Colin Flanagan of Flanagan Fly Fishing recently returned from Christmas Island with a group of anglers who focused heavily on the bluewater opportunities that abound on this atoll. Read about their experiences and check out photos from their epic adventure in Colin’s essay below!
When a fly fisherman sits on his couch, dreaming about Christmas Island, he usually imagines vast sand flats, teeming with bonefish. He might daydream about stalking a feeding triggerfish, or having a golden trevally tail up on his fly. The Christmas Island bound angler is most certainly going to stay up late tying brush flies (for a shot at a Giant trevally) or inventing new bonefish flies that all the guides say will never work… They will be loaded up with gear: rods, reels, tippet, flies, pliers, and more. They will have packed and unpacked and packed again in order to fit a couple more fly boxes in. One thing’s for certain, there will always be something he forgot to pack. Every week is different from the next on Christmas Island, every single trip is a learning experience.
Christmas Island is one of the most remarkable places on the planet to fish, and for a good reason too, since it is literally in the middle of nowhere. It seems like places that are in the middle of nowhere generally have good fishing. Christmas is no exception. The fishing there is just about as good as it gets. And while all of those dreams of hard white sand flats, with bonefish and triggerfish as far as the eye can see, and shots at marauding GT’s is often a reality, I am here to tell you about the fishery that often goes overlooked on Christmas Island. The fishery that has all of my attention. The fishery that breaks rods, snaps backing, drains reels to the backing knot, and takes the whole fly line. A fearsome fishery that tests a fly anglers abilities on all levels. The bluewater.
Before I went to Christmas Island, all the bluewater trips I had experienced involved a long boat ride, into the blue abyss, where we never wet a line until land was long out of sight. Christmas is different. Anglers start trolling flies directly out of the harbor. Last February, I landed a 60 pound GT just 5 minutes from the dock. We also had so many bluefin trevally attack our flies that we finally listened to the guides and put away our rods until we were out around the corner from the lagoon, where the bluewater technically begins. Most fly fishing on Christmas Island happens within the main lagoon; however, just outside of the lagoon and past the reef, the bottom drops into the deep. While fishing the bluewater, anglers are always within sight of land, in fact land is never more than a few hundred yards away. Once the captain of the outrigger has pulled around the first point of land north, or south of the harbor, the real fishing begins. It drops off here…fast, which is perhaps one of the reasons it attracts so many large predatory fish. The bait is pushed up from the depths by currents and tide changes, and is ambushed by a host of terrific species. Yellow fin tuna, skipjack, wahoo, barracuda, queenfish, Giant trevally, and sailfish were among the species we encountered. Anglers are in big game territory here, and must be prepared for anything!
My first experience fishing the bluewater on Christmas Island was on my initial trip to the atoll earlier in 2019. It went something like this: Our lines went in the water, with baitfish flies attached to 100 pound fluorocarbon, attached to a barrel swivel, and another length of 100 pound fluorocarbon, totaling about 6’ from fly line to fly. We let out the entire fly line, plus 30 or so feet of backing, approximately 130’ behind the boat. We trolled our flies behind the boat at around 7-8 knots and looked for bird activity. As soon as we spotted a group of active birds, we headed in their direction and were instructed by the guides to get ready. As soon as we were among the birds, almost without fail, all three rods would hookup. We were tripled up on 15-20 pound yellow fin tuna on 12 wt rods.
The initial run of a yellow fin tuna is so hot, you think you’ve accidentally hooked a bottle nose dolphin. You wonder almost instantly if you have enough backing, and if you have 250-300 yards like myself on that first trip out, you don’t. You also wonder if that 12wt rod seems a little flimsy out here, hooked to a relatively small tuna in which you can’t move its head. Yellow fin tuna are a spectacular fish in both speed and stamina and a 20 pounder might seem like the strongest fish you’ve ever hooked.
With all three tuna landed, our lines went back in the water. After a few minutes I hooked up again and this time it felt significantly bigger, tearing off line at breakneck speed, then came unbuttoned. After reeling in most of my backing, we noticed that the fly had been sheared off. The guides all said “Wahoo!” with gusto, and asked if any of us brought wire. All we had was 20 pound toothy critter tippet and they just laughed at us. Another note to self…wire leader is essential.
