Now, don’t get me wrong. You CAN catch milkfish the hard way. In fact, in our group a guy named Barry did just that. He went 2/3 on milkfish down at the Korean Wreck. He caught them on algae flies. It’s an impressive feat.
That’s not how I caught milkfish in Christmas Island though. How I caught milkfish in Christmas Island would make a fly-only purist want to puke a little. Luckily, I’ve moved away from purity in my fishing and have, largely, adopted a “Is it fun?” approach.
Milkfish are fun.
When the tuna boats are anchored off London, Christmas Island, you can go and catch milkfish. First, you stop by one of the giant fish processing boats to get some small fish in a burlap sack. Then you anchor up to one of the ships and your guides start ripping the fish apart with their hands, throwing chunks of chum into the water. Seconds later the water around your boat is full of milkfish and various types of trevally (mostly blues, some golden and deep, deep down, maybe some giants).
Simply get your algae or flesh fly near the chum and see if the milks eat. If you let your fly sink too low it is fare for the Bluefins. If you get a milkfish to make a mistake and eat your fly (mostly, they’ll avoid it… like, 99% of the time, they’ll avoid it), well, hold on. Milkies pull and they pull hard and often straight down (although they also jump). Lines get tangled and rod arms get a bit worn out.
Milkies are built for speed and strength and it really shows. Odd looking fish, but, ya know… after they strip off a bunch of line they get much more adorable.
We got our share of milkfish and the guides kept every single one. They take these fish home to feed their families. There is no C&R when it comes to milkfish.
If you’ve ever fished in the back country in Christmas Island, you will have seen the roughly 100,000,0000,000,000 young milkfish milling around and looking a bit like bonefish on the flats in the back.
Some of the other fishing hanging around aren’t so bad either…
This particular bit of fishing isn’t for those who aren’t up for feeling at least a tiny bit dirty. It was a great time and the highlight of the day.
If the boats are in and you find yourself on Christmas Island, go get some milkies. If you have a pulse and aren’t a pretentious pain in the keister, you should have a good time.
GTs, Geets, Giant Trevally. Everyone wants to know about the GTs of Christmas Island. Everyone who goes there wants to catch one. They are undeniably special and when you look at all the species in a place like Christmas Island, the GT stands out, in relief, and your finger keeps finding them on the page.
Yes, I saw some big geets in Xmas. The first one was at the Korean Wreck when a good fish (40#? more?) smashed a bonefish I had just released about 8 feet from where I stood as I was looking the other way. This was right on the shore. Scared the hell out of me (and the guide too). It gave me an impression of just how impressive these fish are and underscored just how precarious is the life of a bonefish.
Later that day the guide took me out to one last spot and in a couple of minutes found me a small GT on shore patrol. One cast, a couple strips and he was on. Not a big fish, but a GT. It pulled hard, very hard, and I could imagine what this fish multiplied would feel like.
A mini Geet
Another, about the same size, came by about 2 minutes after releasing the first fish. Didn’t have my act together enough to get a cast in.
The next day I was out at the Wreck again and the first fish we saw was a GT with it’s back out of the water. It wandered off into the breakers and we followed. I put some long bomb casts out into that area just where the breakers do their breaking, but I wasn’t getting any love. The guide told me to reel in and so I put out another cast and was putting the line back on the reel when something kind of magical happened.
You’ve seen when the face of a wave becomes a window into what is below the wave? As I reeled in a wave came rolling in and when the face of the wave was in full view I could see my bait fish imitation clearly and I could also see the GT come up and eat it. It was like watching it all happen on a high-def screen.
Here’s where I made my GT mistake. When you get a GT in this sort of environment you CAN NOT LET IT RUN. Just where those waves were breaking is a drop off and along the drop off there is pretty much nothing but a bazillion coral heads waiting to snag your line or your tippet and to free that fish from you. You are supposed to immediately crank down your drag and not give one god damned inch to that fish (if possible).
The fish was off the edge in a heartbeat and threw the first wrap against the coral a split second after that. I could still feel the fish pulling, but I knew it was in danger. I walked out a bit further to see if I could get it unattached and could see the line come back toward me and wrap on another bit of coral. There, about 20 feet from me, right at the edge of the drop, I could actually see the GT. He wasn’t huge, maybe 20 pounds (25?), and he was still attached. I walked out a little bit more and picked up the fly line winding from the point it was wrapped to my left to the spot it was wrapped in front of me. That bit of added tension did it. The leader cut on the coral. The fish was free.
