Monday, February 1, 2016

Christmas Island Bonefish, Part 2

Now that we have covered the bonefishing at Christmas Island, let’s get into all the other species you will have a chance to pursue.  For many repeat visitors to the island, bonefish begin to take a back seat to the exhilarating giant trevally, barracuda, milkfish, sharks and triggerfish lurking nearly everywhere.  Black tips are the prevalent species of shark found on the flats, with other species preferring to hang out near the deeper reefs.  Like any saltwater destination, some guides don’t want anything to do with casting at sharks.   Others say, “I can handle.”  It goes without saying that these creatures can totally mess you up if you give them a chance.  There is no hospital to speak of here, so exercise your best judgement and err on the side of caution.  In my experience, Go Like Hell flat has sharks cruising it nearly every day.   
The same flies you throw at giant trevally are generally fine for sharks.  Ten to twelve weights and 100 pound tippet are the norm, and you can certainly throw a steel leader into the mix for these toothy brawlers.  When casting at sharks, match your retrieve to the speed of the fish.  Keep the fly on their nose, speeding up when they do, slowing down when they do as well.  Most of the time black tips will follow the fly the whole retrieve and then sulk away, but other times, it’s game on!  Let your guide handle the shark, but if you’re by yourself, use a hook release and stay behind the shark, moving quickly.  Just cut the tippet if things get too hairy.

 My personal favorite fish of the Christmas Island flats is the trigger.  Triggerfish can get as big as all get out, they fight hard, love to jam you up by burrowing under coral heads, and no two look alike.  For starters, triggers are coral munchers, so finding taller coral is the first thing you have to do.  Taller coral presents a few issues, of course.  Leaders, tippet and flies will be abused when casting at triggers, no way around it.  A perfect shot gets hung in the coral more often than not.  From personal experience, you’d better be sure your hooks are strong and your knots are bombproof.  Blood knots simply won’t hold up to the tremendous pressure these fish will exert.  Cheap hooks will be flattened instantaneously. The triggers shown below are on the small side, but even these are quite powerful.  We hooked a few that were much bigger, but read on to find out why they're so hard to get to the hand.

 If you are out chasing bonefish and a trigger presents itself, rebuild the whole leader, tippet and fly before casting at it.  Crab patterns are what they like best, and the presentation is a bit different than casting at a bonefish.  When taking your shot at a trigger, first determine if the fish is happy and browsing the coral for food.  Most guides won’t recommend even casting at it unless it is in the right mood.  Secondly, you need to cast close to, but past the trigger.  You want to strip your fly right under it’s nose and encourage it to follow.  Most triggers will inhale that crab once they notice it, but others want to follow it a ways first.  My best trigger eats have happened when I stopped moving the fly after they initially notice it.  Once you hook up to the trigger, your real problems start to become evident.  First and foremost, they always run for the shelter of deep water or the closest coral head.  If your knots and fly hold up, you need to steer them away from danger immediately.  If it can go wrong, it will, and usually in the first few seconds after you set the hook.  Setting the hook is a whole other issue, as these fish have long teeth and small mouths.  The best hook sets seem to be in the corner of the mouth or right between the two front buck teeth. 

 The best triggerfish guide on Christmas Island is Kau Kau, also known as Tim, who usually works for Ikari House.  Tim is young and enthusiastic.  Sighting, hooking and landing triggers is his true pleasure in life.  While trigger fishing with him this year, I screwed up after the hook set trying to get the fly line unwrapped from my legs, and the fish (of course) retreated under another giant coral head.  Tim valiantly handed me his glasses, pack and hat and swam under the coral to attempt getting the fish out.  We didn’t end up with the trigger to the hand, but Tim won a client for life with his effort.  Guides in Christmas Island are a notch above the rest, and Tim’s notch goes all the way to eleven.  Trigger flies are primarily crabs in tan colors, and I can’t stress enough that they be tied on the best, strongest salt hooks you can find.  The body shape of the trigger is perfect for fighting you, and they will use it against you. 

Milkfish are probably more abundant than any other species on the flats of Christmas Island.  For the first few days of your trip to Christmas, learning the difference between milks and bones will present its own set of challenges.  If you boil it down, milkfish suspend, bonefish hug the bottom.  If there is a shadow under the fish, it’s usually a milkfish.  Many anglers come to Christmas solely for the milkfish, and catching one is no small feat.  Milks eat algae, which presents the first challenge.  The second challenge is finding a leader and fly that suspend, like the milkfish do.  Flies comprised of foam and sponge fit the bill, and bringing along some monofilament tippet and floatant will aid this endeavor.  Huge milkfish can be found outside of the flats behind commercial fishing boats, which kick up large amounts of algae and plankton. 
Pound for pound, milkfish will fight you like there’s no tomorrow.  Few fish can bend an eight weight like these fast fish can.  If you are targeting bones on the flats, don’t overlook the massive schools of milkfish.  Bones and milkfish focus on different food groups, but they can easily work together since they work different levels of the water column.  More often than not, a few nice bonefish can be picked out of a pod of milks.  Milkfish are the hardest thing to catch on Christmas Island, with the only exception being the venerable giant trevally.  GTs eat the fly just fine, but getting one in front of these fast thugs is a whole different deal.

