Republic of Kiribati, August 1982
The spool was spinning furiously and the drag was making a
metallic buzzing sound as the handle spun in a blur. I
already had a pretty bad burn mark on my palm from trying
to slow down the initial run and although I started out
with over 200 yards of backing on the fly reel a few
minutes ago, nearly all of it had disappeared into the
clear blue water of the lagoon.
"Gone. It's gone," said Eric. I looked down into the reel
and I could see the bottom of the spool with only a few
wraps of backing left. The drag was locked down tight.
Using a cotton glove soaked in sea water I clamped down
hard on the spinning spool as a rubber coating that was
supposed to cushion your hand as you palmed the reel began
peeling off in chunks. I didn't know what was on the other
end of the line but it was pissed at being hooked and was
putting a serious bend on the rod. This was Christmas
Island fishing at it's best.
Christmas Island, the largest coral atoll in the world, was
named by Captain James Cook during his visit in December
1777. It remained nearly forgotten by most of the world
until the 1850's when American phosphate companies came to
mine the guano left by millions of sea birds and a New
Zealand company attempted to harvest copra (dried coconut
meat) for its oil. Both ventures were unsuccessful. In the
1880s the British incorporated Christmas Island and in 1919
it became part of the Gilbert and Ellice Island colony.
Christmas Island has several landmarks bearing unique
names. In 1914 Frenchman Emmanual Rougier was granted a
coconut plantation license and named his settlement Paris
where he remained until the 1930s. The area known as Poland
was named in honor of his Polish mechanic and the town of
London was founded on the opposite side of the main channel
leading into the Christmas Island lagoon.
In 1941 the British brought in workers from the Gilbert
Islands to take over the plantations which formed the
island's permanent settlement. After World War II the U.S.
and British forces conducted high altitude hydrogen bomb
tests between 1957 and 1962. A massive cleanup of Christmas
Island, funded by the British between 2005 and 2006, have
removed almost all visible traces of the nuclear tests and
luckily there have been no long-term environmental effects
due to radiation from the blasts.
The Gilbert Islands group attained independence from the
British in 1979 and became the Republic of Kiribati,
bas--the local pronunciation of Gilbert). Recently
Christmas Island has become the focus of an attempt to
resettle almost 5,000 Kiribati islanders from the main
island of Tarawa to control overcrowding.
I had fished Christmas Island since the late 70's with my
brother and grandfather but this time our cousin
accompanied us on the trip. This was also the first time I
tried saltwater fly fishing. On previous trips I noticed
other anglers staying at the Captain Cook Hotel, which was
really just an old British Royal Air Force base, were there
to fly fish and I was fascinated by the ability of these
thin, fragile-looking rods to land a sizable fish. I grew
up slinging heavy action spinners and baitcasters but this
fly rod thing looked interesting and presented a challenge
so I decided to try it out.
My biggest problem was finding gear. Al Gore didn't invent
the internet yet and no fishing gear shop in Hawaii ever
heard of fly fishing much less ever seen a fly rod, fly
reel or fly line. Flies were something to be swatted off
the picnic food. My good fishing buddy SteveL was game to
try fly fishing too and eventually, with the help of a Bass
Pro catalog, we were the proud owners of some fly fishing
equipment. I had a very rough idea of what sort of gear I
needed and wound up with a Daiwa multiplier reel (for every
one revolution of the crank the spool would rotate 2.5
times--very fast line retrieval) a 2-piece high-tech
graphite 7/8 weight rod and two Scientific Anglers
weight-forward 8 weight floating lines, because the
Christmas Island fly fishers said your line would get torn
up before the week was over, and one Scientific Anglers 8
weight fast sink line to dredge the bottom. Now the only
thing left to do was learn how to cast this stuff.
multiplier reel. Each turn of the crank rotated the
spool 2.5 times allowing rapid line
We were on our own. I look back on this time as the
beginning of all my bad casting habits. Steve and I
probably owned the only two fly rods in Hawaii so as far as
finding someone to teach us to cast we were out of luck.
But Steve visited the public library and found a sports
book that had a chapter that I will call "Fly Casting For
Dummies", with illustrations on the proper 11 o'clock to 2
o'clock casting positions. That was it for our instruction.
It was off to the Quarry pond to practice.
The Quarry pond is located on the lower campus of the
University of Hawaii at Manoa near Cooke Field. Steve and I
set up our gear and began to practice casting. It was very
ugly at first but the delivery began to get a little
smoother and soon we were able to get some line out.
However after 45 minutes there was a slight jolt to the
rod--the tip had exploded into a giant puff ball of
graphite fibers. I called Bass Pro and the person on the
other end said they had been having trouble with the 'new'
graphite rods and what had happened is the tight wraps were
suddenly unwrapping when the rod was flexing. They assured
me that they would replace the rod but I was leaving for
Christmas Island in two days and the rod wouldn't be here
in time. But Steve, being a good fishing buddy, allowed me
to take his rod instead.
I didn't use the fly rod for the first few days on the
island and instead caught my fill of bonefish and trevally
with my ultralight spinning outfit. In those days, and it's
probably still true today, the flats were filled with huge
schools of bonefish finning in the warm, shallow water.
These fish weren't huge and it was normal to have 50-75
fish days on the flats. You would lay a cast out and 5-6
fish would immediately pounce, fighting among themselves to
reach the lure first. The larger fish
with an average Christmas Island bonefish. On a
productive flat, a 50-70 fish day was
would be found closer to the reef edge but if you hooked
one it immediately took off for the open sea, dragging your
line through the sharp coral in an attempt to cut you off.
