A Proper Occupation

Story By Joe Koehly

Photos: Nick Kelley / Location: Seychelles Islands

“I don’t fish. I take people fishing,” points out JT while sorting flies and refining his kit on the kitchen table. “I get to instruct people and watch them light up, but I spend more time standing on a platform on a boat than I do walking around. Hey, Joe,” he says turning to me, interrupting himself, “how many 12-weights did Keith say to bring?”


Giant trevally have a reputation for doing major damage to 12-weight fly rods, reels, and accompanying tackle – something salt anglers on the gulf don’t have to worry about, either the fish or the damage. They’re extremely aggressive feeders and when they attack a fly, it’s like a car wreck. Even David Mangum, a tarpon addict who knows a tough fight, isn’t battling fish like these.


Our trip to the Seychelles is on the horizon and I’m checking in with our guys, comparing packing lists, and talking for hours on end in anticipation. “Three weeks is a long time, man,” says Alvin, his gear spread across the workbench in his garage. Ask anyone and they’d agree; Alvin is smooth water – nothing rattles him. But the idea of a 14-hour flight? “I try not to think about it,” he says, laughing. January is the off season in Texas and Florida, and JT, Alvin, and Mangum have been keeping their hands busy tying flies – everyone’s frothing for GTs and permit.


A lot of people in North America associate fly fishing with trout, but Alvin Dedeaux has made a career fly fishing for bass, among other species, and has essentially established warm-water fly-fishing culture in central Texas. In 2016 we signed Alvin and JT Van Zandt as YETI Ambassadors within a few months of each other. These are two of the most respected fly-fishing guides in the south and they reside right in our own backyard. They were no-brainers for this team.


Before I met Mangum, I’d seen him in a fly fishing video. There was a moment in the video when his angler hooks a tarpon and David is stomping on the deck and screaming, “Clear the line! Clear the line!” with such intensity that I thought, “That looks incredible. But maybe I should fish with a few other guides before him.” Over the years he’s earned a name for himself as a premier tarpon guide in Florida and is still as intense as ever.


But it wasn’t until a tradeshow in 2017 that JT, Alvin, and David were together, and I connected the dots that they’re good friends who go way back. I was kind of blown away, but I shouldn’t have been. There’s not much coincidence in each of these hard working, talented anglers, and well-respected guys, each becoming top tier guides and YETI Ambassadors.


“I remember meeting JT,” Alvin recalls. “I guess he’d been learning to cast on a fly rod while his leg was broken and Larry from the Austin Angler, the fly shop where I was working, had told him to find me. JT comes in and says ‘Hey you’re Alvin. Larry said we should go fishin’. And I was like, ‘Alright, cool.’”


“We’d drive down to the coast and catch some fish, drink, stay up all night. Then wake up with the stereo still blasting Bad Brains, and run out and start fishing again. The funny thing was that for the longest time I thought JT was this quiet, kinda mellow, kinda shy dude. But that was so wrong. I figured that out after a couple fishing trips,” Alvin says, laughing.


David came into the picture a few years later. “They’re a couple years older than me, but they let me into their inner circle because they saw in me that rabid need to fish all the time, any moment I could. And they’re the same way,” recalls David. “It was the early 90s, we were young and partying, and getting up early, hungover down on the coast to go fishing any chance we could.”


This trip is a chance to revisit the old times, and, for about three weeks straight, fish all day and stay up all night. Except now, they’re “older and slower and more beat up,” according to David.


Arriving at JFK before our longest flight, it’s hard to believe this is really happening. I’m standing in line to clear security with some of my personal fly-fishing heroes and friends. I love to fly fish, but it is not a passion that I’ve turned into a career as a guide, and I’m a middling angler at best. Yet here I am, joining them on this epic adventure and getting to witness these longstanding friendships up close. Never have I been on a fly-fishing trip with this much energy and excitement, and with this caliber of fly anglers and quality individuals.


“We started this sport together about 28 years ago or so,” says JT tucking his passport away as we walk through the crowded terminal. “But we’d lost contact for about a decade. Dave went around the world, to Puerto Rico and Alaska, and he ended up guiding in Florida. Alvin spent years in Colorado before he got tired of the cold and started guiding on the Guadalupe in the Texas Hill Country for bass and trout,” he continues. “So I’m just looking forward to having a good time together; I’m not hyper-focused on catching fish,” he says.


“Bullshit” I think, laughing. You don’t last as a 30-year career guide without being a little competitive – even if it’s just wanting to succeed and do your best. They’ve all got a lot of respect for each other, but we’ve been together for all of ten minutes and the group is already hassling and screwing with each other. So, despite the presumably genuine feeling that they just want to have a good time, I know this is going to be a fun but competitive few weeks.


For any saltwater fly angler, fishing in the Seychelles is a bucket list trip. But is it actually on any of our bucket lists? Of course, but not really. It’s not so much a goal as it is a fantasy. As Alvin puts it, fly fishing in the Seychelles is “like Everest for mountain climbers – most people ain’t ever gonna be there. And I’m most people.”


Before I know it we’re tripled up – all of us with the fish of our dreams before we've even had breakfast.


It’s a premier destination because it’s just so unique – find Madagascar on a map, zoom way in and you’ll find these specks of land just north of it. Keep zooming in. These tiny atolls are in the middle of the Indian Ocean surrounded by nothing, with incredible flats fishing, blue water fishing, and unheard-of biodiversity. But to be here, you have to earn it.


