Peter visits the Cocos Keeling Islands.
For many years I’d heard whispers, gradually getting louder, about the extensive bonefishing flats of the Cocos Keeling Islands. These islands are some 3000 km north-west of Perth, WA.
Last year, I fished there for a week with three mates. It was fantastic and we had a ball. For me, it’s rare that I ever want to go back to the same overseas destination twice (Montana is the only other place I can think of) but after my week last year, I couldn’t wait to visit Cocos again. So this winter, I visited again; this time for 3 weeks and with my fiancé and flyfisher Di.
When I mention the nearby Christmas Island (about a 90 minute flight east of the Cocos), most flyfishing people wrongly assume I’m talking about the popular Pacific bonefishing destination where, incidentally, I have fished on two previous occasions.
However, this Christmas Island is in the Indian Ocean. It may be better known as a place where Australia has a major offshore refugee centre, but it’s also one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been. One of the island’s claims to fame is the mass migration of its football-sized red land crabs, brought to international attention some years ago in a Sir David Attenborough documentary. Di and I had a wonderful week there being general tourists. The birdlife was spectacular.
Christmas Island isn’t a flyfishing destination unless you have access to a boat and wish to target bluewater species. The island is actually the tip of a mountain pushed up from the depths, and it can be over 2000 metres deep just a few hundred metres from the shore. There are very few shallows for a land-based flyfisher.
Cocos Keeling Islands
Unless you’re a serious kite surfer, you are unlikely to have ever heard of the Cocos Keeling Islands. They’re an Australian Territory rich in an interesting and contentious history of ownership by the Clunies Ross family dynasty. For those who are interested, more can be learnt of the history of the islands HERE.
As I understand it, the Cocos Keeling Islands are what remain of the rim of an extinct volcano. There are 24 islands in total that make up the U-shaped atoll. The main opening of the lagoon is in the north. Moving clockwise around the atoll to the east of the opening is Direction Island. This is an exceptional place for a day visit with wonderful snorkelling in the rip that passes the southernmost point of the island.
Further south is tiny Prison Island, then Home Island which has the main population of some 450 residents living in the neat and tidy Bantam village. Further southeast, there are many smaller islands before you reach the longer and larger South Island. The tip of this marks the south-eastern corner of the atoll.
After another short gap between a couple of smaller islands, West Island more or less occupies the full length (some 14 km) of the left side of the ‘U’. The lagoon is about 7 km wide at its widest point and extremely shallow.
The wading flats inside the lagoon are extensive and the bottom varies from pure white sand adjacent to deeper aqua-blue holes, to miles of sand flats which are covered in dark green turtle grass. All of this is absolutely ideal bonefish territory for a flyfisher. Incidentally, it’s also a favourite place for turtles to hang out! We saw literally thousands and thousands of turtles in the knee-deep water.
There’s a regular 100 passenger ferry service between West and Home Islands that operates to a minute-perfect schedule several times a day. The ferry also travels to Direction Island twice a week – this is a must-do trip if you ever visit.
Outside the rim (which is only 5 metres high at the highest point) there’s a shallow reef which extends out 100 metres or more. The ‘outside’ or ocean-side fishing is swell and wave affected and there’s nearly always tidal current. While there are clearly more bluefin and giant trevally in this sort of water, usually there’s not much else to hold the attention of flyfishers. Having said that, there are many spots on the outside of the atoll where we caught bonefish, but the tide had to be ‘just right’ and the fish were smaller than those we found inside the lagoon.
Inside the lagoon
This is the area of extensive and quite sheltered flats of most interest to flyfishers.
Although most flyfishers will be on the island primarily for the bonefishing, there are many other species to target. We caught many barred trevally and silver biddies in the 40 cm range. These fish fight well and are exceptional eating when cooked wrapped in foil and baked over a coconut husk beachside fire.
There are also very big trigger fish that will do your head in trying to catch them. I’ve seen permit too but haven’t caught them. You might be luckier or more skilled than I am! In the lagoon there are also enough big GTs to keep you on your toes.
Comparisons with CXI
Many readers will be familiar with fishing for bonefish on ‘the other Christmas Island’ so let me point out what I think are some of the differences.
On Cocos, there are definitely fewer bonefish to cast to. On a great day on Cocos, the most I ever saw was 30 and we caught maybe 10 of them. On CXI you could perhaps easily catch 30 fish on many days. This would just not be possible on Cocos.