Fast forward to the last day and the last flat. I was still without a big GT. I don’t think one was actually landed on the trip. Largest might have been about the size I had lost to the coral, but the 40 and 50 and 60 pounders, or those elusive 90 pounders were all un-landed. One guy had lost his whole fly line on a GT when trolling and there were other anglers with other good shots, but nothing in the books. I was fishing with one of the top guides, TK, and we were walking a flat not far from a GT highway. The sky was grey and the light was flat and diffused. I couldn’t see anything in the water at all.
At this point I started to wonder if TK was just riding out the last minutes of the trip. I couldn’t imagine you could walk out on a flat like this and find a GT without being able to see in the water. Part of me was also telling me to trust my guide. He was very much searching the water, not going for a stroll. He knew the water and the fish, I didn’t. I should just trust him, right?
With time running out and the 10 weight primed in my hands TK pointed at a fast moving bulge of water headed more or less in our direction. “GT!” It was a short cast, maybe 30 feet. I cast ahead of the fish, just beyond his path and when TK told me to strip, I stripped like mad. The fish reacted, veered toward the fly and it all seemed like it was going to happen.
“How perfect?” I thought. “Here I am on the last day, on the last flat, and I have this monster GT chasing down my fly in two feet of water and this will be the crowning moment of this trip. You can’t write a better story!”
Except… the fish then exploded and altered course in a direction distinctly not toward the fly. Maybe it didn’t like the fly. Maybe it didn’t like the strip. Maybe it saw us. I don’t know, but I watched the massive shape displacing a lot of water quickly fade from view.
I had the shot. I had a good shot presented by a guide who knew his water and knew his fish and it just didn’t happen.
We walked a bit more, maybe 10 minutes, to the edge of the flat where the boat would pick us up. TK turned to me and said, simply, “Maybe next time.”
I have been to NOLA a lot over the last 16 months or so. My average is about once a month, all for work, and the trips are packed pretty full of meetings with a quick return flight. In on Tuesday afternoon, meetings Wednesday, meetings Thursday and then the last flight out of MSY that evening (7:40 PM gets me into OAK at about midnight). Not a lot of time for fishing in that mix.
I did get out last December with guide Ron Ratliff for a half-day. That was my first trip for reds in Louisiana and it was pretty awesome.
Part of the work crew, doing work at the conference in NOLA.
This year I had a big conference in NOLA (#KidneyWeek2017), so I was going to be around for a while. On top of that, my wife had a conference in Indianapolis. So… I had a day in play to find another fishing opportunity.
Guides were pretty booked, it is prime time after all, so, I called upon the power of the internet and asked if anyone wanted to split a boat with me. I got a response fairly quickly from James who said he had ~20 guys coming from Alabama to DIY it, an annual gathering, from kayaks. He could get a kayak for me if I was interested. It was an experience I couldn’t pass up, so I took him up on the offer.
The group had two houses rented about a 2 hour drive from New Orleans. After the exhibit booth and flooring was pack up I hit the road. I managed to get down in time to steal some of their dinner (I brought rolls though). I met the crew, saw the kayak I’d be fishing out of, got attacked by mosquitos, had a couple of beers and managed to harass all the white trout under the dock lights (which was more fun than was reasonable).
A bit of serendipity next, as my friend Peter from Copenhagen happened to ALSO be right where I was going. After leaving the AL crew, I made my way over to where he was staying with Jesse and Brody. We put some additional hurt on some white trout and caught up a bit.
The next morning I got back to the Alabama crew an hour later than intended, because, see… the clocks changed and my alarm got me up at 5:45, which was more like 6:45 the day before… so… I was both late and on-time. After breakfast, we headed off.
Heading off was short-lived, as I left my rod at the house and we had to return to get it, because I’m sometimes forgetful. This would be a fast trip were it not for the obvious speed traps and the ever vigilant police (sheriffs?).
Now, the only time I’ve ever fished out of a kayak was in Maui a couple years ago, and that was a peddle kayak and you didn’t have to stand up in the thing (I mostly got out to fish, although we did throw some spinning gear sitting down and trolled some flies). Turns out you DO need to stand up in these kayaks, at least when you get where the fish are. I was… not steady. I have a high center of gravity and a lot of other excuses if you are interested, but man… I just felt like I was going to fall in pretty much every time I stood up for the first couple of hours.
Amazed I’m not falling in. Photo credit James Eubank
While there were about 18 guys, only four of us took to the trucks to hit different water. It was James, Ben, Drew and me. We launched and paddled out over some open water to some islands not far away. James and I went one way, Drew and Ben the other.
