Christmas Came Early This Year - Fly Fishing Kiritimati

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Posted by Steve P. on 2013-09-10 14:28:30

(Hi - I posted this report on another site with embedded photos - it probably won't read as
well here without the photos to refer to directly. Sorry about that. I will try to post all of the photos as the attachment)

I got lucky this year. My research group has been sampling air at Christmas
Island (Christmas is Kiritimati in Gilbertese with the ti's pronounced as "s"s) since 1974
and I got tapped to go and re-train our observers there. My wife Katy and I decided I
would be nuts not to stay a 2nd week at the Shark Place to sample the epic fly fishing -
I love that woman. Bill, a friend from San Diego, who has fished Christmas many times since 1997, was able to join me.

During my work week, I stayed in a thatched hut at Dive Kiribati
just 30 feet from the water (Kiribati sounds like kitty boss in Gilbertese. Kiribati is the country that Kiritimati belongs to).
Too classic. Night breezes wafting through the walls kept me cool, the roof held up
well to a light rain one afternoon, and a mosquito
net over my bed kept the bugs out. I found out that the chirping birds that I thought I heard in the early morning
were actually small geckos living in the thatched roof and trees. And it was funny but the local roosters seemed to be from
several other time zones because they started crowing at intervals from 1:30 am on.

Young divers from the University of Victoria, British Columbia were at Dive Kiribati finishing up a month's
worth of diving as well as house to house surveys for a long term study of Christmas
Island fisheries. Interestingly, both bonefish and giant trevally (GTs) are protected to ensure that money from
travelling anglers keeps coming into the island economy, and none of the villagers ever eat bonefish or GT (wink wink).

I rented a car for the sampling work ($60 per day) and had a chance to see almost all of
the east side of the island that is served by the main road A1 - a 1 to 2 lane asphalt road that extends from the main
town of London on the north side of the huge lagoon, to the southeast point of the island 55 miles
away. Christmas gets only about 30 inches of rain a year, varying wildly with El Nino cycle from about 7 inches during La Nina to 107 inches during El Nino, so
it is relatively dry with lots of coconut palms and low shrubs. Road kill includes the large land crabs
that pop up just about everywhere on the island.

Missionaries visited and lived on Christmas Island over the past 200+ years since Captain James Cook visited the
island in 1777, and a high percentage of the 5000 or so Christmas Islanders are Christians - I think more than half are Catholic, many
Protestant with the number of Mormons steadily increasing. I saw 5 churches and
a Catholic high school along the main road.

There do not seem to be many jobs on the island with just a few small stores, 4 or 5 fishing lodges, churches,
1 gas station, airport, a harbor for occasional cargo ships, and of course fishing, but the people seemed very happy and were very friendly. Most of the islanders that we ran into spoke understandable English - many if not all were educated at the many elementary schools and 2 high schools on the island. It was kinda cool watching the kids going to school crowded into big stake-bed trucks. Seat belts? Law suits? No, this is a simpler place - much like the SoCal I grew up in in the 1950s. I think many islanders "live off the land" utilizing plentiful fish, coconuts, a few pigs (some penned, some
chained to palm trees), chickens and such. The fly fishing guides (about 50 of them according to Moana Kofe) are relatively well off. Dwellings vary from concrete brick houses to thatched huts with sand floors to huts on stilts.

I did not see any cats, and apparently only male dogs are allowed on the island to keep the dog numbers in check.

I met my buddy at the Christmas airport on Wednesday, August 14. Flights arrive from
Honolulu just once a week, leaving Honolulu on Tuesday and landing 3 hours later at Christmas
a day later since the flight crosses the international date line. I lucked out with a 2 hour connection in Honolulu
on my return flight but Sean Niesz at Nervous Water Fly Fishing in Waikiki suggested staying overnight
in Honolulu since return flights from Christmas are often delayed several hours.

Bill and I were the only 2 booked at the Shark Place so we got personalized treatment.
The Shark Place AKA Christmas Island Outfitters has bungalows for 12 anglers and is
located on the northeast ocean shore. Bungalows have rod racks out front, a couple of beds,
tables, small refrigerator, fans, a flush toilet and showers. Currently, there is no AC in the rooms
(they plan to add this soon) but ocean breezes made it very comfortable day and night.

Temperatures were cooler than I expected - 80-90 degrees with
humidity somewhere near 75% and partially cloudy most days during our week.

We were booked for a full week of fishing - 6 full days with a boat, boat driver and guide each day.
Most lodges throw in a day with a truck 1 or 2 days to cut costs but since the Shark Place
owns their boat, and their trucks were in need of repairs, we fished via boat every day.
Bill called most of the shots regarding the fishing plan. Our daily schedule was more regimented
than I have experienced on previous fishing adventures - 6:00 coffee, 6:20 breakfast, 7:00 leave
on truck for boat harbor, 7:30 - 5 pm fishing, 6 pm hors d'oeuvres and drinks, 7 pm dinner, back
to the rooms to organize for the next day. Rinse and repeat for 6 days...

