Courtesy Denis Private Island

The Stunning Seychelles

Chasing black marlin in the Indian Ocean

T

he weathered old captain, Rolly Pierre, had fished off Denis Island for more than four decades, longer even than the Frenchman, the island’s previous owner. Lean and wiry, Pierre spoke with a soft patois — I had to lean in close to ­understand him — but his tone was strong. “I grew tired of the killing,” he said flatly. We ordered another round of local Seybrew beers from the Indian bartender; Pierre continued: “The first time I met your friend Henry, I thought he was crazy. He got on my boat with two 20-pound-test rods and a tag stick. I asked, ‘What are you going to do with all that?’ He said that we were going to catch some sailfish and then tag them. But that would mean letting them go? I thought it was strange at the time when we killed everything. But then I understood that this was the future. Our future.”  

rolly pierre seychelles captain
Not long ago, Capt. Rolly Pierre boated all marlin and sailfish as trophies for his clients. He quickly embraced the release ethic and is now one of the top tagging captains in the region.Sam White

I traveled to the islands of the Seychelles at the invitation of Henry Riggs-Miller, a buddy from South Florida who had married a beautiful Seychellois named Allie and started a family a few years ago in these incredibly pristine and beautifully remote islands in the Indian Ocean some 500 miles east of Kenya.

seychelles map
The islands of the Seychelles are located in the Indian Ocean and are home to some of the best sport-fishing opportunities in the world.Staff

After a full day of travel and fighting some world-class jet lag, I landed in the capital city of Victoria on the main island of Mahé around 7 o'clock in the morning; after a quick breakfast, we stepped aboard the 45-foot Cabo, Alati, at Eden Island Marina, slipped the lines and headed offshore. Nothing like getting a quick start. Capt. Perry Rosalie pointed us toward the drop-off around an area the locals called Bossy (pronounced BO-see) about 33 miles offshore. Since we were looking for marlin, the spread consisted of big lures in close and Ilander/strip-bait combinations on the long riggers. We had a pair of 20-pound outfits with ballyhoo ready in case we raised any sails.

All-Around Action

It didn’t take long for the action to heat up along with the temperature (the Seychelles lay just a few degrees below the equator). Shoals of birds wheeled over bait pods and bonito. The area looked incredibly fishy. Within a few minutes of putting the lines in, a pair of yellowfin tuna crashed both riggers and the fight was on. After boxing a pair of chunky 35-pounders, we set up again and were rewarded with more bites almost immediately. Rosalie finally had to ease away from the tuna action in hopes of finding a marlin. Later that afternoon, I pitch-baited a sailfish off a teaser to give us our first billfish of the day. While we didn’t see a marlin, it was a heck of an introduction to the fishing off the Seychelles.

"Black Marlin, Right Short!"

Day two meant an earlier start and a full day on the water, so we headed a bit farther down the line to the Tutune area, about 40 miles distant. We deployed the same setup as before, with 50s and 80s armed with lures in the spread and lighter gear standing by. Around midmorning, we finally found what we were looking for: A nice black marlin charged in and walloped a pink-and-white Mold Craft Super Chugger on the right short corner. After a short 15-minute battle on stand-up gear, I released my first black marlin, a fish we called 250 pounds, now sporting a red TBF spaghetti tag in its shoulder. We also continued to battle countless yellowfin tuna along with wahoo, which ranged from 25 to 40 pounds. These striped speed demons were so thick that all our teasers and squid chains had to be rigged on cable to prevent an instant cutoff. Riggs-Miller and I ended up pitch-baiting several wahoo off the teasers, using strip baits on wire leaders with small chugger heads and J hooks, which was an absolute blast on 20-pound tackle. Because we were fishing a tournament the next day, we headed back a little early to attend the captain's meeting.

seychelles black marlin jumping
"I was stunned to learn that my black was the 500th billfish tagged that season in the Seychelles — word of the catch even made the local newspaper."Jessica Haydahl Richardson

Tournament Time

Day three of the trip had us fishing in the one-day Seychelles Big Game Classic. We switched boats to the 32-foot Cabo, Special K, while the charter fleet's owner, Mike Mason, and his friends boarded the larger Alati. As the fishing seemed to improve farther down the drop-off, we elected to get an early start and fish to the east of the Gilbert area some 55 to 60 miles from the marina. The nightclubs were still pumping out techno-dance music as we departed at 2 a.m. for the long run to the drop.

