Conflict in PNG

Report by Damon Olsen Feb 2014
 

Click Here to checkout the short film from our January Exploratory Trip

I received a message in early 2013 from the manager of a group of 22 privately owned islands in a remote area of PNG, asking if we might like to work with him and the Islands Owner to establish a sportfishing operation at these islands. Hmmmm? let me see……well yes that might be of some interest I said, with an understated tone belying my total excitement and eagerness at the possibility. Upon some quick and brief research I discovered that the area he was talking about was somewhere that I had drooled over for many years on Google Earth, wondering what the fishing might be like, but putting it out of my mind as too logistically difficult to ever operate charters there. My research also showed that the first white fellow to ever lay eyes on the area, which was very recently in the early 1900’s, decided it was such a top place, and being uninhabited(or so he said), that he would petition the British Government to buy the island group, and even though the Brits were apparently only leasing island groups at this time for 100 year terms(because apparently leasing them kept the natives much happier than allowing some lord to buy them outright!! wow…who’d have guessed that?), he knew the right fellows in the aristocracy and was able to buy the whole group of islands outright for bugger all. Amazing… got to wonder about that old British attitude! The area  in question is technically either an Archipelago or large Atoll, but a bloody big area with a lot of islands, and rather than get bogged down trying to understand the finer details of how it was that one individual might have come to actually own all of these islands, I was immediately overwhelmed at the possibilities this might present.   Are there people living on these islands? Has the place ever really been fished before? is there any commercial fishing pressure around these islands? is there any netting been done on the incredible looking expanse of flats? Are there access issues? are there issues getting food, fuel and supplies into the island?  When the answers came back as no to all the above myself and Nick got very interested in this area and started serious discussions with Matt about what might happen here and more importantly what he might be able to tell us about the fishing available. We also got the answer of “yes” when we asked about black bass and barra fishing options, although this is not done at the islands of course, there is the ability to access some very remote areas in transit, however this is another topic for a few months time once we’ve checked it out, but suffice to say the option may exist for those who are interested. Matt very humbly said that he wasn’t any kind of expert, but they were just getting busted off by everything using 50W tiagras around the reef edge and could only really land big yellowfin tuna of 40-70kg, but that these and spanish mackerel and wahoo were in plague proportions around the islands. So, just to recap at this point, we’ve got a group of islands, with nobody living there, that have been privately owned for the past 110 years, with plagues of big fish apparently living there, and nobody has ever really tried fishing here for GTs, or jigging for doggies, or looking on any of the amazing looking flats for bonefish, humphead parrot and all the other  fish that might live here.

Nick taking a selfie while charging across the lagoon in search of new ground (L to R) Benny, Johnny and Damon.

OK, any more questions? Where’s the airport, and when do we leave?….Nick and I decided after……well, lets see we did discuss it for about 8 seconds, that we might just need to go and cast a few poppers here and see what happens!! We garnered as much info as we could from Matt, the lodge manager, about this place we had now come to know as the Conflict Islands, and assembled a team of exploratory anglers for a trip in March 2014. But of course when Matt gave us very short notice that the Owner would like to have us come and meet and fish with him in late January 2014, who were we to argue! A quickfire exploratory team was assembled in days comprising Benny Godfrey along to film, and Johnny Flare along to help scope the place out and we were away. So, what happened? I hear everyone ask. The short story is that the fishing is amazing(despite a cyclone forming to the south!) the lodge is stunning, we negotiated with the Owner to have 8 weeks exclusive access here per year to conduct fishing charters, with no other fishing taking place outside of the owners personal activities for a few weeks per year. We can’t wait to get back there in March to check the place out even further. It looks like June/July will be our first scheduled trips here for 2014. As a side note it is worth mentioning that this area is too far north to be effected by cyclones, although if they form to the south in can create overcast conditions and moderate west winds, but a cyclone has never formed within 200 miles of this area in known history.

Warning - don't look this up on google or you will be forced to come, it just looks so fishy!

