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Flyfishing the flats of Kiritimati Island for bonefish
posted by John : January 4-9, 2018


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Welcome to Kiritimati Island


1,300 miles south of Honolulu is Kiritimati Island. It's pronounced, "Christmas Island," and it was put on western maps by the Spanish in 1537 and again by Captain Cook on Christmas Eve in 1777. It's the largest coral atoll in the world. It's part of the Republic of Kiribati. The British and Americans used the island to test nuclear weapons in the 50s and 60s and the Japanese had proposed to launch space craft from there, but it never happened. Today there are 6,500 people living on the island.

But the reason we went there were for the bonefish. For flyfishing fanatics there is no better place to go after bonefish. Here's how it works. (And here's the gear that let me, a lifelong and pale Northwesterner, survive the equatorial sun.)

You leave Honolulu on Tuesday for a three hour flight on Fiji Airways to Kiritimati arriving Wednesday. (How do I know which airline and which day? Because there's only one flight per week.) You're met at Cassidy Airport and pile into a van for the drive to the lodge. There are several fishing lodges on the island and either my father or I have stayed at most of them. Our current favorite is Ikari House. Good rooms. Good food. Good views. Great people.

Your first fishing day starts early. Hot breakfast and coffee is waiting for you 30 minutes before departure. That time is dependent on your destination and the tides. It's usually between 6am and 7am. The staff has prepared a bunch of sandwiches and snacks for you to put into a cooler for lunch.

Most days are "boat days." The boats are on the beach in London, just a few minutes from the Ikari House. You'll usually share the boat with three other fisherpeople, the boatman, and your guides. Almost all the fishing is inside the lagoon so getting seasick is unlikely. (Trust me. I'd know.) You don't fish from the boat, it's merely a transport to a "flat" where you're dropped with your guide.

If you're paying attention you might be a little confused. Kiritimati looks like many coral atolls in that there's a ring of land around a shallow lagoon. Of the six days we fished we only went outside the lagoon once. The flats are the shallowest sections of the lagoon where you can wade in all but the highest tides. (Others did go out to the "blue water" where there are bigger fish including monster tuna and wahoo. When they're successful you can expect sashimi appetizer before dinner.)

Each guide is assigned to a pair of fisherpeople. Some pairs will split far apart on a flat while others, like my father and me, stick pretty close together. The reason you have a guide is not so much because you need someone to carry your gear, but because the guides have x-ray vision comparable to Superman. You think I'm kidding. I'm not.

Fishing for bonefish is all about seeing the bonefish. You can simulate your first day's experience, including the likelihood you'll see fish, by squeezing your eyes shut until you start seeing crazy colors then immediately find the bonefish swimming across your screen. (Can't see the fish? Don't worry. By the end of your week you'll be able to see bonefish even when they're 50 feet away.)

The guides can see bonefish hundreds of feet away. It's amazing and humbling. The guide will stand beside you and look into the water. "50 feet! 2 o'clock! Cast!" You'll cast as best you can. "Cast again! 50 feet! 2 o'clock!" You squeak out another five feet. "Ok. Wait... wait... wait... Now. Strip... strip... strip... wait... strip... slowly... strip... he's following... strip... there!" The bonefish takes the fly. You strike. The next thing you know you're in the backing.

(Not sure what backing is? Backing is the light, but strong line that connects your fly line to your reel. It's a sign of a good fight when the fish has pulled out all your fly line and starts taking your backing. It happens on most bonefish because they're pure muscle.)

You reel the fish back to you. You get all the backing on the reel, then the fly line. Then the fish sees you and takes you into the backing again. This can happen multiple times. Each time the reel screams as the mechanical drag tries to slow the fish, but it's not enough so you hold your palm against the reel to provide even more resistance.

You have to be careful not to put too much pressure or the leader, the most tenuous part of the line, could snap. For the same reason, you try to keep the butt of the rod vertical so sudden moves by the bonefish will flex the rod rather than break the line. As the fight goes on your arm gets tired so you rest the butt against your chest. By the end of the week you'll have bruises on your chest and maybe some burns on your fingers where the line went across too fast.

When you finally, finally land the fish it sparkles in the sun. The fly comes out surprisingly easy and the fish swims lazily away. On a good day, you thank your guide and he says, "45 feet! 11 o'clock!" Repeat until you can't cast anymore or the tide turns.