Another difference is that in 21 days fishing on Cocos, I never managed to find a school of bonefish, despite seeing many groups of two and very occasionally three. On Christmas Island there are often schools of many, many bonefish. On Cocos, I never found a place where I could confidently blind fish a deep hole or gutter and expect to catch a bonefish. On Christmas, it seems that large catches are often made blind fishing, which generally requires a lower skill level.
On the plus side of the ledger, one of the many wonderful and exceptional things about Cocos is the shallow water sight fishing for large tailing fish. I saw bonefish on the turtle grass flats I estimated to be a metre long. The local guides have caught them to 87 cm and they believe a metre-long bonefish will be caught soon. I was truly nervous and somewhat scared to cast to these fish – and that’s so unlike me. I can honestly say I had some of the best quality fishing of my life while I was kneeling in ankle-deep water and casting to huge fish that were grubbing around in only inches of water. It wasn’t just their fins and tails that were above the surface, but sometimes their whole backs!
Once you hook these fish (and only a very gentle and super-accurate presentation will get a take) you would swear you’d hooked a high-powered jet ski at full speed! It was awesome.
Gear and flies
A standard 8 weight rod with an appropriate tropical line is all you need on Cocos. However, the reel you use should be a bit more special than the rest of the gear. For what it’s worth, if you are going to do a fair amount of saltwater flyfishing, I think you should be prepared to spend a relatively large amount of money on a lifetime quality reel. Mine is a Billy Pate bonefish reel made by the great Ted Juracsic. It’s bombproof, it will never fail, and I’ll have it to hand onto my kids one day.
My leader was made up of roughly equal lengths of 50lb, 30lb and 20lb tippet. For Di, who was enjoying her first ever saltwater flyfishing trip, I set her up with a leader of 9 feet: simply 5 feet of 50 pound then 4 feet of 30 pound fluorocarbon tippet.
Halfway through the trip, I switched from 20 pound to 30 pound tippet. I saw absolutely no advantage in the lighter line, and many advantages to the heavier tippet. Let me explain…
Perhaps the only negative aspect of our trip was, whilst wading the flats or walking the ocean beaches, we were constantly shadowed by many black-tipped reef sharks. There were thousands of them. It was as if they instinctively knew that if they waited long enough, we would bring a tethered fish close enough for them to easily attack and eat.
The 30 pound tippet enabled us to be brutal when we fought all our fish. It also allowed me to grab the leader quickly and handline the bonefish out of the water and out of danger. This aggressive fighting and quick hand-lining technique resulted in a loss of just three fish to sharks for the whole trip. The guides tell me anglers who fish with 6 and 7 weight rods and 10-15 pound tippet, can end up losing every fish they hook to a shark. Not a great situation.
Flies & Presentation
If you’ve ever fished the other Christmas Island, you’ll know of the general idea of keeping your Crazy Charlie-style bonefish flies relatively small and very sparsely dressed. A fair amount of flash is often used and thought desirable for this fishing too.
The bigger and more solitary Cocos bones seem to love a good feed, and a bigger and more heavily-dressed shrimp pattern is clearly the go. Also, my feeling over the last two trips has been, the less sparkle the better. Even so, there were plenty of casts and long following retrieves that resulted in subtle, gentle, testing nips; through to outright refusals.
I guess that’s fishing and every fish and every day is different. One thing is for certain though: many follows can be converted to takes with some fancy variations in the retrieve. Never give up on a fish until your leader is well inside your rod tip. We had many fish take this close to us after a 15 metre follow!
On the bright white sand flats, the bonefish seemed to be always coming from somewhere and going to somewhere. These we called travellers. A traveller was dead easy to catch as long as you cast 20 feet in front of the fish and allowed your fly to sink before you gave it a tug. The fish would often rush over immediately and scruff your fly without a moment of hesitation. This was especially the case if you found two fish moving together.
However, some of the more spectacular fishing as far as I was concerned, was on the shallower turtle grass flats where the fish were tailing. I described this earlier and these tailers were very different cats to the travellers. Apart from needing the fly to land gently (not easy in the windy conditions) the presentation had to be dinnerplate-accurate because the fish were hardly moving and when they did move, it was in random directions. Sometimes you needed many quality casts in succession to get a take.
The knowledge of the local guides is vitally important at Cocos. They know where fish will be at different times of the tide – and never mind just understanding the timing of the tide, they are also very tuned into the relative heights of the tides. Fishing at low tide on a low-low is very different to fishing at low tide on a high-low; if you get what I mean.
These guys also know when it’s the right time to switch species, e.g. from bonefish to triggerfish. Their shallow-running, tunnel-hulled poly boats are perfect for moving between places quickly and efficiently. And believe it or not, these guys have also worked out a loch-style fishing method for the bigger, more solitary bones.
