Shane Kohlbeck is a friend of mine, working as a guide out of Redding, CA, which is pretty much Trout Central for California. Shane works for The Fly Shop, one of the biggest fly shops anywhere. Not only does The Fly Shop guide on the Lower Sacramento River, a river that is fishable almost every day of the year, but they have the physical shop, an on-line catalog, private waters… even a real estate venture. As you might expect, they also book international travel… a lot of it. Since Shane is one of the better anglers you could ever hope to meet and because he has some saltwater credentials, he was sent to evaluate the fishery on a remote, very remote fishery in the South Pacific. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Turns out to be a great diet plan.
Here’s my interview with Shane about that experience.
What was the name of the island you were on?
Two names, Penrhyn, and the local name is Tongareva. It’s north of Rarotonga and south of Christmas Island.
Not a bad looking place.
What’s the main challenge in getting there?
Once a week flights, and that’s it.
From where, how long does it take?
From Rarotonga, the capital island of the Cook Islands, it was probably about 4, 4.5 hours in a little duel prop plane and we had to stop and refuel on Aitutaki.
Is that a little scary, the travel there?
Yeah. There’s not much dry ground and what’s there is frigging tiny. The islands are all pretty small, so it’s a little sketchy.
How built up is the fishery there?
It’s not, that’s why I went. Originally, only a few guys had ever fly fished there, some guys out of Australia.
What do you think the potential is for a Penrhyn to develop as a fly fishing destination?
Not so good. That was pretty much the conclusion after I came home. I got sent there to fish it for two months straight to figure out if it could handle a groups of 6-8 anglers a week at a time fishing throughout the season or for an extended season.
The water temps were critically warm by noon on a lot of the days, on the decent weather days. On shitty weather days we had good water all day. But when the summer came and the storms were all gone and the heat showed up and stayed, especially on neap tides were the worst when we didn’t have a lot of tidal fluctuation, it wouldn’t circulate the water enough in the lagoons, there’s only two places water came in and out of the lagoon and the lagoon was 9 miles by 12 miles approximately… so it needed a good tidal flush to keep the water in the lagoon cool… and that’s what happened on those hot, sticky calm days, especially during the neap tide weeks, not enough tidal flush and by 12-1 the water temps on the flats were hitting 90, 91. We would catch fish up to 87, 88, after that, we wouldn’t get them. They’d take off.
The flats themselves are just on the inside rim of the entire lagoon. There really weren’t any pancake flats or separated flats. It was all on the inside of the lagoon. There were zero flats on the outside, all hard coral and pounding surf.
Where there other species you could target beyond bonefish?
You can catch Bluefin Trevally until your arms fall off. There were Bluefins all over the place. I never did see GT’s, they are around, I just never saw them. They are usually on the outside. The Bluefin were a lot of fun and then there are a lot of little snappers and a little fish called the sweetlips, and goat fish with the little whiskers coming off their chin, on the outside I caught wahoo, yellowfin tuna, sailfish, shark, African pompano, barracuda… I never did get dogtooth tuna, but they are out there a lot. On the outside we had a lot of fishing opportunities. We’d have to go out there pretty much every couple of nights to fill the coolers because, ya know, there were no stores to go shopping.
You get sick of seafood in a situation like that?
Yeah, I lost 20 pounds. Rice and coconut products and fish. Once in a great while we’d get some chicken or something like that flown in, but lettuce or fresh produce? Out of the question. None of that. Lot of rice, lot of toast… peanut butter and jelly… stuff that doesn’t spoil.
On a good day, when everything came together there, was the fishing remarkable or was it so-so?
I had probably one of the best days of my bonefishing career there… next to one of my better days on Christmas. As fast as I could get ‘em in and get ‘em off the hook and recast I’d get another one. They were coming from all directions. Multiple fish caught with less than five feet of fly line out of the tip of the rod. To where you couldn’t stip anymore, you had to jerk the rod to keep the fly moving to get them to eat it and there weren’t spooky. I had fish come up to me, and I’d play stork, freeze, and they’d swim around me, usually twice and then start veering away and I’d put a fly five feet to their left or right and they’d charge it and eat it. As long as you didn’t make any rapid movements and spook ‘em.
There were a ton of blacktips in there. A Ton. To my knowledge I only lost one bone to a blacktip and that was post release. We figured out, I was always fishing with another Tahitian guy named Bara that I was training, we figured out how to call the blacktips. If he had a fish on, and we noticed the blacktip getting aggressive, sniffing out the water, ya know, they can sense something is wrong, you can take your rod tip and put it in the water in front of you and thrash the water with the tip of the rod and they’d pretty much make a bee-line for it and they’d bite the tip of the rod off if you didn’t stop doing it when they got there. You could call the blacktips off the bones, unless they had a visual of the fish and usually they didn’t until the last second. They are just sniffing stress and they can feel it. You can call them right in… it was cool
One day I was walking the boat over some reefs, sloshing my legs and one fucker came right at me, I had to jump up in the boat. Literally, between my legs, about a 3.5-4 foot blacktip. It wouldn’t have killed me or anything, but it would have tore my skin up a bit.
I’d imagine you were a little far away from a hospital there?
Yeah, there’s nothing there. There’s two little communities and that’s it and I was living across the lagoon on a little private black pearl farm. There was nothing there… just us.
Is there any possibility that someone will build out a fishing operation there?
I don’t think it’s a place where a fly fishing lodge is ever going to get built. Not with the warm water problem. It’s in the middle of nowhere, it took me 36 hours to get home.
Do you have a favorite rod and reel for bones at the moment?
Galvan Torque 8. I’ve never had a problem with my Galvan Torque 8. I’ve landed all kinds of shit on Torques. G. Loomis GLX Crosscurrent 8 wt. (editor’s note, I think that might be Shane in the pic on the G. Loomis page for the Crosscurrent). That’s what I’ve been fishing about 5 years, that Crosscurrent. It’s got the recoil guides so I don’t feel too bad about throwing that rod around a little bit.
As far as tying go, do you have anything you are liking now that’s new?
I saw an article in Fly Fishing in Salt Waters about using Fox Fur. My Psycho Puff has had a Fox Fur wing on it since I designed it five years ago. I also tie a little bit with badger. It’s got some really cool qualities to it. It’s got some guard hairs with back tips what look like antennas and feelers.
I tie my own bitters and I purposely don’t use epoxy. On spooky fish on Los R. I feel like the epoxy head on the bitters contributed to the loudness of the splashdown or set down of the fly when the fly hit the water so I purposely didn’t tie a ball of epoxy on head of my bitters in LR, I just used extra small chain bead eyes and tied the fly around that and feel like the fly landed lighter and didn’t make a big “Kabloop” like the Bitters sometimes do.
Beyond the blacktips, what have you seen out there on the water that was really unique?
One thing I’ll always remember about Penrhyn was at night, once in a while we’d have to run across the lagoon at low light and the coral heads glowed. There were greens and blues and reds and they’d glow, in the middle of the lagoon. It was pretty cool.
Coolest thing that happened there was probably a double hook up on sailfish… that was pretty badass.
You can hardly see that fish... perfect for its environment.