Trevally and Hope

By Scott Richmond

"Trevally?"

I had pointed to the edge of the flat, a quarter mile away. A school of frantic mullet had gone airborne. White water sprayed beneath them as large predators slashed through the hopeless victims left below.

"Trevally," my guide Eketi ("Eck-ess") confirmed.

More leaps, more slashes, then quiet. Eketi quickly moved to our left and motioned me to follow. I soon saw what his sharp eyes had already picked up: three large navy-blue shapes slicing through the thigh-deep, 80-degree water. We were on a path to intercept them.

"Get ready," said Eketi.

I striped 70 feet of fly line from my 12-weight rod, leaving ten feet past the rod tip. I held my six-inch yellow and red streamer between the thumb and forefinger of my left hand, point up.

The trevally were so big I could track them from 250 yards away. They swam in efficient formation, each fish behind and slightly to the right of its neighbor. The lead fish--always the largest in a trevally school--was closest to me.

I judged their speed at ten mph--mere cruising speed for trevally, but about twice as fast as any steelhead can swim. These fish were coming across the flat like a pack of Hell's Angel's roaring 100 mph down Main Street. Speed. Power. Latent violence. Pure predation.

A cloud obscured the sun; the water turned dark. A tern squawked overhead. Wind ruffled my shirt sleeves and wavelets pressed against my legs. I flexed the fingers of my rod hand.

"Cast!" said Eketi.

One false cast to work out 30 feet of line. Double haul. Deliver. I'd practiced this drill hundreds of times. The fly dropped ahead and to the left of the lead trevally, a fish of about 50 pounds.

"Strip!"

I stripped the fly, moving it like a desperate baitfish. The lead trevally immediately peeled off from the group, headed toward my fly.

"Strip faster!"

I'd practiced this drill, too, and accelerated the fly. Fins broke the surface. Beads of water hung in the air. The trevally turned away from me. Slack line ripped off the water and slapped through the guides. The line went taut, the rod bent.

"He took it!" I yelled. "Yes! Yes!" . . .

The Bad Boys

Giant trevally are the big bad boys of the Pacific tropics, afraid of nothing and no one. Strong and very fast, they are highly-prized gamefish, especially on a fly rod. A 35-pounder is a trophy. A 50-pounder? A big trophy.

I was on Christmas Island, a coral atoll on the equator about 1,200 miles south of Hawaii. Christmas Island is known mostly as a bonefish destination, but it is also one of the best places to seek giant trevally with a fly.

Last year, on my first trip to Christmas Island, I'd had several shots at big trevally. I blew all but the last one. Sloppy casts, bad retrieves, too slow preparation. On the last day I finally got it together. A trevally followed my fly, but turned off without taking it.

This time I was prepared. I'd practiced getting in the "ready" position quickly, did casting drills, honed my retrieves. At night, in front of the TV, I improved my big-fish knot skills: biminis, Huffnagles, loops, the knots to fasten a 4/0 fly to an 80-pound shock tippet.

I wanted a giant trevally like no other fish on this watery planet. Steelhead? My first on a fly was over 20 years ago. Permit? Eh. Hundred-pound tarpon? Been there, done that. Bonefish? Over a hundred just this week, including two personal-bests.

I wanted this trevally above all other fish. If you'd seen that dark predatory echelon slicing through the jade-green water like Fate on a mission, you'd have wanted one too.

Meanwhile, Back at the Trevally

. . . Slack line ripped off the water and slapped through the guides. The line went taut, the rod bent.

"He took it!" I yelled. "Yes! Yes!"

The fish pulled, hard. The battle was joined.

Suddenly the rod sprang back, flinging fly line into the air in loose waves. In a microsecond I comprehended that the leader and fly were gone.

I reeled up, shaken and gutted. The entire leader had pulled off, stripping the coating from the line and leaving a short piece of the line's core dangling at the end. I sighed and tied on a new leader and fly.

Trevally feed on the flats at high tide, moving off to deeper water on the ebb; mornings are the best time to seek them. Unfortunately, my trip was timed to coincide with a family reunion in Hawaii, and not with the best tides for trevally. This day--my last on Christmas Island--was the only day with a decent tide for trevally hunting, and it was only a two-hour window at that.

The tide turned without another trevally, and we shifted our focus to bonefish. It was a good morning: before lunch I landed a couple of dozen bones of good size, including a fat 22-inch fish that was probably close to six pounds--big for Christmas Island. I also hooked and landed a nice four-pound trevally on my eight-weight rod. It was a fish that went far into my backing. You can imagine what 50-pounder would have done, even on a 12-weight.

I see now what happened with my big trevally. Three minor things converged into one major screw-up. First, 12-weight fly line has a thick coating, but the braided core only has a 30-pound breaking strength; under stress, a nail knot can easily cut through the soft coating and slip off the end of the fly line. A better solution, I learned, is to double the end of the fly line onto itself, then tie the nail knot, sticking the leader through the loop you've made in the fly line. This, of course, was the one knot I had not practiced; I've been tying nail knots for 25 years and thought I knew what I was doing. Wrong.

Second, I'd probably trapped the fly line between the cork and my right hand. Normally, the line would have slipped through anyway, slicing my fingers in a painful reminder to get them out of the way. But the third problem prevented that. To avoid line cuts, I sometimes use a Strip-eez, a little accessory that slips over two fingers and has pads in strategic places. At the beginning of the week I'd put line dressing on the pads so the line will slide easily. But I hadn't been using the Strip-eez this trip and had put it in the pocket of my flats pants until this morning. The line dressing that lubricated it had all washed out, and the pads were pure friction.

Individually, each of those mistakes would not cause a significant problem. Add them together, though, and they provided about two seconds of high stress and the leader popped off. When you're chasing fish of this size and power, there's no room for error.

Success and Not-Success

You cannot lose a fish because it's never yours until you land it. So for an angler, there is only success and not-success. There is no failure for there is no loss--unless you lose your hope, and then you have truly failed. Hope--the distance between wish and result--is what anglers live on. Hope urges us to the river, ponds, and tropical flats.

You start with hope, and achieve success or not-success. Success can delude us because sometimes it is unearned. Not-success is the best teacher. Not-success forces us to improve our skills, see where we went wrong.

I made mistakes on my first trip to Christmas Island, and corrected them for the second trip. This time I achieved what the first trip did not: a hook-up with a trophy trevally. That uncovered more mistakes. Next time I'll have fixed those--probably enabling me to make a few new ones. That's how you get better. It's painful, but there's no other way.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).