Booze is not cheap on the island - I saw $86.90 for Smirnoff and Bacardi Gold, $114.90 for Crown Royal, $75 for a box
of Franzia wine at the large JMB store near the Captain Cook
Hotel. Many anglers bring in a bottle for the week.

For fishing in the massive lagoon (Christmas is the largest atoll in the world), boats are used
for transport among the dozens of huge flats. They are basically outrigger canoes with neat
features like steps and slatted runway from the outrigger to the canoe, plywood shade with fly rod holders,
2 large padded benches and plenty of storage. Ours was driven by a 40 hp outboard. I think their draft is like 6 inches so they can go just about
anywhere in the lagoon.

The flats vary quite a bit from nearly continuous white
bottoms to very mottled sand, rock and coral rubble. As a bonefish newbie, I had to rely on the guides
heavily to see distant bonefish on all flats other than the stark white ones. They appear as thin
greenish torpedoes moving slowly and steadily to or away from you. As soon as they turn sideways,
the bones disappear - their silver sides reflect their surroundings, serving as excellent camo.
The numerous milkfish look similar but can be distinguished by erratic swimming and shadows since they tend
swim above the bottom. Winds complicate
the picture - from my work week sampling, I found that most of the "roaring" winds were not more than
about 12 knots but this is enough to ruffle the water surface, make rocks and other stationary objects
look like they are moving, and play havoc with wide loops.

About 35 species of sea birds regularly nest on Christmas Island - boobies, shearwaters and terns
often joined us during the day. Boobies were fascinated with our fly rods and hovered in close to
check out our rod tips.

There was a surreal episode on the flats for me when we visited "Bird Island". Bonefish were "sliding" up and tailing on
immature crabs at the water's edge as we waded along. I didn't get any good shots but it was identical
to fishing for sliding beans in San Diego except that I was doing it with world-famous guide Moana.

Casting is interesting to say the least. The guides usually try to locate fish in wind sectors that are downwind
or away from your casting arm but if bonefish are scarce anything goes. The guides use your 2nd rod - a 10-12 weight for the occasional
trevally sighting - to point to bones usually from 50 to 10 feet away. All I can say is be sure to practice your casting in
strong winds with targets at varied distances at all angles to the wind. Otherwise, like me, you might look silly
trying to cast a bonefish fly in 10 knot winds with just leader out of the rod tip to a bone just 10 feet away - ha ha!!!
Through the week, you'll get it eventually, but if you start out strong, your guide will point out more challenging shots
I think.

FIRE DRILL! Occasionally, especially near the edges of the flats, big trevally swim into view browsing for
milkfish, goatfish, or whatever. When they show, it is like a fire drill. You quickly - or not so quickly - exchange your bonefish for for your GT rod with the guide, you strip fly line like mad (strip twice as much by separating your hands on each strip), make as few backcasts as possible and present the fly. Our first atttempt at this was like the keystone cops - very funny and a lot of laughing involved. GTs as well as bluefin and golden trevally cruise around fairly rapidly, so getting a legit shot is not a regular thing - at least it wasn't for me.

There are many flats with lots of bonefish throughout the massive 12 mile by 4-10 mile lagoon (125 square miles according to one book) but if the cloud cover is substantial, it is impossible to see the bones.
That's a good time to go fishing for giant trevally. The surefire way is to hit hotspots like the Trevally
Channel (at the edge of a large flat) or Hot Dog Flat (a "pancake flat" about 40 yards in diameter surrounded
by deep water) and chum with milkfish chunks. This practice is controversial and not used by all guides -
the thinking is that over time, the GTs start to key in on chumming areas and times and are less likely
to take flies or roam the flats. On chumming days, the boatman and guide gillnet milkfish on the flats while the anglers
go sightfishing. I tagged along to see how the netting went. They use a 40-50 ft long gill net and the guide
calls the shots. When they had a school of milkfish somewhat contained by part of the net, the boatman took off
like a bat out of hell high stepping in his lava lava (man skirt) through the water (with bare feet!!) to make as much noise as possible. The milkfish panic and start hitting the net in explosions of water. They usually did several net sets - one day they had enough milkies by 11 am, the other day by 10 am.

We visited the Trevally Channel and Hot Dog Flat on our 2nd and 6th days and had a few takes
on flies but after 20 minutes or so, the GTs are focused on meat so we nailed our monsters on "chunk flies".