After once again doing the tuna tango a few times, a small black finally ate the same pink-and-white Super Chugger on the short corner. Riggs-Miller was up for this challenge, which also gave us a chance to plant a pop-up satellite tag on the fish as part of the IGFA’s Great Marlin Race. In past years, tagged fish have either circled the Seychelles or made a beeline for distant waters, so it should be interesting to see where this one decides to go.

seychelles wahoo
The author and Henry Riggs-Miller with a nice wahoo, caught on 20-pound-test tackle.Courtesy Mangi Katana

That afternoon, we raised a black on the Squidnation Flippy Floppy teaser; I pitch-baited the fish and was able to gain a legal release, but we couldn't get the required video evidence before pulling the hook on the leader. Our dock partners on Alati finished in first place in the tournament with two blacks and a sailfish released, while we were second with one official black marlin release. Nearly every boat in the fleet had either hooked or raised marlin, with the Alati team going 2-for-5 on lures, including a doubleheader.

Off to Denis Island

Mercifully, the fourth day on the ground meant a chance to catch a few more hours of sleep and do a little sightseeing before heading over to Denis Island. The 375-acre private paradise is remote, but even better, it sits nearly atop the drop-off to the north of Mahé. We would be fishing within 10 minutes of leaving the protected anchorage. The boys on Alati chugged the 60 or so miles up to Denis while our team hopped over on a short 20-minute commuter flight. It'd been a while since I'd done a grass-strip landing, and it was just as memorable as ever.

denis island aerial view
A single grass airstrip accommodates regular commuter flights to Denis Island, and coral reefs ring much of the island.Sam White

Named for the French explorer Denis de Trobriant, Denis Island was discovered in 1773. As the main island of Mahé became settled, the satellite islands of the Seychelles, including Denis, became inhabited by French settlers who raised various crops. After changing ownership several times, in 1975 the island was bought by French industrialist Pierre Burkhardt, who opened it to tourism a few years later. Burkhardt also introduced the concept of sustainability, a theme carried forward in spades by the current owners, Michael and Kathleen Mason.

Today, Denis Island is an amazing study in self‑sustainability, both in terms of the natural world and its interaction with humans. The island farm raises livestock and fowl as well as fruits, vegetables and herbs. The hardwoods are turned into furniture and flooring. A full-time staff of about 100 people lives on the island — farming, ranching and handling the maintenance duties. Once a month, supplies like diesel fuel for the generators arrive via landing craft from Mahé, but otherwise the island is about 75 percent self-sustaining. The island’s 25 villas can hold up to 50 people, but it’s hardly ever full and crowds are never a problem. Think remote solitude and quiet in a Pacific paradise.

sashimi plate
The meals were incredible, including plenty of fresh sashimi.Sam White

The island is a refuge for a number of ­endangered seabirds and turtles, which nest there on a regular basis (Denis Island is free of rats, mice and cats, all of which can decimate nesting colonies). Guests are treated to five-star gourmet meals at every turn, including fresh-baked breads and pastries. There are no cars, so guests either walk or ride bicycles, while the staff uses electric golf carts to travel between the farm and the hotel. It’s possible to walk the beach completely around the island in just a ­couple of hours. Flying into the coral-ringed atoll, it’s easy to see that the surrounding waters offer remarkable fishing. While we focused solely on the bluewater action, there were plenty of opportunities to chase giant trevally on the reefs and even bonefish on the sandy flats.

