Long Lost Kanton trip report

Background

For those who have not heard of this expedition, click here for the pre-trip post that gives a brief background to Kanton atoll.

Overview

I could fill a book with everything I experienced at Kanton and so, with this being a fly fishing oriented website, I will focus on the fly fishing. To start off all of this, I would like to say that Luke Wyrsta (of Rock Expeditions) somehow managed to pull off this expedition, and allow us to be the first group of people to fish Kanton since 1994. It took him seven years to make it happen, so all I can say is “well done mate, you did something epic and I am so glad to have been part of history!”. Luke is a really great guy, and battling difficult communication and poor infrastructure, did a stellar job of running the logistics of the expedition and taking care of us. Thank you mate!

Supporters

A big thanks is due to the following sponsors who have supported me on this expedition. Firstly I would like to thank Global Rescue for the absolutely critical medical and evacuation support. While Luke was very careful to make sure that our safety was a priority, there are certainly things that are out of our control, and accidents can happen. There are so many things that can go wrong, and so I felt a huge sense of relief knowing that I had world class coverage from Global Rescue.

To Costa Sunglasses, your lenses were absolutely brilliant! As it turns out I made a poor choice of lenses (green mirror and blue mirror) when amber or a lighter lens would have been more suitable for the conditions we experienced. The first few days of the trip were heavily overcast (something I did not expect) but the green mirror lenses were actually much more effective than I expected. I’m certainly a big fan of your product!

I have had a long relationship with RIO Products and I absolutely love their lines. This was the first time I used their new GT (475 and 550 grain) lines and they really did the job. Unfortunately, I made a few silly mistakes setting up my loops (story will come soon) and I’ve learnt my lesson! There is a big difference between hooking a big GT on a sand flat and hooking one in an area full of rocks and/or coral. I put a lot of pressure on their lines and had fish run me into structure at some points and the lines survived the fight. So stoked!

TUF-LINE has been a great supporter of my work and so I also have a long relationship with them. I’m a big fan of their product and have never had any issues with them.

Thank you to all of you for the amazing support! Much appreciated!

I would also like to thank those friends who supported me in various ways ranging from advice to tying flies for me. Guy Ferguson, thanks for the awesome billfish teasers. They got smashed by big marlin on the sail there. I’m so bummed that you couldn’t join me on the trip. It would have been really epic to have been able to experience Kanton together. Leonard Flemming, shot for lending me your ridiculous fly box! You need a bigger one! Jimmy Eagleton, thanks for those awesome flies you tied for me. They were trigger bombs. Unfortunately the sea urchin imitations weren’t too popular with the triggers. Even the bluefin didn’t like them! :)

My motivations and hopes

Personally, I find the travel experience involved in fly fishing all these varied destinations around the world to be the biggest reward. Fishing isn’t so important to me so if the fishing isn’t so great then that’s absolutely fine. If the fishing is great then it’s definitely a bonus. Kanton, to me, was extremely attractive because it was a true frontier destination, and the fact that it was so remote and untouched made it irresistible! The history behind Kanton was also something that piqued my interest.

Being obsessed with GTs (geets) I naturally wanted to spend much of my time there targeting them. I really wanted to get a sight fished bus geet on the flats. High up on my list was the bumphead parrotfish. Dogtooth tuna is also a big favorite of mine having been unable to land the few big ones I have hooked on fly so I had high hopes for Kanton. I’m also a little obsessed with sharks on fly so that was up on the list too. The rest of the flats species were also of interest to me with bonefish being the fish I am least interested in.

The fishing

Now, moving on to the fishing. I only fly fish so this report is going to go over my personal experiences fishing Kanton with a fly rod with a little side commentary on the conventional tackle guys. I will go over the first four and a half days in brief and do a full write up of the last day which was the best day for me. For those interested in more details please head over to Rock Expedition’s Facebook page where you can see numerous images and Luke’s personal trip write ups. In those, he goes into some of the background detail of the journey there from Apia, Samoa aboard a research vessel, the MV Contraband.

The cast making up this expedition consisted of three Australians (Luke, Damien and Andrew), a Brit (Stewart), a Malaysian (Bernard), an American (Jimmy) and myself, a South African. Only Andrew and I were full time fly fishermen but Luke spent most of his time with a fly rod in hand.

I will add a few photos to this report but there is also a photo essay on my personal Facebook page which can be viewed by clicking here.

