Trevally Ripped Our Flesh

EACH DAY, THE WEATHER DETERIORATED A LITTLE MORE. The flatness of the island allows a mostly unobstructed view in all directions, and by midweek, black skies smothered the horizon all around. Of course the guides—all locals with years of experience walking these flats—can probably spot bone-fish blindfolded on a moonless night. But while it will certainly put fish in your hands, spending the day blind-casting to the guide’s instructions—Cast! Thirty feet! Ten o’clock! Okay, strip strip!—isn’t exactly what we traveled half the globe to do. So, on the darkest morning we took a long drive to the open-ocean side of the island and a stretch of beach called the Korean Wreck, named after a ship that went aground in the 1970s. There, a small reef parallels the white sandy beach just a hundred or so yards offshore, and the shallow little lagoon between the breakers and the beach is paved with moss-covered rocks that attract milkfish.

By the time we waded into the lagoon, the rain was coming down in sheets. Even so, spotting milkfish was easy: hundreds of tails jutted through the surface as big schools grazed on the mossy bottom. Stalking milkfish was also easy; they aren’t nearly as spooky as bones. Casting to them was easy, too: the wind was offshore and mostly blocked by the low sand dunes and scrub brush. How hard could it be to catch one? A basic tenet of fly fishing is, the less willing a fish is to take a fly, the more worthy it is to fish for. Milkfish, which eat nothing but vegetation, make permit seem like the fish you’d stock in a pond for a children’s fishing derby.

I cast one of the preferred milkfish patterns, a mere bit of green yarn, right into the middle of tailing fish 30 or 40 times, and 30 or 40 times it was ignored. And why not? Your fly, even when dropped precisely in front of them, is just another speck of drifting vegetation among countless thousands just like it. Fishing for milkfish is harder than casting to a Henrys Fork rainbow in the midst of a blanket Baetis hatch.

Yes, the milks do get big, upwards of 30 pounds. And yes, they do put up a tremendous fight. Or so I’m told. By that logic, you might as well cast that grassylooking fly into a herd of dairy cows and hope one sucks it up with a mouthful of alfalfa. Though if you strip-strike a hook into the lip of a Holstein, you’ll probably need more than an 8-weight to bring it to the net.

Under the careful tutelage of Moana—the senior guide and basically the godfather of fly fishing on Christmas Island—four of us cast all day in mostly pouring rain to school after school of milks and never touched one. Instead, we all caught bone-fish on our little grass flies, mostly while stripping in line to cast again. One of our Alaskan friends caught a milkfish the week before, so we knew it was possible. Still, casting out and then performing the actions necessary to imitate a fleck of drifting spinach isn’t quite my idea of fascinating fishing.

Giant trevally. Such a great name. I mean, would anyone travel thousands of miles to chum up a pygmy trevally?

In fact, the memorable part of the day was finding out that the lightweight nylon Windbreaker I’d brought along—we Alaskans had heard all about how unbearably hot it is on Christmas Island—had lost its waterproofing. When we set out on the two-hour drive back to the lodge, I was already soaked to the skin. With the roads mere paths between palm trees and scrub, and with no signs of human habitation anywhere outside the towns, our driver kept the accelerator to the floor at all times, the wind rushing down my neck and through my waterlogged clothes. Without a long warm hug from Will’s wife, Debra, I might have become the first person to die of hypothermia at sea level on the equator.

Fishing for milkfish had proved a bit too sophisticated for me, but the offer of tossing a bucketful of chopped baitfish off the edge of a pancake flat and then casting a fly into a maelstrom of frenzied predators seemed about as classy as the popular Alaskan sport of baiting bears with stale doughnuts. The next day being cloudy again, and not great for spotting bonefish again, pragmatism prevailed, however. Adjusting our lofty principles, we waded to the edge of the flat, 12-weights in hand, and lost all ethical concerns when the channel exploded with GTs rampaging up the blood trail.

Giant trevally. Such a great name. I mean, would anyone travel thousands of miles to chum up a pygmy trevally? When we first started planning this trip, I asked a friend who had fished for GTs what he could tell me about them. “Nothing can prepare you for their savagery,” he wrote back. I thought that sounded a little hyperbolic (the guy is a writer). But I was wrong. The four of us caught 15 or 20 fish that day, and every one took us far into the backing. At one point, Will lifted a foot-long queenfish to the surface foul-hooked in the tail. As he lowered the rod to strip in line, the fish squirmed and tried to dive. Big mistake. Will’s rod bent double under the weight of a GT that within minutes peeled off 200 yards of backing and then cut off his entire fly line on coral on the far side of the channel. Among the eight anglers in camp that week, we lost five entire fly lines, cut three more lines in half, and broke two 12-weight rods. By the end of the week, various members of our group were wearing back braces, thumb splints, and in one case a cervical collar. On a map of Christmas Island is a place on the outside shore labeled Bay of Wrecks. It could have been named for us.