SI Vault
Clive Gammon
December 26, 1983
More than 200 years after Captain Cook came upon Christmas Island, the remote Pacific atoll and its splendid fishing have been discovered by a wave of modern adventurers
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December 26, 1983

Greetings From Christmas

More than 200 years after Captain Cook came upon Christmas Island, the remote Pacific atoll and its splendid fishing have been discovered by a wave of modern adventurers

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On the 24th, after passing the line, land was discovered. Upon a nearer approach it was found to be one of those low islands so common in this ocean, that is, a narrow bank of land inclosing the sea within.

So runs the journal of Captain James Cook. On his third Pacific voyage, commanding the ships Discovery and Resolution, he had sailed north on Dec. 9, 1777, from Bora Bora to seek a landfall on the West Coast of North America, but had begun to see "boobies, tropic and men-of-war birds, tern and some other sorts" as early as Dec. 16th.

Not until Christmas eve, though, did he observe from the southwest how the ocean "broke in a dreadful surf" on an uncharted atoll some 110 miles in circumference. He waited until Christmas morning before sending in boats, a channel into the atoll's lagoon having been discovered by no other than 22-year-old William Bligh, later captain of His Majesty's Ship Bounty but then principal navigation officer aboard Resolution. Bligh's men were far from mutinous on this occasion, and they rowed back from the atoll with more than 200 pounds of fish, to be supplemented later by 300 green turtles.

Cook, meanwhile, had taken sightings and had placed the atoll at lat. 1 degree 59 minutes north, long. 157 degrees 15 minutes west, just above the equator in mid-Pacific, Eighteen days later he would discover Hawaii and eventually proceed to arctic Siberia and Alaska. He would remain anchored at this isolated landfall long enough only to plant some yams and coconuts, observe an eclipse of the sun and dub the atoll Christmas Island ("We kept our Christmas here"), thus sowing the seed of two centuries of postal confusion, because an earlier British sailor, Captain William Mynors of the East India Company, had so named another tropic island, that one in the Indian Ocean, back in 1643.

Nearly 206 Christmases later, though, no more than a quarter of a mile from where Cook's anchor chains had rattled down in 20 fathoms onto clean sand, I was expecting no mail but making further discoveries by the minute, such as the fact that my tackle box full of popping plugs—enough to last through half a dozen seasons of striped-bass fishing on Cape Cod—was emptying faster than Macy's at closing time on Christmas eve.

Our flat-bottomed boat, which strictly speaking should never have left the lagoon, was riding the swells close to the barrier reef of Christmas Island, and I could look through 25 feet of flashing neon-blue-and-green water down to white lanes of sand that cut through the dark coral. I put on my penultimate red-and-white popper, sent it whistling 60 yards toward the breakers and began yanking it back. The surface commotion caused by the plug suddenly broadened into a wild eruption of the sea as a huge brown shadow came up behind it, engulfed it, screeched away with it and buried it in the coral.

I hadn't expected anything else, nor that big Eddy Currie would fail to give a joyous peal of laughter. "What you want with that too-big devil for, anyhow?" he spluttered.

As a matter of fact, I wasn't entirely sure. In his log, Cook had remarked on "an abundance of fish" around the island. Alone, that vague statement wouldn't have brought me to an atoll 3,415 miles from Los Angeles. But recently the first outriders of that special class of sport fishermen to whom abundance isn't an especially important word had been making the long pilgrimage.

What had brought these sun-vi-sored and khaki-clad veterans of the Caribbean and Central American coastal flats to Christmas, in the way the sighting of a distinctly rare bird draws birders to an obscure estuary, was a report that on this distant coral interruption of the ocean, bonefish could be caught on fly.

For decades now, the speedy and subtle bonefish has been the target of the saltwater fly-fisher. Hold on, though. These were Pacific bones. So? Aren't there millions of bonefish in the Pacific? Don't the Hawaiians catch them all the time?

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