Foreign Exchange

 In 2012 a team of guides from Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, were invited to Tasmania to attend the Commonwealth Fly Fishing Championships. I was fortunate enough to spend time with them while photographing a story (FL#68). None of them had ever seen a trout before, let alone fished a flowing stream. In March I got the chance to complete an ‘exchange program’ of sorts, by going to Christmas Island and learning how to fish their flats.

I read all the past FlyLife articles about Christmas Island and watched a few films, so thought I had it worked out a bit before I got there. Expressions like ‘impossible to see’, ‘blistering runs’, ‘fun but dumb’, ‘long accurate casts’ were the clichés I was expecting, but would it all hold true?

Within two hours of arrival we were heading out on the skiff with our guides Iobu, from the Tassie championships, and Toki. On our first flat, one item was quickly being re-evaluated — they’re not impossible to see. As soon as the guides started pointing out bonefish, we got our eyes ‘calibrated’ to the conditions and could see them.

My travelling companion Danny and I both spend a lot of time wade-polaroiding Tasmania’s Western Lakes, so this all felt entirely natural to us (apart from the 30-degree water). Faint smudges, flashes, moving shadows — all the tools for polaroiding at home were relevant here. Yes, the smaller fish are hard to see when they turn side-on, but they can still be tracked. Things got harder where wind had stirred up the silt, making the water slightly milky, or when clouds obscured the sun. It was then that the guides’ famous eyesight came to the fore. They’re incredible! Sometimes they would be tracking a fish, which I couldn’t see at all and then the sun would appear and there it would be, right in front of me.

Pretty soon after, ‘blistering runs’ was put to the test when we hooked our first bonefish. Despite all I’d read, I still don’t think I was fully prepared for how fast and hard a bonefish pulls for its size. We quickly developed a new sizing scale. ‘Two backing runs’ was a good fish, ‘almost to the backing’ was pan sized. A three-backing-run fish needed no explanation: the whoops of joy could be heard across the lagoon.

‘Dumb fish’ was up next for the acid test. True and false on this one. The smaller bones were really dumb. They travel in schools or loose groups of up to 20. If you can get a fly near the fish and strip it fast a few of them will give chase and one will undoubtedly eat the fly. Fun, but far from challenging. The bigger bones, say 5-pounds-plus, are a different story. I was totally unprepared for how spooky and finicky they could be. They needed to be led a long way off and the type of strip used was critical.

They were fussy too, often following without eating, forcing a fly change. They almost always wanted a smaller and less flashy fly.

That first flat also exposed us to triggerfish. Their bright orange tails and pink flanks were in stark contrast to the camouflage employed by bonefish. While easy to see, triggers are certainly not easy to hook. Or to land! They pull like tractors as they head straight for their hole in the coral. On the flats you stood a chance; near a drop-off, none.

I was also keen to get into some of the trevally species. We caught a few of the smaller ones, blue-spot and giant, to 35 cm, which invariably took us to the backing. I then got a shot at a school of big boys, ditching the 7-weight for the #12. A fast cast into the mass of black shapes saw three or four GTs peel off and chase down the fly, and then a huge fish muscled in and smashed the fly with half its body out of the water. I’d never seen a spectacle like it! My memories are clouded by the adrenalin, but I recall stripping, setting the hook, the stripped line disappearing in a second, the rod bucking and the reel spinning. “Got one!” I thought, then a whack on the wrist (by the reel handle), and slackness. Silence. I think everyone was as gutted as I was. You see, I both cast and wind right handed. Well, I used to…

Later in the week we headed south for a bit of “truck fishing”, accessing the back lagoons by road instead of boat. We all preferred it after the first day. I think it was comfortably familiar for us and the fish were bigger. We found massive shallow flats with bigger bonefish tailing, deep edges off the sand with singles cruising the bottom, sheltered corners where an ambush could be set, and never another angler.

And still, after four days of fishing, I hadn’t needed to cast more than 15 metres. You can drop ‘long’ from ‘long accurate casts.’ Often the guides would set us up for downwind wading, making it easier to see into the water and to cast, though occasionally we needed an upwind cast.

On the second last day I spent the afternoon session teaching our truck driver how to fly fish. Takatapoopie is not a guide and had only caught fish by netting before. We stood side-by-side under a massive building thunderstorm, he barefoot wading over the sand and coral bottom, me like a wimp in my fancy-pants wading boots.

In five minutes he could false cast, extend line and shoot at least 10 metres with pretty good accuracy — plenty far enough. Through my polaroids I was spotting bones a metre down and pointing them out as they came onto the flat. I was amazed when he was able to see them with the naked eye. Toki loaned him his hat and sunglasses and went off to catch a milkfish, by hand, and eat it raw! — afternoon tea Kiritimati-style. With polaroids on he was unstoppable. Darwinian theory would suggest that they really have evolved to see fish better than us. ‘Poopie’ as I called him eventually hooked a fish and lost it, but the joy on his face was clear. He’s probably watched hundreds of visitors do it for years, and now understood what all the fuss was about. The wet sky fell on us with force so class was cut short, but it was one of the most satisfying lessons I’ve delivered.

Back at the hotel we filled ourselves with fresh sashimi, along with lobster, curries, stir fries and lots of rice. Cooked breakfasts kept us going until sandwich lunches, but I’d recommend taking enough muesli bars to last if you’re a snacker through the day like me.

Our bungalows by the ocean-side were quaint but basic (refurbished barracks) and had air-con and comfy beds. Days were long with breakfast at 5.30, back from fishing by 4, so get walking-fit before you go if you have an office job!

On the last morning head guide Nareau, who was team captain at the Commonwealth champs, took us to a flat close to the hotel. It was interesting to see how the different guides approached things and worked with clients. All of them were very good at what they do. When new guiding positions come up they get hundreds of applicants. They pick the best, whittling the selection down to just 3 or 4 who then train alongside an experienced guide for up to two years before taking paying clients on their own. They don’t get paid much and rely on tipping. Please be generous. They’re trifling amounts for us but have a huge impact for them.

American fly anglers have been fishing Christmas Island since the early ’80s, and Garry Barmby from Angling Adventures started running trips out of Australia in the early ’90s, about when FlyLife started. He says that the fishing has actually improved, with netting being banned in the lagoon and catch and release being enforced. Fishing pressure has increased, but so has the size of the bonefish. If you think it’s all been done to death, or is all a bit ho-hum, you couldn’t be more wrong.

The Island

Kiribati is a poor nation. The people mostly shelter in huts made of fibro or sticks and palm-fronds and live very simply, eating fish, pigs and chickens, supplemented by rice. They are incredibly friendly and welcoming. I recommend leaving some space in your luggage to take clothes, books, toys, balls and puzzles for the children, and hand tools, sewing materials and clothes for adults. You can leave these with your hotel manager or school principals for distribution.

The people are incredibly friendly. We usually got big waves and smiles from everyone we passed on our way to fishing. The kids all speak english quite well and relish the opportunity to talk to other english-speakers, and absolutely LOVE having thier photos taken! The island is incredibly beautiful,  the multitudes of coconut palms adding to the “island-ness” of the place. I was surprised to learn that the palms weren’t there when Cook first saw the place—they were planted for food and trade.

The light is incredible too, shifting from a gorgeous golden haze to blindingly white as the day progresses, with clouds usually building through the day to provide dramatic “Turner skies” for the afternoon and sunset. My week became a non-stop dilemma—rod or camera? Whichever I chose, I was never disappointed.

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Brad Harris fished Kiritimati courtesy of Fiji Airways & Angling Adventures. www.anglingadventures.com.au