Happy Christmas

WE landed at 6.30am on a Wednesday. Our group clambered off the plane bleary eyed but excited after little or no sleep since Fiji. Two hours later, after strong coffee and a cooked breakfast, we found ourselves knee deep in warm water on a brilliant white sand flat, fly rods in hand, looking for bonefish. Life couldn’t be better. The location was Christmas Island, which is part of the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kirribas). The island is the world’s largest coral atoll and is situated just over the equator in the southern Pacific Ocean.

Despite high pre-trip expectations, our group – Fisho’s Pat Brennan, Scott Thomas and I, Canberra-based Dave Longin and Alex Naoumidis, and Graham Dodds from the Gold Coast – found the first day tough. Our fishing involved three groups of two anglers, each with a local guide. Our friendly guides – Ray, Simon, Natan and the legendary “English” – proved well practised in spotting bonefish in all conditions. Despite some anxiety about fishing in the strong southerly wind, we soon got used to it; although we had to take care casting the weighted flies. Most of us at some time during the week would cop a whack from a fly in the back/head/rump, thankfully without injury. Being handy with a backcast was to prove a valuable skill.

Our trip started slowly but we all caught a bone or two on day one. For those of us who hadn’t bonefished before (all of us except Scott – see Fisho December ’08) the fish were everything we’d hoped. They’re like a whiting fed on steroids and dipped in chrome. Perfectly designed for their environment, they have a downturned mouth for grubbing the flats for food and a big forked tail for making lightning fast escapes. A good sized bone is anything from about 1kg (2.2lbs) up. The average CI fish is probably half that, but we caught plenty in the 1-2kg range and some of the group spotted and hooked a few that would have nudged double figures. Scott landed one of over 3kgs or around 7lbs – probably the bonefish of the trip.

The numbers of fish increased as the week went on and our catch rate climbed accordingly. We’d arrived on the last of the full moon and the island’s bonefish were yet to gather before assaulting the flats en masse. A few days after the big moon is when things go up a gear. The making tide is best as the bones make their way up onto the flats from deep water. They’re hungry at this time or, as the guides say, “angry”. We saw this firsthand with bonefish on a making tide charging  flies to eat them with gusto. This was in contrast to the bottom of the tide when they were skittish and would bolt from a raised rod or clumsy step.

English lessons
It’s 7.30am on the second last day. The sun is low in a cloud-filled sky. If the past few days were any indication, the cloud will thin out by late morning and provide good sight fishing conditions. Cloudy days make spotting bonefish difficult.

Our driver, David, nudges the timber outrigger boat up to another huge expanse of sand and coral. There are so many flats at Christmas Island the boat drivers really earn their keep. At times the thin passage between flats makes it feel like you’re negotiating a maze. Luckily, the locals know their way around. Most flats have colourful names: Go Like Hell, Smoky, Whisper, Koito and the famous Paris 1, 2 and 3 to name a few. This one – known as Nine Mile Flat – runs about as far as I can see, its brilliant white broken only by fringing channels of deep aquamarine. It doesn’t appear overly littered with the coral, which we learnt, quickly snips your leader if it makes contact with a runaway bonefish.

Pat Brennan, English and I climb off the boat. It’s my turn to start with a guide, so
I shadow English as he walks slowly across the flat, eyes scanning the water. The crystal clear shallows are knee deep and warm, the surface rippled by the beginnings of the sou-easter. A fin shows itself on the edge of a channel in the distance – a slow cruising black-tipped reef shark on the lookout for breakfast. My heart is pumping. After walking for several minutes without seeing a bonefish, the task is looking tough. Suddenly, English spots one as we’re both mid stride. Casually, he raises an arm and points. “Bone … one hundred feet.”

It’s the longest call of the week. Cloud glare doesn’t help as I struggle to see any sign of the fish. English motions for us to keep walking. As we walk he tells me about his life as a bonefish guide – a job held in high regard on Christmas Island. English has been guiding since he was 20. He’s now 40 and has some amazing fishing memories including one of an American client he guided onto a 16 pound bone.
He points again. “Forty feet …”

Heart racing, I strain my eyes to scan the flat for anything resembling a fish. Finally, I spot a smudge in the distance slowly moving our way. I wait until it’s close and
I can make out the greenish back. Bonefish. It makes slow headway into the wind. Without taking my eyes off it in case it magically disappears, I try a few false casts. Satisfied the fly should land where it needs to, I cast. The fly plonks into the shallows, too close to the bone’s head … It lets me know by departing the scene, leaving a mini bow wave.

