Christmas – my favorite time (and place) of the year… (by Chris Stannage)

I suspect the remote Pacific island of Kiritimati, or Christmas Island as named by Captain Cook back in the 18th century, is a place any follower of www.lureandfly.com, with an interest in fantastic fishing, incredible scenery and an edge of danger, would relish. (Take a look at the entire gallery from this trip)

Soft fine clay flats

For not only do you encounter a diverse and glorious range of species of fish and birdlife (quite often themselves endangered and “protected”), but the whole island itself is under threat of slipping under the waves, if the theories on global warming and consequent rising sea levels prove correct. The Island is seriously flat, very much like the Cocos, Abrolhos and Monte Bello Islands off WA, and with an average height above sea level in the single meters, vulnerable to a rise in mean sea levels. Of course, one wonders if nature wouldn’t simply get the island to “grow” with the rise in sea levels, with coral reefs currently exposed then slipping under the waves, and re-growth occurring. I am completely unqualified to offer a considered view on this, but it is an interesting thought to ponder…

Booby

To add to the thrill of the exotic and endangered, the island and surrounding airspace were the site of something like 35 atmospheric nuclear / thermonuclear weapons tests between 1957 and 1962. And while there seems to be some controversy over the impact of the tests on servicemen based on the islands at the time, particularly from the UK Operation Grapple” tests in the late 1950’s, the island itself appears remarkably free of a radioactive legacy. Full investigations of the island were carried out in 1964 (“Operation Hardlook”) and 1975, with a substantial clean up of general military waste and debris carried out between 2005 and 2007. Interestingly, the clean up contractor engaged in the latest works, Safety and Ecology Corporation Limited, found the only radioactive elements present on the island to be “more than 80 radium-226 luminous vehicle dials” on trucks and cars, as they removed something like 25,000 cubic meters of waste material. And as recently as August 2008, a reporter from the US web magazine salon.com visited the island Geiger counter in hand, and found

“The readings were minuscule – 0.008, 0.003, 0.006 milli-Roentgens per hour-  numbers indicating nothing more than background radiation from the sun, and noticeably lower than the background radiation levels one would find in a typical American city”.

So, what lead Ian Brown, Dave Donovan, Greg Sutton and Tom Williams (who flew west from Philadelphia) and me to contribute to global warming and hence the possible demise of islands like Christmas by flying some 6500km out into the Pacific, where most of the food we would eat and even the water we would drink would be shipped or flown in from the United States or the Cook Islands? Apart from us being completely selfish environmentally insensitive so and so’s, the lure is about 250 square kilometers of sand and coral flats…. And in warm tropical waters, that means bonefish…

Paris Flats Bonefish

Ahhh, the bonefish. Where to start? Well, I’ll just be honest, and go completely over the top in a way that my university professors would never countenance… these things are without a shadow of doubt, the most incredible, mind-blowing, challenging and super duper fish I have ever had the good fortune to tangle with! My third week chasing bones around the flats of Christmas Island has left me in a state of exhilaration, plotting a return in 2015, and wondering if maybe, just maybe, there mightn’t be some of these little fish a little closer to home…

Warp Speed - a Paris Flat bonefish goes nuclear

It is too simple an analogy to call bones a “whiting with warp-speed”, though a whiting does provide some clues to the bonefish and its environment… low, underslung mouth, pointed snout for snuffling in the sand, glorious silver green colouring for camouflage… but the differences in body strength and shape are substantial. That big forked tail, the thick muscular back and shoulders, and the oh-so flat chest of the bonefish all point to something that goes fast in shallow water… and boy do these things go fast!

We stepped off the Fiji Airways flight just after dawn on a Wednesday, having left Sydney just after noon the day before and traveled to Christmas Island via Fiji. The state of the runway, long of concern, was a freshly tarmacked delight – to be contrasted with the arrivals hall, a broken down fibro /asbestos affair. But the locals as always were friendly, and we purchased our week’s fishing licence as we went through customs, with our Australian dollars.

Someone suggested this looks like a CHOGM last day crazy shirt meeting

Slinging our gear into a waiting truck, we climbed aboard and headed to The Captain Cook Hotel – the old military base. I reminded the guys, based on my two previous visits, that the drive would be pretty grim, exposing us to the essentially third world living conditions of many of the local Gilbertese population. As is often the case when visiting communities (whether in Australia or abroad) whose living standards are well below those we enjoy, the welcoming happy smiles and waves of the children playing in the streets warmed your heart, yet as a father, also brought tears to your eyes – tempered somewhat by the understanding that tourism, especially sportsfishing, is an essential for the financial security and well-being of this community. Indeed, if the necessary improvements to water, sewerage and waste management generally are to occur, it will probably come off the back of investment in the tourism side of things by international operators.

