“There’s more to fishing than catching fish.”
While perhaps an overused cliche, the above quote really is true and was particularly relevant on Kiritimati. We went there to fish, and were not disappointed in that aspect of the trip. But it was the people—our fishing companions and the locals we met—that made the trip special. I certainly came away with an appreciation for the people of this remote place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
We met a few other foreigners on the island that were just passing through, but Kiritimati is not what anyone would consider a popular tourist destination. Two sailboats were anchored just off the beach at Sunset Horizon and we briefly met the crews from each boat. One boat was owned by The Great Danes, a couple from Denmark and two young crew members who had been at sea for 15 months. Kiritimati was their furthest point of travel before they would soon begin their return voyage. The other boat was under the command of Crazy Larry from Kansas City, whom we met briefly one day as we returned from fishing. Crazy Larry had a most impressive mustache that curled under his chin and muffled his voice and made it nearly impossible to determine whether or not he had a full set of teeth. He was quite the character, traveling with his two crew members: a very attractively-built, late 30-something woman from Italy with unshaven armpits, and her
son boyfriend much younger male companion. I’d love to have had time to sit down with this crew and hear their full story because it would no doubt have been rather intriguing. Crazy Larry hadn’t been home to the States in nearly 20 years and this was his second trip sailing around the world. Yeah, his story would probably be the stuff movies are made of. Apparently he and his crew had been “stuck” on the island for 5 months, waiting for a necessary part for their boat that had taken 13-1/2 weeks to arrive. They were eager to get back out to sea, however some sort of hold-up with the immigration office had prevented them from departing the island. Apparently they did resolve the immigration issue and had left before we did. I wish I’d been able to capture a photo of Crazy Larry, but my hunch is that he wouldn’t have wanted any public exposure.
Our lodge companion, a young woman by the name of Waltzing Matilda, had departed her home in France after graduating from college. From there she set out to travel the world by herself, first going to Russia and from there to South Korea, the Philippines, Hawaii and then Kiritimati where she undoubtedly encountered a place very different from what she had expected. After a few days she realized that if one were not here to fish, there wasn’t much to do (she was not there to fish). Sharing our evening leisure time with Waltzing Matilda was a nice reprieve from talking about fishing with a bunch of crusty old farts. Matilda was a great sport as she accepted a gift of the Big Sexy shirt. Speaking of good sports, I promised Goose that this would be the last time I post a photo of the Big Sexy.
Our lodge was in the heart of Ronton (London), which is the main settlement on the island and home to somewhere around less than 2000 people. We spent our days fishing and didn’t have much time to take in the town until our last evening. After returning early from fishing, we decided to take a bag of candy and walk around the streets near the lodge, meeting the locals and passing out sweets to the kids. We took our French traveling friend with us lest the children be put off by a bunch of old American fishermen walking around handing out candy
from a van. Mathilda’s charm obviously worked because the candy didn’t last long.
The locals were friendly and politely accepted candy with warm smiles. None of the children were greedy and freely shared their bounty with others.
After the candy was gone we decided to walk down the street to one of the local bars and see what the evening night life on Kiritimati was like. Passing through town we got a very small glimpse of life on the island. The people were friendly and quick to greet us with smiles and waves. The town was bustling in the relative comfort of the evening.
One of the bars bore a large sign that said, “Anglers”, making it a clear choice for our group. However the joint was closed so we headed to another nearby establishment that was open for business. The barkeep at the Lady Wheel Bar was undoubtedly glad to sell us a round of Budweiser from the slightly-below-room-temperature refrigerator. As we
choked down enjoyed our beer, our hostess from the lodge, Lisa, joined us, though not to drink, mind you, as she was 7 months pregnant. Lisa had seen us enter the bar and was concerned we would get sidetracked and not make it back to the lodge in time for dinner. It was her job to herd us back in time for a very special celebration that the staff had prepared for us on our last night. We would not be late for the festivities.
