Christmas Island

While planning a trip to Christmas Island a year or so ago, I was rolling all the good stories I’d heard into one fantastic tale and discarding the bad.

Bonefish were my primary target, and I knew this was the place to catch good numbers of them; the only other scenario I could imagine involved catching a big giant trevally on a fly. As it turned out, I did neither of those things, yet ended up having my best fly-fishing trip ever.
Christmas Island has to be unique. There are endless sand flats and islands, drop-offs and channels to fish – so many, in fact, you could never fish them in a lifetime. With a boat, access is simple and safe, as all this fishing potential is contained within a coral reef, a barrier to the mighty Pacific Ocean.

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The number of bonefish is staggering, with schools of hundreds possibly encountered, along with smaller groups and singles and pairs, which appear to be the bigger fish.

At first you may not recognise them. The first bonefish I saw consisted of a school of a hundred fish, all small at 25 to 30cm. I questioned myself: “Are they bonefish or mullet?” before casting anyway, landing the fly (a small orange Gotcha, which I had tied on a cold and rainy night in a Rotorua motel) about a metre to one side of the school. They were moving away, so I had to make another cast before they disappeared. Then, while stripping the line back in, it came up tight – on the coral I thought. Wrong! This was a bonefish. It zipped and zapped until I led it in, a beautiful juvenile bonefish of about 700g. The school milled around and I caught two more before it drifted off into the deep. Not bad: three bones in half an hour.

It’s possible I could have enjoyed fishing for bonefish like that for the whole trip if that’s what I’d wanted. But I’d chosen DIY fishing and only once fished with a guide. It was a personal challenge and added value to my trip.

Then a triggerfish came into view and tailed twenty metres in front of me, but I scared him off with a dud cast.

Next, I thought I saw another bonefish school, but it was actually a bunch of milkfish, which ignored my fly, even with decent presentations. These are easy to confuse with bonefish, being similar in shape and just as silvery. The visual difference is the tail size, with the milkfish having a much larger tail (I would later find out that they fight differently to bonefish, too).

Christmas Island is not far from the equator and 1200 kilometres south of Hawaii. It lies in a languid weather area that’s too lazy to change. Consequently, it’s mostly hot, around 30 degrees most days, and can be windy, up to 25kph at times.

Access these days can be from Fiji or Hawaii on a one-week turn around. Fiji Airways fly out of Fiji at midnight on Tuesday, arriving at Christmas Island at 6.20am. Then you go fishing!

We stayed at Ikari (meaning bonefish) House right on the water, a great place with world-class staff who have the place running like clockwork – and the food here was varied, excellent and ample. It’s hard to imagine that we were in a third-world country, and we have rebooked already.
As the trip progressed, and we were able to get a better picture of the place, it became obvious that there is a lot more to Christmas Island than just bonefish and GTs. We also came to the conclusion that just concentrating on these species and forgetting everything else was silly – and that a second trip was required.

The chat amongst the guides and fly fishers who were there on their fourth, fifth or seventh trip, was that to get kudos you had to catch a triggerfish. After day one I’d already missed an opportunity.
I already knew that the other desirable species sought on fly – the milkfish, which are thick at Christmas Island. They fill the shallows and cruise the surface in the deep. Ranging from 10cm up to a metre in length, they are impressive fish, being sleek, obviously fast and fabulous jumpers. However, it is also well known that they nearly always ignore flies of all kinds.

That proved to be my experience, too. I tried lots of different fly patterns on milkfish over the week, and only one produced: a small, yellow-coloured Crazy Charlie fly with a silver body covered in clear vinyl rib. That fly hooked two fish fair in the mouth over a 10-minute period. The rest of the time it was ignored as much as the others.

Upon being hooked, these milkfish were wild; in addition to being very fast and powerful, they could also jump well over a metre in the air. I loved my experiences with them, and the thrill gained from enticing the initial bite was just as big as I got from the fight.

Milkfish teased us all week long, as they were everywhere and always made you think they might jump on a fly. We certainly gave them enough different flies to choose from, but they continued on their way, sifting weed and algae from the surface. We learned to avoid them.

That was until I had an afternoon fishing at Y-Site, where there were schools of milkfish – and I discovered a secret. In amongst the milkfish were ladyfish, also known as giant herrings. They used the milkies to sneak into shallow areas, where there was food aplenty for them. Any cast that spooked the milkfish also spooked the ladyfish.

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Once I had a strategy, though, the ladyfish were easy. They were impressive – although only up to a kilo or so in size. They jumped high, like the milkfish, but lacked stamina and were easily brought in. I was pleased to tick off a new species on fly, along with the milkfish I caught at Huff Dam.
We fished new areas every day: Y-Site, Paris, Huff Dam, Orvis Flat and a spot where I achieved my bonefish dream. No, not a monster – I had already caught a monster bonefish at Aitutaki a year before. My dream had always been to catch a bonefish in very shallow water.
I found such a spot at the Plantation, with the tide on the make and nearing full, sending the crabs scuttling for cover after their time in the sun.

The first bonefish I saw was close – less than 10cm of water – and I scared him. Lesson learned, I slowed down and searched the shallows for more. They were there and I saw them. The next two fell for my fly first cast. Both had their tails up and part of their backs showing as they dipped on the fly. It was a magical scene and I was in a special place in my fishing career.

Next, I saw a bigger bonefish. It was coming toward me in 20cm of water, 10 metres from the channel edge. I cast short and let him find the fly, which was a Christmas Island Special in white with gold eyes. As he came close, I moved it: not a twitch, more a slow draw of ten centimetres. The bonefish raced up and tailed on the fly while taking it. Tightening in response, next moment he was sprinting off the flat and into the channel, my reel screaming. This was the ‘bonefishing’ I’d imagined all my life and couldn’t have been better. Despite only weighing 1.5 kilos, that fish went straight into my top 10 captures.

The next day I caught a trigger fish, only the fourth I’d ever cast to. He was head down in a coral patch when I spotted his tail in the air. Creeping as close as I dared, I cast to one side of him. He turned, his tail beat the water, and I knew he had it. Sure enough, my strip-strike came up solid, prompting the trigger to leave the coral patch at speed, covering the thirty metres across the sand in no time and flattening my 9-weight Redington rod in the process. Still more impressively, the reel continued to scream until my new red backing was spewing off it, finally slowing with the trigger at least 100m out. Ten minutes later saw him posing for a photo before being released. At 3kg he was an above-average fish, a cool capture, and another great species ticked off!

That made three new species for the trip: milkfish, triggerfish and ladyfish – so no wonder I was well pleased.

Another day we went to the ‘Korean Wreck’, a special spot too that offered a completely different fishing experience. But that’s another story, along with our visit to the wharf...

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