These islands are actually  an Archipelago, or maybe a large Atoll, but either way,  at first I didn’t even understand how a wealthy Englishman could actually own an entire group of 22 islands, but that’s another story. To get to these islands you fly into Port Moresby, which in itself is pretty isolated, and then you get on another plane and fly to somewhere that’s even more isolated a few hours away, and then you get on a boat and steam 90 miles further to the East through some of the most ruggedly beautiful islands that you can imagine, all the while looking around and trying to understand how it is that it is a Sunday afternoon, and there are simply no boats around, no people on any of the islands, and really not much of anything happening except a beautiful and rugged scenery unfolding as you cruise seaward. We arrived at the main island, bathed in bright sunshine and hot, hot humid conditions, to be greeted by something that looked simply surreal. 6 private bungalows hidden in the native palms, just behind the perfect white beach, and overlooking the crystal clear lagoon waters. There was a main guest house/lodge building that we soon found was the main eating area, lounge and kitchen, as well as staff accommodation downstairs. The lodge itself is truly stunning, and a testament to the Owners ability to work with the locals to create something that blends with the local surrounds, but captures the essence of a tropical oasis. Surreal really is the only word that we could come up with to describe our feelings before we set off for our first late arvo fish. After arriving at about 2pm, we were keen of course for an arvo fish. Rods were quickly rigged and we headed to the closest entrance to the lodge to see what we could find. Of course, we didn’t even get to where we were going as we were stopped by a shoal of rippling fusiliers, and literally the first cast of the whole trip Nick was into a 20kg GT in glass calm water. Nice start!! This was the start of a crazy afternoon session where the 2 hrs of fishing we had, all within sight of the lodge proved that the surface lure casting had exceptional potential around these islands, and it was clear the fish had never before see a lure, or at least had no memory of one if they had! Nick hooked up a GT well over 40kg and was demolished in the shallow coral reef within seconds of hookup, might have been a one way 10 second fight that one. The doggies were prolific, although not huge, and the airborne spanish mackerel were also making themselves known. The usual plagues of really big red bass and sharks told us this was an exceptionally healthy ecosystem. We had to fit around the Owners schedule the next few days and used a variety of boats to explore the reef flats, and edges. The tides were less than ideal for wading the flats and the overcast conditions that moved in made this very hard work, but the structure is there to offer exceptional flats fishing, once the tides and currents are better understood. We’d expect to see some bonefish here, and good numbers of GTs on the flats along with large hump headed parrot fish. The GT popper fishing around the reef edges proved to be very good, certainly no better than what we have on the Barrier Reef, but of a similar quality, although time fishing here over the next year will make this distinction clear. We only did just enough GT fishing to confirm there were good numbers of fish, but with the best fish landed not far short of 40kg, and a couple of big ones lost, for relatively little effort, we were happy to give the GT fishing a big tick of approval. And when you consider the dogtooth tuna bycatch on surface lures, there are obviously a lot of doggies here! With the GT and surface lure fishing “approved” we did spend a lot of time on the flats looking for activity, but conditions were adverse to be kind, and these investigations yielded not much more than a few small trevally and a great understanding of the local reef structure. The jigging was a total surprise for us, and with the very little we did, it is safe to say there is exceptional light tackle plastics fishing in the lagoon, and also some exceptional deep water jigging for dogtooth tuna. We literally jigged for about 3-4 hrs in the whole week, and it was constant action with doggies and trout, and very few sharks. However, i think if we jigged some of the deeper reef passages we would find large doggies and numbers of sharks as well. We also found time to have a troll and we quickly found that there are lots of sailfish in the 20-30kg size range cruising around the edge of the reef, and around the reef passages. I think we will find times of the year, most likely winter, when these are in plague proportions. And I must mention the day where we met up with the Owner and his friends on a small islet in the middle of the lagoon for lunch, which can only be described as a tropical banquet served and assembled by the chef and his team, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Sitting in the middle of a completely isolated island sipping a cold beer and eating my gourmet hamburger, and chatting to Nick about where our next GT or bonefish might appear from, I realised that this place was pretty good! The yellowfin tuna were around, but not in numbers, and not in huge sizes. We caught a couple of 20kg models throwing poppers, but it was easy to see from talking to the local staff on the island that winter was the yellowfin tuna and wahoo