Bassas da India a remote fishing paradise

By Fred Steynberg

It may not be everybody’s cup of tea to spend up to three days sailing across the ocean to reach a fishing destination, but then Bassas da India is not just any destination. This long haul can more often than not bring you to one of the most rewarding blue water trips you will experience in the Indian Ocean.  This is a destination where fish don’t often see anglers and the fishing pressure is minimal.

Bassas da India, also called Bassas de Judie, is an uninhabited atoll that submerges a couple of meters at high tide with only the odd ship wreck marking the spot. The atoll is roughly 10km in diameter and 80km² including the lagoon that lies in its center. It is located about half-way between Mozambique (Vilankulo) and Madagascar and 110km northwest of Europe Island. The atoll rises steeply from the seabed that is an amazing 3000m below and the reef rim averages 50 – 100 m in depth with the shallower sections closer to the highest rocky sections 15 – 30m in depth. The reef is completely covered by the sea 3 hours before and 3 hours after high tide and it measures 35km.
The atoll has long been a maritime hazard with dozens of wrecks on and around the atoll bearing witness.

Bassas da India was first recorded by the Portuguese explorers in the Early 16th century and was named Baixo da Judia that translates to ‘’shoal of Judia’’, Judia being the name of the Portuguese ship that ran aground on the reef. Apparently the reef was renamed Bassas da India by subsequent cartographers owing to the mistake in writing the word ‘’Judia’’ by confusing letters while copying former maps. In 1897 it became a possession of the French.

Linecasters outfitters hosted a group of anglers to Bassas in July 2008 to sample some of the fantastic fishing that could to be had at this ‘exclusive’ destination and although we had a spell of cold water the fishing was never the less at times ‘off-the-hook’. Large shoals of Yellowfin tuna, Wahoo and Barracuda patrol the deeper section of the reef around the atoll and often anglers, using conventional tackle, would all be fighting fish at the same time. Yellowfin tuna average 20-40 kg’s and larger specimens often confirmed the fact that we were completely under gunned and would in some cases the guys would be spooled completely by monster fish that had no respect for 200m of 50lb braided backing..
A couple of sizable Wahoo were hooked and lost but unfortunately we did not witness events as dramatic as those told by the skipper. Apparently shoals of Wahoo that consisted of an uncountable number of fish so close to the boat that they could easily be targeted on fly are often around in the warmer months and it is a sight for avid anglers.     
Greater Barracuda can become a curse at times as they are always ready to pounce on a lure of almost any shape, color and size that swims within range. These fish are not great contestants when using heavy rods and give up early in the fight. On lighter tackle and fly, however, they have a couple of tricks to rid themselves from the hook and this includes a number of aerial leaps and blistering short-distant dashes. Bassas da India has its fair share of Barracuda (Greater) and we hardly reached the reef on the fist day when we immediately hooked into a couple of sizable specimens.

Within the shallower water column of the Bassas reef one will invariably find Giant Kingfish that can grow as big as they come. On the Bassas reef the Giant Kingfish (Egnoblis) is undoubtedly the king in this area as it uses the annulated reef with all its rocks and crevasses to it advantage when hooked. Smaller specimens of 10 – 20 kg’s are often landed without much trouble when popping or trolling around the fringes and shallower sections and often attack the surface lures in small groups adding to the visual thrill.
The bigger boys are a different story altogether, they range from 30 – 50kg’s plus and once hooked, head straight for the bricks and only most experienced of skippers and well equipped anglers occasionally land these magnificent fish after a lengthy, tackle testing tussle. A couple of the anglers on our expedition had a brief encounter with one or two of the bigger of the biggest and they bear witness to the unforgiving fights in which the fish would take at least 300m of 50lb mono and had no respect for our efforts to try to direct them away from the inevitable. Some of these fish are just going to be unstoppable, no matter what tackle is used. Anglers do not have the privilege of open water and friendly structures such as those found on the Seychelles atolls where bigger GT’s are often even landed on fly gear.  

Bluefin and Black Kingfish were also caught and numerous large Boha snapper and Job fish making up the bulk of  the medium sized fish that one will expect to hook when drop shotting or fishing with fly fishing tackle. These fish all give a good account of themselves and when conditions are favorable anglers can expect to be constantly harassed by large quantities.
One of the trade marks of Bassas da India is undoubtedly the large variety and abundance of Rock cod and Grouper species on the reef. This is due to the fact that the area is so isolated and remote as these would be the fish species that often are harvested, first, by subsistent fisherman, when bottom fishing. We caught Yellow-edge lyre tail, White spotted, Blotchy, Red-barred, Peacock and Coral Rock cod while trolling and drop-shotting and although they are not considered a sport fish by any means, it is still great fun on lighter tackle. Rock cod are always willing to aggressively grab anything that closely resembles a food source that is within range and then desperately try to return to the safety of their hole in the reef.

Brindle and Potato bass both patrol the reef and can often be seen when diving these crystal clear waters. They are both protected species in waters around our coastline and it is a wonderful experience to encounter them in a free, pristine environment. They often take lures without being targeted and would not hesitate sucking in a smaller fish at the end of an unsuspecting angler’s line. Brindle bass can grow 400kg+ but even a 50kg youngster may often reach the safety of a crevasse before it can be stopped. Many of the big unstoppable hit and runs that anglers will experience on the Bassas reef can be written off as a monster Brindle bass attack and most braids or nylons fail to withstand the rubbing against the abrasive rocks. We caught a smaller specimen of round 25-35 lbs that eagerly came up off the bottom to a rapalla. The fish was released unharmed, as all should be, to grow bigger and to become part of the pristine eco system.