Back at Sunset Horizon Lodge, it was time for our big feast and celebration (luau) to begin. The staff had prepared a grand feast that included a spit-roasted pig and more side dishes than I can recall. The pig was perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious. I think even the boys from the Lone Star state, Gus and Woodrow, agreed that it was worthy of Texas BBQ standards.
As we feasted we were entertained by three very talented youngsters who performed a traditional dance. It was quite a treat.
It was a fantastic last evening and a really nice show of hospitality by the staff at the lodge.
And that’s a wrap on our visit to Kiritimati. The next morning we would rise at 4:30am for an early morning truck ride to the airport and 7:30 flight back to Honolulu. Next year I hope to go back and spend more time outside of the lodge, seeing more of the local flavor.
Here are a few more random shots from around Ronton and other nearby villages.
I discovered this blog while doing a search for local information about Kiritimati. It’s quite well done so if you have interest in reading some firsthand insight into the island I recommend having a look-see: A Snapshot of Life on Kiritimati (Christmas Island)
After dinner on our first night, fishing partners were chosen, guide assignments were determined and sandwich orders were taken. This vital information was marked on the whiteboard (Command Central) each evening. Anticipation of the next day’s activities hung as heavily in the air as the humidity.
We rigged our 8 weight rods (for Bonefish and most everything else) and Joe passed out the heavyweight rods he had brought for those in need. 11 and 12 weight rods would be used for Giant Trevally (GT for those who are too busy to spell it out). I won’t mention that Joe inadvertently rigged me up a Winston Air Salt 7 weight instead of an 11 weight. It would be another couple days before this became apparent, and fortunately I hadn’t really needed a GT rod to that point anyway. In his defense, Joe did set the rod up with a 12 weight reel and line so I had that going for me. Meanwhile the Bonefish rod he would be carrying around was an 11 weight Winston Air Salt paired to a 7 weight reel and line. As our host on the trip (meaning he was akin to a camp counselor for a bunch of homeschooled kids who’d never been to camp before), Joe also provided us with several flies we would need: Christmas Island Specials for Bones and most other things, and a handful of bigger baitfish patterns for
GT Giant Trevally. Joe then sat down to tie up a few more GT flies (apparently the good ones, which he would keep for himself). Most of us had picked up a few flies on our own so we were well stocked in the fly department. I expected to lose most if not all of them to the coral reefs. Fortunately I lost only one fly all week and never had either my leader of fly line severed by coral.
I won’t go into detail about every flat fished or every fish caught because I can remember neither. A few fish do stand out, however. Most notably my first Bonefish. The learning curve required some getting used to, and the most challenging aspect of fishing the flats was training the eyes to spot Bonefish, which are perhaps better suited to virtually disappear into their environment as any fish I’ve encountered. When the wind wasn’t blowing too hard and there were no clouds, it was difficult to spot them. When the wind blew harder and there was cloud cover, it became damn near impossible to see them. Fortunately, or otherwise, we seemed to have plenty of sunshine, clouds, and varying amounts of wind. The first Bonefish came after great difficulty and was the only one I caught the first day. What I lacked in skill, the fish made up for with its diminutive size.
As the days progressed, so increased the ability to spot Bonefish (at least a little bit). As the ability to see them improved, so did the hook setting skills, and subsequently the size of the fish. I was continually blown away by our guides’ abilities to pick out fish that—in my eyes—did not exist.
Most of the Bones we encountered were either solitary or in very small groups. Occasionally we encountered greater numbers as they fed on the incoming tide, their quantities making them easier to spot. Despite that, they never became easy to catch and in several instances they were downright spooky and wanted nothing we threw their way.
One thing I quickly learned is that Bonefish, no matter their size, pull with a sense of great urgency unrivaled certainly by trout or even steelhead. My first Bonefish of decent size took me quickly into my backing. I don’t remember the last time I saw my backing and I was relieved that my knots held. What a thrill to have line ripped from the reel a breakneck speed as you ponder what size fish was on the other end of the line. Nearly every time the fish was smaller than I would have thought. Amazing fish, those Bones.
