Trevally Ripped Our Flesh

On Christmas Island, desperation became the mother of invention.

by Richard Chiappone

FOUR THOUSAND MILES FROM OUR HOMES IN ALASKA, my three traveling companions and I—all first-timers to Christmas Island—gawked out the windows as our Air Pacific 737 descended toward the impressively named but decidedly rustic Cassidy International Airport. Below us, white-sand shallows stretched to the horizon in the island’s 150-square-mile lagoon, the feeding grounds for bonefish, milkfish, three species of trevally, and a host of other inshore fish just begging for someone to throw a fly at them.

Christmas Island (Kiritimati, in the local language) is one of 33 atolls that make up the Republic of Kiribati, which has the lowest overall elevation of any nation on earth, and is predicted to be the first to disappear when sea levels rise another couple feet. Situated almost on both the equator and the International Dateline, Christmas Island lies 1,100 miles of open ocean south of Hawaii. As famous as the sport fishing has become on Christmas, the big jets don’t fly there for the convenience of fly fishers or even the 5,000 local inhabitants; it’s a refueling stop for flights from Honolulu to Fiji. Near the airport are the remnants of a gigantic World War II complex built by American armed forces to prevent the Japanese military from turning the island into their own refueling stop.

Customs and security checks behind us, Bob, Will, Debra, and I rode in the bed of an old Chevy pickup past clusters of small concrete block houses and thatch-roofed huts that made up several small roadside villages. Along the road, blooming plumeria trees glowed radiantly white; pigs and chickens loitered in the shade of coconut palms; skinny yellow dogs ran to meet impeccably neat children returning home from school. Just outside Banana Village, we turned onto a two-track through the saltbushes and down to the beach and the lodge, ominously named the Shark Place. We arrived just in time for cocktails and fresh hamachi—yellowtail tuna sashimi.

Missing, however, were the two other Alaskans in our group, Matt and Dave, who had been at the lodge a week before us. They hadn’t returned from a day of bluewater fishing, and by the time the flaming sun slid down behind the breadfruit trees, the lodge staff was as concerned as we were. When Matt and Dave finally staggered in, an hour after dark, their account of a dead outboard, a satellite phone left onshore, and the two-way radio their guide had forgotten to bring onboard sounded like a perfect example of chaos theory. Given Christmas Island’s isolation (Tarawa, the country’s capital, is on an island more than 2,000 miles away), they could have drifted halfway to Papua New Guinea before the closest coast guard base (in Honolulu) mounted a search wide enough to locate them. Luckily, a local fishing boat saw them waving and towed them in.

Being Alaskans, none of us had felt actual warm sunshine on our pasty white skin since the previous August. So we set out for the flats the next morning dressed in sun-proof hoodies and neck gaiters, sun gloves and billowing nylon wading pants. Climbing into the 40-foot-long outrigger canoe with our guides, we looked like lost bedouins, or maybe bandits intent on robbing a train with fly rods.