Sharks are at time quite a nuisance around the reef, not necessarily when attacking fish that have been hooked by anglers, but they often take the rapalas and I even caught one on fly. Some of the White tipped reef sharks we hooked weighed at least 70 kg’s and can cause a long and tedious tussle before, disappointingly, the fisherman finds a shark at the other end of the line. If you are into Shark fishing however, this could be paradise as even the faintest chum line brings a multitude of sharks close to the boat within minutes.

The most unexplored area of the atoll is the lagoon in the center that partly drains at low tide but maintains a depth of about 15m at its deepest point. It has sand and rock bottom and the flats must provide food for a great number of fish species that can be targeted on fly. I can just imagine how large predatory fish would enter the lagoon at high tide and in the dark, hunt and ambush smaller fish species. Unfortunately we did not have time to explore the lagoon option as most of the guys on the trip were still relatively new at the sport and opted to fish conventionally around the atoll. I did however steel an hour to fish for the huge Parrot fish that were feeding in a foot or two of water on the fringes of the rocky outcrops, on fly. The Parrot fish looked 5 – 15+ lbs and their dorsal fins often protruded above the water as they were feeding. Small # 4 & 6 crab imitations attracted their attention and they would follow a very slow retrieve until the temptation got too much and they would gently inhale the fly. At first the fish would not understand the strain that I put on them but eventually after a second or two delay would speed off at a blistering pace and gut the leader on the rocks. After losing 4 massive fish I increased the diameter of my leader/tippet but had no time to pursue the fish further as my intrepid companions impatiently awaited my return to the mothership so that they could fish.
For this alone I will return to Bassas.

We used Island charters yacht, Pelagic, from Vilankulo to sail us across the ‘channel’ to Bassas and never did we doubt the ability of shipper Brent to do the job. It is a frightening distance from shore and should only be considered with an operator who has done the excursion a couple of times. Brent runs a tight ship and everything works on the yacht and has its place. The yacht is a 45ft cat that is propelled by sails and twin inboard motors.
I must add that I was a little skeptical, sharing a double bed with another man but the 3 double rooms worked out well for the six of us and the boat had a homely atmosphere and catered for all our needs. A young deckhand named Laura prepared all our meals most satisfactorily and if ever a badly hooked Tuna was landed we feasted on fresh Tuna steaks and sashimi.

Bassas da India is one of the remotest treasures around the Indian Ocean and hopefully will stay as pristine an uncommercialized as it is so that those who appreciate its qualities and are prepared to put in the effort to reach it, can now and then find pleasure in its sanity.

Fly fishing tips
9 – 10 weight rods and floating lines for targeting parrot fish and other shallow water feeders. A good quality reel with at least 150 m of 30lb + backing.
Small brown and white Crab patterns, Crazy Charlie, Merkins, Scamphy’s and Clousers are the favorite flies.

12 – 14 weight rods with fast sinking shooting heads or lines to get the fly down deep and fast for fishing the shallower (10-30m) sections of the reef for Rock-cods, Job fish, King fish and Snapper. It is necessary to have a good reel with plenty of 50lb braided backing with a range of hard 50, 80 and 100lb floro carbon tippet as these fish often use the rocks as a escape route and lesser mono filament will not do. A large variety of flies will do the job but to cut it down, large Mega Clousers 4/0 – 6/0, Linecasters Fire Clouser 2/0 – 4/0 and Black Whistlers 4/0 – 6/0 would suffice for most of the mentioned species.

If the Kings are eager to take poppers or flies on the surface then a 12 weight (or if you are able to cast a 14 weight) with a floating or intermediate line will work using Flashy profile flies or Gurglers or the surface.
Yellowfin tuna and Wahoo should be targeted with only the best equipment available and no less than 300m of 50lb braid should serve as backing. Wahoo have serious teeth and can bite through 40lbs of piano wire in a flash. It may be advisable to use a shorter thicker wire of 60- 80lbs and large Deceiver, profile and Whistler style flies will work well. Both Wahoo and Yellowfin tuna, depending on the conditions, can be caught on the surface or down deep so it will be wise to have a rod rigged with an intermediate and fast sinking line to serve the moment.

Conventional fishing tips
Make sure that the rods used for trolling are strong and have quality open faced reels that can carry at least 500m of 50lbs nylon backing. The guys on our trip learnt dear lessons when they tried to use big Coffee grinder style reels for trolling. The line capacity, even on a reel such a Stella 10 000, is simply not enough for the bigger speedsters and anglers were often spooled. One or two of the rods were also no match, and one rod changed from a one piece to a three piece after a brief encounter with a bus of a fish.
Thick piano wire and 80-100lb hard floro carbon leader is a must and try to avoid braid or a braid-nylon combination when trolling, braid simply does not have the stretching ability that nylon has and many fish will be lost.
Coffee grinder style reels of good quality with braid as backing and a short strong rod will work well for drop shotting and vertical jigging. It is necessary to take a large variety of jigs and drop shot in different sizes, colors and weights to reach different depth. Thick 100 – 120lb hard floro will help when fish run into rocks or reef but there are no guaranties. It may also be a good idea to use piano wire as toothy fish may from time to time hit the jigs or drop shots.
Popping with Chisel nose and larger cup faced poppers can be extremely productive when targeting Kingfish an 8-10 ft rod and strong, casting reel with 40lbs + backing and strong, hard floro as leader will do the job.
It is essential that all the inferior split rings be replaced by high quality rings and that the treble hooks on rapalas are of good quality. We found that many large fish were lost because of split rings and bad quality hooks opening up.