season, and that 100lb ‘fin were commonplace at this time of year, in fact they made it sound like plague proportions was a more apt description. We also spent a day exploring a tiny part of the huge mass of reef to the south of the conflicts group, and we had patches of amazing fishing down here, but literally we fished there for about 4 hours between tropical downpours and the like, but long enough to see that once we figure out the currents and where the fish hang on these reefs, this huge mass of reef will ensure we never run out of places to explore around the Conflict islands. This place will be a GT and dogtooth factory, and the light tackle action on the reef flats was crazy for the small part we experienced. This mass of reef to the south of the Conflicts is uninhabited, and the scattered islands are both beautiful and totally untouched. From what we can see, the  only real way to access this huge southern reef complex is from the Conflict islands, otherwise a mothership type operation might be required to safely operate in this area. The reality of just how remote these islands are is difficult to convey in words, but the sesnse of isolation is complete once you are there on the water. For anglers who love exploring and fishing really untouched areas, this feeling is priceless, and myself, Nick, John and Benny felt like this for many days in this area. So, how do we summarise this location, and where does it fit into the Nomad Charter schedule. Well, check out the Conflict Islands web page for up to date details, but after a very short time here, we have a lot to learn about the area, and it’s going to be a heap of fun checking it out over the next few years. The big appeal for us is that the owner does not want a lot of activity here, and we can operate 6-8 weeks of trips here each year, and fit this in nicely with our existing charter schedule. So how is it that the Owner is happy to just have 6-8 weeks of fishing trips run here each year? He has realised that he cannot adequately look after the islands while spending only 3-4 weeks per year at his lodge. In order to properly protect these islands and keep them pristine, there needs to be a small level of activity, and a physical presence on the islands, for a reasonable part of the year. Low impact activities such as scuba diving, catch and release fishing and a small amount of general tourism will help protect the islands through limited use. The owner has therefore decided to allocate a number of weeks to fishing, and some other weeks to diving, in order to help with maintenance costs at the lodge and keep the local staff busy. From a Nomad Sportfishing point of view, the fishing is different enough to our other locations that we won’t be “doubling up” on the types of options available. I truly do not expect the fishing here to surpass what we already fish on the GBR and Coral sea, but it provides a number of different angling and lodging options that our mothership trips do not cater for, and therefore offers a point of difference that justifies having this location as part of our schedule. One of the key issues with a lodge is usually that the area around the lodge gets fished out when you try and operate enough weeks to make it financially viable. This is not a concern with this lodge, and between the 6-8 weeks of fishing and 6-8 weeks of diving charters each year the owner is more than happy, so overfishing around the lodge will never be an issue, and this is something we are so happy about. Staying at a lodge, where you are land based, and come back to an air conditioned bungalow each night is very comfortable, and it provides a relaxed feel to the trip, making it more suitable for couples than many of our Mothership destinations. So what’s the downside? Well….there really isn’t one. I’m honestly trying to find one, because so far it all just seems to work incredibly well and it’s got everything you could ever want in a remote fishing lodge, including not getting much fishing pressure each year. You have to stay a night in Moresby at one end of the trip, and that’s average, but other than that, the access is relatively straightforward(for an island in the middle of nowhere!) and no more difficult than any other trip we do. You should come on one of these exploratory trips if:-
  • You love exploring new and untouched places, and really appreciate going somewhere unique.
  • You appreciate the adventure of a trip, and the location and surroundings as much as what you catch
  • You like any type of GT fishing, yellowfin tuna on poppers, deepwater jigging, sailfish/marlin trolling, flyfishing the flats or really any type of general light tackle sportfishing.
  • You want to help us search the flats for bonefish and large humpheaded parrot in winter 2014.
  • Or, if you are a couple looking for a trip, then this location is ideal.
It’s likely that we can run 4 trips here in 2014, with 6-8 people per trip, and then between 6-8 trips in 2015. Places really are very limited for this location, and we do not have the ability to simply run more trips as demand increases, so if you would like to be one of the first people to ever fish the Conflict Islands I would suggest getting organised for one of the trips in 2014, because the opportunity to be amongst the first to fish these type of places is an increasingly rare event.

Sunset from the front deck, looking down the path towards our bungalows

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