Stick baiting in the Maldives – The Extreme North -

Stick baiting in the Maldives – The Extreme North

By Isaiah Peter

We headed up to the Maldives for an expedition to the extreme north, with Captain Ibrahim from Seagal Charters. Our target species were the Giant Trevally. Famed for their brute force and explosive top water takes, these predatory fish are a must do on most anglers’ bucket list.  We would be fishing at a series of long reefs dubbed “the GT highway”.

The Seagal

The Seagal is a 31 foot center console fishing powered by two 150 HSP Yamaha engines. It has a casting deck that can accommodate 3 anglers casting in the front.  The sides are cushioned to give anglers a little extra comfort while battling a big one. It also has a built in freshwater tank and toilet.

The Rods

Made from Japanese blanks and fitted with Fuji components, these Zerek prototype rods have a rating of PE 8 and are available in 8’0 and 7’10 butt joint models. The 7’10 model has a slightly slower action, and is more suitable for beginners while the 8’0 model’s fast action allows it to be more responsive to the action imparted by the angler.  We paired them with 10 000 – 18 000 sized reels loaded with PE8 Lines and used 200lb Nylon leader to absorb shock and abrasion. The FG knot was used to connect the mainline to the leader and simple uni knot was used to connect the terminal tackle.

The Lures

An upsized version of the 160mm model, the Zerek Zappelin 220mm features an ABS body with through wire construction. Thicker wire is used to withstand bite force and prolonged saltwater usage.  Weighing in at 125g (with 4/0 Saltwater hooks), this stick bait is aerodynamically designed to cut wind resistance enabling longer casts. Its reduced buoyancy also allows it to sit just above the water surface making it easier to work in windy conditions. Its subtle bubble trail requires very little force and allows for a natural baitfish presentation – invoking the curiosity of the wariest fish on a mirrored surfaced day. An increase in the force output will create splashes and a longer bubble trail mimicking spooked baitfish.

The Journey

We touched down in Male after an uneventful flight which took a little over 4 hours. After clearing the immigration at the international airport, we took a short walk to the domestic airport to catch a flight to Hanimadhoo, which was an hour away. We were received by Captain Ibrahim and the crew from Asuruma View Guesthouse when we landed. Our luggage was loaded up into a van and we made our way to the guest house which was about 10 minutes away. We passed by rows of houses made of stone. There were no proper roads here, just sand. The full moon lit up the otherwise dark streets and the sea was always within eyes view. We had a quick supper and began preparing our gear for the next day. Having fished in the Maldives on 4 previous occasions, Freddie took it upon himself to ensure that all the gear was prepped properly and ready for action.

Day 1

I was awakened by the sound of crows cawing.  A quick glimpse at my watch showed that it was 8.30am. I bolted out of the bed and into the bathroom. We were supposed to depart for fishing at 7am. As the grogginess wore off in the shower, I chuckled at myself for being silly. My watch was adjusted to show Singapore time.  It was 5.30am in the Maldives and the sun was already out. Not wanting to wake the others I took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and kept myself busy on social media. The rest woke up shortly after and we had a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausages and toast before heading off to the dock filled with excitement in anticipation of what was to come.

The Initiation

We set off at 7,30am and arrived at the fishing location within a couple of minutes. I couldn’t help being distracted by the pristine white beaches and clear emerald green water that we zipped by on route. It was slightly windy and overcast and the Captain said that the conditions were good for fishing. Freddie got things rolling with a couple of small GTs that Ibrahim referred to as the ‘naughty size’. These guys are below 1 meter in length and are eager to chomp on anything that they set their eyes on. The Captain told us to warm up on these guys and get used to casting. He gave us two specific angles to cast from.  45° from the front or 90° from the side.

The first few casts were difficult. Being put off balance by the waves, I was unable to load the rod properly. I struggled to launch the stick baits over the potential areas the Captain was pointing to. But with each cast, I became a little more confident and once I found my sea legs, I put what Freddie taught me during casting practice into motion. A fully loaded rod combined with a correctly executed cast launched my stick bait to a reasonable distance.  By adding power to the equation, I was able to propel the stick bait even further. The stick bait was about two and a half feet off the rod tip for me; however this will vary from angler to angler.

My first hit was a little Bluefin Trevally. I could see him chasing the lure from a distance. The distinct blue hue on the fins made him easy to spot.  He was no match for the tackle and was hauled in within a minute and released after a keepsake photo. On the next few casts the Zappelin was mobbed by Red Bass. A group of them would attack the lure as soon as you crank your reel handle. It didn’t matter whether you were retrieving the lure correctly - as long as it moved they would smash it. Dealing with these fish was very tricky. They were easy to catch but as soon as you hooked one up, you’d have to pump it in as fast as you can. Otherwise you risk getting reefed and losing your lure. Both Tui and I learnt this the hard way, losing a couple of lures within minutes.

