On the anniversary of his friend Ray Montoya’s 12th trip to Christmas Island, Peter Coetzee joined the veteran saltwater fly angler for the pilgrimage to one of the world’s fabled saltwater fly fishing destinations. Detailed in anecdotal snapshots – from titanic triggers and moody milkfish, to crusty characters and lusty locals – the duo had a Christmas experience to remember.

 

The Truter Treatise

The Crazy Charlie’s simplicity as a fly unsettles me, and while tying a few one night in preparation for my trip to Christmas Island, I recalled reading about Ed Truter’s experiences fishing them in the Pacific. Ed’s a pioneering angler (both fly and heathen-ware) who has been to more places than most. He’s not an academic per se, but he might as well be because his knowledge of fish species, behaviour and ecosystems is encyclopaedic.

I decided to call Ed to ask him about flies and tactics. Unexpectedly, he immediately questioned my decision to go to Christmas Island at all.

“You can fish almost anywhere in the Indian Ocean for the price it will cost you to get to Christmas Island and back, let alone the time it’s going to take to get there.”

He wasn’t wrong. A Pacific Ocean atoll that makes up 70% of the Republic of Kiribati, Kiritimati (aka Christmas Island) is the literal definition of “the middle of nowhere”. But what Ed didn’t know was that, for me, going to Christmas Island (CXI) was more than just another saltwater flats trip. CXI was the 90s poster child of atoll and flats fishing and, although the articles I’d read over the years seldom showed anything other than bonefish, it had become a critical part of the imaginative development of my odd fly-fishing tastes. In my mind, going there was a rite of passage for any serious saltwater fly angler. It was also my friend Ray Montoya’s 12th anniversary trip.

Once I’d explained myself, in his deep voice with that unmistakable, thick Eastern Cape accent, Ed said, “I had a feeling you’d say that. Good for you.”

He then proceeded to impart the usual specifics that I froth for:

“Incorporating this fluorescence in a fly triggers X…”

“These legs move just like those of Y crab…”

“Use this dye to achieve this effect, especially on a full moon…”

I hung up before the fly confusion hit.

A short while later, while discussing the upcoming trip, Andre van Wyk of Feathers and Fluoro told me to call Eugene Burzler. A South African living in the UK with enviable fishy profile pics, Eugene had recently spent a lot of time in CXI.

“Peter, you WILL see 20lb triggerfish. I know that sounds ridiculous, but you will.”

A tailing triggerfish on the flats of Christmas Island

A tailing triggerfish on the flats of Christmas Island

Eugene had also encountered milkfish on foot.

“20lb triggers.”

“Milkfish on foot.”

The thought of those two things was enough for me to forget the four-day journey it would take to get there. All I hoped was that The Burzler Brief would hold true.

 

The Burzler Brief

As the plane banked, revealing almost endless sand flats, holes and other likely-looking spots, Eugene’s tale of 20lb triggerfish was about the only thing I could focus on. It would take only five days for the fairy tale to come true.

Ray and I had been looking for the famed GT haunt named Huff Dam when we got lost in the impossible maze of waterways that eventually becomes Y site.  This is a name that derives from British military ordinance, like many other areas of the atoll. Deciding we’d spent enough time lost and with enough fishable water around, we headed off further into the unknown. Ray picked the bonefishy-looking stuff to the right while I headed towards a braided lagoon scattered with deep holes on the left. The most alien saltwater ecosystem I’ve ever experienced, it looked almost man-made, like a lagoon with 50 craters, or a saltwater golf-course with triggerfish lurking in the bunkers.

Ray Montoya with a Christmas Island triggerfish

Ray Montoya with a Christmas Island triggerfish

I’d walk around each crater while scouring the edges for any sign of life. I was starting to feel a bit despondent with my choice of direction, when I spotted what I thought was a turtle in the metre and a half deep edge, just off one of those ominous holes. Then the turtle stood vertical.

It was a hideously large yellow margin trigger. I’d seen big triggers before in Seychelles, Egypt, Maldives and Sudan, yet nothing came even close to what was in front of me. In comparison to anything I’d ever seen before, this was a fish of Belgian Blue cow proportions.

I doubted my ability to fool what must have been a fish as old as me as the cast turned over, but the sink or drift didn’t spook the fish and I quickly read the interest in its body language. A few strips in and it ate. I clearly remember setting three times before the fish reacted, its scarred mouth probably weathered by 10000 crabs. I was fishing 25lb fluoro and fancied my chances in a 20-yard draw. The fight was quick, I was in shock and I soon had it next to me. On closer inspection I was even more gobsmacked. It didn’t look in proportion with the two eyes like tiny vents on the top of a blimp, its fins dwarfed by its body. It was the size of a dustbin lid and disgustingly ugly.

I reached for my net and as I lifted the behemoth’s head, the fly pulled out. I was devastated but, two crater walks and a swim later, I would land what was easily my personal best, although a fraction of the fish I’d lost. Even that fish was much larger than anything I’d experienced before and I was amazed to see it was bigger than the entire rim of my XXL floating net.

 

Get the rest of Pete’s story and more in issue 33 of The Mission below. As always, it’s free.