I traveled to Samoa in late March for a week of exploratory fly fishing with Australian professional angler Jonathan Jones. Both of us were hopeful about the fishery—it looked promising on maps, with wide, sweeping flats dropping off steeply past the reef edge to cuts that just look fishy. I confess to getting a little giddy on the turbulence-ridden airplane ride in from Auckland.
Halfway through the week, we were less than happy. The fishery, as it turned out, was largely fished-out. Sometimes it happens; Jonathan and I have both fished around the world enough to know this. But, damn, it’s not fun when it does.
We made the most of it, putting in long hours on the flats and in the blue water. By the end of the week, we had a few fish to hand, but, as is so often the case, the true value of the trip was meeting new people and exploring a gem of a country. Jonathan went home to the Great Barrier Reef to chase fish in waters he knows. I returned home to Montana and spent a solo day on my favorite stretch of home water, where a fat rainbow trout grabbed my fly on the third cast.
Photo: Jungle and ocean—there’s not much in between. Jonathan casts out in the channel between the two islands that comprise Samoa (Upolu and Savai’i), where little islands dot the open waters of the Pacific. After bringing up a few mahi-mahi in deeper water, we move to a reef edge in hopes of hunting up a few giant trevally. Nearby storm cells had offered a bumpy ride further out, but nestling between small islands the ride—and the casting opportunities—improve.To-Sua Ocean Trench, or just “The Trench,” as the locals call it, consists of two giant holes joined by a lava tube cave. The pool, almost 100 feet down, is accessed by a steep, slick ladder not for the faint-hearted. Strong currents mean the pool is limited to strong swimmers, though a few ropes offer guidance for the less confident. After stepping off a plane and 40 hours travel, within two hours I was submerged in the Trench.This cool freshwater stream flowed from the jungle into the lagoon, prompting an exploratory wade to see what species might be waiting further inland. We saw a few fish, but they seemed uninterested in Jonathan’s offerings. The Australian angler is used to fishing the productive waters around Sydney Harbor, so the selective fish proved a source of intense frustration.We worked with various locals, none of whom were professional guides or anglers, to try new angles. Aidi (right), a chef from Papua New Guinea working at a nearby resort, joined us for a few days. The day started out golden and clear, but by mid-morning the team was caught in a gut-wrenching squall. We continued to fish, catching one wahoo after a long morning of seasickness.Jonathan and Aidi cast along a promising drop-off not far from a small island while I shot from some distance off in the water. No fish came to play, but while editing that night, I noticed in the next camera frame a decent-size fin along the bottom of the image.Giant trevally, a burly, voracious fish species that have been known to reach over 150 pounds, cruised through schools of baitfish, unheeding to any flies we threw at them. The large fish were spooky though few and far between, and once we knew they frequented a certain place, we began experimenting to see if we could catch them off guard. Dawn, dusk, nighttime, midday, high tide, low tide—the GTs were often not present, but when they were, they were stubbornly uninterested.With temperatures ranging close to 100 degrees every day and an undrinkable water supply, bottled water and juices are critical rations. While outrunning a storm and hunting for giant trevally, Jonathan fuels up on Samoan orange juice, which is sweeter than what most of us are accustomed to. Downing drinks on a choppy day is an acquired talent.It’s all well and good until the lightning starts popping and you’re in a metal boat in the middle of a churning sea. Jonathan and Fatu, a chieftain’s son who happens to own a boat, watch the swells as we work to move upwind of the storm. Less than ten minutes later we were in the clear and connected with another leap-happy mahi-mahi.One of several mahi-mahi to come to hand during the team’s final day in Samoa. Fatu knows where to go for fish and doesn’t let foul weather deter him. While the mahi weren’t trophy-sized, they were healthy and good fighters. After a week with few fish, both of us were more than happy to see them.Wade fishing along the coast often means trudging through the jungle, sliding through mud wallows, and sliding along slick volcanic rock. Arriving at the water warrants celebration each time, though at this particular location we’re greeted by skittish little blacktip sharks and unproductive waters.Wading in the water is one thing, walking miles of beach in 100-degree heat is another. Sometimes, even hot water tastes amazing.Everything runs a little late in Samoa—cars drive at a glacially slow pace, petrol can be hard to find, and in case you’re short on dinner, there are stringers of fish for sale by the side of the road. Palm trees, a boat, and open water: a recipe for something good.Scrawled on one side of this outrigger is the word “Rasta.” On the other side, “Rambo.” Rasta Rambo rides effortlessly through swells that would have been a challenge for many small motorboats.The lagoons are inhabited by random bursts of color nestled amongst the coral — vibrant blue starfish, tiny cerulean reef fish, jolly green parrotfish, and a host of other species. When the fishing is slow, time to appreciate the other denizens of the sea.I dipped below the swells to photograph a mahi-mahi caught during an offshore session. The vibrant fish is well-known for its green-yellow coloring, bright blue spots and arching, sail-like dorsal fin.When Jonathan met a woman whose husband did tattoos, he couldn’t resist. We spent the afternoon in Christina’s home with her parents, her four children, her siblings, a few dogs, and a random chicken while her husband etched a permit—a popular saltwater game fish—on Jonathan’s leg.