melanesian inhabitants), French is, in fact, the functional language here, and you're far more likely to dine on baguettes, escargot and fine wine than on taro, sweet potato and dried fish.
 
You might reasonably expect a lush  jungle to blanket the island's high, steep slopes, as I had. Wrong again: As our group drove north to the top of the island with our host, Richard Bertin, I saw little in the way of jungle, and more often rather arid slopes that from a distance resembled the hills of Southern California. (It's worth noting that NC gets about 40 inches of rain in a year; Fiji's Suva, at least on the "wet side," gets 125 inches.)
 
But for visiting angling enthusiasts, the most interesting surprises involve the fishing.

Remarkable Barrier Reef
Those in the fishing world who have heard of New Caledonia are likely to be bonefish fanatics. It was in that very context I'd started hearing rumors not long ago of huge Pacific bonefish prowling the vast flats around NC. For example, premier South Pacific fishing-tour operator Dean Butler (www.fishnet.com.au/butler - an outstanding photographer and contributor to Sport Fishing) and probably the first to ever really sport-fish bones here -   reported in 2000 seeing "miles and miles of unfished flats simply crawling with bones."
 
Bertin, who runs New Caledonia Fishing Safaris, invited a group of us from two continents to sample his operation and experience NC's fledgling sport fisheries for bonefish and more.

So in October, I joined four anglers from the United States in making the 13-hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland on an Air New Zealand 747, then continued another three hours to Noumea. Joining us in Noumea were well-known Aussie lure designer Peter Pakula and Jim Harnwell, publisher of the Australian magazine Fishing World.
 
In three vehicles, one towing a borrowed aluminum cuddy, we made the six-hour drive (on an excellent paved highway) north to Poum, near the top of the island, arriving at the Marabou Hotel tired and famished. The latter proved to be a good thing because the seafood buffet served by the hotel was truly memorable, with piles of succulent crabs, big prawns, smoked mackerel, lox and far more than I can remember. And that was only on the appetizer table.
 
The next morning, Bertin decided that Doug "Skip" Faulds, a globe-trotting angler from Edmonds, Washington, and I would fish the islands in the lagoon and two major passes that cut through the reef encircling the entire island. It's the second-largest barrier reef in the world - only Australia's Great Barrier Reef is longer - enclosing the entire island. Local lore describes it as the world's largest lagoon, averaging 35 miles in width. We also fished the ocean just outside the reef, where transparent waters plummet almost vertically into cobalt-blue depths.

Hit and Miss in Paradise
We had brought plenty of gear for this fishing - high-quality spinning and conventional reels with 50- and 80-pound braid to throw huge topwater plugs and drop big metal jigs as well as troll deep-diving plugs. We found narrowbarred Spanish mackerel right off - starting with one of my first throws of the trip when a "Spaniard" went after a big Halco Roosta Popper right next to the boat. It missed but did so in spectacularly jaw-dropping fashion, launching itself easily as high as our heads in a graceful arc with some impressive midair hang time.
 
We also caught giant trevally up to 50 pounds or so, but there is no doubt in this angler's mind that, with all the tremendous habitat preferred by these reef-loving giants, New Cally GTs twice that size and more wait to be caught.
 
We did fail to land a dogtooth tuna, a disappointment. However, they're definitely here as well; I hooked at least one trophy-size doggie while jigging a pass. The fish ran initially parallel to the bottom, then out and up closer and closer to the surface, gaining great speed in a ferocious, thumb-burning run that 50-pound braid failed to slow even slightly.
 
The maxed-out drag's pressure might have gradually turned the tuna, but before that could happen, tackle failure struck. Unfortunately, that's never too unlikely when fishing the intensely fierce world of barrier reefs and passes. In this case, 400-pound Dacron, part of the connection that came standard with the jig's assist hook, somehow parted, leaving only the solid ring attached to the eye of the jig.
 
Grouper proved to like our metal offerings. Early on, Faulds hooked a   large brown specimen of the sort Aussies call coral cod or potato cod. Faulds fished a huge spoon made in an Alaskan machine shop, called Captain Hay's Big Jig (www.alaskaproangler.com). A take-no-prisoners response kept the near-50-pounder out of the coral 125 feet below long enough to get it to the boat. We also caught some good-size and  stunningly pattered speckled blue grouper (Epinephelus cyanopodus; merou in French), and managed to tangle on that first outing and other days with long, colorful, dagger-fanged grouper known as coral trout, both on jigs and trolled lures.
 
On the outside, the ocean proved two things - flat calm and slow fishing. The Pacific was so quiescent, we could pull right up to reefs that are commonly pounded by looming swells to cast lures to the coral. But the best fishing this trip remained inside the lagoon. (We did see a flurry of triple-digit yellowfin free-jumping and hammering bait underneath wheeling boobies about a mile outside the pass, but the tuna went down just about the time we showed up, and that was the last we saw of them.) We had no boat or gear really suited to fishing marlin and, in fact, there's been little serious billfishing here. It seems highly unlikely that very big blues and blacks aren't swimming the Pacific waters around New Caledonia, however.
 
On another day, we spent most of a magical hour amid dozens and perhaps hundreds of short-finned pilot whales, often swimming close enough to the boat's hull to touch it, and we heard their calls with crystal clarity.
 
Some of our fastest fishing, if not always for huge fish, came trolling plugs and Maniac spoons around various  islands and reefs inside the lagoon - often not far from the hotel. The 15- to 25-pound narrowbarred mackerel offered great action on light tackle. Mixed in were occasional GTs, golden trevally and coral trout.