Ascension To Heaven | Ellis Brazier

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It probably seems strange to read this piece in a carp magazine, because the story I am about to tell has no talk of carp whatsoever. What I’m writing about is far removed from our beloved green land and its mixture of wonderful freshwater lakes, meres, pits, canals, rivers and ponds. The total opposite is certainly more appropriate. Indeed, which sort of land harbours place names such as The Devil’s Ash Pit, Mars Bay, Comfortless Cove, Dead Man’s Cove, and The Devil’s Cauldron? Certainly not a place where carp swim. So, which land am I talking about?

The land is the island of Ascension, a British colonial island made up of native St Helenians and both our armed forces and the American’s. Its location is in the equatorial waters of the South Atlantic, approximately 1,000 miles from Africa and 1,400 miles from Brazil, so it’s roughly about halfway across the South Atlantic. Its 34 square miles of land supports a very modest 800 people, and the only way to gain access to this speck of volcanic rock in one huge ocean is to fly from the British air base at Brize Norton on a military flight. Logistically, this island is not the easiest place to get to for a civilian – and why would a civilian want to get there?

It’s fish, my piscatorial friends, FISH – and lots of them! Our army and the American army are based on this rather convenient island staging-post to the South Atlantic, and they obviously like to keep the place private. So private, in fact, that they have a monitored 200-mile excursion zone around the island, which prohibits any commercial fishing vessels, or any other vessels for that matter, from entering. Therefore, the only fishing that takes place is by local rod and line fishermen, who feed the inhabitants of the island. 

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This creates a situation almost unparalleled on this grossly overpopulated planet, where the sea still resembles what it should be like before we overfished it. From the shore out, the clear waters of Ascension are literally black with fish (the local trigger fish are jet-black), and there are thousands upon thousands of bait fish, so I think you can guess what comes for dinner.

I am a carp angler at heart, but as anyone who knows me will testify, I am happy to target every sort of fish which swims. I just simply love fishing – carp, coarse, game and sea – the lot. Sea fish especially excite me for their sheer aggressiveness and power. If you live in the sea, you are part of the food chain, and this shows in the brutal power from some of its bigger predators, fish so powerful that they destroy even the heaviest of fishing tackle in seconds. 

I have been fortunate to catch some wonderful fish from a good few places on this earth, and I consider myself up for a challenge and adventure, but what I had heard about Ascension made my insides start to tingle. Ascension and its fishing intrigued me, and the more I tried to find out about it, the less information there seemed to be available. It was time to get out there and find out for myself, and see if these rumours were true.

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Planning

Unlike most destinations you can fish on this planet, Ascension has no organised trips where you can buy a package deal. This leaves quite a lot of pre-planning to be done. Firstly, flights have to be sourced and booked direct with Brize Norton through the Air Force. Only around a dozen civilian places are allocated on each plane, and, as you can imagine, they don’t fly as often as a Thomson charter plane to Tenerife. One plane every four  days makes the journey down to the Falkland Islands, stopping off to refuel at Ascension on the way there and the way back – and that’s if it’s on time or has bothered to make the journey! 

Accommodation is a bit simpler, as there is only one hotel (in the loosest possible terms) on the island. If the MOD contractors are not present, then, generally, the hotel should be fairly quiet. Unless you want to fish solely from the shore, boats also have to be sourced and booked. Through social media, the Internet, and word of mouth from some friends who had lived on the island, a number of boats were hired for different days, all providing different styles of fishing.

The rest was mainly guesswork. All items of tackle had to be researched and purchased, from line to hooks, and rods through to reels. The species of fish were also researched so we could try to match the equipment needed, but Ascension is hard to cater for because, every so often, the waters off this island throw up exceptionally huge fish. Fish which you can only dream of.

