Christmas Queens

Women Crash Christmas Island

The lodge transport fetches us from the airport—a once-weekly commercial stop—and places crowns made of intricately woven flowers and palm fronds on our heads. We are unapologetically excited and can’t help but laugh because nearby a truck full of male anglers heading to another lodge watches stoically, crownless.

Visitors to this remote atoll in the South Pacific are bringing one of two things: a fly rod or a Bible—and you can bet the groups fishing here are most definitely always men. We are—as pointed out by our outfitter, guides and the slacks-wearing missionaries—the first all-female group to fish Christmas Island.

Come morning, our group of eight is divvied up between two wooden flats boats and transported to opposite ends of the 120-square-mile lagoon. 

My guide today is Tiny, a short, stocky man with six children, a sweet demeanor and a tendency to apologize.   

“I’m sorry if I have offend you,” he offers repeatedly in broken English as the two of us walk a stretch of what the islanders have named Fallen Flat. “I do my best for you.”

And every time, I assure him he’s doing great. 

Like every other guide here, Tiny is extremely respectful. And it’s not until I say that I don’t mind if he smokes that the long banana leaf-hand-rolls come out. He lowers his head and cups his hands and lights up in a wind eddy. He straightens and lets out a plume, refocusing his attention on the flat. The wind gusts ripple ankle-deep water that’s so incredibly clear, we might as well be standing in a desert. 

The smoke is still wedged between his lips when he motions with a 10-weight in his hand and says, “Ahead. Thirty feet.”

Like every new sight caster, it’s in these first precious hours of fishing that I am changed. The adrenaline becomes less desperate as I start to make out targets from the shadows. The fish begin to take and I shut down the instinct to trout set. I am fully initiated, honing the touch of letting fly line thread violently through my fingers as I learn to let them run, sometimes deep into the backing.

The giant trevally tracks the fly with the same pulsing rhythm. Strip, strip, strip. Twenty feet, 15 feet and then I grab air instead of line. The fly suspends for just a moment. My giant trevally is gone.

above There is no app for this. Karlie Roland grabs some face time with a Christmas Island giant trevally. Photo: Mwatanga Aran

On our second night, Karlie Roland, the group host and I stand around a metal hospital table doing our best to lower our friend’s body temperature. I migrate the hospital’s only ice pack around Ann’s chest, arms and head while she regains consciousness. 

She asks repeatedly if we’re on Christmas Island and Karlie and I repeatedly assure her everything is OK, filling her in on the missing 30-minute chunk of her life and what we believe is textbook heat exhaustion.

A nurse rolls a cuff onto Ann’s wrist to take her blood pressure. 

“What is your name?” Ann asks.

“Rita,” she responds, smiling.

“Oh, that’s my mom’s name!”

They move us from the ER to a room outfitted with a wood platform that serves as the bed with a rusted-through IV pole in the corner. 

The hospital, like the rest of the island, scrapes by on limited resources. There is no X-ray machine or even any ibuprofen, and IV lines of coconut water keep many of the patients hydrated.

Karlie unwads her damp button-up sun shirt and spreads it out on the cracked floor to dry. She had used the shirt to hold ice fetched from the lodge because the hospital doesn’t have ice cubes. Or towels.

Rita appears in the doorway and kicks off her flips-flops before crossing the room to recheck Ann’s blood pressure. She holds Ann’s wrist delicately, waiting for the numbers to tick away on the cuff. Ann thanks her and asks, for a second time, what her name is.

Silently and ceremoniously, we pull out line as we walk and scan the water. I wonder what exactly makes a woman’s presence here so special.

ABOVE Upon encouragement from the group to join us for a day on the flats, Christmas Island native and employee at The Sunset Fishing Lodge, Reaitati Tiiban, hooks up to her first bonefish and lets it run under the instruction of local guide Mwatanga Aran (aka Matt to visitors). Communicating in their native tongue, Gilbertese, Matt helps Reaitati land five meaty bones—her first time ever fishing local waters. Photo: Karlie Roland

Somewhere between the 5 a.m. rooster crows and ham-and-ketchup sandwiches, we stand barefoot in the lodge’s sandy parking lot and cast shiny new gear.

Reaitati, a 24-year-old native of Christmas Island and a housekeeper at the lodge, has been curious about our group and joins Karlie in the lot. She tries to cast.

“Good! Real good,” Karlie tells her as Reaitati lets the eight-weight fall gently upon her forward cast. “Now, when you bring it back, do it quickly, but let the rod stop here.”

Karlie motions to the 12 o’clock spot above Reaitati’s head. It’s the same lesson she’s taught dozens of women back home who have never held a fly rod. 

By midweek, our group has become aggressive for picky triggerfish and the coveted giant trevally. My guide Max slaps the top of the water with his palm and squeezes an empty water bottle just below the surface, mimicking the churning and gurgling of a fish in distress.

ABOVE “Cheeny Plante, KayLee Andrews, Anastasia River, Justin Arbaugh, Ann Allen and Jessie Dodd pose with crowns of palm fronds gifted to them by two barefoot truck drivers. Most clients on Christmas Island are men, so the gesture felt rare and unique to our group. They were by far the most feminine things we’d wear on this trip.” Photo: Erin Spaulding

“There,” Max says calmly and points toward three very distinct and very large shadows.

I make a couple of false casts and place the fly at what I think is too far left of my target.

“Wait…” Max says, lowering his voice and his hand.

I let my rod tip fall. 

“Strip!” he commands, conducting each stroke as I follow suit.

Long and fast. Strip. Strip. Strip. Strip.

The giant trevally tracks the fly with the same pulsing rhythm. Strip, strip, strip. Twenty feet, 15 feet and then I grab air instead of line. The fly suspends for just a moment. My giant trevally is gone.

“Eeeeee…” Max laughs and shakes his head like we just missed our bus. 

It’s casual and feels somewhat rehearsed, like he has been a party to this more than a thousand times. 

I laugh, too, and start gathering my line. Another bus will come along.

It’s near the end of our trip when Reaitati gears up with what we can lend her—a hat, a sun shirt, a pair of pants and wading boots—it’s not much, but for an island where most of the women have never held a rod, it’s everything. 

Like each day before, we load into the boats and are taken to the lagoon. I lean back against the bench seat and look around at the women surrounding me. Some are pulling on gloves or organizing gear while others stare ahead at the horizon. We’re alone with our thoughts and the roar of the outboard.

Silently and ceremoniously, we pull out line as we walk and scan the water. I wonder what exactly makes a woman’s presence here so special. From afar, there’s a thrashing just below the surface and celebration disrupts the silence as Reaitati reels in her first fish.  

This article was originally published in Volume Ten, Issue One of The Flyfish Journal.


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