Giant trevally make fly fishers salivate the world over.  They are ridiculously fast.  They come up on a flat like a drive by shooting, and most of the time it’s too late for you to react because they’re already gone.  Christmas Island boasts excellent numbers of giant, black, bluefin and golden trevally, but the giants are the true prize fish and prize fight.  Bluefin are practically everywhere, and provide a good fight, but rarely exceed a pound or two.  More than once a rascally bluefin has snatched a well presented fly to a bigger golden or giant in my experience.  Golden trevally are beautifully banded across their backs, and can get pretty big at Christmas.  Goldens seem to tail more often than their cousins, I have hustled across flats a few times after seeing one tailing at a good distance away.  Giant trevally, or GT, can push 100 pounds at Christmas Island.  You will see them up to twenty pounds every day, and when the true bruisers come in to play, your heart rate will give you a run for your money.

The usual program on Christmas is for your guide to carry the trevally rod while you bonefish with your seven or eight.  The true guide test presents itself when the GTs come by, and their ability to see them, ready the heavy rod and pull line off in time for you to make a shot.  This rarely goes the way it’s supposed to.  When you combine their speed and your case of the yips, a general shit show usually prevails.  Chumming these big fish is becoming more and more popular, and to each their own, but we generally refrain from doing this.  Chumming doesn’t do these magical fish any favors, but for many anglers this is the way to do it.  Milkfish are usually netted and roasted for chum, but bonefish are often an unfortunate by-catch when netting the milks.  As mentioned, to each their own, but you won’t see me out there chumming fish in.

Christmas Island has thousands of volcanic shelves along the flats, and every one of these has small yellow snapper using them for shelter.  Seeing trevally rooting around underneath them is commonplace.  Trevally will eat practically anything they can catch, be it bonefish, milkfish, grouper, whatever.  Again, fly selection isn’t nearly as important as just getting the fly in front of the fish in time.  Tim Heng employs a good trick for these quick presentations by simply hooking a baitfish GT fly onto the hook of his bonefish fly and recasting.  This can present a problem if the fish is huge and you’ve got 10 pound tippet on, but at least you gave it a college try!  There’s one general rule on how to strip the fly for GTs.  Fast as you can.  You simply can’t strip it fast enough.  Once in a great while, true giants want the fly slowed down a bit, but this is pretty rare.  

 One of the best advisors around for GTs in Christmas Island is Sean at Nervous Waters in Honolulu.  His tiny shop is the only one in the whole state of Hawaii, and he really, really knows his stuff.  He is a strong proponent of 100 pound tippets and has a terrific assortment of bonefish and GT flies to choose from (ask about his special triggerfish flies too).  Sean’s fly shop is not far from Waikiki Beach, and you can reach him at 808-734-7359.  He’d rather catch bonefish in Hawaii (and I recommend joining him for a bonefish trip), but he’s been to Christmas Island many times to chase giant trevally.  Sean’s shop is funky, tiny, and chock full of everything you need to fly fish around Hawaii. 

 I love Christmas Island.  The people, the surreal scenery, raw nature and remoteness make this one of the most unique places on earth.  The best guides I’ve encountered are Otea, Nareau, Kau Kau, Kabuta, Eckus, and the famous Mowanua.  Some guides are “better” than others, which is relative.  Just like trout guides, some excel at certain species or methods.  What these guys have over some other guides is a complete absence of ego.  Treat your guide with respect, have a sense of humor, and tip appropriately.  When he keeps you out late when the fishing has been slow or takes you to a little-known area, make it worth his while.  They bend over backwards to get you on the fish at Christmas, so treat them just as well on the slower days as you do the ridiculous ones.  Buy them a beer back at the lodge, ask about their families, and send them a care package once in a while.  Wading boots, rain gear and fly tying materials are always scarce for these islanders.  I consider some of these guys very good friends.  I care about what happens to them, and like to think that they feel the same.

When you catch a big bone or manage to wrestle in a triggerfish or trevally, getting a bit emotional comes with the territory.  My guide Kau Kau gave me a little ribbing for the tears in my eyes after we released a gorgeous seven pound bonefish in October.   “Like a virgin,” he said.  We laughed about it all week, and he promised not to tell anyone except his wife.  Well, I’m not too embarrassed to admit beautiful fish in beautiful places make me a little weepy.  So be it.  Preparing for a trip to Christmas can be stressful (and a big part of the fun), and when the whole plan finally comes together and you’re holding that mirrored bonefish in your hand on a fly you tied yourself, I challenge you to not become a little overwhelmed and 20 shades of thankful.  That will never change for me, and I hope Christmas Island changes very little in the years to come. 

Words by Scott Spooner

Photographs courtesy of Scott Spooner, Cameron Scott, Rocky and Janet Mangini, John Marlow, Randy Hughes