An overview of the first four and a half days fishing

Our group first stepped foot on Kanton late on the morning of the 10th July once our immigrations papers had been sorted. Andrew and I wasted no time setting up our rods and took off for a surf flat on the northwest point of the atoll on an advanced pushing tide. After an hours walk we arrived at the flat and started fishing at exactly 11AM. By noon Andrew had hooked and landed a nice geet on the flats. Things were on a roll! The topwater guys were fishing the passage close to the wharf and had been racking up a serious number of topwater geets with the first one going to Damo within the first few minutes. It was incredible. That day I didn’t see any geets on the flats save for one small fish that came up to look at my fly while blind casting in the surf. I ran into a tank napoleon and ended up to my neck treading water in my attempt to cast at it. It was an absolutely massive fish. We were off to an incredible start. The topwater guys had racked up about 50 geets in that half day! All within 400 meters walk from the Contraband. Also, Bernard had hooked and landed the first bonefish to be caught on Kanton in over 20 years.

I was off to a bad start on the second day. In the morning I stubbed the small toe of the left foot on the pier at the wharf and exposed the skin. Immediately I knew I was going to have a bit of a miserable time with the pressure from the neoprene socks and flats boots and this would be compounded by all the walking and wading that lay ahead. That day we headed to a point on the southernmost side of the passage. There was a steep drop-off right at the edge of the point with some crazy current on the incoming/outgoing tides. Damo, Stew and Jimmy were busy at work hauling in big geets when I arrived with Andrew and Bernard via our tiny 15HP inflatable tender. Andrew was very much into getting a bonefish so he headed south down the beach to scout for bones (Luke would join him later). I stayed behind with the topwater guys as I wanted to see if I could get a GT on my popper and I didn’t fancy a long walk with the smarting toe. The wind was pumping and was head-on so casting was extremely difficult and I couldn’t get my line out far enough. Having had enough of the wind I went off to try my luck with the many small parrots in the shallows but they didn’t want to cooperate. Went back to the point and watched the guys hauling in stupid numbers of geets. This is how it would go; one guy would get a strike and would be fighting his fish and this fish would be harassed by multiple fish. The other two guys would cast at the harassing fish and get hookups, oftentimes right at their feet. So they were literally in a constant state of triple-ups with big fish and there would be other fish coming in and harassing the hooked fish. It was chaos!

Much of this morning I walked up and down looking for geets coming up off the channel but didn’t see any fish. By noon I was suffering a bit from the pressure of the boots on my toe so I took my flats boots off and sat down for a break. It was only minutes after this that I saw a big geet cruising in the shallows only feet from me. I grabbed my 14# and started running after the fish but my fly line was wrapped around the rod guides so I struggled to get the line out. Running barefoot after the fish (over pebbles and shells) I managed to strip some line out and make the cast. I completely botched it and spooked the fish. I also stubbed my toe in the process and the toenail was in the verge of coming off. I berated myself, “stupid Richard! Why did you take your fucking boots off!”.

Luke and Andrew had a great day out with some triggers, a golden trevally and a geet to their name. Luke came in first, late that afternoon, and we headed to the island in the middle of the passage where the wind was in our favor. We hooked up with several geets on blind casted poppers in the last light of the day. All good fun but it wasn’t the same as sight fishing for them.

Photo by Luke Wyrsta

Photo by Luke Wyrsta

Every day till the last day we would fish the passage (on fly) at some point in the day depending on the tides. Most of the time we would be blind casting our poppers across the channel and we would be getting smashed by fish. Our poppers were tiny compared to the big ones used by the topwater guys so most of the fish we got were “rats” but from time to time we would hook a big fish but most of the time our hooks would be straightened or our leaders snapped. The last fish I hooked while fishing the passage was a big one – he ripped drag and the fly line loop ended up popping from all the pressure I put on the reel. It was the first time I had the loop pop and I’d already caught numerous fish on that line (550 grain GT line on a 14#). The reel handle also came off during the fight. At that point I’d had more than my fill of geets and had taken a beating from the countless hookups. It was getting a little old at that point (serious!) and I was really anxious to get an opportunity to get one on the flats and my time was running out.

We did occasionally get to sight cast at geets cruising up onto the shallow rubble island right next to the channel. No opportunities were wasted casting at these fish and every single time we got an extremely visual eat. Many fish would completely miss our poppers/baitfish so we had a lot of fun watching these stupidly angry fish going bananas for our flies. Our popper supply dwindled rapidly! We would be collecting the foam that came off the hooks so we could try and fix the flies.