There’s more to fishing the flats than just catching Bonefish, and I wanted to experience as many species as possible. From the get-go we spotted a few other interesting characters and would continue to do so throughout the week. Most notable were the Milkfish, which get beginners all excited because we think they’re Bonefish until we learn otherwise (think bait and switch). Milkfish are easy to spot as their topsides are very dark and they swim in large schools.”Milks” rapidly became a familiar term issued forth by our guides as they sensed our misguided enthusiasm at the sight of these Bonefish imposters. It didn’t take long before we stopped casting to them.
Different species of Triggerfish were occasionally spotted in the shallows, their tails breaching the surface as they fed nose-down on the bottom. Despite being easy to spot, Triggers are very spooky and I must have cast to a half dozen fish before admitting to myself I wasn’t likely to get one. I was, however, very fortunate—and quite likely very lucky—to have caught two. These I considered real trophies because I’d made up my mind months earlier that I wanted nothing more than to catch a buck-toothed eater of crabs while on the island. The first was a smallish Yellow Margin Triggerfish (aka Pineapple Triggerfish). When fleeing from prey, Triggers hide under large rocks (chunks of coral). They also do this when hooked by an angling person, and if not for Max (our guide that day) I’d have never landed the Pineapple Trigger. Going the extra mile for me, Max knelt down in knee deep water and lifted the huge chunk of coral so that the Trigger could be extracted.
The other specimen was an even more smallish Reef Triggerfish (though not all that small for the species that typically only grows to a length of 11.89 inches). Also known as the Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, the Reef Trigger is the state fish of Hawaii.
We also encountered quite a few Puffer fish, which are rather odd and very common inhabitants of of the flats. They’re also undoubtedly the ones who get teased by the other fish as these portly individuals don’t put up much of a fight and grunt like small pigs when reeled in. I didn’t target any more Puffers after catching my first one, but nonetheless it was another species to check off the weird/cool list. Bluefin Trevally, a smaller cousin to the mythical
GT Giant Trevally were an occasional thrill to catch. We saw several, caught a few, and they are—like Bonefish—very strong fish for their size. They’re easier to spot than Bones due to their brilliant blue accents, and also unlike Bones, which slowly cruise the flats, Bluefins are predators that boldly enter the flats to chase down anything they can eat. I was standing in shin-deep water doing who-knows-what as my fly dangled in the shallows behind me. Suddenly my line went tight as a 14 inch Bluefin tried to make off with my fly. This fish was bold and aggressive, if not a tad careless and naive. They’re such cool fish.
One more particular moment bears mention. No, not when Marck knocked his new prescription sunglasses off his head into the water and our guide had to dive in retrieve them, nor when he mistakenly drank the frozen bottles of tap water in the cooler (he never got sick). No, the noteworthy event occurred on our last day of fishing as we were headed back toward the marina earlier than usual. It had been a tough weather day, with some rain and a lot of cloud cover. We’d caught some fish but it had been challenging, so the idea of getting back to the lodge early didn’t disappoint us. It had also been a very windy day, the water was much rougher than we’d seen all week. As we rounded the point off the marina, suddenly the boat came to a stop in about 4 feet of water. As waves crashed against the side of the boat, Max—our guide that day—hopped out. The marina was only a couple of hundred yards away. The tide was coming in. What the hell was he thinking?
Trust your guide Blind allegiance to your guide is the way it works, so Marck and I dutifully followed. We were soon blind casting and hooking up regularly. The Bonefish were stirring up clouds of sand as they foraged for supper, and we caught them in the middle of a feeding frenzy. For a good while it was some of the best fishing we’d had all week with some of the nicest sized Bones we’d yet to catch.
Meanwhile the water grew deeper by the minute. This wasn’t so much of a problem for Marck, since he’s about a foot taller than me. By now the water was up to my chest and my waterproof backpack acted as a kind of flotation device: handy if I’d needed to stay afloat, but troublesome each time a wave hit me. Max saw me bobbing in the waves, struggling to keep my footing, and signaled for me to come over to where he was. “Stand on this rock,” he instructed. I did as he ordered and was glad for the elevated perch, which bought me 20 more minutes of fishing before we called it quits for the day, and for the week. Fishing ended on a high note, and with a good laugh.
