By Tyler Komarnycky
If you were to ask anyone who’s into saltwater fly fishing what their top three destinations would be to fish, it would likely come as a surprise if Christmas Island wasn’t on most anglers’ bucket list, and for good reason. Spend enough time on social media, at trade-shows, or just shooting the breeze with fellow anglers, and this place quickly becomes part of the conversation. Before we get into Christmas Island, a little background if I may.
I’ve been on the fly for about 5 years and living in Colorado, naturally, trout fishing is my game. Gin-clear, cold (and often low-flowing) tailwaters, sizes 22 and 24 bugs, and 6x and 7x tippets are par for the course, sans the epic salmon fly hatch some of us have been lucky enough to experience (future blog in the works!). After my first few years on the fly, streamer fishing has become a viable option in a lot of my local waters as well. This 0x stuff is really easy to work with!
That’s where it all began. Everyone’s got their thing: dry-fly purists, nymphing specialists, streamer junkies, etc. For me, I don’t want to pick just one and love that I don’t feel a need to. If I can throw it on a fly rod and practice my craft, that’s exactly what I do.
I have fished offshore with friends enough times “hauling meat” with a steady flow of adult beverages being consumed and the remnants of blood on the deck being a sure sign of a good day. Fish were landed and fun was had. It just didn’t feel like the fishing (which is more like hunting) rather than catching (to me) that had consumed so much of my outdoor life over the last few years-fly fishing.
Admittedly, living nowhere near the ocean and having a best friend with an offshore boat in south Florida, my first few experiences with saltwater fly fishing were offshore. Definitely not conventional, but this was my gateway into what we all know as the more traditional saltwater fly fishing on the flats. After realizing casting off the bow of a 24’ offshore boat was not making my mission any easier, I spent some time walking the beaches of southern Florida in search of Tarpon, also probably not the most forgiving way to experience the salt on the fly. I was then presented with a few opportunities to fish the salt in Costa Rica for giant Tarpon. Similar to my previous few outings and also very fun in its own right, but it still left me feeling like I didn’t totally experience what is ‘proper’ saltwater fly fishing.
Then, finally, I had an opportunity for a day in Biscayne Bay in search of Bonefish (the Tarpon weren’t there at the time). It wasn’t entirely the ‘proper’ way to do it, (the ‘true’ Florida Keys) but it was the closest I had gotten up to that point – my first time on a flats boat and my first time ever even on the flats and seeing them with my own eyes – I was stoked.
Having been anticipating a trip like this for years, needless to say, I was excited. The water was so beautiful – something one really just has to personally experience to truly appreciate. Turtles, sharks, jellyfish, dolphins – there was life everywhere, and I could walk in the water! Before we even landed a fish, I was…hooked? It was a tough day; two anglers and a guide and we saw 1 Bonefish all day and in the first 30 minutes of our trip. After a few practice casts with my makeshift 8wt, I actually sighted the fish myself! Since that was the first time I ever saw a Bonefish, it was the first time I ever cast at one. With some direction from our seasoned guide after my fly hit the water, it was on. The fish got well into my backing 3 times before submitting; I had never experienced anything like that with the 4 and 5wt setups I was so used to fishing in Colorado. I must have more of this.
Living so far from the ocean and with a price tag of about +$800 a day to fish with a guide in the Keys, I wonder how this is going to be possible. Spending $800 for 8 hours of anything is not practical to me, even on something I love as much as fly fishing. So what to do?
After putting out a few feelers to my friend, (and owner of Hill’s Discount Flies) Brandon, a trip to Christmas Island was booked. Admittedly, having mentioned what I did about the island thus far, I really didn’t know a whole lot about it other than it definitely being on my bucket list. I knew there was great fishing to be had and great friends to share it with, and that was more than enough for me.
Fast forward about 6 months, Brandon and our friend, Brice, met me in Honolulu where we spent a night before our Fiji Airways flight to CXI the following day. I’m excited. With one commercial flight a week to and from the Island, we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. We met and chatted with a few people waiting to board our flight who were clearly in search of the same thing we were – the rods/rod bags are kind of a dead giveaway.
After a virtually empty, 3-hour flight, the island appeared after cruising over the vast open ocean. I felt like a kid in a candy shop! The 737 landed at CXI airport; there weren’t any jet-bridges, so we walked off the plane, across the blacktop and into the airport. We were all ecstatic to see that our 3 checked bags had also arrived with our most precious luggage (fishing gear!) having not left our sights since Hawaii as carry-ons.
