Fly odyssey UK director Gilly Bate has just returned from…
Client Duff Battye sent through this brilliant report from his recent exploits on the world famous flats fishing destination of Christmas Island. A great read for anyone considering a fly fishing holiday to Christmas Island………
Christmas Island 26th Sept to 13th Oct 2016
My experience with Christmas Island (Kiritimati) fishing to date had been testing. On December 28th 2015 I travelled the 24 hours (including check in and layovers) from Heathrow to Hawaii that is the first part of a journey from the UK to Christmas Island. There are other options – via San Francisco or New York for example – but it’s a long haul whichever way you look at it. I overnighted in Honolulu and checked my gear once more: flats clothing including hard boots, 9ft rods in #8, #10 and #12 plus a spare of each, three saltwater proof reels with bonefish, permit and GT lines, popping travel rod plus large Shimano reel spooled with 80lbs braid and all the other bits you need (leaders, tippets, flies, sunglasses, et al).
I woke on the 29th ready for the 3 hour flight from Honolulu to Christmas Island full of excitement. But the once a week flight was cancelled due to storms. The next flight – a week later, possibly. Crushed is the best way to describe my mood. But I made the best of it – a week in Oahu and the Hawaiian Islands sightseeing and the odd day for bonefish with a fellow stranded Brit, and now friend, Richard.
It was a cruel blow only lessened by Fly Odyssey being able to reschedule my booking and flight for no extra cost for later in 2016. Due to my work commitments I would have to wait until September 2016 to try again though. The lure of Christmas Island was so powerful that I was ready to go again.
I have heard reports and seen the videos of this fishing mecca. One of the best mixed salt water fisheries in the world in the middle of the Pacific 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. Kiritimati is part of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) an independent republic within the Commonwealth of Nations. Kiribati consists of 33 coral islands divided among three island groups: the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands. Christmas island itself is one of the Line Islands. It has the largest land area of any atoll globally at 235 square miles and a population of a mere 7,000. One of the most isolated locations on earth with no Wi-Fi or phone signal in our destination resort – Villages. But the pictures had really sold it to me – Bonefish, Triggers, Milkfish, Barracuda, Wahoo, Tuna to name but a few – plus the holy grail for every salt water fly fisherman, the Giant Trevally. The brutish GT: lightening quick, savage and inconceivably powerful, the alpha male bully of the flats.
If At First… Day 1 to 3
Monday the 26th September 2016 was the allotted day for round two. It was with some trepidation that I checked the weather forecast leading up to the journey but all (touch wood) seemed well. I met up with my three companions – JT and Mark (from Sportfish and Farlow’s respectively) and Pengers – on the morning of Tuesday 27th at the airport hotel lobby and made our way to Honolulu airport. The flight was on! Although it became I running joke that I still wasn’t quite relaxed – at check in, getting onto the plane, landing at Christmas Island and even the first day on the boat – until the first fly had been cast.
A word of warning is that Fiji are sticklers for luggage. A strict 23kg for check in bags and 7kg for hand luggage checked rigorously. They tried to charge me an extra $60 for being 1kg over hand luggage allowance but Pengers agreed to take the troublesome extra kilo. A short a relaxing three-hour flight later we saw the beautiful Christmas Island appear to the right of the plane. “You relaxed yet, Duff?” quipped Mark. After some paperwork including a $75 permit for the two weeks fishing we were met by The Villages head guide and driven to the resort for an introductory night (including impromptu sing song by the staff) and a dinner.
The resort is nestled on the north west tip of the island and unlike others which may involve drives each morning, Villages launches your flats skiff direct from the beach – a 30 yard walk from the rooms. The accommodation is shared and simple – two single beds, fridge, table, basic wardrobe and shower/toilet with a small covered area outside to sit and take in the surroundings. It’s not Alphonse! But the focus here is very much on the fishing. Everything else is functional.
The days generally start with a 6.15am breakfast. Porridge, pancakes, eggs and bacon with lots of coffee. You make your own sandwiches at breakfast for lunch on the boat and set off at 7am. You are out all day, returning for about 4.30pm.
The flats are beautiful – vast and spacious. You generally are dropped off and walk with a one on one guide. No flats skiffs in Christmas Island.
Over the first 3 days we all had fish. In fact, 12 species of fish on the fly between the four of us – including Bonefish, Trigger Fish, Goatfish, Striped Trevally, GTs and Barracuda.