A trip like this is filled with simply too much to write about, and even if I could capture all the moments in words, nobody would take the time to read it all. Anyway, a picture paints a thousand words, so I’ll leave you with a few more fishing-related shots from trip.
It was a fantastic trip with a great group of guys. I can’t wait to go back again next year, when I’ll be a seasoned Kiritimati flats veteran and will only cast once or twice to Milkfish before realizing, on my own, that they are not Bonefish.
Just to clear things up, Kiritimati (a respelling of the English word, Christmas) is pronounced ‘Kirismas’ in the Kiribati language.
Having never been on a destination fishing trip, a recent visit to Kiritimati aka Christmas Island (or CXI if you’re just too busy to spell it out) was a big deal, and it exceeded expectations. I define ‘destination fishing trip’ as a distant location to which one must travel a great distance by air to go fishing. Full disclosure: I once flew from Seattle to Boise (and from there drove a few hours to Victor, ID, to fish) but it was only an hour-long flight so it doesn’t qualify.
The trip to
CXI Kiritimati was hosted by my buddy, Joe Willauer (a hobby fishing guide in Montana whom I met many years ago when he was just a boy and a dirtbag real fly fishing guide). The trip package was through Flywater Travel and was very well done. Pre-trip communication was quite thorough and included what we should expect—and not expect—on the island, which really isn’t an island but rather a raised coral atoll (and in fact the world’s largest one at that). Our guides on the island atoll were through Christmas Island Outfitters, and were excellent. We stayed at Sunset Horizon Fishing Lodge, and from what I was told by Joe (who had been to Kiritimati several times previously), it was an upgrade from previous locations he had stayed, in particular with regards to the dining arrangements.
From Seattle we flew to Honolulu on Memorial Day and overnighted at the
lavish Waikiki Sand Villa Hotel, a building that may well have been one of the first high-rise hotels in Honolulu following Hawaii’s statehood in 1959. It clearly caters to foreign tourists and despite that we couldn’t read any of the signage in the lobby, it provided us with all that we required for our one night stay on Oahu. It was the perfect transitional housing before spending the next 7 days on Kiritimati.
That evening we met up with the rest of our group for supper. Joe was accompanied by his dad, Billy Joe, and his buddy Cap’n Jesse (a real, live fishing guide who lives on Oahu). These three had been to Kiritimati several times and were all chill, like, “Yeah, CXI, no big deal.” Also in attendance were a couple of fellas from the Lone Star state, Gus and Woodrow, whom Joe had known for years as they
drive cattle travel to Montana each year to fish. We enjoyed fine island fare at Uncle’s Fish Market & Grill and shared conversation with friends new and old. On Tuesday morning we boarded a Fiji Airways flight from Honolulu to Cassidy International Airport on Kiritimati. This leg of the trip was aboard a Boeing 737-700 (not a single engine prop plane) and the flight crew was fantastic (airlines in the states could learn a little something about hospitality from the Fijian crew). The 3 hour flight went by quickly despite that we left Oahu on Tuesday and landed on Kiritimati on Wednesday (time travel is hard to wrap my head around). I’m not sure when we crossed over the International Date Line but I was completely alert and glad to have had a window seat when Kiritimati first came into view. The anticipation had been great, and seeing the island from the air added to the excitement.
Joe had prepared us for the worst part of the trip, which would be the customs “holding pen” at the airport on Kiritimati. In years past, foreigners would have to spend a few unpleasant hours in what sounded like a non-air conditioned chicken coop as they waited for their outbound flight at the end of their trip. Much to our surprise and delight, a new airport facility had been constructed in the past year, opening in February 2019. There was nothing shoddy about the modern facilities at Cassidy International airport, and while it would be several days before we had to concern ourselves with outgoing customs detainment, there would be nothing to dread.