My first thought was that it was less humid than I expected. I don’t know if that’s the norm, but it was definitely not that super muggy. I’m definitely OK with this (I did leave the east coast to live in dry Colorado after all). As soon as we got our bags and cleared customs, (a very quick and easy process) we’re offered to purchase fishing licenses ($50 USD) right there at the airport. Brilliant!
Timae, the owner of the lodge where we were staying, greeted us and packed our bags into a small SUV. Brice and Brandon got in the back of the car, and I headed to the front, right seat and opened the door, only to realize that I’m ‘not in Kansas anymore’ and that was the driver’s seat! To the amusement of those in the car and a few other travelers nearby, we shared a quick laugh before I settled into the front left (passenger) seat. Christmas Island 1, me, 0.
Maybe 20-30 minutes later and after sharing some small talk with Timae my first thought was that there is nothing on this island. We passed a few makeshift structures on what seems to be the only road on the entire island (it wasn’t) before arriving at our lodge. We’re greeted by a large sailboat out front and later learn that the vessel shipwrecked some time ago and that Timae helped its owner recover it. It now serves as a landmark of the lodge.
A few of the people on our flight are already at the lodge and the fly rods started to come out. Everyone was rigging and talking about their plans for the week – the excitement around the place was palpable. Timae and his wonderful wife, Titi, came by and again introduced themselves. They informed us dinner was at 1800. They’d asked if we wanted any beer, water, etc. for the week, and about an hour later they returned with a case of water, a case of Bud, and a case of Heiniken (the only 2 choices of beer available) which we gladly accepted!
I had about 2 hours before dinner, and the water was about 100’ from the property. What else to do but get my 8 weight together, strap on my shiny new flats boots and take a look around? I had no idea what I was actually doing and I was perfectly OK with that. What the hell else would I want to do? The 3 of us walked down to the water and I eventually saw what I thought was something swimming around about 15’ out. I made a few casts and then realized it definitely wasn’t a fish. It felt great to have the rod and reel in hand standing in what felt like a hot-tub of an ocean. It’s difficult to explain the feeling when I looked out and saw what seemed like 3’ of water for as far as I could see. Tomorrow can’t come soon enough! But first, beers, and then, dinner!
We returned from the beach, gave the gear a quick rinse, and threw on some shorts for dinner. A quick stroll from our room and we entered the dining room where we’re presented with what felt like an American Thanksgiving feast. So much food! There was a hand-painted map of the island on a large concrete wall with a key naming all the different flats, about 50 of them. We all stared at the wall for a good few minutes in awe…how were we so lucky to be there and to be able to fish this place?
After what would have been 16 home-cooked meals, (breakfast and dinner for 8 days plus a packed cooler with lunch each day) sitting down with our new friends for these meals was a treat. The food was great, and for where we were, it was even better.
There is virtually no agriculture on the island. Short of raising chickens locally, essentially all the food on the island (sans the fresh fish and lobster, which there were plenty of) is brought in on huge ships, including the raw ingredients used to prepare the meals we ate.
We finished dinner and headed back to the room to complete the final preparations for tomorrow’s hunt. Each of us had an 8, 10, and 12 weight rods rigged and ready for action. After breakfast at 0600, we took a short walk down to the beach and met our guides There were 2 wooden boats, both clearly hand-made presumably on the island. Shortly after the 2-stroke 30 HP motor was humming, we were on our way. A little different than the flats and offshore boats I’m used to seeing back home.
Each of the 3 anglers had a guide, and we exited the boat separately on different flats. I brought my 8 and 10 weight rods, according to my guide’s (Max) instructions. I started asking all the usual questions and am thrilled to learn more about Max, his life on Christmas Island, and the fishery. Max took a look in my flybox and selected a shrimp pattern; I was told we were going to look for Bonefish: perfect. I later realized this first flat was the perfect ‘warm up’, if you will, for the fishing that would ensue over the next 5 days.
We started walking very slowly in water no deeper than my knees, and even though I had never actually waded flats before, I was aware we were obviously looking for fish. Figuring that out was the easy part – actually seeing the fish, not so much. Max stopped dead in his tracks, pointed with my 10 weight, and told me to make a cast about 30’ out. I didn’t see the target, but if there is one thing I know it’s that I should listen to my guide. I made a wobbly cast in the general vicinity and listened to Max – “strip, strip, strip”, while watching him mimic me in terms of the speed of the strip. I still didn’t see anything moving in the water. “Recast” he said again pointing with my 10 weight. Now I saw a slight black shadow shimmering in the water – a Bonefish! This time I made the perfect cast in terms of distance, but I landed the fly right on top of the fish’s head and spooked him — gone. This was not the last time this happened.
