Sunday, November 8, 2015

Christmas Island Bonefish, Part 1

Taylor Creek has considered Christmas Island our second home since the early 1980's, a place near and dear to many hearts here in the Roaring Fork Valley.  Christmas Island is located 1,300 miles south of Hawaii, part of the Phoenix and Line Islands.  There is only one flight per week that runs between Fiji and Honolulu for travelers originating from the US.  Christmas is the world’s largest coral atoll and the Pacific’s largest bird sanctuary, offering a place to relax to frigate birds, phoenix petrels, boobies, shearwaters, terns, and many other species of far-ranging birds.  Seemingly there is life everywhere you look on Christmas Island, whether it be land and hermit crabs, birds, geckos, and of course, millions of fish!   Located only 150 miles from the equator, the weather is the same in January as it is in July.  Fishing tourism is strongest November through February but possible year-round.  

Christmas Island was first visited by Polynesian explorers as early as 400 A.D., the Spanish in 1537, and was visited by Captain Cook on Christmas Eve, 1777.  Captain Bligh of The Mutiny on Board the HMS Bounty fame was Captain Cook’s first mate on that expedition.  Nuclear tests were done near the island in the 1950s by Great Britain, and again in the 1960s by the United States.  The Captain Cook Hotel, the oldest lodge on the island, is located where a British military base stood.  The Allies occupied Christmas Island during World War II to prevent a Japanese stronghold. The island was never evacuated during these tests, which resulted in sickness and death for soldiers and island residents and their progeny, which is a shameful thing.  Radioactivity on the island now barely registers, higher levels are found in any metropolitan city here in the US.  The environment has truly rebounded, but at one point in time the coral on Christmas Island would turn to dust when touched. 


The population hovers around a few thousand people.  Most are employed harvesting coconuts, in commercial fishing operations, and rotating government jobs available from time to time.  The best occupation is being a fishing guide, of which there around 50.  There are four lodges here, The Captain Cook, Ikari House, The Villages, and Crystal Beach.  The people of Christmas have few needs, happy children, and socializing is the preferred pastime.  There are three major villages on the island; London, Banana, and Poland.  People live simply here, many are Catholic and Protestant converts.   Technology has come a long way in recent years, many now access the web in Internet Cafes, some are even on Facebook!  Vehicles are rare, but there are noticeably more every visit.  Most locals get around on motorcycles and scooters.  Many church-sponsored elementary and high schools are found in the villages, and for higher education, most travel to the capital city of Tarawa, found 2,000 miles to the west. There is much pride here in keeping up traditions and the old ways, despite the world becoming more accessible and smaller every day.


Taylor Creek has always enjoyed staying at the Captain Cook Hotel, a government-run lodge with cinder block hotel rooms and cabanas, far from the bustle of the villages.  Nareau is head guide, and his staff are keen and a pleasure to fish with. Christmas Island is not a fancy destination, which is the allure for most repeat visitors.  There isn’t much to do outside of fishing and bird watching, and there are no fly shops or malls, which is a good thing!  The flora and fauna on the island is quite unique, exploring after a long day of fishing (or taking a day off) will bring many sights and delights.  If you learn a few local Kiribas phrases, big smiles of appreciation will come from the locals.  The Captain Cook has always done a terrific job introducing local customs and culture to visitors, with “luau” nights of roasted pig, fresh lobster, and traditional costumes, songs and dance that are first-rate.  The death-defying knife dance is always a hit. The breakfast and lunch food isn’t anything to get excited about usually, but dinners are generally quite good. The staff at CCH are warm and eager to please, just keep in mind they don't have much to work with.  Relax while in Christmas Island.  Nothing is super organized and there is always a language barrier.  Go with the flow and everything always seems to come together after some initial confusion. 

Most fly fishers visiting the island opt for a mix of truck fishing and skiff fishing, usually three days of each.  Many areas on the island are much easier to reach by truck, such as the Korean Wreck and Lone Palm flat.  Other areas are conveniently reached by skiff or panga, where roads don’t exist or when the tide is high and covering roads.  Most of the famous flats on Christmas Island are reached by boat, such as Go Like Hell, Paris, 9 Mile, Poland Channel, Orvis Flat, and so on.  The amount of flats to choose from is staggering, and the surreal colors and beauty that await you are like nothing else on earth.  Other anglers are specks on the horizon, with the norm being total solitude and no other anglers in sight. You will encounter flats of fine sugary sand, pancake flats surrounded by blue water, areas of taller coral growth, reefs teeming with every kind of fish imaginable, and “blue water” fishing for tuna, wahoo or even billfish.  A nice yellowfin caught on your first day can feed your group (and more) for your whole trip.  You’ll rarely encounter sashimi as fresh as this!  Mantis shrimp are a local delicacy, be sure to let your guide know if you want to try these huge shrimp for dinner one night.  Foster looks pretty stoked to tuck into that tuna!