There is one incoming flight from and one outgoing flight to Honolulu each week, so
Tuesdays Wednesdays are kind of a big deal on the island. We were greeted at the airport by Bita Kairaio, owner and head guide at Christmas Island Outfitters. We then loaded into our Uber X transport truck for a 20 minute drive to the lodge. Kiritmati is part of the nation of Kiribati which is said to be one of the 12 most remote countries in the world and is described as sub-third world (whatever that means). Along the drive (on the wrong side of the road, mind you) it was immediately clear that the people here don’t have much. Streets were intermittently lined with elevated water tanks and shipping containers as we passed schools and churches and a couple of small, simple stores on our way through the town of Ronton (London). Houses varied from 3-sided huts with roofs made of woven coconut palm leaves to tidy concrete block homes with metal roofs, and everything in between. Children frolicked and adults of all ages milled about, all appearing to have good posture (not a single one of them had their faces buried in a smart phones because, well, there aren’t too many smart phones on the island). Motorcycles and a variety of cars and trucks, in a wide variety of physical condition, zipped about town. Light duty Isuzu diesel trucks were predominant while Toyota Hilux diesel trucks were also common (wish we could get those in the states).
We arrived at Sunset Horizon Fishing Lodge, a modest but attractive facility on the beach in the heart of the town. Three concrete block buildings, two units per building, provided very simple but clean rooms that each included two twin beds and an adjoining bathroom (a sink, shower and toilet). We were glad to have a new AC unit which kept hour room as cold as we wanted it at night. A large, covered patio served as our central gathering place and dining room. The beach was just a few steps from there.
Meals were served to us by a very friendly and accommodating staff. Our hostess, Lisa, is a local employee of Flywater Travel and was on hand each evening to make sure we had everything we needed. Beer choices consisted of Heinekin and Budweiser, served slightly below room temperature. Fortunately I am as far from a beer snob as a person can possibly get, so I had no issues with the selection of
swill beer. That said, it was rather nice to have purchased some liquor at the duty-free store in the Honolulu airport. The rum went quickly (note to self: bring more next time). The food was better than anticipated, with fish, chicken, and lamb being frequent visitors to our dinner plates. Breakfast was quite good as well, with usually eggs and a breakfast meat, and there was plenty of it. I never left the table hungry. Lunch was—as we were told to expect—rather minimalist. The PB&J sandwiches were robust and filled a void, but we supplemented with protein bars, dried fruit, and jerky. On the third day I opted for the fish sandwich and was glad I did because it was delicious. A tuna type spread with sweet onions. Two thumbs up.
This gives you a very brief glimpse into what it took to get to Kiritimati, and what we encountered upon arrival. Next up, the fishing part (because that’s why we were there, right?).
The Firehole Rangers recently returned from a trip to Kiritimati (aka Christmas Island, or CXI in modern day acronym-speak). Since this trip replaced our annual pilgrimage to the Firehole this year, the temptation to compare the two destinations was impossible to resist. One would think that traveling to the a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to chase bonefish (and other odd , tropical species) would be as far from chasing trout in Yellowstone National Park as two destinations could possibly be. Ironically, it wasn’t that much different, and after this entry I’m sure you’ll agree that the similarities are mind boggling.
I want to preface that any reference to Seattle is for general purposes only. None of the Rangers actually live in Seattle. Near, perhaps, but definitely not IN Seattle.
- From Seattle, it is 738 miles to West Yellowstone, our base camp when fishing the Firehole River. From Seattle, it is 3789 miles to Kiritimati. Each distance contains the numerals 7, 3, and 8.
- It takes us 12 hours by car to get to West Yellowstone and we cross the Continental Divide. It took us 9 hours by air to reach Kiritimati and we crossed the International Dateline.
- When we visit West Yellowstone, we encounter a lot of foreign tourists (tourons). When we visited Kiritimati, we were foreign tourists (hopefully not tourons).
And now for a photographic exposé that reveals just how much the two places have in common:
I hope you enjoyed the comparison—no doubt you were as surprised as we were at how much the two vastly different locales have in common. Stay tuned for more coverage of our trip to Kiritimati.