Nonstop Action

We rejoined the boys on Alati for two more days of fishing. Riggs-Miller wanted to check out the sailfish bite that had been hot in previous weeks, so we set up with small strip-bait combos in the riggers, and put out the dredges and squid chains. The action started just 3 miles from the anchorage on the first small drop at 90 to 100 feet. Once again, we were in the wahoo and tuna in no time, and even managed to squeeze in a few ­sailfish — incredible nonstop action.

cabo express alati seychelles A1 fishing
Alati at anchor off Denis Island. The 45-foot Cabo Express proved to be a versatile, reliable performer.Sam White

That evening over drinks at the bar, Riggs‑Miller and I had a chance to chat with Pierre, captain of the island's game boat, a lovingly restored Bertram 31 named Lady Claire, which Pierre refers to as his mistress. He recalled the days just a few years ago when the tourists wanted to kill every the marlin and sailfish, and the crew obliged. But with the introduction of catch-and-release and tagging, the benefits were immediately evident. "It fit with the philosophy of Denis Island, of living in harmony with the natural world and the sea," he says. "It just made sense. And that's what we did." Today, Pierre accounts for a large percentage of all billfish tagged in the Seychelles. Release a marlin on Lady Claire, and he'll come down off the bridge and high-five you in the cockpit.

lady claire bertram 31 denis island

Rolly Pierre moves Lady Claire to its anchorage on Denis Island after refueling from the beach. The calm, pristine waters surrounding the island offer incredible fishing just a few miles away.

Sam White

So just how good is the fishing? A few years ago, Riggs-Miller caught a personal grand slam of a black marlin, sailfish and swordfish, which is a fishery that's just now coming on in the Seychelles. During the tournament we fished, several boats raised as many as three and four black marlin in a single day. And not all were small rats either. Capt. Ken Adcock, an American expat skipper, had a black marlin between 900 and 1,000 pounds that straightened a flying gaff jumping away from the boat after a five-hour fight.

black bart lure
Local captains prefer big, aggressive lures like this Black Bart for Seychelles marlin, either rigged with hooks or pulled as teasers.Sam White

Pierre has had five marlin bites in a half-day charter off Denis, and has caught as many as 10 sailfish in a half-day (most of his charters would rather eat lunch back ashore at the resort and spend the afternoon snorkeling or sightseeing on the island than fishing). His largest was a black of nearly 700 pounds that was lost after another long battle. So the evidence is there, in terms of both numbers and size, that this could be a very potent black marlin fishery indeed.

A Parting Shot

For our last day, we decided to go back on the hunt for another black, so we ran 12 miles to the big drop. By this point, we were ready for the seemingly never-ending string of knockdowns from wahoo and tuna, catching them on both light and heavy gear. In the afternoon, our Kenyan mate, Mangi Katana, sewed up a beautiful Spanish mackerel skipbait for the right short; late in the afternoon, just as we turned for home, a black marlin pounced on it. I overestimated the fish’s aggressiveness though and pulled the mackerel away from the fish twice before it switched over, ate, then stripped clean from the hook a ballyhoo that Riggs-Miller free‑spooled back to it. With the sun setting into the Indian Ocean behind us, we looked at each other, grinned, and agreed that we would have to come back and catch that one another day. It was a fitting end to an incredible trip.

Getting There, Staying There

We flew Etihad Airways from New York to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, then Air Seychelles from Abu Dhabi to the main island of Mahé. There are several other options, but be ready for a full day of travel on each end of the trip.

There are more than 115 islands in the Seychelles, and to see more than a few, you'll need a good transfer service to help. With more than 40 years of experience in the Seychelles, Mason's Travel handled all of our ground transfers and other details flawlessly.

sailfish jumping
A sailfish comes up to jump during the fight.Sam White

There are only a few choices for top-quality charter operations — one of the best is A1 Charters, based in Eden Island Marina on the eastern coast of Mahé. We fished on Special K, a 32-foot Cabo, and Alati, a 45-foot Cabo. Both were tournament-rigged with top-quality tackle and gear, including dredges. Contact Henry Riggs-Miller through FINS (Fishing in the Seychelles) for information on fishing in the region.

For lodging, it's tough to beat the Carana Beach Hotel. Each of the villas offers stunning views. From Mahé, we traveled to Denis Island, a private island community that is upscale and exclusive, with outstanding angling opportunities.