Jim contemplates a recent Christmas Island trip, and some tips for guided anglers.
I recently returned from a visit to Christmas Island – that magic bonefish atoll in the Pacific Ocean. I hadn’t been there for some 17 years, so it was an eye-opener for me to return and see the changes. The population has doubled or tripled, and all the rusty old Second World War wrecks have been removed by some scrap metal dealers as part of a huge internationally-sponsored cleanup. Meanwhile, the roads that were built by the Americans and British have deteriorated somewhat, there are more cats and less dogs; and most importantly the fishing is still sensational – although the bonefish now have an awareness they didn’t have before. Fortunately, the cats haven’t learnt to swim and so the many sea bird nesting places are still intact. Hopefully they remain that way. The gannet, tropic bird and frigate bird rookeries are world-renowned – seriously amazing and well worth an hour off from fishing to admire.
On my maiden visit to Christmas Island in 1979 , I stayed at the Captain Cook Hotel. In those days, Mike Fitzgerald owned the Frontiers travel company. They had exclusive rights to the hotel and had trained and developed the skills of the local fishing guides. I might add that these guides had – and still have – the best sight-fishing eyes I’ve ever encountered. I’d met Mike on a trip to Tierra del Fuego in 1967. He, or rather his partner, helped me smuggle some duty-free whisky back to the mainland of Argentina, but that’s another story.
In those days, the Captain Cook was the only place one could stay on the island. My old passports record that I went back eight times between that first trip and the year 2000. Plenty of Australian researchers had visited before I did, as Australia’s overseas aid program had been in place for many decades. After the war, the Poms came and dropped a couple of atom bombs on nearby atolls and if one is as old as I, one might remember the British colony or protectorate of the Gilbert and Ellis Islands. One also might remember a schoolbook called A Pattern of Islands. This book is still a great read to understand much of life in this fascinating part of the world. Today the republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) with its capital Tarawa, is arguably the largest republic in the world, its many hundreds of islands covering a significant chunk of the Pacific Ocean. Much of its income comes from the international tuna fleets that ply its waters.
In those early days, the only access was from Honolulu and the weekly flights were unreliable. Air Tungaru flew us down and back in anything available. One time, we flew down in a very swish privately-owned Gulfstream 4; another time we flew back in a DC8, which was a bit of overkill for less than 20 passengers. Today Air Fiji fly weekly to Christmas Island and then onto Hawaii and return. It works well and the bags arrive most times, although unfortunately, they occasionally get offloaded to make sure there are enough supplies for the island. Beware!
Today, all the anglers at the lodge we stayed at are allocated a guide daily. It dawned on me halfway through the trip that I hadn’t informed any of my allocated guides that I could quite easily cast into a stiff breeze. One day late in the week’s fishing, we were on a sandflat in the middle of the afternoon, polaroiding downwind, when suddenly I turned around and cast to a bonefish upwind. My guide expressed some surprise and we were soon walking upwind with the sun behind us. Many more fish were sighted.
That experience was a reminder that we Aussie anglers are sometimes a bit dumb in handling guided fishing. After all, most of our fishing is without guides, so back at the lodge that evening, I was inspired to pencil some notes which might come in handy. Usually, I dislike writing instructional notes, however I think the following pointers are important:
- Before a guided fishing trip, I recommend some homework. Many of the world’s flyfishing destinations get lots of reviews and in this digital age of YouTube, Instagram etc, there is so much more information by comparison to my early fishing trips. There’s often colourful video footage, mainly narrated and produced by enthusiastic amateurs with GoPro cameras and, even more recently, drones. Often, it’s not hard to find some amazing information; even about remote destinations.
- Once you’ve arrived, open a discussion with your guide about the plan of action. On trout streams, is it pocket water or deep pools you like to explore? Fishing European nymph, dry or wet fly? Wherever you are fishing, it’s likely the guides mostly speak reasonable English as around the world most clients come from English-speaking territory. However, many of them, particularly local guides, are way too polite and reserved to ask the questions that should be asked, so they tend to take the easy option to find you fish. If you ARE a capable caster, or if you can see fish with polaroids easily when they are pointed out to you, it makes the guide’s day so much better and he or she then has the option of selecting a different (and often better) plan for the day.
- On that, let your guide know your fishing shortcomings as well as your strengths – and be truthful. Can you cast into a stiff breeze? How’s your fish spotting? Can you cast on the offside, or onside only? Let them know what your mobility and stamina are like. Informing your guide in advance can turn a day around: they might know their waters intimately, but they don’t know you!
- At least the evening before if not earlier, find out who is supplying and paying for lunch and drinks. This can save a very embarrassing situation! It’s always handy to put a few chocolate or muesli bars in your fly-vest anyway, maybe with a bottle of water.
- Try to discreetly establish the local policy on tipping. This is important. Do you have to compete with wealthy anglers for the best guide and/or possibly the best water? We Australians generally abhor tipping, but in many places, it’s an essential part of guided fishing. Some have a set price, like on Christmas Island where it’s currently $30 per day. Other times it might depend on the quality of the day’s fishing and results. Sometimes, being a bit generous is an investment in the rest of the trip. However, there is also nothing worse than overdoing it. Being too generous can wreck it for other anglers and can be seen as selfish. Or it can cause jealousy in the local community and amongst other anglers. So be careful and try to get it right.
- At the end of a trip, it can be a nice gesture to ask your guides to join you and your angling friends for drinks or dinner. If they have been good companions as well as good guides, this can cement a special friendship. In poorer nations like Christmas Island, a small grab-bag of leader material and flies, old wading boots or even an old rod or reel can be left behind. I’ve sent flytying materials back, as in some parts of the world these things are almost impossible to obtain.
Overall, a successful guided trip all comes down to doing a small amount of preparation, and being a bit thoughtful. As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t until well into my recent trip that I realised I’d missed out on quite a bit of good fishing because I hadn’t thought it through. Anyway, if the notes above help, then I’m glad I’ve offered them.