Destination – Northwestern Madagascar

Offering an incredible variety of predatory fish and some lesser-known, more elusive species, northwestern Madagascar is an ideal location for an angling adventure, claims Craig Thomassen.

Northwestern Madagascar has long been one of my favourite areas to explore with a fishing rod.

The first few times I visited the area, getting there involved flying to Antananarivo on the main island, spending a night in a hotel there, then flying to Nosy Be the following day. Thankfully nowadays you can fly with Airlink directly from Johannesburg to Nosy Be, making it a short and easy trip to get to one of the best fishing areas in the Indian Ocean.

Having spent some time exploring the islands and reefs in this area, I believe that the best option is to embark on a live-aboard yacht expedition. This will take you to several of the remote outer islands, where you can access some of the most diverse fishing on offer anywhere in the world.

For me, the biggest attraction of this area is the incredible diversity of predatory fish. There is a variety of species and we continually catch species we’ve never seen before. There is an array of resident species, such as grouper, snappers and emperors that live on the extensive reef systems, then a mind-boggling variety of kingfish species and everything from barracuda to billfish and anything else in between, roaming the waters. For the enthusiastic blue water sports fisherman, this is an excellent place to tick off many of the unusual tropical species from your fishing wish list.

Be Prepared

With such a variety of fish on offer, you need to pack a fair amount of fishing tackle to be prepared for anything that may come your way. My most versatile set-up, and the one I end up using the most, is my medium spinning/jigging set-up. It is a Shimano Trevala S-Series 6’3” rod with a Shimano Saragosa 6000 reel, loaded with 50lb Sufix 832 braid. This set-up is used to cast chisel plugs and medium-sized poppers, spoons, bucktail jigs, and soft plastics as well as for jigging with some of the Storm Gomoku micro jigs. I have caught everything from sailfish to GTs with this set-up. I use it about 80 per cent of the time when fishing in these waters.

It is also good to carry a heavy plugging rig and a specialised heavy jigging rig for the big GTs and dogtooth tuna. I find that 200g jigs are generally sufficient to handle the depths and the currents in the area, and produce much fish, so I pack mostly 200g jigs with a few other sizes thrown in.

I also take a light-spinning outfit to cast small lures in estuaries or around inshore rocky points and beaches. If you sail either north or south from Nosy Be, you will find many little rocky outcrops and islands in the sea, as well as some estuaries and beautiful sheltered bays and beaches.

Barracuda, king mackerel and a variety of kingfish species are often around these inshore spots. Further offshore, there are extensive networks of reefs and drop-offs with plenty of game fish patrolling the deep waters. Fish such as sailfish, bonnies, tuna and dorado can often be found by following the diving birds who fly above the feeding game fish.

Live-abroad, a wonderful experience

On my last trip to Madagascar, I spent a few days on a live-aboard yacht called Maki Cat from MadagasCat charters – what a wonderful experience! Our skipper Stephan, a Frenchman living in Madagascar, was an interesting and experienced seaman. He and his crew treated us like royalty and nothing was too much trouble for them. We were looking for a particular species of kingfish that I had caught on a previous trip. I had been unable to identify the fish, even after I had sent pictures to some of the world’s most respected trevally experts. As I was certain that I had caught a new species of kingfish, and wanted to catch another in order to get some DNA samples.

I invited Dr Paul Cowley to join me on the trip to help with the identification of the fish and the sample collecting. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to catch the target species, but we had a lot of fun while trying. In the process, we caught a variety of other kingfish, including a new one for me – a heavy jawed kingfish, one I had only previously seen in pictures. It was great to see one of these in the flesh, and I caught two on the trip! We also caught other species of kingfish on the trip including black kingfish, malabar kingfish, GT, greenspot kingfish, yellowspot kingfish and bluefin kingfish.

Standout catches

We each caught a sailfish on the medium-spinning tackle, a very exciting achievement. We were fortunate to see many sailfish, we could see their dorsal fins breaking the surface here and there as they fed on our bait balls. The frigate birds made it easy for us to follow the sailfish, as they continually flew above the fish, dipping down close to the surface as the sailfish neared the top. Sailfish can be found in these waters all year round, but peak season is April to June and September to November. During these periods, they can be plentiful and are great fun to target on light- to medium-spinning tackle.

Other standout catches included several decent GTs on poppers. We saw some baitfish being smashed on the surface by big predators and raced over casting our plugs into the fray. Both plugs were hit with vicious smashes, and we had a double up of GTs – some of the hardest fighting fish in the Indian Ocean.

Another unusual catch, and a first for me, was a slender rock cod. I caught it jigging over a fairly shallow reef with my medium outfit. I was using a Storm Gomoku micro jig, giving it a slow action much like the slow pitch jigging technique. A huge variety of the grouper family is found in the waters of northern Madagascar and we often catch some unusual specimens. This was the first slender rock cod that I had seen, and, even though it wasn’t a huge fish, it was an exciting catch.

The variety of fish species available and the fact that you can use diverse fishing techniques is what makes this area so special. When you are jigging over a reef and hook a fish, it could be absolutely anything and that is what is so thrilling. We have caught in excess of sixty species of fish on artificial lure on a single trip, something I haven’t achieved on any of my other travels.

In my opinion, a trip to northern Madagascar, especially on a live-aboard boat, is probably the best value-for-money blue water spinning and popping trip you can undertake in the tropical Indian Ocean. It is also the type of trip that you can take the family on as well, as there is plenty of safe and sheltered snorkelling and spectacular sightseeing on the cruise. The snorkelling opportunities in this area are exceptional, offering beautiful, shallow coral reefs with abundant fish and sea life. One of the highlights of my previous trip was jumping into the water and snorkelling with a massive leatherback turtle, which was feeding on jellyfish in crystal-clear, blue water.

In the next few months, I will be going on a follow-up trip to try to secure a specimen of the mysterious kingfish. I am confident that I will catch one and I look forward to unravelling the mystery and finding out just what that fish is. Hopefully, in the near future, we will be announcing a new species of kingfish in our waters.

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