The bonefishing was different to my experience of Cuba and Mexico. Long slow strips. I liked the guides a lot. Big mountains of men – south sea islanders with good sense of humour and good eyes. I spent two days with Beia and learned to like his slow soft delivery of “cast 25 yards, 11 o’clock. Slow strip, slow strip. Stop. Slow strip…”. And then “Got him” a split second before I felt that familiar tap stop of the bonefish take.
Blue Water Blues – Day 4
Whilst my first love is fly fishing I love all types of fishing. As part of the Christmas Island experience you can mix up fly fishing the flats with blue water fishing from the boats. It gives you a break from the walking and also keeps things fresh. Again, you have to bring all equipment with you as there is nothing on the island. I invested in a travel popping rod that can fit in a suitcase along with a heavy duty sea reel with a lot of 80lbs braid! From Villages you run out into the sea and can troll down the coast and then stop at hotspots to pop for big GT and tuna.
The others joked that with my carp experience I would enjoy trolling which can involves longs bouts of nothing interspersed frenzied action. The insanity of hitting a school of tuna and all three rods firing off with 100 yard plus runs is just that.
Our foray into blue water today was more aligned to the long periods of nothing. The trolling produced nothing bar one small yellowfin tuna and a couple of hours of popping saw nothing.
Pengers had caught the Tuna but only Mark blanked. You see, JT and I both hooked into large Boobies. And not the good sort. The national bird of Kiribati isn’t the brightest. As we trolled between spots one took my diving lure. I pulled him in and the guides gently unhooked him and sent him on his way. Later that day we were sat about in silence surveying the stunning coastline in silence when JT moaned “Bloody Boobie juts picked up my lure”. We all looked around just as JT started to wind the bird in. The power of his reel plus the position of the lure acted like a glider winch and within 5 yards we saw daylight between bird and water. Mark said at a barely audible whisper “It’s in the air!” as the bird, hook in beak soared like a, erm, Boobie, 50 feet into the air Harrier jump jet like. I’m told JT played it well, giving it just enough line, conscious of his leader, drawing it away from the other two rods to avoid tangles. I didn’t see this as I was doubled over laughing along with the rest of the boat. I was laughing so hard that no sound came out. When I undoubled myself I looked skyward and the bird even looked like it might be having fun until it caught a thermal and crashed 50 feet into the ocean. It was fine though, if a little stunned and as always with birds we practised catch and release. Very funny.
It was a nice day despite the lack of fish. Lots of banter on the boat. We had developed as a good group. All getting on and JT and Mark providing a constant supple of gags straight from the late 70’s and early 80’s. I dubbed them our very own “Cannon and Ball”.
As the day wore on and the fish continued to hide out we spotted some lovely marine life – manta rays, turtles, a pod of dolphins joined the boat and leaped out in front of us for 5 minutes. And finally on the way home we were suddenly surrounded by Milkfish as far as the eye could see. There must have been 6,000 at least. Huge 30lbs fish feeding off the surface. Stunning to look at but so hard to catch. We chucked some algae imitation flies into the mass but they lived up to their moniker of “the fish of a thousand casts”.
The Dam – Day 5
Day 5 we decided to travel to the fabled Dam in the nature reserve which involved an early start. 5.15am breakfast for a 6am departure for the nigh on 2 hours’ boat journey. JT and Pengers talked about the dam – a man-made dam that separated the old Milkfish farm from the flats. The GT’s have wised up to the fresh flow of Milkfish through a pipe in the dam and line up every high tide to pick off any Milkfish foolish enough to move out from the protection of the reserve. AS I was the only GT on a fly virgin it was decided I would go first. I was nervous. We arrived at a beach just off from the dam and one of the guides went to look. No sign. Of course! Why would I travel thousands of miles (twice!!) for it to run as planned!
I was tired and disappointed so had a lie down whilst the others went hunting. After 20 minutes or so I roused my guide Bob and we wandered along to the dam just to have a look. He suggested we walk the shoreline (which is hard volcanic rock dropping off into sandy flats). I had my bonefish rod in hand and he took my GT rod “just in case”. I had a couple of shots at bonefish when Bob shouted “Throw down the rod. GT!!!”. He handed me the rod and I frantically stripped line and scanned where he was pointing. I saw a large dark shape patrolling down the flat. I cast out a mere 20 yards and we waited.