I need to point out I was just plain lucky on conditions. The wind in the morning was non-existent. In saltwater fishing I just expect there to be wind, sometimes a lot of it, sometimes too much of it, but very seldom is there none. That’s what we had when we started the day. The fishing gods were smiling down on my. Thanks buddies.
Within minutes of reaching the first island I immediately saw some sheepshead, but was way too close and WAY too unsteady to get a shot in at them. It took me a while to figure out where everything needed to go. How do I get my rod ready? Where do I put the paddle when I reach for the rod? How do I do all of this without flipping over and sinking to my waist in the muck? I had questions and it was going to be a trial-and-error kind of day.
One of my favorite sayings is “Sucking at something is the first step to becoming good at that thing.” I was at the first step toward kayak fishing greatness, very much in the sense of that quote.
I soon started seeing redfish, but I was not all put together yet and the fish would either be gone by the time I got sorted out or the kayak would have drifted on top of them when I was ready to cast. I’m glad I took my spinning rod out of my gear bag because it would have been really, really tempting to just sit down and fling things without risking tipping over and feeling foolish. Sometimes it feels like we can live our lives in a pretty much constant quest not to be embarrassed. Glad I took the chance.
I found a little cut out of the main channel that had some identifiable redfish in it. There was also something sticking out of the water in the middle of this side pocket which I took to be a log. As I got the kayak in the side pocket the log started slowly swimming out. It was a bull red. It was just massive. Biggest red I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. I was going the wrong way by the time I realized what it was. No casts were made at it and I’m sure that salty old beast was way too smart for my novice redfishing skills (and meager kayak fishing skills).
Out in the main channel and in some slightly deeper water I was seeing fish-sign. I cast at it and was tight to a fish. This was to be my first ever speckled trout. A decent fish and nice to feel the tug of something to compensate for my feelings of inadequacy in the kayak.
That there is a crappy, gopro picture of my first speckled trout.
Soon thereafter I got on the redfish board. As I was paddling along a mangrove edge I saw water pushing, coming toward me. I could see the shapes of several fish, moving deliberately. I managed to get the rod ready (minor miracle), to get the cast made (also minor miracle), before they were on top of me. They were REALLY close when they ate, but ate they did. I was tight to my first DIY redfish.
My first DIY redfish
It was a nice fish. I was feeling pretty good after that. I had picked up a red on my first day really fishing out of a kayak and my first day DIYing for redfish and I was dry.
This whole time James was working up the other side of the cut from me and he was getting into fish as well. He’s been doing this a while and never looked like he was about to go in the drink. James was a pleasure to fish with and I’d do it again.
This is now one of the longer posts on the whole blog, so I’ll pause here and put up Part II in a day or two, which will include the story of James catching a redfish with his bare hands (no kidding).
On a side note… thanks guys. The Alabama group welcomed me in straight away, made me feel comfortable, lent me their gear, let me snag a couple beers and fed me and, overall, were just a solid group of guys. It reminds me of the Northern California Fly Fishing Message Board Bashes we used to have, way back in the day. Nice to have a fishing crew.
Many, many years ago I spend a season guiding. I only guided that one season as life kind of happened in the off-seasons and by the next Spring I had a steady job I was interested in and that was that. I enjoyed guiding, although I was still learning and I certainly took more away from the experience than others likely got from me. In any job you have a learning curve and I was still on that curve when my career took a different direction.
Still, there were a couple of really awesome moments in my short time guiding. I was reading The Alaska Chronicles (by Miles Nolte) last night (yeah, I’m late to this party, but I’m enjoying the book), and it got me thinking about the successes and failures in my own guiding. One story comes to mind and here it is.
A lot of people might have heard of Hat Creek. It is a Spring Creek in a land of Free Stones. It is located in the North East part of California, about an hour from Redding and about an hour from Lassen National Park. It meanders through a landscape that sees forest and something akin to plains, almost like the landscape around the Madison in Montana, just a bit smaller in scale.
Hat Creek, like a lot of the rivers in California, is interrupted by power houses. It has been significantly altered to suit human demands. The section of Hat Creek that most people think of is below Power House 2 where the river emerges from the power house, makes a 90 degree turn and goes over a riffle that might be 30 yards long before taking on the smooth, even, slick and difficult flat water section that looks like what you tend to think of as a spring creek.
The riffle is a really interesting place, or at least it was back then (about 1999 is when I was guiding there). The fish live in the flat water but cycle in and out of the riffle to feed. It is one of the very few places in California where success does not depend on covering water. You can find a place and stay put. The fish come to you. If you have your weight set right, you just cast out, 15 feet or so, again and again and again and eventually, you catch a trout.