These brutes are jacks and pull hard enough
to test all of your rigging both by their sheer strength and by rubbing on coral heads. I landed several to 55 lbs
but lost others to separated fly lines, leaders, and a bent out Tiemco 600SP 4/0 hook. The rig we used was nutty but
was dialed in to resist chafing, and maybe GT teeth - 80 lb spectra with biminis at the arbor and fly line,
12 wt floating fly line with 50 lb braided loops at both ends, and a 100 lb nylon leader. Bill's big fish was 85 lbs.
He lost fewer fish by using a 75 lb core Rio Leviathan fly line and 130 lb Sufix Zippy leader.

IGFA? Well... Not so much.

With the chumming, queenfish, triggerfish and big bonefish show up too:

The PC way to catch trevally is without chum on the flats. I saw 5 or 6 relatively large GTs in 4 days on
the flats and had a legit shot at one but it spooked easily in the thin water. In contrast, baby GTs dart in and out very aggressively and eat anything that moves as voraciously as snapper bluefish. Strip your bonefish fly as fast as you can.

There are additional flat species on tap - triggerfish, goatfish, bluefin and golden trevally.

I thought that puffers were solitary fish. We saw schools of them puttering around and unintentionally hooked a couple on bonefish flies.

We also saw several 4 ft manta rays on the flats - they looked almost like garbage bags drifting on the flats
in the distance stopping and moving very leisurely.

A trip highlight was getting to fish with Moana Kofe for 2 days on the flats. Bill does not like fishing with the guides so I had Moana all to myself.
Over the 2 days, we had lots of time to discuss fishing, birds, coral, and of
course fishing and fly tying. Moana mentioned writing a book on bonefishing - that would be great. Moana is famous for
his chili pepper fly. I had some chili peppers that I thought were pretty sparse - NOT.
Moana uses 8 fibers - maybe just a few more - of orange fish hair in his flies, and uses 20 lb mono to protect the body
flash, and uses pearl flashabou for the tail.

Some things I found useful for this trip:

1 - 4" x 32" custom rod tube made of white drainage pipe and end caps. I was able to carry both this and a small suitcase as my carryon to carry
5 rods in the tube and 6 reels and spools in the suitcase. Lots of peace of mind.

2 - roller duffle. I used this as my checked baggage. At 32" long, long enough to hold a regular rod tube with 2 rods in it, as
well as my large Simms boat bag and clothes. Got the roller duffle for $35 from - I highly recommend this site .

3 - water-resistant boat bag. I packed a Simms large in my checked duffle. This was very useful for use - on the boat of all things. The fishing boats put up a lot of water spray especially from the outrigger connector on the port seats. The bag is great for extra reels, fly lines, rigging, what have you, all
protected from water spray.

4 - a hat retainer - short cord with 2 clips that I used to hold the sides of my hat drape under my chin. Without the cord the drape on 1 side
is almost always up over your head and of no use for sun protection.

5 - finger tape - helped with fighting fish and "level winding" spectra
back on the wide spool of my TFO Hayden 2 reel.

6 - Eagle Creek travel neck pouch. For work and fishing I had to carry a lot of cash. No travelers checks or credit cards
work on Christmas Island as far as I know and the main currency is Australian. Most places take US for Aus at 1 for 1 - a bit of a loss.
I carried lots of 20s, 10s and 5s which really helped with guide and boatman tips and small purchases.

7. Polarized sunglasses - essential of course.

I used copper lenses as did 2 of my guides which worked OK - but they saw a lot more fish than I did.

Moana wears dark yellow Cocoons with sideguards over his prescription glasses and he seemed to see the most
of all. I have yellow, brown and gray Smith Optics clipons that I scored in various sales and I tried
the yellow with about the same results as my copper ones.
I have heard that rose tinted lenses such as in Costa sunglasses are best for old guys owing to shifts with age in cone sensitivity but
I was not able to try that.

Christmas Island information:

When you are booking a flight, look for Christmas/Kiritimati in the Pacific Ocean, not the 2nd Christmas
Island that is in the Indian Ocean.

Kaufmann's Bonefishing! book has a great chapter on Christmas Island - it is a great overview of what to expect.

Several fly travel websites are also good, especially Flycastaway for rigging and fishing for GTs.

There are many youtube and vimeo videos on Christmas Island including a 7 part series about a do-it-yourself trip by two Australian guides.

Wikipedia entry for Kiritimati

CIA Fact Book entry for Kiritimati - I didn't know about this source before but the CIA has a nice overview for each country with interesting facts about many aspects.

Interesting sources of history and sociology of Christmas Island (Kiritimati - pronounced christmas) and the nation of
Kiribati (sounds like kitty boss to me when islanders say it):

Eric Bailey, 1977. A Christmas Island Story (covers history up to 1977 just before Kiribati became independent from Britain in 1979)

J. Maarten Troost, 2004. The Sex Lives of Cannibals (mainly about Tarawa, the capital island of Kiribati, and not about sex or cannibals; I have not read it yet)

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