When it comes to fly fishing options and target species at Christmas Island, the sky is the limit.  Obviously, bonefish are the major attraction, but you have shots at bluefin, golden, black and GIANT trevally, black tip sharks, queenfish, barracuda, triggerfish, milkfish, and the list goes on.  What makes Christmas Island the world’s top bonefish spot is the variety of flats and raw numbers of fish.  In many other bonefish destinations, the fish come and go according to the tides, escaping to deep water when tides are low.  At Christmas, there really is no reason for the bonefish to leave.  Between the myriad flats are thousands of deeper cuts and channels for these fish to take refuge in, so there isn’t much reason for them to roll the dice out in the deeps among the sharks and other predators waiting to make a meal out of them.

For pursuing bones, seven to nine weight rods are the norm.  I enjoy the fight on lighter rods, but there is typically a stiff trade wind on the flats, which can leave you under-gunned when the breeze is blowing the “wrong way” for you.  You typically bring a few extra rods on your fishing days that are left behind on the truck or boat, so experiment when you can and find the right rod weight for you. The Cross Current from G. Loomis, TCR and One rod from Sage, and Scott's formidable S4S get the job done quite nicely.  Ten to twelve weights are a must for throwing at GTs, and be sure they have huge reels with miles of backing on them. Leaving the drag loose is a good tip for the big rod, it eases getting line off quickly and you just tighten down before casting. Tippets up to 100 pounds are not uncommon, especially if you are serious about landing a GT.  Floating lines are all you need for Christmas Island, simply use heavier flies over sinking lines, which are super grabby on the coral bottoms.  You can employ sinking lines off deep drops for blind fishing, but you'll lose a lot of flies that way.  Religiously stretching and dressing your fly lines after fishing is a real difference maker, and a good habit to get in to.  Monofilament bonefish leaders in 10 to 12 pounds are perfect, and fluorocarbon tippets from 12 to 20 pounds are the norm.  I usually put on a fresh leader every day, especially if the leader has that “curl” kinked into it from transport or sitting all night. 

You already know your bonefish flies must be tied sparse if you’ve done your homework on Christmas Island.  If you look at commercially tied Christmas Island Specials, Gotchas and the like, tie yours with about 20% of the material you see on the ones in the bins.  Colors are key here, bring a full range of pearl, pink, rootbeer, green, yellow, and most importantly orange in sizes 4, 6 and 8, tied light, (no weight) medium heavy, (bead chain) and heavy. (brass or lead eyes)  Some guides fire a particular fly after only one refusal!  Otea, one of the best guides at the Captain Cook, likes the fly to be heavy enough to see the plop of the fly entering the water, thusly knowing where it lies on the flat in relation to the fish. Conversely, they can't be so heavy they send shock waves out either.  Some beautifully presented casts send bonefish running, and sloppy ones are sometimes pounced upon... You never know what will happen!  Learning to spot bonefish is always challenging, especially your first few days, but by the end of the trip you will be calling out fish before the guide here and there. Watch your first few fish to the hand closely as they swim away and disappear, it will pay dividends.  Even if your guide can see the bonefish 100 feet away (and they will), wait until the fish is in your casting wheelhouse and you can see it. Many times, if you are patient, the bonefish come to you.

It's all about the strip for bonefish at Christmas Island.  Guides are usually very clear (especially if you are new to bonefishing) about how they want you to retrieve the fly, mimicking the strip they want to see with their free hand.  Some days the fish want it long and slow, other days short and fast, and yet other times sitting still after they initially notice it moving.  Just like streamer fishing for trout, vary the retrieve until the fish react positively.  Tuning in to your guide's body language will pay off for you.  When they walk slow or stop suddenly, you do the same.  When they speed up or start crouching low, follow their lead.  After a few observant hours, you will start to notice when your guide starts getting excited or sees something.  Listen to your guide.  If you follow directions and stay relaxed, they make it seem pretty easy.  It's not.  When they are off with your fishing partner, you feel a lot less fishy.  Until you get the hang of it!  You'll be pretty proud of your sighting and stalking skills by the end of the week.

If targeting bigger bonefish at Christmas Island is your modus operandi, there are a few things to keep in mind.  In my experience, when you are surrounded by six inches of water in every direction, bigger fish are scarce.  Having a deep cut, open water, or a ledge to disappear into seems to comfort big bones, but this isn't a hard and fast rule.  Larger, sexually mature bonefish spawn each and every full moon, and timing your trip to coincide with the full moon (especially the next few days after) pays off bigtime.  Keep in mind the tide gets pretty squirrely during this moon phase, which can present its own set of challenges.  Big fish pair up and show up much more during this period, and despite being harder to feed, your shots are increased exponentially.  Relax if you stick a big bonefish.  The death grip after hook set will get you every time!  Let 'em run and get out of the way.  You can be choosy about which fish to cast to, opting not to thrash the water, and sometimes just watching these curious and furiously fast fish browse the flat can make you laugh out loud.  

Coming soon, Part 2.

Words by Scott Spooner
Photographs courtesy of Scott Spooner, Cameron Scott, Rocky Mangini and the US Navy