I am blown away that this man can spot these fish the way he does and where he does. His eyes constantly scanned the water near and far. He called out fish for me to cast at before I even came close to seeing them. I was truly blown away. I had spotted my first Bonefish in the Keys from the bow of the boat and didn’t find it that difficult. It wasn’t easy, but being in the water wading is a totally different ball game as it’s very difficult to find (see) the fish. When blind casting/drifting for trout in the river, they say hooking the fish is only half the battle (and landing it the other half). On the flats I’d say finding/seeing the fish is at least half the battle, and depending on what species you’re after, getting your fly to where it needs to be, getting the fish to eat that fly, and finally landing the fish comprises the other 50%. These Bonefish are virtually invisible in the water. Ghosts of the flats as they’re called.
A couple of hours later my sight wasn’t getting much better, but my casting was feeling a little more natural; I landed 4 or 5 Bonefish before lunch. Realizing it’s fishing and my sample size is very small, (on both ends) I landed more Bonefish in half a day there than I even saw in my 1 day in the Keys. I was excited. After a few more days targeting Bonefish, Triggerfish, and the infamous Giant Trevally, here is what I learned: none of these fish are easy to see, but that being said, Bonefish are the most difficult of the bunch to see but are the most willing to eat. If Bonefish were the primary target, (they weren’t) I think we could have easily had dozen+ Bonefish days.
Triggerfish are probably the least difficult to see but the pickiest of eaters. The Triggerfish was #2 on my list, second only to the GT, and I had probably 15 legit shots where I made great casts but just didn’t get the eat. I had looks and near takes but no solid takes until the last day of the trip. Triggerfish are uniquely shaped – they look like black blobs in the water and move slowly when feeding – not like the thin black line that is the Bonefish. Plus, when triggers are tailing, their tails stick out of the water and up in the air; while they’re feeding, they are nose-down. This is the easiest time to see them but again, getting them to eat is a different story. The Triggerfish is more apt to take crab patterns (but they will take a shrimp pattern or arguably much of anything else if they’re really hungry).
Still not having landed on our last day on the water I was more than willing to forgo Bonefish bites, (they’ll eat crab patterns if they must but prefer the classic shrimp) because I really wanted that trigger. It was the last day and by far the most windy of the trip. The light wasn’t great, it was a neap tide – all the conditions working against us. I told Max I didn’t care how many fish we saw or how many times I casted that day; I really wanted that Triggerfish! When I finally got one to eat, it fought harder than any Bonefish I had caught – three solid runs into my backing. What a cool fish! That was the feeling I was looking for – one of the reasons I came here in the first place and one of the reasons I fish-the tug! I could spend days hunting these bad boys – after all, it’s not supposed to be easy and what a beautiful and unique looking fish this was.
Now onto the Giant Trevally, which I feel I should rightly spend a little more time on because, well, they don’t call them “gangsters of the flats” for nothing. This was the primary target of our trip. These fish are extremely FAST and extremely POWERFUL. As seen on Blue Planet II, they are known to eat birds, yes birds, off the surface in some parts of the world. After digging around the internet for tips and tricks, one guy aptly opined that the only thing that swims towards a GT wants to hurt it; I didn’t see anything over the course of the trip that could hurt a GT. They eat anything and everything and everything swims away from them, and fast!
Similar to the concept of throwing patterns for bones or triggers (and the overlap between them) as related to your chances for each, you can set out with your 10, 11, or 12 weight setups (it’s my opinion a top of the line rod in any class will get the job done for anything 100 lbs or less, some just faster than others) and only target GTs. This would obviously be the way to go if that was your primary goal and you were OK passing up shots at other fish. And you would pass on other opportunities if you did this, as we did. The primary fly for the GT is a baitfish pattern. They eat Milkfish (we saw a ton everyday) and Bonefish and likely anything else they can fit in their mouths.