 

First Encounter

We were cruising along the reef a 1 knot while casting. There were two of us at any given time so that we could cover more ground. Safety was priority. We always checked behind to ensure it was safe casting. I was on my third rotation of casting when I made a cast over a small coral patch in very shallow water (1.5 meters to be exact). As I worked my lure back, it was hit by a GT just after it crossed the coral patch. The take was so sudden and explosive that all I did to react was to lift the rod in a feeble attempt to set the hook. I was asked to set the hook again as the Captain gunned the boat into deeper water.

Observing Freddie earlier, as he fought the ‘naughty sized’ GT, I assumed that I would have to pump this fish up quickly in order to land this fish. Big mistake! The harder I pumped the deeper he went. My arms were tiring quickly and I was out of breath as I held on to the rod as the fish took out line again. An amused Freddie offered some words of assistance. ‘Half or quarter cranks’ and ‘take your time’, he said. Following that up with a cheeky, ‘just 50 more meters to go’, as the blue 50m line marker came into view. I huffed and I puffed and finally we could see color. In a few moments, the deckie, Adurey, had grabbed the leader and pulled the fish toward Captain Ibrahim who had the landing net ready.  The fish measured in a 106cm. I was out of breath, but smiling as they lifted the fish onto my lap for a photo.  We released the fish by dropping it head-first into the sea. The burst of seawater through its gills gave it the boost of oxygen it needed to swim away on its own.

As I sat down and caught my breath, the Captain gave me some advice on how to fight the GT without tiring myself out. He explained that GTs do not dash into structure and the line only gets cut off if they go round a reef . ‘Just hold on until the fish slows down and pump them in slowly” he said. ‘Using a fighting belt also allows the knees and lower back to assist in lifting the fish giving the arms a break’ he added.

The Technique

Freddie hooked onto the biggest GT of the day as the day wore on. He managed to bring in the 116cm fish without much trouble. In fact throughout the entire day he had consistently been hitting fish while the rest of us had disproportionate ratio of hits and misses. The secret lies in the technique. His slow but long sweeps created a long bubble trail and swim action. There must be a little slack in the line as you begin the sweep. Otherwise the lure will tumble and skip on the surface. You need to keep your eye on the lure to make sure the tip is out of the water first. You begin with a short hard downward motion to get the tip into the water to create the bubble trail and ease off the pressure as the lure swims through the sweep. Crank in some line (leave some slack) and repeat.
 

Once we managed to grasp this pattern and get into a rhythm, we hooked up more fish. We also learnt that waiting for the fish to swim off with the lure before striking ensured a better hook set. 3 strikes should be more than sufficient to set the hook although the Captain suggests that the power of a large GT will set the hook automatically upon impact. Better safe than sorry right?

We ended the day with a large Red Bass, which we took back at the request of the guest house staff. We arrived at the dock before just as the sun began to set. A short ride later we arrived at the guest house. We washed up and watched some movies before dinner was served - Sweet and Sour Red Bass. The locals love their Tuna and their Red Bass. We found out that these were staples in their diet which was similar in cooking style to Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine.

Day 2

The second day began in pretty much the same manner. We reached the fishing spot pretty quickly and began casting. This area was much deeper and had large schools of baitfish around. The Captain told us to cast close to the bait ball and we were immediately hooked onto Red Bass. These were pretty large and we landed some that were close to 7kg. We moved from spot to spot looking for some GT action. Tui got the first one pretty close to the boat. Watching the GT zoom by to hit the stick bait was a visual treat. It measured in at 105cm. We landed a few more before breaking for an early lunch.

Birthday

Unlike the first day, we had little cloud cover and the temperature began to shoot up into the thirties at about half past eleven. The heat combined with our full bellies, induced fatigue rather quickly. We found it rather uncomfortable to cast under the hot sun. Freddie and Ibrahim stepped up to flex their casting muscles. The bite had slowed down and we were hitting a fish every 30 minutes or so.
 

Freddie was casting alone in the front when he hooked up a large one. This fish was powerful. Even with the boat gunning in reverse he was still taking line out. Ibrahim maneuvered the boat in Freddie’s favor and smiled. ‘Keep casting’ he yelled at Tui. Freddie moved to the back of the boat to try and subdue his finned adversary as Tui began casting. Shortly we had a double hook up. Tui’s fish was not as big and was landed quickly. As Tui released his fish we caught a glimpse of Freddie’s fish. It was the biggest of the trip so far. Its shiny body reflected the sunlight in the clear waters. Adurey grabbed the leader and into the net it went. Hi 5s all around as the birthday boy celebrated with his prized catch, which measured in at 125cm.