This was a regular occurrence. This particular hook was mauled by multiple hookups from a school of angry black geets only feet from us! Unbeknownst to me the first hookup had opened up the hook and the several eats thereafter mangled the hook into the condition shown in the photograph. Complete chaos!

This was a regular occurrence. This particular hook was mauled by multiple hookups from a school of angry black geets only feet from us! Unbeknownst to me the first hookup had opened up the hook and the several eats thereafter mangled the hook into the condition shown in the photograph. Complete chaos!

On the fifth day I was limping along so was struggling to keep up with the other guys. On this day Luke, Andrew and I decided to fish the surfline just south of the passage entrance in the afternoon on the pushing tide (low was late morning, maybe 11AM). After beating through the thick jungle bush to get to the other side I told the others that I would move at my own pace as I was suffering. Luke and Andrew took off and I took out my nine to look for triggers. It was not long before two small geets came in. I took the cast and hooked up with one. At that point I decided that I would leave the triggers and keep my twelve out as I didn’t want to botch any opportunities for good fish. I waded out into the surf and started walking. The sun was at my back and visibility was great. Wading was also easier on my toe so it was a good setup for me. While wading I hooked and landed two emporer (apparently called sweetlips by the local Gilbertese) and turned down numerous bluefin. I would tell myself that the geet I wanted was going to come in at any minute. Eventually I was at a man made cut in the reef, the sun was high but still behind me. I’d had enough of the suffering and really wanted to start walking back ahead of the other guys. The only problem was that the sun would be up in front of me and visibility would be tough. I got out of the water and went to the rocks to sit down and take a break. Had a cigarette and replaced my leader. I was getting cooked and wanted to get back into the water. The sun was still against me. For a while I sat there and watched the surf for a sign of that fish. Nothing. Getting more cooked. Eventually I decided that I was going to take the chance and wade back with the position of the sun still not being optimal. Only a few minutes had passed when, just to my right, he came. He was a massive blue beast. I have to admit that my knees went weak. My stomach was full of butterflies. He could see me, I could sense it. Slowly he swam past me, only feet away. I was there and I was fucking unprepared. My fly line was out but he was too close and I didn’t want to risk moving. I knew he was watching me. “Shit, fuck!”. All kinds of coarse language was going through my mind. Slowly the fish swam past me and I turned around to keep track of his movement. Eventually I had to make the cast but he was already spooked. “Richard, get your shit together! Another one will come! Stay positive!”, I kept telling myself things along those lines. The sun was still against me. “Fuck!”. I got out of the water to walk along the rocks which provided better visibility but it was uncomfortable. Really a small price to pay for that fish in retrospect. I didn’t see another fish save for a couple of sharks that I turned down as the allure of that geet coming along was too much.

Even if I had hooked that fish there is no way in hell I would have been able to stop him running me into the reef. The reef was just too close and the fish simply too big. Luke had gotten a nice geet on the flat further up.

The number of triggerfish was just ridiculous and I had a huge amount of fun with these fish. They are really addictive. I focused on fishing for triggers for two hours one day and hooked seven. That’s how good it was. Being triggers I only landed one of the seven fish. Well, actually I didn’t want to hook one the seven fish. I actually tried to get it to spit the fly out so I could cast at a bigger one! Talk about being spoilt! Funnily enough I didn’t see a single titan trigger and Andrew apparently only saw one. Quite surprising.

Photo by Luke Wyrsta

Photo by Luke Wyrsta

Andrew and Luke caught several bonefish between them on a lagoon flat in the south. This was proper skinny water fishing where the presentations were mainly at tailing bones and the guys had a huge amount of fun. I have to confess that I didn’t take any shots at these bones as I’m not hugely interested in them and preferred to try my luck at the few cruising blacktips but had no luck.

The final day

Luke and Andrew were very much into fishing for bonefish so they built their day around targeting these fish which was something I wasn’t interested in. So, on the last day I decided I would fish on my own. There were numerous reasons for this. Firstly, I wanted to experience Kanton on my own. Secondly, my toe was making life pretty unpleasant and I had numerous other wounds so I wanted to be able to do my own thing to keep the discomfort to a minimum. Thirdly, I really wanted to get my geet!

Luke arranged for a local to take me (via motorbike) to the surf flat that Andrew and I started off on our first half day. My plan was to fish the surfline flat on the dropping tide and make the move over to the lagoon side around midday at low tide to fish the push for the rest of the afternoon. The motorbike ride there was much appreciated as the walk there takes an hour.