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A night flight takes you down to Ascension, and as we came through an impressive electric storm crackling around the equator, all I could see as the sun came up was water. In fact, just two minutes before touchdown, all I could see was water, which shows how small and isolated this island is. In truth, Ascension looks like Mars. Red dust and volcanic rock suggest just how young this island must be in geological terms. But I wasn’t there to sightsee; I was there to fish.

Expectations were high as we set out to board the first of our eight boat sessions. The harbour at Ascension is simply just a jetty built from stone. There are no walkways to the boat on this rugged coastline, even at the harbour. All the fishing boats are at moorings a few hundred yards off shore, and transportation to your chosen craft is by small boats that pick up from the steps at the head of the pier. The interesting thing about the Ascension pier is that due to the swell often being large, there are Tarzan swings provided so you can swing into the skiff as the shuttle boat skipper clings on to the other ropes like someone fighting for their life. It isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it sure is an exciting way of starting any trip. 

Motor time to the fishing grounds is what you would call minimal. Literally, as you leave the mooring, you can start to troll lures because the island’s underwater topography takes one serious dive into the Atlantic abyss. Ten minutes later, we reached a collection of old barrels bobbing around in the dark-blue water. This is a mooring for tuna, and the local way to catch these sought after fish. Basically, the boat is tied to the fixed anchor point, and once it swings around into the flow of the tide, you start to chum. 

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Chunks of oily fish are fed freely over the side, causing a controlled flow of feed and flavour to slowly sink through the depths as it is carried away by the tidal flow. Great pride is taken by each individual fisherman that their rate of feeding attracts more tuna than others. It’s more likely that the frequency depends on how much bait they have, and how much you have paid. Either way, as you hook up a frozen herring and lower it over the side, your heart starts to pump at an ever-increasing rate. 

Again, the setup is simplicity; just the main line down to a hook, or, if using braid, then a mono or fluorocarbon leader of roughly 120lb. I appreciate that to most people reading this, 120lb line sounds excessively heavy, but in this part of the world, this strength of line can part like hair braid. Once the hook and bait are lowered over the side, and about 20 or so yards of line are let out, the rod is tied into the rod holder (yes, tied) and the drag set to give line under tension. On a good day, when large numbers of tuna are present, the water around the chum trial is said to flash with silver as they close in on the free feed.

While the tuna rigs fish freely in this way, you are at leisure to jig (fish heavy-leaded lures close to, or on the bottom) or pop (rip floating lures bigger than two hands put together through the surface film). The choice is yours, and my angling friend aboard decided to have a go with a jig.

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Four-hundred feet takes a while to get even a 20oz lure down to the bottom. I watched him close the pickup as the line finally stopped spinning from the open spool, and wondered just what might be lurking at those depths. He didn’t even get the chance to pick up the speed of his jerky retrieve. The rod simply stopped, kicked heavily, and then went into full battle curve. I would like to tell you about how he bravely hauled up a giant of the depths for all to see, but even though I helped by fighting the fish for over 50 minutes to give him a rest, by the time the line parted, it was going dark and our first 4-hour trip was coming to an end. One drop-down had resulted in over 3 hours of pain for him, and we never even got close to seeing the fish.

Just to add a little spice to the evening, my tuna rod nodded and shuddered and then whipped into life. The initial run was simply insane, and as I started to consider just how much of my 100lb braid was left on the spool, the captain announced that I should get the fish in quick before the tax man arrived (aka a shark). As the run slowed I pumped for my life, and even though I had a naïve hope that I was going to win this battle and hold my first yellowfin tuna, reality once again kicked in. As the acrobatic dives of the energetic tuna stopped, an almighty and dark force took over. I have never experienced a force so strong on the end of a line, and I was immediately pulled onto the gunnel, with the rod looking like it was about to explode. Fortunately, just as I thought my arms were going to be released into the South Atlantic, along with my rod, everything went slack. The line had been severed through. The tax man had come back for his pay!

