Photos by Jessica Haydahl-Richardson
I caught the movement from the corner of my eye, visible just above the water. A good-sized fish was tailing. “Trigger,” my guide and I said at the same time. I crept sideways, foot crossing over foot, deliberate yet soft in each step, bent over so as to not be seen, stalking with eyes never leaving the target. Water lapped at my waist as I moved closer to the deep drop along the edge of the flats.
Taking a long, slow breath in and out, I cast 40 feet to the fish, intent on connecting. Stripping by inches, I let the crab fly rest to get attention.
Gallery: Fishing Christmas Island
When the triggerfish took the fly, the strip set was automatic. Off we went into the dance, with me praying my knots would hold. After several long runs into my backing, followed by hand-aching speed reeling, the trigger tired, and my guide grabbed it by the tail. I looked into its face full of gnarly teeth and thanked it for being mine for a moment.
Welcome to Christmas Island.
Located 1,340 miles south of Honolulu, the island of Kiritimati, known as Christmas Island, is part of the Republic of Kiribati, which encompasses 33 islands and atolls. The entirety of Christmas Island is a wildlife sanctuary, and it is the largest coral atoll in the world by land area. It had a population of about 6,000 at the 2015 census. Anticipating the threat from climate change and sea level rise, Kiribati in 2014 purchased 6,000 acres in Fiji as the start of a possible future resettlement effort if and when it becomes necessary.
In April, I was one of eight women ranging in age from 35 to 68 who flew to Christmas Island for a bucket-list adventure. Four of us were from Montana, two from Colorado, one from Wyoming and one from Wisconsin. Our group included a justice on the Wyoming Supreme Court, a business executive, a couple of women who own their own fly shops or outfitting businesses, one who guides part time and one who makes her living as an international sportfishing photographer.
None of us had been to Christmas Island, and two had never fished salt water. We were told we were only the second all-female group to fish here. Most of us were connected by working, volunteering or supporting Casting for Recovery, a national nonprofit that provides free support and education retreats for women with breast cancer. I’ve worked with the nonprofit for 15 years, most recently running its national fundraiser. Two of the women in our group had just lost family members. “I’m going to be sad wherever I am,” one said. “I might as well be fishing with friends in a beautiful place.”
Shape of Water
The Christmas Island flats held scores of bonefish from 2 to about 15 pounds. Plentiful and willing, the bones helped build our confidence from the start. If your guide told you to beach the bone, you knew it was a trophy.
Yellowmargin triggerfish fast became a favorite because of their unique look, their tendency to hang solo and their fight. Success meant having our distance and presentation game dialed in. The triggers ranged from a palm-sized specimen called a Picasso to fish in the 12- to 15-pound range.
For reasons that still elude us, we didn’t see many large giant trevallies. One morning, two of us waded into an oceanside flat where a huge GT was cavorting in shallow water. With only a second to react and make a perfect throw with a 12-weight, we spooked the fish. The closest I came to a GT was when one came up from behind and ran into the guide and me. I don’t know who was more startled.
At times, strong winds and daily rainfall made for challenging conditions, but our adaptability was a key to success. We bounced ideas off one another, shared knowledge, traded flies, and offered and received support. For me, a profound takeaway was feeling as one with the shape of water, of not knowing where I ended and the water began. It felt like a spiritual discovery.
The people of London — the village where we stayed — were a pleasure to meet, and even with our language differences we were able to communicate. A few drove cars or zipped by on motorbikes along the dirt roads with “speed humps” to slow things down. The majority walked or piled into flatbed trucks. Villagers gathered daily at open-air pavilions in one of the many churches on the island. Children smiled and waved when we drove by. They swam at the boat access, curious about who we were but not always willing to make eye contact.
“Why so many children?” I asked one of the guides.
“It’s our duty to have kids,” he answered. “They need to be here to take care of us when we are old, as we do for our parents now.”
Life expectancy on the island is about 66. One of our guides who looked well into his 70s was only 52. Sixty is considered old and 70 “really old,” one guide told me. Nuclear tests conducted by the United Kingdom in the 1950s and the United States in 1962 exposed the islanders to radiation.
We stayed at Lagoon View Resort in London thanks to help from Fish Skinny Waters out of Missoula, Montana. We were greeted by lodge owners Timei and Tima and their daughters, giggly with anticipation at having an all-women group staying for the first time. The majority of the staff did not speak English, but as it often is with women, the barriers to communication were low. There was no hot water for showers, but that didn’t seem to matter. Land crabs and geckos scurried everywhere.
One of us has a tattoo on her arm that reads “Nevertheless She Persisted,” which was fitting for this trip. Persistence was our mantra. On the early morning drive back to the airport, we traveled in an open truck in dawning light under the bright watch of Venus. As we rode I scanned faces. We were not as chatty as we were on arrival. Possibly some were thinking of fish that got away and wanted another chance. Or maybe they wanted to do it all over again now that they’d figured out the drill.
For all of us, however, the trip to Christmas Island was about meeting a challenge, of overcoming the odds and supporting one another. We had become a close crew. How better to celebrate the strength of women and our love of fly-fishing?