The next few bones thankfully don’t need crash helmets and I finish the first session with five or six average sized fish. They all eat the fly I’ve been using all week – an orange size 8 Christmas Island Special – and they all run the line out to the backing, sometimes two or three times, before coming to hand for release. They’re amazing fish. The day turns out to be my best of the trip with 30 bones caught and released and two that just blow me away. The others have done similarly well and it’s happy times at pre-dinner drinks back at Ikari House. 

Visual fishing at its best
Bonefishing is all about spotting the fish. To do so you need polarised sunnies to cut glare and let you see into the water. Once you spot a bone, the preferred method is to cast a small fly a distance from it so it’s enticed to eat rather than ignore the fly (snubs often happen), or worse, cause the bonefish to bolt. This form of fishing closely parallels other forms of visual fishing. Anyone who’s polaroided brown trout in lakes or slow flowing rivers will quickly take to flats fishing for bonefish.While we only fly fished, bones readily take small soft plastics, although this almost seems like cheating – they are a supreme fly fishing challenge.

When you know what to look for, bones are easy to differentiate from other fish on the flats. GTs and bluefin trevally swim in from deeper water to harass smaller prey, while surgeon fish, puffers, triggerfish, milkfish and goatfish are all flats regulars. Milkfish and goatfish look similar to bones from a distance and often have you throwing casts at them before you get a call from a guide ie “meelk” (milkfish), or realise your mistake. Goatfish feature stripes and goat-like whiskers and fight well.

Bonefish flies are tied to loosely resemble the crabs, shrimps or even small fish that a bone might encounter as it grubs nose down along the flats. Popular patterns include Crazy Charlies, the Christmas Island Special and the George Bush Special in sizes 4, 6 and 8, all tied sparsely with a minimum of flash in a variety of colours. Bead chain or lead head eyes are used to sink the fly down, depending on required depth. As it turned out, we’d all tied way too many flies before getting to Christmas. We found a couple of colours and weights worked the most consistently, so pre-dinner fly tying over beers became a regular feature of the first few nights of our trip.

The usual set-up for delivering the fly involves a 6-8 weight fly rod and a floating line – I used a Rio Bonefish taper line and it was excellent. Leaders range from 10-20lb with 12-15lb being the preferred ratings during the week. Flats with not much coral on them could be fished with 10lb leader without problem, while coral rich areas were better fished with 15lb leader. I found Rovex’s new fluorocarbon leader material in 10 and 15lb breaking strains worked well for this application.

Bones feed into the wind, often in water only a few centimetres deep, their big forked tails waving in the air. The sight of a small army of “tailers” working its way towards you is something not forgotten in a hurry. If a tail isn’t visible, a turquoise tinged back often gives the fish away, although they’re not known as “the ghost of the flats” for nothing. From a head-on approach they’re easily made out, but that changes when a bone detours sideways and disappears!

Casts at bonefish are usually made 1.5–2m ahead to avoid spooking them. This doesn’t always get the required result as some fish are so intent on feeding they need the fly to be virtually on their nose before they see it. Once your fly lands you wait until the fish is close enough before doing a sharp long pull on the line to get its attention. “Long strip … wait … long strip … wait … short strip … short strip … fish on!” (typical commentary from your guide). 

Whether or not a bone eats your fly, seeing it all unfold before your eyes makes this form of fishing addictive. And just when you think you have it all worked out, the next fish does something different.

At any size bonefish are spirited fighters and the bigger the bone, the more drawn out and spectacular the fight. Even small fish often run out a whole fly line and get into the backing.

All of our group experienced runs from big fish, and comical bust-offs as loose loops of line tangled or snagged up as it shot through the runners on the first mad run. A couple of six pounders were the highlight for me. I spotted one as it cruised with two similar sized fish in a foot of water. After feeling the hook it rooster-tailed past me and kept going for about 200m out into the channel.

The bone refused to give in, stripping line at will and getting into the pink Bionic Braid backing several times.

There were many highlights from our week on Christmas Island. Apart from bonefish there are mega-sized GTs that lurk along the edges of the endless flats and coral reefs. Manta rays glide and dance in schools while large black-tipped reef sharks keep you company from a distance as you walk the flats.

One day we saw huge yellowfin tuna busting into baitfish 100m from shore, the splashes lit up by the late afternoon sun as we took time out from bonefishing to throw poppers around. And for those who venture outside the island in calm weather there are wahoo, dogtooth, sailfish and other bluewater gamefish to be caught.

But while there are plenty of fishing options available, it’s hard to go past those magical Christmas Island bones.

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