Unfortunately this trick often worked and in the end you
would be left with no fish, no lure and yards of shredded
monofilament. However after a few days of countless fish
you become sated and at that point I put down the spinner
and picked up the fly rod.
the tide is in it's the end of the road. When you
weren't fishing from a punt you were doing it from a
rusty Isuzu pickup.
In the early days of Christmas Island fishing there were
not enough punts, flat-bottomed fishing barges, to
accommodate all the anglers so if you went out on a boat
one day the next day you were shore fishing--tooling around
to various secluded lagoons in a rusty Isuzu pickup truck
with your guide. It was our turn to fish from the boat and
I decided it would be a good time to use the fly rod. I had
two spools for the reel, one loaded with a floating line
and the other with the sinker so I was ready for whatever
situation we might come across.
morning run across the lagoon from London to
We started out early in the morning, leaving the fishing
port in London and motoring across the channel entrance
towards Paris and St. Stanislaus Lagoon. The water was flat
and calm and we passed a school of huge milkfish feeding on
the surface. Our guide and boat operator said we'd be
fishing the drop-offs at small sand islets that dot the
lagoon so I swapped out the floating line for the sinking
line then settled in for the one hour ride. We were fishing
catch and release, but the boat operator and guide asked us
if it would be okay to keep any fish that were gut or gill
hooked for a feast the village was hosting the following
day. We all agreed to their request because we usually
averaged only one or two seriously hooked fish a day
fish live here. My grandfather with a 40 pound
After setting the anchor firmly on the tiny sand island the
boat was backed over the edge of the drop off. One moment
you were looking at sand just a few feet below the boat and
the next it was turquoise blue with no bottom in sight.
Everyone threw a line in and soon the party was on. For the
next two hours it was hookup after hookup, sometimes with
all of us fighting a fish. We were in the middle of a
school of medium to large jack and as one was being hauled
to the boat three or four more were circling below waiting
for a chance to take a crack at the lures being tossed from
ready for some heavy fishing. My cousin prepares his
line during a break in the action.
I was shooting photos of the melee and finally decided to
take a crack at a fish with the fly rod. I hesitated to use
it at first because I still wasn't comfortable fishing with
it and because I thought it was too flimsy to handle the
large jacks circling below (and because it was Steve's
rod). But I finally gave in and dropped the line into the
water. I never saw the strike.
There was nothing tentative about the take. One moment I'm
there, standing on the roof of the punt watching the line
slowly sink, and the next second the rod is bent almost
double and my hand is throbbing after the spinning reel
handle busted my fingertips. I hung on as the line quickly
peeled off the spool and moved off towards the horizon. I
tried cranking the drag down and bottomed out the knob. I
tried palming the spool, which had a coat of hard rubber
laid over the aluminum rim to help provide more drag but
all I managed to do was put a blister across my hand.
The constant screaming of the drag caught the attention of
my brother and cousin and soon I had company although at
the time I wished they stayed below, on deck, instead of
watching me attempt to fly fish.
"Might be a big one," said my cousin. "I don't think you're
going to catch it with that." More line disappeared from
My brother stood on my left shaking his head.
"You think you're going to catch that fish with this?", he
said pointing to the bent fly rod. "You're going to bust
Steve's rod. Cut the line. Cut the line. It's gone."
I used my t-shirt to add more pressure onto the spool. Bits
of rubber began to flake off. Then I felt the heat from the
spinning spool through the shirt. I asked my brother to
soak a glove in water and I used that to palm the spool. It
helped a lot, but the fish was still running hard and I
could see I was almost out of backing so I really clamped
down and big pieces of rubber began flying off. I was down
to bare metal. There were only four wraps of line left when
the fish stopped.
It took twenty minutes and two more runs, each shorter than
the previous one, before the jack was brought to hand. It
wasn't the biggest fish of the day but it was the most
satisfying catch of the trip and my first on a fly rod.
The fishing continued to be hot for the rest of the day and
we lost count of how many we landed and released. I
continued to use the fly rod, caught lots of fish, and
learned a lot about the tackle. By the time fishing was
over and done, Steve's rod was still in pretty good shape
but the fly reel spool looked like crap with most of the
rubber palming rim missing and the paint job worn to bare
metal in spots (note: I refinished the spool and still have
it although it still looks like crap compared to the spare
spool that I used in the photo above). And because the
action was good the villagers got enough fish for their
Island is three hours due south by jet from Hawaii, about
115 miles north of the equator. There are now several
hotels operating on the island and there are enough boats
available to accommodate all anglers.
bring multiples of everything. There is no fly shop or gear
shop on the island. If it breaks and you don't have it,
you're out of luck. On another trip I met a fly fisher that
broke four of his seven rods on the first day
(high-sticking). Rods from 7 to 9 weight for daily use. If
you're after Giant Trevally then you need 10 to 12 weight
rods. For open ocean fish use 14 to 16 weight rods. Bring
extra fly lines, leaders and tippet. You will be shredded.
Badly. Lots of Crazy Charlies and baitfish flies. Use
sturdy saltwater specific reels that hold lots of backing
and have a strong drag! I learned a painful lesson. The
Daiwa multiplier worked great but the drag was totally
insufficient to stop insane runs by pissed off fish.