Before I’d left Sydney, I’d once again carefully watched Al McGlashan’s “Strikezone Christmas Island” DVD. Anyone contemplating a trip anywhere chasing bones, (but especially to a coral atoll) would be well served by at least one viewing of this DVD, or any of the gazillion YouTube videos on CXI . In particular, I took heed of the howling wind, the fact that the guides were absolutely to be trusted in respect of fly selection (though, on my third trip, I was pretty comfortable selecting flies myself), fish spotting, and indeed the stripping retrieve of the fly. Oh, and that if and when you hooked up, you needed to immediately get the rod as high as you could in the air, in order to minimize the prospect of the line being shredded on the coral as the fish ran hard and long across and off the shallow flats.

Boatmen carefully lifting thousands of dollars of gear

Ian, Dave and I couldn’t wait to get started (but Greg, who had been working around the clock leading up to our trip, decided to take a long nap!), rigging up our 7 and 8 weight fly rods – mine a brand new, just out of the tube, Sage Method 8# matched with a Hatch 7 Plus Finatic reel, and Rio QuickShooter Bonefish line.  Our destination – Y-Site, one of the nuclear named sand flats around the lagoon. This was a “truck day” – we drove (and bounced) our way to the fishing, rather than taking an outrigger canoe.

It was a tough morning, frankly, with rain squalls blasting across the flats. While the rain, the first for months, was welcomed by the locals, it did play havoc with the spotting of the fish – all part of the challenge, and I was grateful for the extra set of eyes of the guide I was sharing with Dave, Tocky.

The power plant of a bonefish

One moment that sticks in my mind was when Tocky, staring intently at the water to my right, said “Big bone, two o’clock, 15 feet – please do your best cast”. Oh s***, that meant the fish was just past the end of my rod tip, and would see or sense any movement… time for the underarm swing cast – something tournament bream fisherman would use to flick a lure under an overhang… but with a 9 foot rod a little trickier than a spin stick.  Holding my breath, I swung the rod, and to my surprise the fly landed just in front of the cruising bone, which accelerated forward and wolfed the fly down – woooooohoooooo!!!!  You simply have to take my word for how fast a bonefish takes off – this thing scorched away – and away – and away!  Virtually every bone runs you deep into the backing, and this one was going all the way…. The only problem was that this beast had run so far, so fast, that when it scorched past Dave’s legs, he was so far away from me that he called it as a spooked fish, and yelled out about the monster he had surprised… only to realize that the fly line, then backing wrapping itself around his legs was connected to me, as well as the fish…  As all light line fisherfolk would understand, angles need to be kept smooth, and jerks on the line are to be avoided… well, the 12lb tippet I was using had no chance once Dave’s legs got involved – and just as Dave thought he was a chance of “long range landing” the bone, the tippet snapped.  On what turned out to be the biggest bone I hooked all week. Time for a deep breath …

Troutie Greg Sutton hooked up to his first bonefish

The next day, Ian and Dave headed down to fish the amazing oceanic reef known as “Korean Wreck” – literally a Korean ship ran aground there years ago, and as you will see from the photos, it is a wild and crazy place to fish for bonefish – about as far removed from the classic sand flat situation as you can imagine. They were unlucky – despite Dave landing a great GT on fly pretty early on in the day, the tide just hung on, and hung on, and for most of their day the reef was just too deep for effective bonefishing… sigh!

Dawn Patrol

In the meantime, I took Greg and Tom for their first day of fishing, to the wonderful lagoon flat called “Smokey”.  We travelled to the flat by skiff, and then waded across the ankle to knee deep flat.  I fished solo, while each of the boys had a guide to get them wired in to the fishery.  And it didn’t take too long for everyone to be hooked up – line screaming through the water, rods bent and bucking, and woohoooooos ringing out across the flats.  I confess to relaxing a fair bit, as both the “newbies” were having a ball.

And having a ball we did, all week. We fished hard, rising before dawn at about 5:15 each morning, enjoying a cooked breakfast before heading off in the trucks to either the fishing spot or the skiffs.  We fished Smokey, Orvis, Go-Like-Hell, Y-Site, Half Dam and the beautiful, classic bonefish beach of Paris Flats. Ahhhh, Paris Flats – my special “happy place” of all favourite fishing locations. Hard white sand, swaying palm trees lining the beach, azure blues of the lagoon, and big bonefish. Challenging bonefish. It is, in my view, the finishing school of CXI – especially on the last of the run out tide, when the big bones are the last ones off the flats, their tails glinting in the sun, and their radar on full alert. Such joy to fish…

Greg and his troutie pack

I was interested to see how Greg would get on this week – as a keen troutie, Greg hadn’t caught a saltwater fish on fly before… and as host, so wanted him to be as blown away by the experience of a bonefish as I was on my first trip years ago. I needn’t have worried – Greg rapidly adapted his trouting skills to the saltwater environment, and quickly worked his way into some terrific catch and release sessions – with the occasional beastie bust off along the way that left him shaking, but grinning from ear to ear! Superb stuff.

Tom too, brought and interesting basis of comparison to the fishery. Tom had caught bones in the Bahamas and Florida, and yet he was super impressed with the fishery – just as impressed as we were when he pulled out a can of salted peanuts one evening as we enjoyed a cocktail by the beach before dinner…  priority draft pick fishing buddy, in every way!