It is also one of the few places in California where 15 people can fly fish on the same piece of water at the same time. You get two rows of people, one on the near side of the riffle, the other on the far side of the riffle. So long as no one goes and walks through the riffle and screws up the circulation of fish, everyone can catch fish.
This was a favorite spot for guides from the lodge I worked at. You could get someone dialed in with their indicator casting without worrying about anyone falling in. You could work a group of anglers and have everyone within 30 feet of one another. You could station someone who was maybe a bit older or unsteady and they could stay put and catch fish. You might spend the morning on the Hat and then head off to the Pit or a creek somewhere or maybe even the Lower McCloud. Mid-week, the riffle usually wouldn’t have too many folks on it and since it was about 10-15 minutes from the lodge, it was a frequent stop.
As summer wore on you’d start to see a trico hatch and spinner fall on the Hat and that could offer a couple hours of decent dry fly fishing, although with size 20 spinner, a bit hard for some folks to see. The spinner fall was hit or miss. Sometimes it just didn’t seem to happen, others it got going pretty strong (for a CA river, I’ve seen spinner falls other places and ours never seemed to rise to epic levels).
One the morning I’m thinking of I had three clients, one more than is generally a good idea, but it was a father, son and the son’s friend. The son and his friend were 13-14, well behaved, good sports. That morning the spinner fall was a bit light and the fish weren’t really grabby.
I noticed on the edge of the current there were little fish, I mean, really little fish, throwing themselves at the light spinners with reckless abandon. These three inch troutlets would fling themselves at the #20 spinners, cartwheeling out of the water.
While I had the father and son keeping after the sporadic rise, I decided to do something different with the son’s friend. I put him downstream a little bit and changed his #20 trico spinner for a sparse black leach in a #8 or so. I told him to cast out, quartering downstream and let the fly swing into the seam and then I wanted him to slowly twitch the streamer back up stream.
Now, I had never tried this myself. I had never seen another angler do this. None of the other guides at the lodge told me this is something they had tried. I had no reason to expect this to work, but I just thought “If I were a big brown trout and I were looking for a good meal, those little trout don’t seem to be very on-guard right now.”
It worked. Five minutes after I got the kid sorted out he had a strong pull and was fast to a good fish. I helped him land what turned out to be an 18″ brown trout, which for Hat Creek is both rare (It is about 95% rainbows) and a really good fish.
It would have maybe been better if I had the dad or his son land the biggest fish of their trip, but it was such a low percentage shot, I didn’t want to risk it with the guy who was actually paying for the trip.
I miss being that connected to a bit of water where I even have hunches about things that might work. You lose that when you become an infrequent visitor instead of a daily visitor.
It was a highlight from my year on the water. I had a couple other moments of guiding success, maybe more than a couple, but that life was short lived for me. I hang on to those moments.
I went out for stripers again on Sunday, fishing pretty much the same tide as I did on Saturday. This is a game I am still trying to figure out. I have a hunch about ideal tides and a notion about what role the wind might play, but these are guessed at things.
The fishing was slower. I caught less than half as many fish, not including a snagged ray that I thought was a monster striper for a few minutes. I don’t know why it was slower, although I do have half a guess.
At one point, I had a gut feeling that the fishing was done and that there would be no more fish caught. I knew it, but had no reason for knowing. The water here is opaque. You can’t see the fish and they don’t give themselves away. It isn’t like bonefishing where you can damn well see the fish are gone and it isn’t like what I imagine striper fishing to be on the East Coast when you might actually see feeding fish. This SF Bay striper fishing for me at this point is just all gut feelings, limited personal history and vague ideas.
I kept fishing though. I wanted to see if my gut feeling would be proven true. I wanted to test it a bit. I put another 100 casts in and had not one fish, not one grab. I fished it the same way I had fished it for the previous hour and a half with opposite results.
Sometimes, you just know.
I remember other days like that on other bits of water. I had one day on the Upper Sacramento when I had all day to fish, but 30 minutes on the water and I knew I wouldn’t catch a fish that day and I didn’t. This is water I normally do very, very well on, but there was a gut feeling I had that the fish weren’t going to eat.
I don’t know how that sort of information gets transmitted or by what, but it does get received and understood by the angler.
Sometimes the water talks to us and sometimes we understand.
This has me thinking about tarpon, one of the other fish I share some brain space with. Tarpon. Mostly, tarpon have kicked my ass. I’ve landed one adult tarpon and three juveniles. I’ve broken a rod on a lost fish, probably jumped 5, fed 20 and nearly wet myself on several more. My interest in tarpon is in direct contrast to my success in angling for them.