We released the boat from the mooring and started to head back towards the lights on the island. In the inky blackness, the truth started to dawn. On Ascension at this time of year, once darkness falls, hundreds of green turtles make their journeys from the sea to find dry sand and lay their eggs. These turtles are huge – some weighing over 400lb – and with the turtles come the creatures which prey on them. We had just met two, one near the bottom in almost 400ft of water and the other nearer the top. Fish so large and powerful that they eat giant turtles and inhale 50lb tuna as aperitifs. We had a lot to learn, and fast! 

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Days Two and Three

The island is small and there are only a handful of people staying there, so you quickly get to meet most of the local folk. The very hospitable Saints bar was situated just over from my temporary residence, so in the interests of foreign relations, I had been sampling some of the culture and refreshment on offer in this establishment. This meant that I had already met most of the fishermen I was due to fish with that week, especially the two captains my fishing companion and I were due to fish with for the next two full days. They were both enthusiastic watermen who obviously knew the waters of Ascension, so once again our spirits were high. The pre-night brief was to go heavy for the tuna and get them in as fast as possible if we got a hit. It’s not the sort of sporting angling a couple of Shropshire carp anglers enjoy, but time and money had been invested and some reward would be nice.

The mornings are rather warm around Ascension, and the afternoons are absolutely frying. On a 20ft boat with no shade, you soon start to appreciate just how much you don’t want to spend the last of your days adrift with no water, as some poor mariners have done. Couple this searing heat with working large lures on the surface, or near the bottom, and your energy soon starts to ebb. The fishing was good though, and we started to tick off a few target species. Amber and black jacks fell to all presentations fished towards the bottom, while the top water lures and baits produced rainbow runners and oceanic triggers. Our dream of tuna was realised with two small 25-30lb fish caught on chum and lures.

I was starting to get my confidence back after the mauling of the first evening, and as we pulled into the current and started another drift downtide, I dropped a large leaded jig far down into the sapphire water. As I quickly worked the lure off the bottom in erratic and speedy jerks, I felt a heavy and determined bite rip line from my tight clutch. The captain seemed to pick up on the speed of this take, and immediately shouted, “TUNA!” The fight was on, and boy, what a fight. Once again, I was pulled towards the gunnel of the boat causing me to sit uncomfortably on the engine housing but allowing me to slam my feet against the side of the boat for extra leverage. I leant back to put as much pressure on the fish as I could, in an attempt to slow its growing momentum and power. As the flexible jig rod took on a curve that made your eyes water, I honestly feared that the rod was about to be torn from my grasp.

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The sight and sound of the ceramic line guides disintegrating and popping out of there metal housing with the pressure of the fish is a noise and sensation that was new to me! Much the same as when the short rod stated exploding every six inches or so towards the handle. Seconds ago, I was elated at the feeling of hooking into a monster of the deep but now I was just trying to survive and save my rather expensive Shimano reel. As the last of the carbon from my rod splintered and slid off down the taught braid into the south Atlantic leaving me with only a handle and a screaming reel our captain Mario leant over and cut my braid with his knife. It was the only thing to do! This fight wasn’t going to be won on a hand line and at least I still had my reel and fingers.

After giving us just a small piece of its sweet and plentiful harvest the deep cruel waters of Ascension had once again showed us exactly who was boss. It seemed like one step forwards equalled two steps back: just as with any fishing session for any species in any location you have a limited amount of time to play with, and if you want to stand a chance of landing those dream fish you must solve the problems FAST.

With my tail firmly between my legs I retreated to the shallow bays and reefs of the shoreline. Surface lure fishing was hectic with jacks and grouper falling almost every cast to the poppers and pencil lures. The sport in the shallow waters of the shore was unbelievable and lots of fun but the arm wrenching demons of the deep had captured my imagination. The only way my mind was going to achieve any form of solace was to again venture out over the deep waters and overcome the beasts in their grey suits. See you next month. 

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Tyler Lowe-Fowler