GT prior to release

But Christmas Island isn’t all about bones – even though I have to say its all I really want to do there again on my next trip – the fly and popper fishing for Giant Trevally is world famous, and the offshore scene is just crying out for a decent vessel to fish out of, as the outriggers are almost completely useless in offshore conditions. If you like chasing tuna, sailfish and wahoo, this is a potentially a great place (though longliners are present).

Looking back over my trip diaries, I see that I have also caught mack tuna, queenfish, a coral trout while deep dredging, had a shot at what looked to me like a school of permit (but the guide called “surgeonfish”) at the jetty, caught GT’s and Bluefin on the flats and reef, and saw tennis court sized schools of milkfish and tuna just offshore… not to mention a casting at a stack (and hooking a few, landing even less) bulldozing trigger fish on the flats…

Korean Wreck GT on fly

Getting back to the GT’s…  one of our truck days took us out the “Half Dam” – literally a small dam across one of the channels between lagoons. It is part of the CXI managed fishery area, where milkfish are farmed for food and export in the warm, salty flats.  At the down tide side of the dam, water trickled through the rock face, and literally thousands of milkfish swarmed against the current – truly extraordinary. But their eagerness to get “upstream” would surely have been tempered had they known what was on the other side of the dam  – a cruising school of truly monstrous GT’s… and by monstrous I mean 5 or 6 feet long, and north of 80-100lbs.  Nightmare for any baitfish – a point proven when the guides caught a few milkies by hand and lobbed them over the wall… explosions everywhere!!!  Great fun…. And when Dave hooked up on a crease fly he’d tied himself, we hoped it was one of these leviathans… unfortunately as is so often the case, the smaller fish grabbed the fly ahead of the beast … mind you, a mid teen GT on a ten weight is still great fun!!!

Dave Donovan with a lureandfly.com bonefish

But for me – it’s all about the bonefish.  And so planning has begin for our 2015 trip … stay tuned for details if you’d like to come…

Cheers

Chris Stannage

References and further reading:

“Kiribati: Preparing the Outer Islands Growth Center Project”: Asia

Development Bank, November 2005.

“This Place is the Bomb”: David Wolman, Salon.com, 31 August 2008.

“From a Mere Clean-up Contract to Changing Lives – Engaging the

Local Stakeholders During the Remediation of Christmas Island, Pacific

Ocean”: paper presented by Dr J P Steadman, Safety and Ecology

Corporation Ltd at the WM’06 Conference, Feb 26 – March 2, 2006,

Tucson, Arizona.

“UK Atmospheric Nuclear Weapons Tests – Fact Sheets”: UK Ministry

of Defence Website www.mod.uk

The gear that worked…

For bones we used 7 and 8 weight rods, with Sage and TFO being the most popular brands – I fished a Sage Method 8# (until I broke it), then fished a 7 weight Sage TCX or a 7# Sage One…

For the GT’s, where we were using 12 weight rods with fighting grips, Albright and TFOs abounded – especially given their lower price point than the Sages!!

For Triggers and smaller GTs, our 10 weights were a mix of TFO, Sage and Albright rods …

For reels – we all had quality saltwater reels, with my favourite being Hatch, but the other guys using Tibor, Lamson, Nautilus, Ross and Galvan. A few exotics, like Dave’s Mako by Charlton, and my old faithful Orvis reels got a run too.  Basically,  you need a great drag, and some serious line capacity.

My perfect rig for the week was a 7# Sage TCX, matched to a 5 Plus Hatch Finatic reel, with a Rio Bonefish floating fly line, ten foot leader and 2 foot tippet of 12lb. Light in the hand, great to cast with, and a hoot to fight good bones with!

Make sure you have within your group a few spare rods… gear does get broken and there are no replacements available on the island.

We fished with flies in sizes 6-8 for bones – sometimes dropping down to a 4.  We used

– Christmas Island Specials

– Gotchas

– Crazy Charlies

For GT’s we used white deceivers, crease flies and the odd popper.

Sunglasses – you simply must have an amber or copper tint for the flats, with perhaps a yellow tint for early mornings or clouded over days. I used a mix of Kaenon Kore and Kaenon Hard Core glasses – in fact I’ve used nothing else since 2008. Great optics, light weight and good coverage.

Miscellaneous Gear

– Broad brimmed hat

– Long pants

– Long sleeved lightweight shirts

– Gloves

– Stripping glove

– Wading boots (Bites, Simms)

– Gaiters

– Wading belt /backpack with waterbottle

– Sunscreen (lots of it)

How to get there!

We used and can recommend Garry Barmby and his team at Angling Adventures – www.anglingadventures.com.au  .

We flew Fiji Airways via Fiji and stayed at the Captain Cook Hotel, where once again, the staff were friendly, the rooms clean and tidy, and the food superb – all you can eat lobster night and pig on a spit night were highlights!!

Visa – issued upon arrival.

Fishing Licence – $50 and issued upon arrival.

Currency – Australian Dollars.

Power – mix of Australian and US powerpoints. Take an adaptor and a powerboard.

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