Their intimate knowledge of channels, reefs, bommies and general safe navigation in the shallow lagoon, is remarkable and I just couldn’t imagine trying to do this without their expertise.
Many bonefishers have great trouble spotting this mirror-like fish. The guides all have exceptional eyesight and polaroiding skills. Their knowledge of fish habits helps them with identifying bonefish too. As an example, I often mistake milkfish for bonefish and waste a cast on them. The guys know they are milkfish, partly because they are higher in water column than a bonefish. With my inexperience in shallow water I find it hard to tell if they are on the bottom or not. In deeper water it is more obvious to me.
This is how I see it: if you’re a keen flyfisher then you simply MUST go bonefishing some time.
For your first trip, I think you are probably better off going to the other Christmas Island. While not exactly a honeymoon destination, you will get many, many more opportunities to catch lots of bonefish and some harder-to-catch trigger fish. For your second bonefishing trip, you should definitely consider the Cocos Keeling Islands.
The Cocos guides are excellent value. Book them for as long as you can afford to pay them and be sure to tip them well too. You will stay in great accommodation and you will eat good food. We paid for an excess bag of 23kg and took over a foam box of supplementary food like cheeses, salamis, olives, smoked mussels, frozen wahoo, a cryovaced scotch fillet, etc. This proved to be a great idea.
On Cocos, it will be 27 degrees every day and the water will be the same temperature, which makes it perfect for swimming and snorkelling. You will have internet access and a non-fishing partner will love the place too.
(PS: I’m thinking of taking some groups of intermediate level flyfishers with me when I return to Cocos next winter. Spaces will be limited but drop me a line at [email protected] if you are interested in coming along.)
Accommodation, travel and amenities
You will fly ex Perth to Christmas Island (the Indian Ocean one) then onto the West Island of Cocos. The flights run twice a week and will cost you about $1200 return.
The West Island is where the International Airport and main tourism infrastructure is located. There are also a variety of accommodation options. Car and scooter hire are available from several businesses. We stayed for 2 weeks at the terrific Cocos Castaways where our hosts Graham and Annelies looked after us like family. A further week was had at Cocos Seaview apartments which was terrific too.
There is a hotel/club that does drinks every night and a feed a couple of nights a week. The pizza shop and basic bakery/café is where the owner Tony makes a sensational loaf of sourdough twice a week. Tony is proud that his sourdough is the most expensive loaf of bread in Australia: $14 will get you a loaf! There is just one supermarket and two restaurants in the village, but this is enough to provide all you need.
A regular bus from the village services every ferry that comes and goes to Home Island. Basic internet service is provided by a local carrier and $65 will buy you a voucher from the Tourist Information centre. This will give you a week of access and 3 Gb of data. Enough to call home on WhatsApp, Skype or Facebook.
Guides – Rizan and Shahrin
There are two main guiding operators on Cocos Keeling: Rizan who operates ‘Chasing Island Tails ‘ (www.chasingislandtails.com) and Shahrin – CKI Flyfishing (www.ckiflyfishing.com.au). If you are looking to book them, you’ll find it’s often easier to communicate with the guys on Facebook.
Each of these guides has a team of other part-time dedicated and capable guides. In my two trips totalling 4 weeks, I’ve got to know and fish with many of them. I can say without any doubt that they are clearly worth hiring – it’s a no brainer.
I was told a story by my accommodation host about a group of 4 Italians who recently visited the island to flyfish for bonefish. They refused to pay for guides during their one week visit; saying they ‘were too expensive’.
Daily they returned to their accommodation to complain about how they hadn’t caught a fish. Not one for the week between 4 anglers! This reminded me of a quote a great friend of mine often uses. ‘Peter, you shouldn’t go to the party unless you can afford to dance’. Sage advice.
Peter Hayes Stripper Clip
To manage your line so you’re always ready to cast quickly without the chance of a tangle, or the line being stuck on coral or around your feet, you need to invest in a Peter Hayes Stripper Clip, and I’m not just saying that because I promote and sell them… honest!
This simple yet ingenious clip is fitted onto a wading belt and the gripping ‘fingers’ hold coils of your flyline, so that a shooting cast (or a fast-running fish) will pull the coils free without tangling. You can see how the clip works HERE.
Di used the Stripper Clip for the first time on our Cocos trip. She said it was very easy to use, and she wondered how she could have fished there without one.
You can buy a Stripper Clip HERE on my website’s secure server. I do suggest it’s a mandatory part of any saltwater flyfisher’s gear. Everyone should have one.