Scarface

I was up next and three casts in I hooked up. Fish on! “Big One” the Captain said as I held on for the first run. The screaming drag sent an adrenaline rush through me. My heart was racing! I kept my composure and took my time with the fish, remembering what Ibrahim and Freddie had taught me the day before. We saw color shortly. I smiled at Freddie and said ‘This is much easier than yesterday’ as the rest broke out in laughter, making jokes about my experience with my first big GT. Slowly but surely I reeled the fish in. As Ibrahim grabbed the leader and pulled the fish towards the net, I noticed that the fish did not struggle. Even when placed on the deck he did not flap around. As they measured him I saw an unusual scar on his face that was probably made by a treble hook.  I asked the deckie and he told me that many of the GTs we caught were residents of that particular area that patrol the reef in search of food. This 116cm fish had probably been caught and released before! After a few pictures, we released him. He swam close to the boat for a while before making his way back into the reef. There were no big GTs after that and we headed back around 4pm with some Red Bass for the villagers and crew of the guest house.

Day 3

The third day began very early. We were moving on to fish at another location and would be staying at the Captain’s friend’s home on another island. We loaded up all our luggage and tackle and embarked on a 2 hour journey at 4am to Makunudhoo. We arrived just as the first rays of them sun hit the island.  After unloading our luggage onto a rickety old lorry, we headed off to the first fishing spot of the day.

Mirror Calm under the Maldivian Sun

As the boat slowed down, we got ready to cast. The first few casts resulted in some Red Bass and a Blue Fin Trevally. The air was still and the water was flat and calm. Not a good sign the Captain mumbled after an hour of casting. As we moved down the reef, there were no signs of fish despite the bait schools we passed by. Occasionally someone would hit a Red Bass. However, these were very small and were reeled in and released without much effort. As the sun rose, the heat and humidity steadily increased. The absence of the wind had not only affected the bite rate as the GTs were nowhere to be found, but it also took a toll on the anglers.

We took refuge in a make shift shelter at the back of the boat that Adurey had set up. It was almost 11am and we had not registered any sizeable hits. The Captain suggested that we head off to a nearby location to jig for some Dogtooth Tuna.

The Puptooth

As we only had one jigging outfit with a couple of jigs, Freddie took the first shift. We were fishing in a depth of 100 meters and the first hit was registered on the 60 meter mark. It was big, the 150g Surecatch Flasher jig was taken on the pause after a set of long strokes. As the line was peeling out of the reel under heavy drag, Freddie used his hand to feather the spool to increase the resistance. It worked. The fish paused and he was able to get some line back. At about 40 meters we saw the silhouette of the fish. A couple of cranks later the fish made a second dash. This time, there was no stopping him. He cut us off at the drop off.

As Ibrahim repositioned the boat to drift over the same drop off, we quickly re-rigged. The second drop also resulted in an immediate hook up as well. This one was smaller and Freddie labelled it a “puptooth tuna” due to its size and passed it on to Tui to land. The fish was close to 20kg and was released.

Tui hooked up next and we assumed it to be another little dogtooth as the fight was similar. We were pleasantly surprised when a Yellow Fin Tuna emerged. Sashimi for dinner! We moved on in search of more dogtooth or yellow fins but to no avail. We called it quits at about 3pm and headed back for an early rest and some YFT Sashimi.

 

Day 4

I woke up on the 4th day with a sore elbow. After a couple of casts I was feeling jolts up my arm – much like banging your elbow on a table. Tui and Dennis tried to better their personal best GT records while Freddie and I sneaked in a couple of casts while they took a breather. The wind had picked up slightly and we were landing some small GTs and Red Bass. Freddie hooked up a 5 feet long shark and subdued it after a tough battle. The shark went round in circles trying to shake of the Zappelin. The Mustad Kaiju in-line singles held well and the shark was brought boat side and released.

Frenzy!

The next cast saw a Wahoo take an aerial leap to pounce on the stick bait. He missed and a Dogtooth took the lure. The fight was on! The speed demon took Tui round the boat several times before it was finally landed. Those are some nasty teeth!  He took a breather as Freddie and Dennis made a couple of casts.  A double hook up occurred in the 3rd cast. They were grumbling that Red Bass were tiring them but as they reeled the fish in, we saw that they were Groupers. Weighing in at almost 12kg each, they made a mess on the deck, spewing mud all over. The deckie didn’t seem too pleased.