Our best day was 20 fish between the two of us in a four hour period. We found a school of bonefish that was parked just off the flat. The school would drift onto the flat, I'd hook a fish and fight it while walking away. My father would take my place and hook a fish. We rotated catching duty until the school dissipated. It was some of the best fishing I've ever experienced.

If the fishing isn't good where you are you might move to another flat. Maybe you'll go to Nine Mile Flat or Y-Site or Orvis Flat. There are at least 43 named areas according to the map I have. Ideally, you're fishing with the sun at your back, the ever-present wind blowing toward your casting arm, and the tide coming in. You don't need to know the names because the guides know where to take you for the best chance at fish.

And that sun? It's brutal. I used UPF 50 sunscreen applied multiple times every day and I was covered head to toe except the tips of my fingers. I still got a bit tanned and a lot burned where I had small gaps in my coverage for a few hours.

On the boat ride back we talked about how the fishing was and where we were. At the lodge everything gets rinsed lest the salt water eat away at your gear. Showers, clean clothes, and appetizers before dinner at 7pm. The sunset is spectacular and after watching the hermit crabs crawl along the beach outside the lodge everybody gets to bed early.

Take that day, about eight hours of fishing, and repeat five more times. There are so many places to fish in the 150 square miles of the lagoon and so few flyfishers on the island it's rare to run into anyone. And that 150 square miles doesn't include the shoreline on the outside of the island or the "backcountry." (The backcountry is accessed by truck. We fished there only one day on this trip because it takes a lot longer to get there.)

Bedraggled, tired, worn, and satiated you get up at 3am on the day you're leaving and head to the airport. Security involves a manual bag check, x-ray machines, and a metal detector, but you still walk out of small building onto the tarmac to the waiting plane for the ride back to Honolulu where you arrive the day before you left Kiritimati thanks to the International Date Line.

So that's what you can expect. How was our trip? It was epic. We had decent weather with only a few days of more than average cloud cover, but generally good visibility. Unfortunately, the tides were almost completely backward so we were often getting on the flats right at high tide rather than at low tide. In spite of that, we averaged between 10 and 15 fish per person per day. (But you can't really trust those numbers because we're both fishermen and my father is a lawyer, too.)

What did we catch? I caught bonefish, great trevally, bluefin trevally, yellow snapper, grouper, peach face trigger, goatfish, and myself once or twice when I wasn't paying attention to my casting. Everything inside the lagoon is catch and release, which is fine by me since I don't eat fish. ("If it comes out of the water it doesn't go into me. Except tuna because tuna comes from a can.") I also hooked a barracuda very briefly, but it cut through the line in a flash.

Aside from fish, the other big draw is birds. Fairy terns were my father's favorite, but I liked the black noddy. One guide, "English," described the black noddy as the strongest of the birds. When all the other birds were hunkering down before a big storm the noddies would fly into the wind to get food. There are multiple species of boobies (stop it -- it's a bird) on the island and in fact the entire island is a wildlife sanctuary and an important nesting ground. Christmas Frigate birds are endemic to the island and big pains-in-the-butt because they go after your fly when you're trying to catch trevally and barracuda. (No, I didn't catch one. Yes, someone else actually landed a frigate bird. Yes, they released it.)

We had the same two guides all week. Dennis and English were their fishing names (though not their real names) and both were excellent. English is one of the most experienced guides on the island and furiously sought after. Dennis is an up-and-comer with a keen eye. Both were a blast to talk to as we walked the flats. They told me stories about fishing, life on the island, and how it got so cold when the clouds went overhead. (Uh... that was roughly 65F.)

Finally, it's the experience of being in a place as wild and unspoiled as Kiritimati that makes a trip like this so special. None of the pictures I took can capture the feeling of walking in knee deep water scanning for fish against a white sandy bottom. And certainly none of the words or pictures I can present convey the happiness of being there with my father. He goes to Kiritimati once a year and has for the last 20 or so years. This was my third trip and by far the best one. (My last trip was 15 years ago, right before I had kids. I wonder if that's related.)

The only downside is that it's a serious commitment. I left January 1 and returned home late January 10. That's a long time to be gone from the family. And to be honest, six days of non-stop fishing is probably too much fishing for me. We could have mixed it up with snorkeling and more time wandering on land, but having traveled so far to get there it seemed a shame to not take advantage of every possible moment on the flats.

If you're a die hard flyfisher looking for an adventure of a lifetime, you should definitely consider Kiritimati. For me, time with my father doing something we both enjoy so much in a place that is almost unreal was what made this trip special. And the fact that it was 75F and sunny while back home it was 38F and raining wasn't so bad either.

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