Next May I have a conference in Ft. Lauderdale and I’m going to tack on a few days on the back end to try to add another to the tally. My most haunting failures in angling are pretty much all tarpon related.
I envy Andy Mills his talent and his success. I won’t be Andy Mills. I won’t be Nick Mills. I don’t need a thousand fish to the boat, but I would like to hold one more by the lower jaw and look into that massive saucer-sized eye.
The last few days of the trip Aaron and I were on our own, doing the DIY thing. We’d look at the map and Aaron would say a variation of “This is going to be loaded with fish.” My reply was a variation on “Maybe.”
We’d arrive on the flat and see the feed marks… the thousands and thousands of feed marks and Aaron would say “They are so here right now!” I’d say something like “We’ll soon find out.”
More often than not it was a shade of “recently, yes,” but mostly it was “not at the present time.”
This visual absence of the main reason we were on these flats and in this country often left Aaron incredulous. I was less so.
What followed each and every disappointment was a spin on “101 Reasons Why There Are No Bonefish on This Flat”
Here… play along.
The water is too cold.
The fish are mudding in deeper water somewhere.
The tide is too low.
The tide is too high.
The barracuda are spawning.
Maybe the bonefish are aggregating.
Maybe they are spawning.
The wind has changed the tide.
They are up in the mangroves.
My favorite…. they ARE here, but this flat is so huge, so expansive and the conditions are so crappy our cone of vision is tiny and we just can’t see them.
I’m pretty sure at least one of those was partially correct on any given flat we found and didn’t find fish on. The truth is that we simply lacked the native intelligence needed to accurately know. Even the guides get it wrong sometimes and we were trying to find these fish on our own in a place we had never been to before. We know a bit about bonefish, but nothing around this particular area so the best we can do fits into the “educated guess” column.
A few times, we even guessed right. Something about a monkey and a typewriter and an infinite amount of time jumps to mind.
We got to know one spot on our little DIY portion of the trip, although we fished several. When I got back home I decided to look and see if anyone had ever written about it. One reference came up on a message board. I fictionalized the exchange, else all you jokers would figure it out.
Anyone ever heard of Big Huge Bonefish Flat? A buddy told me about it and I’m thinking of hitting it when I get over that way for Spring Break. Any info appreciated!
Hate to disappoint you on this one. I fished it with a dear, departed friend last year. Turns out there is a special kind of jelly fish that spawns on that flat and I got stung almost a thousand times while wading. All those toxins accumulated in my blood over the next couple of days and made me hallucinate on the plane home. I thought I was riding a sperm whale through a rain storm and kept yelling “Who has the sperm now!” while ZZ Tops played You are My Sunshine. Needless to say, I can’t fly Bahamas Air anymore. The other problem with the flat was that it was so soft. I sank up to my nipples 6 times on that flat and I think some Bahamian version of the Candiru swam up my bit and tackle. I haven’t been able to pee pain free ever since. But wait, it gets worse. There are bull sharks around and mean ones at that. I mentioned I fished it with my dear, departed friend… well… the bulls got him. Wasn’t even enough to send back for a funeral.
Didn’t see any more than a couple of bonefish on that flat.
I’d say it would be a waste of time, maybe even dangerous. I wouldn’t go to that place. In fact, I wouldn’t even mention it again… ya know… bad luck and all.
The next time you see someone describe a place like this drop everything and go there at once.
I’m feeling optimistic and so I’m writing a post about how I’d like 2016 to go, from a fishing perspective.
Get some striper action. My local fisher turns out to have stripers in it and, by god, I’m going to catch some in 2016. I hear they aren’t really around until September, or so, and I’ll be checking.
Get somewhere bonefish live. I’m going to catch a bonefish in 2016. I can’t tell you where (probably not Florida, but now that I’ve said that, it will probably be Florida). I can’t tell you when (but dear god I hope it is soon).
Camping + Trout for the girl. The goal is always to get camping twice with my daughter and to get her into some fish. This has happened the past two years and I hope to carry it forward in 2016.
Get on the water with dad. This doesn’t happen too much anymore. I need to get at least a day on the water with my dad in 2016. Last year was a day up in Montana, which could happen again or we could hit the Lower Sac. I’d really like to get on the Klamath with him again, but it takes roughly an infinite number of hours to make that drive from the Bay Area. It needs to happen.
The McCloud. I love this river and I don’t fish it much anymore. I want (and this is my stretch goal) to get one, long day on the Lower McCloud to fish like I used to. If I could share that day with my friend John D, that would be even more ideal.