As the fish got within 5-foot Bob shouted “strip”. The GT strip is as fast and as long as you can manage. I stripped hard and the big black fly snagged on a piece of coral. I pulled and it [popped off, I stripped hard and fast, the fish turned and in a split second I was one. Bob was laughing hard and I was swearing hard. A beautiful little 11lbs GT fired out into the blue taking line easily. I played here in and there she was – my first GT on a fly. I was elated but I had been told the 10lbs were “okay but you needed a big boy”. We set off again. I had a couple of bonefish shots and lost a big 8lbs that snapped off.
We were walking up to a spit of land when bob shouted “Two GTs”. He set off at pace (well, pacey for a 20 stone south sea islander with me in tow, my backpack jogging on my back). Two podgy middle aged men jogging across to the other side of the spit in pursuit of a big fish. Silly Billies!
We arrived at the far bank and I grabbed the #12 and started stripping line. I walked into the water on the flat and Bob told me to cast just past a school of smaller GT’s at 20 yards. The cast landed perfectly and right on cue two large dark shapes emerged out of the gloom. “Strip!” shouted Bob and I gave it some stick.
Mark later asked me what word sprung to mind when I thought of that fish. My first was “violence” but then I settled on “shocking”. As I started the strip both fish fired towards my fly with a speed that was truly breath taking. The take was like nothing I have ever experienced. Savage in the extreme. I felt like I had no time to set or even mange my line before a 30lbs GT had fired out into the blue taking me well into the backing. Bob was laughing heartily. I was shaking like a leaf. 15 minutes of delicately playing the fish I was staggered by its power. Nautilus Superking #12 reel drag set on full it took line at will and had 6 or 7 powerful runs.
When Bob eventually grabbed the fish’s tail I yelled out something unprintable. I felt a wave of elation and sank to my knees. A truly awesome experience. Unlike any other fishing I have ever experienced. I put it up alongside my first salmon on a micro hitch – a 16lbs bar of fresh run Icelandic silver. But it was rawer, more intense and the setting was otherworldly. I was tingling as the fish came in. I can see why people get addicted.
I had achieved it. One completely failed journey, another one completed, countless hours practicing casting and tying perfection loops, days dreaming of a GT and watching every instruction blog or YouTube clip on the subject, and I had done it. A 30lbs GT on the fly. It was something truly special. Something magical that every angler will know. It’s what keeps us coming back to this wonderful sport. Everything else on this trip would be a bonus.
Bob was a great guide. Not such a great photographer as you can see. But I’ll take it. The fly and this picture will be framed as soon as I’m home.
The rest of the day passed by without much incident. The guides caught red snapper and barbecued them for lunch. Mark had had a smaller GT around the 10lbs mark. JT was filming for a forthcoming film for his Smokin’ Drag Productions so not fishing and Pengers hadn’t had a cast at one. I was the most inexperienced salt water angler and I had a big fish. That’s fishing. A sequence of unplanned events and delays led to me being in that spot at the right time. I like to think we make our own luck. I’ve put so much into fishing and I truly believe every so often I’m delivered a payoff. Thank you the fishing gods.
Blue Water – Day 6 and 7
Throughout the week the weather had been mixed. Some nice sun but lots and lots of wind. Being in the middle of the Pacific it’s an occupational hazard. You can cast in it but you have to be clever with position. Day 6 wasn’t looking so good sun wise and was windy (again) so we decided on another blue water day – for milkfish and whatever else we could find.
We returned to the milkfish spot and not a sign of them. All was quiet when the crew piped up “Birds working”. A large flock of birds were working the water 100 yards off. We set off into the melee and as we got close saw huge tuna launching themselves into the air at a shoal of baitfish. “Hold on lads” shouted JT. As we passed through the midst two of the trolling rods fired off and I had my first yellowfin tuna.
We ended the day with 6 yellowfin tuna to 20lbs, 2 GTs and a 20lbs Wahoo. Of that I picked up 2 tuna, one GT (around 12lbs) and the Wahoo on my rod. More species ticked off as first on lure gear and another great day. That night we had Wahoo sushi and fresh tuna steaks for dinner. Beautiful. As is the norm I was tucked up in bed by 8.30pm.
As I sit relaxing at The Villages on our day off (day seven of two weeks is an off day as others leave or arrive) writing this I have no idea what week two has in store. But I’m hugely excited and very relaxed. It’s a long way to get here, the weather is unpredictable and the simple lifestyle may not be to everyone’s taste but it’s worth every minute and every penny. I can’t wait for week two and I’m already looking at options for a second trip. Christmas Island was on my list of places to fish and so far it has delivered, in spades. I would highly recommend you look to add it to yours…