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CHRISTMAS ISLAND : It Was Once a Test Site for the Explosion of Hydrogen Bombs; Today, It's Possibly the Hottest Fly Fishing Spot in the World

February 17, 1986|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

LONDON, Christmas Island — There were not the smallest traces of any human being having ever been here before us; and, indeed, should anyone be so unfortunate as to be accidentally driven upon the island, or left there, it is hard to say that he could be able to prolong existance. There is indeed abundance of birds and fish; but no visible means of allaying thirst. --Capt. James Cook, Jan. 2, 1778

Capt. James Cook wrote the above in his journal aboard the 462-ton Resolution, as he sailed away from Christmas Island on Jan. 2, 1778. Nine days earlier, on Christmas eve, he had discovered the 30-mile-long coral atoll, and named it. Eighteen days later, sailing northward, he discovered Hawaii.

Cook wrote a lot about Christmas Island, none of it favorable. It is clear today, however, that the great 18th-Century mariner, gifted with "soaring genius," according to one biographer, wouldn't have known a great fly fishing destination if he'd seen one. Because he did, and he didn't.

On a warm, windy afternoon recently, 208 years after Cook found the island, fly fisherman Lani Waller, about an hour after jumping off a chartered plane from Honolulu, waded for the first time into bonefish-rich waters on a coral flat at the southern end of Christmas Island.

He was transfixed with what he saw. In front of him, in water no deeper than 10 inches, were bonefish, some of them two feet long. In the clear water, they appeared like translucent, slightly green torpedoes, gliding slowly through the shallows. Some could be seen by their tails sticking out of the water, as they plowed up sandy areas looking for small crustaceans.

"My God, look at that," Waller said, gesturing to the bonefish. "You can read about a sight like this, like I have for several years, but unless you see it you can't imagine what it's really like. Just what I see here in front of us tells me why this island is the hottest fly fishing destination in the world today.

"Look at all those fish . . . it's like no one has ever fished here before."

Suddenly, Waller tied on a needlefish imitation fly, and flicked over the clear water, toward a bonefish about 25 feet away. The fish inspected the fly briefly . . . and passed.

"Uh-oh, that shouldn't happen," Waller said. "If that happens one more time, I'll try something else."

It did, and he did. He put on a Crazy Charlie, a slender, delicate pattern developed by bonefish fishermen in the Bahamas.

Waller flicked it at a fish and . . . hookup.

"That's it, that's the one," Waller said, as the 18-inch bonefish raced through the shallows at amazing speed, toward the edge of the coral flat, and the safety of deeper, blue water. The bonefish took about 50 yards of Waller's line, but he slowly retrieved and in five minutes had the struggling, white-bellied fish at his feet. He carefully plucked the barbless hook from the fish's lip, released it, and the fish zipped away, to deep water.

Walking steadily ahead, with the wind at his back, Waller caught another . . . and another . . . and another.

"This is the place," he said, in wonderment. "It's the ultimate. I mean, how can fly fishing get any better than this? We have already seen more bonefish in 30 minutes than I have seen in entire days in the Bahamas, which is supposed to have great bonefishing."

Christmas Island: The largest of 33 coral atolls in the Republic of Kiribati, an independent nation since 1979. Location: 2,200 miles due south of Honolulu, 119 miles above the Equator. Size: The Republic of Kiribati is twice the size of Western Europe, but the total land area of all 33 islands is smaller than El Paso. Population: About 60,000, 3,000 on Christmas Island. Language: Kiribati. Principal cities: London, Paris, Poland, Banana. Size of Christmas Island: Roughly 30x15 miles, with a 90-mile coastline. Elevation: Five feet. Currency: Australian dollar. Air service: One charter flight per week from Honolulu. Recent history: Great Britain used Christmas Island as a test site for the explosion of 18 hydrogen bombs between 1956 and 1962. Principal industries: Copra production, small commercial fishing operation and, now, fly fishing.

Britons and Americans stationed at Christmas Island during the 1956-62 nuclear testing period are believed to have been the first to discover that the island's coral flats, inside the main lagoon, were loaded with bonefish, one of the most revered species in fly fishing. Today, groups of up to 35 fly fishermen leave Honolulu on Wednesday morning's chartered flight to Christmas Island, where they fish the island's flats all day long for six days and eat and sleep at the island's only hotel, the Captain Cook Hotel.

The cost, including air fare from Honolulu: $1,395.

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