Tui, got back to casting and hooked up on the first cast! Lady luck was really smiling on him as it was a big one that was taking line out at an alarming rate despite the heavy drag. The captain gunned the boat so that he could gain some line. As I watching the fight unfold from the back, the deckie came over and said, “sashimi again”. I didn’t understand what he meant at that time, as I was focused on the battle at hand. But as soon as we saw color, we easily identified the fish by the sickle like fins. Another Yellow Fin! There was a buzz on the boat as the fish was landed as the Captain spotted a school of YFTs in the distance in a feeding frenzy. We released the one in the boat and headed in the direction of the school.

 

The Captain cut the engine a distance away from the school. Going to close would mean that the school would go under if spooked. We tried to make long casts to the edge of the school but we were falling short by a couple of meters. There was no action on the stick baits worked back. Ibrahim gave it a go and just managed to land his lure 5 meters away from the fish. Boom!!! A huge yellow fin hit the stick bait and went airborne!! Just as he was about to re-enter the water, he managed to shake of the lure. Subsequent, twitches went unnoticed as the school had followed the bait school further up.

Black GT

Then as quickly as it began, it ended. They dove down into the depths and despite waiting for almost an hour, we couldn’t find them. We moved on to the reef to try for some GTs. I got up to cast and got a hook up on the first cast. Goal Keeper! The fish smashed the lure as soon as it dropped. I held on as Ibrahim gunned the boat out. Then the line went slack. I got cut off. We were fishing in a meter and a half of water and these fish were quick. I grabbed another rod, while Freddie re-rigged the other rod and cast close to the reef. A couple of sweeps later I got a hit. Fish On! My joy was short-lived as I got cut off yet again. Made another cast with another set up, and hooked up again. This one was smaller and I got it in without much hassle.

The consecutive hits got Dennis excited and we were both casting from the front when he had a hit. He held on as Freddie helped him with his fighting belt. As I was watching this unfold, I had a take. Double hook up! Mine was easily landed as Dennis continued his fight. Ibrahim grinned and told me to continue casting as a small one did not count. I made a shorter cast this time to try and avoid getting cut off. I had a GT smash my lure about 20 meters away from the boat. Luckily for me, he sped off into the deeper part of the reef. As I reeled in my fish from the back of the boat, I heard Hi 5s being exchanged as Dennis’ fish was landed. It measured at 110cm and was his biggest of the trip.

A couple of cranks later my fish emerged. It was a black GT. Not as big as Scarface but still a decent 108cm. A quick photo and he was released. My sore elbow acted up again and I had to sit out the remainder of the frenzy which lasted for a good hour. We were having fun at the GT highway. Morale was high and we looked forward to our last day of fishing as we headed back for some much needed food and rest.

Day 5

The last day began a little late due to some passing rain. We arrived at the fishing grounds and began casting.  We rotated with every few cast so that everyone had a chance to cast and rest. We were hooking up small GTs that were out in numbers, patrolling the reef in search of food. As we moved down the reef, we encountered some Blue Fin Trevally and some Red Bass. These were easily subdued and released quickly. We were anticipating some big hits but unfortunately, we continued to hook up smaller specimens all morning. As we broke for lunch, Tui continued casting try to best his personal record.

Hat Trick

He was rewarded with a big one barely 10 meters from the boat. We looked on as he battled with the fish. His laid back style made him the butt of our jokes for the next couple of minutes. Finally he subdued the GT. It measured in at 110cm. Tui was pumped up and started a second round of casting. Once again he was rewarded. His stick bait was smashed as soon as he began working it. The fish was successfully landed and Tui completed his hat-trick of GTs above 100cm in 30 minutes.

The rest of us joined in, and we were casting late into the evening. The Captain cheered us on with every cast as we pushed on in search of the next big one. We had all hit good sized fish but were unable to best our biggest catches. As the sun began to set we called it a day.  With our arms sore and our backs aching, we took in the sights as we sped back to the island for buffet of local Maldivian cuisine that awaited us back at the guest house.

Reflections

It had been a grueling trip that was both physical and mentally challenging. We had to force ourselves to make the extra cast when the bite was slow under the scorching sun. The GTs power truly pushed our limits. Without the quality of the tackle used we would have lost a fair share of fish we hooked up. The rods performed better than expected and will be put to the test next in New Caledonia. The stick baits held up well despite repeated attacks from these predatory fish. The design and functionality of the lure are well balanced for the intended application. As the plane flies over the islands I can’t help but look forward to my next encounter with the Mighty Maldivian GTs.  

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