To recap, you have two main options in terms of setups and approaches here:
- have your guide keep the GT setup at the ready (and by that I mean line out and drag set) while you target other species – if you have the rod on the water but not ready to cast, you may as well not have it at all
- Fish/carry only the GT setup – leave the rest on the boat
Regardless of what option you choose, (we did a little of both) you had better be ready when you or your guide see those fish. You literally have seconds for a legit shot. When you’ve spent hours throwing that 8 weight all day and suddenly that 10+ weight is in your hand with a giant baitfish pattern and the wind is blowing, it’s a stark difference. Wake up!
If you’re lucky and skilled enough to get the fly where it needs to be, (well in front of the fish, think ~6-14”, remember, nothing swims towards them!) yet again you had better be ready. I had 20’ shots and I had 60’ shots and everything in between. We watched videos and read articles online, and everyone said strip as fast possible. This couldn’t be more true. When I say as fast as possible, I absolutely mean it. I was literally moving my body (and line) as fast as I humanly could, and Max was always saying “faster”. It’s sort of ridiculous how fast you have to move the fly. I had at least 3 follows where the split second I stopped stripping (shit happens) or in many cases the leader reached my rod tip (if this happens start moving the rod instead of the line and ‘walk’ backwards) the fish tailed off. As soon as that fly isn’t mimicking a frantic fish swimming for its life, the GT is no longer interested. It’s that simple. I’d say it’s more about the presentation here than it is the color or size.
After a few days of getting denied by Triggerfish, GTs, Golden Trevallies and having our fill of Bonefish on the flats we headed to the lagoons for a “GT day”. This was a 10+ weight only kind of day. Admittedly, these fish are still very difficult to land in the lagoons but not (in my opinion) nearly as difficult as on the flats. Next time your buddy posts that pic of his big GT, ask him if he landed it on the flats. Maybe do so in a private message instead of in the comments on Instagram – depending on your buddy and how much sauce you want to throw at him 😉
You’ve got a little more time to work with in the lagoons. You can see them (often feeding) further out rather than when they appear out of nowhere on the flats. They come in from the deeper water to feed where all the bait is – a few feet offshore (or on the edge of the flats, respectively). We were constantly fishing the color change areas (more inshore than off) in these lagoons and when searching the flats for them, almost every one we saw was on the edge of a flat near the deeper water. Baitfish don’t like the deep water, and the GTs come to where the baitfish are. That’s where you want to be stalking them. I actually saw a few of them feeding on some Milkfish about 150 yards from us at one point. We walked up to them, and by that time they had had enough and were gone but not before I saw a half-eaten Milkfish come flying out of the water and land on the beach; that is how powerful and aggressive these fish feed.
As I mentioned, after landing and missing more than our fair share of fish, we hit the lagoons. We all had (more) shots there than we did on the flats, with one of us landing a beautiful GT (it wasn’t me). The closest I came (other than probably 6 or 7 follows over the course of the trip) was in the lagoons. I had my fly where it needed to be when a school of about 10 of these bad boys came rolling in. Having stripped as fast as I possibly could, I actually saw the fish try and eat the fly. I saw the take but he missed! That’s right – all that work, all that movement, and I finally got the eat, and the damn thing misses my fly. It was like a bomb went off in the water. I couldn’t believe it, but we all know, that’s fishing…
If I have the opportunity to visit again (I definitely would) and for longer, I’d devote more time to stalking these fish on the flats. That means giving up shots at other fish, but after you’ve spent some time there, I think it’s worth it. Visiting for the first time we did hit the point a few times where we just wanted to bend the rods, and we did. I probably wouldn’t spend too much time (if any) in these lagoons, because again, it’s not supposed to be ‘easy’ in my book. Landing a GT on the flats is like making eagle on a par 5. You have to hit 2 really good shots and make the putt. Driving the green on a short par 4 and making the putt just doesn’t feel quite as legit.
Just like the first time you visit any fishery, near or far, you get better each and every time you go back. I learned more about saltwater fly fishing over the course of this trip by actually doing it more than I could (or did) learn over the past 5 years reading about it. And that’s one reason why I love the sport. You can never “win” – only get better, and the ride seems to get better every time you try.
I, like a lot of fly anglers, find the most passion in the hunt. I love gear, and I love having the ‘right tool(s) for the job’. Knowing that I can play an entire round of golf with a 7 iron is all well and fine, but why would I want to when I can carry 14 clubs?
Christmas Island is a special place teeming with life and fish. Let’s all do our part and protect the resource so that we can keep enjoying it for a long, long time.
If anyone has questions on gear, other fish we saw, our insane half day offshore (Tunas!) or really any questions at all please leave a comment below.