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Angling Abroad: Christmas Island flats

The author, Bill Becher of Westlake Village, Calif., landed a giant trevally on a flyfishing excursion to Christmas Island. 

"Trevally" yelled Beia, my normally quiet spoken fishing guide, pointing to a dark moving spot in the water.

We were fishing from shore at a small cove on Christmas Island, 1,300 miles south of Hawaii.

I had been casting to the bonefish that are the featured game fish here. But we were on the lookout for giant trevally, a fish that can weigh 100 pounds and will eat a fly. It was midday and we'd been killing time until the rest of our group from our Southern California flyfishing club showed up for lunch.

Beia handed me the heavier fly rod we'd taken for just this sort of opportunity. I tossed a large popper in the direction of the dark spot.

"Strip, strip. Faster, strip faster," said Beia. I'd already missed this fish earlier in the morning; he was periodically coming close in, presumably to dine on the schools of milkfish huddled near shore.

In a sight that will feature prominently in my personal fishing highlights reel, the trevally's mouth and eyes broke the water, chasing the brightly colored popper with a look of fierce determination as the fly splashed along the surface like a fleeing baitfish.

"Strip, strip," yelled Beia. "He's on," I said.

The fish pulled hard, the line streamed out of my reel. I waded into the water, hoping to follow the fish out the opening to the cove and avoid breaking the line on the sharp coral. I wondered if I should have gotten more backing; the fish was a long ways out. But I was able to follow him and screw down the drag a bit.

Island tug-of-war

It was a tug-of-war over the next 45 minutes, reeling in line only to have the fish run and reclaim what I'd cranked in.

Other members of the club shouted advice and encouragement. I was the lunchtime entertainment. It's nice to have an audience when you have a huge fish on, but it does add to the pressure not to screw up.

I was gaining on the fish, and finally could see him in the shallow flat off the beach where I was standing.

I hadn't realized how big a fish I was dealing with.

I "walked the dog", changing directions on the fish. Beia waded in and grabbed his tail. This fish was by far the biggest I'd caught on a fly rod — exceeding the maximum weight of 30 pounds on the only scale available at the time — and destined to grow as all fish do when the catching is retold. Just lifting it for photographs was hard, but pride and leftover adrenaline made it easier.

It was time to revive the fish, I sloshed it back and forth, forcing water through it's gills. The CPR worked and the trevally swam slowly out of my grasp.

For the birds

Much of Christmas Island is a bird sanctuary, and frigate birds, boobies and sooty terns stalk the fishermen stalking the bonefish. One frigate bird in particular grabbed the popper I was fishing out of the water and flew off with it until the slack went out of the line. Then it dropped the popper with a squawk.

The bonefish, or "bones," have scales like mirrors, so they reflect their environment as a form of camouflage. They follow tidal flows, feeding on the bottom on tiny shrimp, crabs and the occasional fish. The key to catching one is to see it before it sees you. Then you need to make a cast (generally in a 20 mph wind) that places the fly close, but not too close to the fish.

When the bone within about 3 feet of your fly, you give the line a twitch to get the bone's attention. Then strip slow or fast, depending on how the fish is responding.

This was tough the first day, but after some practice, I was able to spot fish in bright sunshine in shallow water. The vision of the guides is amazing; they are often able to see fish at 80 feet or more in riffled water.

Their instructions come: "Bone, 40 feet, 1 o'clock. Cast now. Cast again, 5 feet to the left. Wait. Strip slowly. Wait. Short strip. Short strip. Long strip. Fish on!"

'Mission control to flyangler …'

Some purists might complain that this much guiding is a bit like being talked down by mission control, rather than flying on your own.

Fortunately our guides were teachers who helped us learn how to spot fish on our own. One good tip was to watch the fish swim away after it was released, to see what it looked like in the water. Of course you had to catch a fish first to do this.

By week's end I was able to spot fish at quite a distance, but not in all water and light conditions. Seeing, stalking, casting, presenting and hooking a decent bonefish without assistance was nearly as big a thrill as the giant trevally.

One of the advantages of Christmas Island for novices is that the abundance of bonefish allow for many mistakes to be made in the learning process, and you still catch fish.

We stayed at Big Eddie and Joe's Bone Fishing Lodge and Croquet Club, the latest facility catering to fishermen to open on Christmas Island. Small, clean, and comfortable, the lodge is designed by fishermen for fishermen, with no pretensions other than to be a base for some of the best flyfishing in the world.

Just a stroll on the beach

Unlike flats that can only be accessed by boat, much of the fishing is by wading from shore after being transported via a truck with rod racks. The lodge also makes use of boats as transportation to those flats inaccessible by land.

Previous British occupiers left the foundations, wells and a septic system from a hospital and Big Eddie Corrie, former head guide at the Captain Cook Hotel, leased the land from the government. Together with Joe Roope, a tackle shop owner and outfitter from Idaho, they set out to create a flyfishing lodge that would be an improvement on the government's 30-room hotel.

Getting supplies from Hawaii is a hit-and-miss operation, but no essentials are lacking and many of the island's top guides now work for Big Eddie and Joe's.

Water is tested regularly and is filtered. And the island was blessedly free of biting insects, at least while we were there, though we were cautioned to watch for scorpions.

After the day's fishing, evening activities include tying flies, backgammon, exaggerating the days' catch and playing the 'ring on a string" game — trying to swing a metal ring onto a large fishhook attached to a post. Hey, it's a fishing lodge, not Club Med.

A word of caution, however; food supplies can be problematical at times, so inquire ahead of time.

A little bit of Xmas background

Christmas Island is Earth's largest coral atoll, 30 miles long with 250 square miles of lagoons, white sand and the rusted relics of British and American occupation.

The island was used as a staging area by Allied troops in World War II.

In the height of the Cold War the British tested nuclear weapons here. The British "loaned" the island to the American government in 1962 to use as a site to test nuclear devices in a crash program to detonate 40 bombs before the Partial Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets became effective in 1963. Fortunately, most of the bombs were detonated at 18,000 feet over the ocean and no measurable radioactivity remains, according to guidebooks.

Presumably because shipping would cost more than the equipment was worth, the island is littered with rusted out trucks and earth moving equipment left by the British and Americans.

Checkered past

Europeans first visited it on Christmas Eve 1777 during Captain James Cook's voyage. Cook's navigator, an officer named Bligh who would later command the infamous Bounty, explored the island and found it uninhabited, though teeming with bird life and turtles. The British annexed Christmas Island in 1888.

It was later populated by Gilbertese, transplanted from their Micronesian homeland 2,000 miles to the west to tend the palms that were planted for copra, used to produce coconut oil. Missionaries left their mark with many different churches on the island, and city names like Poland, London, and Banana.

Christmas Island, known as Kiritimati to the locals, is part of the Republic of Kiribati, which became independent of Britain in 1979.

The country's capital is on Tarawa, 1,500 miles away. While almost due south of Hawaii, near the equator, Christmas Island is on the other side of the International Date Line. The population, known as I-Kiribati, number about 4,000 on Christmas Island.