For Alvin, David, and JT, earning it has come in the form of years of hard work and sacrifice as guides. To no one’s surprise, social media has a way of making guiding look like a breezy life spent doing what you love. But you can’t just up and decide one day that you’re going to be a guide for a living, then make it last for three decades. The public has to agree – they have to book you. People want legitimacy, and that comes from years and years of hard work, discipline, and sacrifice. And if you own your own business, you’re also the secretary, accountant, and mechanic. Not to mention, these guys are also parents – so they’re carving out time for family between the 200-some-odd days a year on the water. JT wisely advises, “Don’t let your passion be your first choice for an occupation.” However, without passion, it can’t be done. At least not done well.


You also earn being in the Seychelles because it is just so remote. We left on a Monday and didn’t start fishing until Friday. Travel-weary as we are from short flights, long flights, more short flights, boat travel, and time zone changes, we may not know what day it is, but we know we are fishing in the morning.


Keith Rose-Innes, managing director of this whole outfit and our newest YETI Ambassador, shows us to our cabins – uniquely constructed shipping containers repurposed as eco-lodging. The bird life, mangroves, and views over the lagoon are incredible; it feels more remote and pristine than anywhere I’ve ever been. Right away everyone dives into their gear. Rod rigging, loop reinforcement, and fly swapping begin. Tequila flows, dinner is served, stories are told, and the next thing I know it’s morning and I’m stumbling over the white sand to scrounge a cup of coffee and prepare for the first day on the flats.


Coffee in hand in the empty dining tent, I’m wondering where everyone is. Next thing I hear all this hooting and hollering in the water – David and JT are each hooked up to GTs just 30 yards away from the tent! I put my coffee down, grab my 12 weight, and sprint toward the water just in time to see an 80 cm geet headed down the beach! I send my brush fly into the water and before I know it we’re tripled up – all of us with the fish of our dreams before we’ve even had breakfast.


Over the next few days we deal with some tough conditions. The tides are good; the weather, however, is not great. As guides, these guys have faced their fair share of poor conditions. Unless they’re are facing imminent death, they’re are out on the flats – some of the best days fishing are the ones when you choose to go and everyone else stays home. On this trip, no one on this trip is staying “home.”


A GT coming toward you on the flats is a rush – and we’re all after that. But really, we’re after anything that will eat. Because of its incredible biodiversity, the Seychelles is a premier destination for salt anglers. Our friend, guide, and fellow YETI Ambassador Jako Lucas, has been coming here for over a decade and still sees new and unique species each trip.


The next morning, we all split up with different guides – so we don’t really know how the others are doing until we connect back later in the afternoon. “Tough conditions out there today,” David says, cleaning his somewhat useless polarized sunglasses as we meet up. I fully agree, but can’t help laughing a little bit, and get to share the news by asking, “You hear JT’s one fish away from the Golden Grand Slam?” “Son of a …” he says, frustrated. “What’s he missing?”


By the end of the day, JT’s still only got four out of the five in the Golden Grand Slam – the milkfish just wasn't cooperating.


“Listen up, chaps, the almost-impossible and highly coveted achievement of catching GT, permit, triggerfish, bonefish, and milkfish in a single day is known here as the Golden Grand Slam,” Keith explained when we first arrived on Cosmoledo. Right now, JT’s only missing a milkfish.


By the time we’re gathering around at the end of the day, JT’s still only got four out of five – the milkfish just not cooperating. David’s giving him a little shit - no Golden Slam, not today, pal. This is our first “fines meeting” – when we regroup at dinner on the day’s highlights, sharing stories and getting “fined” for any screw-ups. On Cosmo a fine looks like a shot of tequila, and there’s no negotiating with Keith on this. More often than not he’ll take one with you. There’s a lot of ceremony around celebrating what we caught. Head guide Cameron Musgrave would award these little wooden buttons to represent different fish you caught, along with a ring of the bell, and, of course, a shot of tequila. We’ve all had a great second day of fishing on Cosmoledo which amounts to lots of wooden buttons, and lots of tequila.


We’re about a week in now and still wrapping our heads around this place. There are sea turtles everywhere. Huge tortoises on land, and so many kinds of birds that never really see people, so they’re not afraid. “I still can’t get over the colors of the water” Alvin remarks. “When you see it from above, the water is turquoise, almost fluorescent blue, but when you’re in the water, it’s really that color. It’s pretty otherworldly.”


The Texas flats that Alvin and JT are used to, you can motor around and feel pretty safe. But out here, as soon as you cross the reef, you’re in the middle of the ocean. It goes from maybe 20-30 feet deep in the lagoon to over 1000 feet deep in a stone’s throw distance. “It’s pretty terrifying, especially if you’re in a small boat,” Alvin says, adding that Keith and Devan (Keith’s right-hand man) are essentially having to catch a wave and surf these boats back over the reef. “They’re navigating like it’s nothing, but it’s not nothing.”


Back in the relative safety of the flats, Alvin and Devan see birds diving in the distance and turn the skiff that direction. They jump out, high step through the water, and start casting big, giant poppers toward the wolfpack of GT’s patrolling the borderland near the surf. Devan’s pretty far away and starts yelling – this big, brute of a specimen is facing directly at Alvin not more than 20 feet away, cutting a wake. I see the GT come in like a torpedo and just smash the popper on the surface, engulfing it and immediately turning and make a break for the ocean!


JT and Devan both start running toward Alvin. He’s palming the reel – this fish is bound and determined to go over the reef and back out to deep water. JT’s running interference, Devan’s up to his neck, and all hell is breaking loose. Yet somehow they got it back to the shallows and landed it. As Keith would say, that’s a proper fish.


“I’ve never experienced a fish like that. I’ll never forget that one,” says Alvin later, shaking his head and laughing.


Safe to say, that goes for just about everything on this trip. Every day is something entirely new, exhausting, exhilarating, and just special to be part of. But I’m not looking back yet – right now we’re all looking forward to handing Alvin a few celebratory tequila shots. After all, his is the biggest catch of the trip so far – but who’s counting?

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