The rest of the day went on like that, our group managing a few fish here and there, and losing so many others due to gear failure and the razor sharp teeth of wahoo. We threw our hands up and thanked the fishing gods for an amazing day and one hell of a learning experience. I made up my mind on the boat ride home that day, that when I returned I would be armed and ready for whatever was out there…
Less than 6 months later I was back, with another great group of accomplished anglers. This time we were ready for the bluewater. Armed with 14 and 16 wt rods and large capacity big game reels with 500 yards of 80 pound backing. We all had 750 grain full sink lines, and we all brought 100 pound wire leader. Our first day we had cloudy skies so we decided to head to the bluewater. We were ready this time. After an hour run, we approached the first major point of land and could see birds working feverishly. We had two fly rods and a heavy duty spin casting rod and reel out. Earlier in the planning of the trip, we decided it would be in our favor to have one rod trolling a diving plug to draw the deeper fish up to our flies. It worked…sort of!
As we approached the birds all three rods went down and we were all hooked up to screaming fish. The fish on the end of my father’s bait casting rod never stopped running. In the time it took our guide, Michael, to look up and yell “ Watch your line!” that fish had taken 500 yards of braided line all the way to the knot. With a loud crack, the whole thing was gone. The drag on that reel was almost at full capacity. You could not physically pull line off the reel no matter how hard you pulled. The fish had smoked us in less than 10 seconds. Big game territory…
We landed the other two tuna each around 40-50 pounds, yet even on the 16wt rods it was not an easy task. The fish hung under the boat in about 40 feet of water for 20 minutes or so before tiring enough for our guides to gaff them. We later asked Michael what kind of fish he thought had smoked us so royally, and he replied very nonchalantly “Big Tuna.” We named my father “Big Tuna” for the rest of the trip. Despite the Big Tuna massacre of the early morning, the rest of the day panned out very well for our group. We boated 27 tuna, 9 wahoo, and one barracuda. It was one of those days a fisherman never forgets. Beautiful water teeming with giant powerful fish, spinner dolphins jumping all around the boat, manta rays swimming lazily by, clouds lifting to reveal brilliant blue skies and not a breath of wind on the water. We had wahoo rocket out of the water like missiles, attacking our poppers and leaping 10 feet in the air.
Later, we found an extremely active school of tuna and wahoo that were jumping and porpoising everywhere so we decided to tie on large poppers. Shortly after, one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen on the water occurred. My girlfriend, Jeana, was on the outrigger, dragging a 15 inch popper on a floating line and yelled “Oh my god, it’s a sailfish!” We all looked over and saw a massive sailfish, with its sail fully erect and out of the water chase down her popper in the face of a large wave. It seemed to somehow suspend in the face of the wave effortlessly as it tapped the popper twice with its bill before deciding to devour it. All of a sudden Jeana was hooked up to a 12 foot sailfish! Everyone on the boat was cheering and yelling and screaming directions as it grey-hounded over the faces of waves violently shaking its massive head and bill, careening out of the water. This went on for a few minutes until it finally came to a stop several hundred yards from the boat. She was down to the last small amount of backing, and was gaining just a little on the giant fish. At one point I thought she might actually land it. Then it regained its strength and made another blistering run. Our guide, fearing she may lose everything, increased the drag a few clicks and just like that, the line went slack. The fish had bent two 6/0 hooks straight like they were paperclips. Michael estimated the fish was between 250-275 pounds.
We called it a day, and began our hour long motor back to the lodge. Just before the harbor, between Cook Island and the dock, there is a large reef that holds a good number of large giant trevally among other species. We were going to give it another 20 minutes of trolling around there before throwing in the towel. No more than 5 minutes after our lines went in the water we were doubled up on Giant trevally. Big ones. The first fish went towards the breakers and bent the hook out, but the second fish went towards the mainland and hit the reef edge making a large arc. Steve was able to survive the first run and the battle had begun. He fought that fish for more than 45 minutes and eventually landed it. An 85 pound GT. The last fish of the day was an 85 pound GT not five minutes from the harbor! What a day.
Christmas Island is a paradise and one of the most remarkable fisheries on the planet. As good as the flats can be at times, as fun as it is to walk and wade and stalk fish, do not make the mistake of bypassing the bluewater. In all my years of fly fishing this remains one of my all time favorite fishing adventures. By utilizing multiple fishing strategies (spinning gear) we were able to fully maximize our fish potential. We had an incredible trip because we didn’t limit ourselves to the flats, one species of fish or even one style of fishing. If I could give you one piece of Christmas Island advice, it would be this: keep an open mind!!
– Colin Flanagan
Contact Andy at 800.552.2729 for more information on a trip to Christmas Island
More photos from the trip: