Dave Donald Hits Kiritimati – Oct 17 Edition

There is one species that sits way up above any other in the saltwater fly fishers wish list – the bonefish. The author has caught them before but this time he headed out in search of Bonefish Nirvana and reckons that he may just have found it! Let’s wade the vast coral flats of this mid-Pacific paradise and see what he’s raving about.

I knew my turn had come when my guide for the day started retrieving my TFO rod from the overhead rack. Slipping my arms through the straps on my backpack, I moved out on the outrigger while the boatman carefully worked the vessel up to the edge of the coral flat, then jumped into the knee deep water as the hull paused.  The guide splashed beside me then pointed in the direction of a large dark patch in the otherwise glowing white expanse.

As we crunched our way through the broken coral pieces, I worked about 50 feet (15 metres) of fly line into the air then picked up the small fly in my left hand ready for action.  The 10 knots of trade wind was almost at our backs and the rising tide starting to run strongly, conditions that I had learned in the past few days were just about perfect for bonefish activity. Glancing at my fly, the guide called for a change then picked a much lighter weighted example of my hand tied Crazy Charlies.

The dark area turned out to be extensive weed bed and I was initially a little apprehensive as to why the guide had chosen such a spot. With a light chop on the waters surface and a slight milkiness now starting to appear, any bonefish were going to be increasingly hard to see. Then an opaque shape started moving over the weed.

“Bonefish, 40 feet, 2 o’clock!”

As the fly hit the water, the guide’s preliminaries suddenly made sense!

“Wait, wait, now striiip, striiip! Fish on.”

‘Yes, yes!” I gushed as the fly line zipped through my fingers followed by a slight clunk as the Hayden spool started revolving a warp speed. Even though I’d landed well over 50 fish in the past couple of days, the excitement of a hook-up hadn’t waned – if anything, it had increased. It took a couple of minutes to work the average sized bone back to the guides waiting de-hooker.

At around 3.5 pounds (1.5kg), I again admired the sleek silver body shining in the bright sunlight before it swam strongly away.

For the next hour, the bones seem to appear like satellites crossing the dark night sky, mostly moving upstream across the prevailing current. The islanders were expert in spotting bonefish in most conditions but I was having trouble picking them up in all but the best circumstances. But that afternoon on that contrasting background, locating fish was a very simple task indeed and, given the fish were feeding aggressively, very few presentations were refused.

I’m not a numbers man but that session must have produced over 30 lovely bones, the final fish being the best of the day (and my trip) at around 7 pound (3 kilos). A couple of small blue spot trevally were the only other players in a session that proved to be the highlight of a very memorable trip.

So exactly where did this red-hot fishing action take place? Well, it’s only a speck in the vast mid Pacific Ocean but it’s certainly a place well worth taking the trouble to visit – Kiritimati!

Commonly called Christmas Island, this raised coral atoll in the Northern Line Islands is not to be confused with its namesake west of WA in the mid Indian Ocean.  At close to 400 square kilometres, the island has the largest land area of any atoll in the world and while it encompasses a lagoon of nearly the same size, represents some 70% of the landmass of the country of which it’s a part, Kiribati.

Now that’s not much hard stuff in an area of ocean equivalent to the size of Australia but does give some indication as to how vast the expanses of ocean are between the 33 small specks that make up Kiribati. In modern day travel times, Kiritimati is 4.5 hours flying time from Fiji and a further 4 hours from Honolulu while the capital Tarawa is 4 hours in the other direction!

There’s an interesting story about how the letter ‘s’ in the local Gilbertese language became written as ‘ti’. It seems that the missionary given the task of recording the language was using a somewhat cantankerous typewriter that had a worn out ‘s’ key and was forced to use ‘ti’ to represent the sound instead. So Kiritimati becomes Kirismas – more easily recognized as our festive season moniker, Christmas.

I’d already been bonefishing in Kiribati, a couple of years ago at another island called Nonouti, but the fish were pretty scarce on that occasion. The first thing you notice when you fly in to Cassidy International on Kiritimati is the massive size of the lagoon and with an expanse of water like that to fish, it quickly becomes very clear why there are reputedly so many bonefish there.

Our crew of 8 were pretty bleary eyed after an overnight ‘red-eye’ flight from Fiji had us passing through the customs check and buying our fishing permits at 7am local time but after a quick breakfast at our accommodation, the Villages, we were down on the beach with gear ready to roll a couple of hours later.

Kev Collins and I couldn’t wait to start fishing so we both waded out near the anchored boats and started casting. I heard a yell shortly later and looked over to see Kev’s rod bent and reel singing. First fish of the trip was a lovely bone around 2.3 kilos (5 pounds) barely 50 metres from our room. It doesn’t get much better than that!

We were loaded on to wooden longboats sporting outriggers on both sides, 4 anglers and 4 guides plus a boatman per vessel. The driver then dropped each pair on one of the huge number of coral flats as designated by the guides. In my case, the guide had me catching bonefish within 10 minutes of starting to wade!

I had half a dozen under my belt when a large bow wave indicated that a sizeable fish was heading our way. The fish was swimming too close to the surface to be a bone and quickly revealed itself as a decent sized trevally. I tossed the small fly in its direction and it sipped the presentation without even a pause. A minute later, there were 100 metres of backing disappearing into a blue hole in the distance.

Worried that the braid would cut on the reef edge, the guide had me running after the GT frantically retrieving line. Keeping the rod as high as possible, I managed to keep the line clear of the coral edge and eventually play the fish back to the waiting guide. The fly was so far down its throat, the guide cut the leader rather than risk injuring the beauty.

Over the next 6 days, I not only learned heaps about catching bonefish but, conversely, found 101 ways how NOT to catch one. Most of the crew favoured ‘sight fishing’ as the preferred fishing technique but we did enjoy a great session fishing blind off the famous Worm Bank flat opposite London on one occasion. Casting lightly weighted flies to very spooky bones in ankle deep water proved very frustrating but was perhaps the pinnacle of the art.

The Kiritimati flats are also home to another revered fly fishing species, the trigger fish. Nine times out of 10, triggers will spook at the slightest disturbance – the swish of a rod, a fly hitting the surface 2 metres away – but just occasionally, they will show interest in a presentation. It took me many casts before I finally hooked one and the fight that followed didn’t disappoint. Their flat, powerful build, combined with their love of broken coral outcrops, makes them a real challenge in tight situations.

There’s also other species available including monster trevally, milkfish and ladyfish (giant herring) if they take your fancy. I’m just about over GT’s these days and opted out of teasing the big stuff but it was pleasing to land the smaller model above.

At the moment, there is only one (usually packed) flight a week in and out of Kiritimati usually on a Wednesday but that is about to change as Kiribati has purchased a couple of Boeing 747’s of their own. A new route ex Brisbane via Honiara and Tarawa will make the journey much shorter in overall duration meaning that the transit will be much less tiring and immigration formalities minimized. This new service will offer access to bonefish in both Kiritimati and Nonouti.

Accommodation on Kiritimati is generally available at a number of locations including Captain Cook Hotel, The Villages and Ikari House. Our group stayed at The Villages which was quite comfortable and only metres from the beach. Most of these venues have guided fishing packages available on request. Unfortunately, exposure to the USA fishing market means that tipping is an established part of the process so allowances need to be made for this extra cost.

As far as most of the fishers in my group were concerned, Kiritimati is about as close to ‘bonefish heaven’ as a location gets. Many had been at least once before and just about all were ready to come again. It’s the classic ‘sight fishing’ scenario and highly addictive given the health of the fishery on the island.

What makes the place even better is the fact that a law was passed through their parliament about 5 years ago prohibiting the islanders from netting their bonefish. Thanks to the savvy of expat Aussie, Danial Rochford, a former CEO of Whitsunday Tourism, who is now head of their tourism program, the government readily agreed that their bonefish resource was worth much more as a tourism drawcard than in a fishcake. It’s something our politicians need to take a close look at!

If you’re into fly fishing, there’s really no other option! Kiritimati should be right at the top of your bucket list. As for myself, I’m already planning my next visit! Head to www.kiribatitourism.gov.ki for more information.