There were several sharks cruising around but they were extremely spooky. I was getting frustrated with the sharks. Luckily I found a nice blacktip harassing a bait ball. Bingo! I made the cast from the rocks and had him eat the baitfish pattern in the shallows. Upon setting the hook he tore off across the flat kicking up a shitstorm! The backing was peeling off and I was trying to palm the reel to stop him when the leader parted. I had no wire on so no surprises there. Quickly rigged up a section of wire and a new baitfish and decided to wade in and walk close to the surfline. Took more shots at sharks but they seemed spookier than usual. I really wanted to get a shark and I was surprised that they just weren’t interested in my offerings.

While walking I found bonefish. There would be one or two big fish cruising in or there would be a school of fish, most of them smallish but a few larger fish mixed in there. It took me a few more rejections from sharks (and not seeing much else to give my 12# a workout) before I decided to fish for the bones. By the time the tide had dropped I had hooked and landed seven of them. Most of them were small fish. As the tide dropped I would be fishing for them in really skinny surfline water and the school would literally be at my feet. They were mixed in with schools of surgeon fish.

The tide was low and the most of the flat I had reached at that point was almost dry. I walked over to the lagoon side to look for triggers. I found a nice fish within a few minutes which I hooked and landed. He bit the point off my hook in the process and my fly line also needed some TLC. I took a quick break to have a cigarette, fix my fly line and put a new leader on with a nice crab. This was also a good opportunity for geets so I cut my wire off and put on a NYAP popper that I’d just brought back from the dead (thanks to UV glue).

Off I went looking for another trigger. I found one within a couple of minutes which I hooked but it came off after a short fight (I did tell you the trigger fishing was ridiculous). “Damn! Hey, don’t worry there’s another one” I told myself. Not far off I could see another trigger so started moving towards him. At this point I should give a description of my surroundings.

I was standing on a big coral bommie. It was flat on top with virtually no coral save for on the edges (leaf coral). Further down towards the end of the bommie the amount of leaf coral directly on top started increasing as the water level dropped (declining surface). As you can imagine the water on the edge of the bommie was deeper. At that point the tide was pushing and the water level rising but the water on the bommie was still shallow. There were a few other similar bommies in close vicinity of the one I was standing on.

The trigger was just on the edge of the bommie. I was getting into position and about to cast when I saw a school of mullet. They looked nervous as hell. All twitchy. In the back of my mind I was thinking “that’s a fucking geet down there”. Strangely enough I didn’t take my twelve out. I suffer from a sort of OCD so I guess I was too focused on the trigger. Suddenly there were a series of explosions and the mullet were scattering. Schoolboy error! I still hadn’t taken my twelve out when the geet came cruising just past me in the deep water at the edge of the bommie. Surprisingly I was calm at this point and just took my twelve out, did a few blind casts with the popper but nothing.

I diverted my attention back to the trigger.

That’s when I saw a napoleon. He was to my right and not far off. I made another schoolboy error and flicked the red crab meant for the trigger in his direction. Now this was on a 9# with maybe 15 pound tippet (what was left of my tapered leader). As the crab hit the water and sank he darted over and ever so gracefully sucked it up, tail breaking out of the water in the process. It was beautiful! I set the hook and he took off like a rocket and disappeared under a head of leaf coral. Pop!

I berated myself, “Richard, how fucking dumb are you?!?!?”.

My leader was shredded. No time was wasted putting a new leader on with another red crab. I went off looking for another trigger and that’s when he came, a big geet. Headed straight for me. I threw my nine to the side and unstrapped my twelve, stripped off some line and tightened the drag as fast as I could and started making the cast. As I launched the popper he saw it and charged. The popper arced out and he exploded out of the water completely missing the popper, jaws agape. That fish was hot and fired up swimming in circles kicking up water. He was on the hunt for his missed quarry. I wasted no time giving him a helping hand. One long pop and he attacked the popper. I set the hook hard and he exploded off the bommie and headed straight for the next one. I put maximum pressure on him and he just got to the next coral head and popped the knot on the coral.

No surprises there. I wasn’t in the safest area for targeting geets. But now I needed to tie on a new leader this time with a tan/white Semper. Checked the fly line loop, everything looked fine. As soon as I’d done all that I saw another napoleon. A smallish fish, about the same size as the previous one I’d hooked. I stripped a little line off the twelve and locked the drag. The cast was short and ahead of the fishes path. He jumped straight on the Semper. Short strip. His nose was on the fly, pectoral fins flaring out. Short strip. He was getting excited. Short strip. Getting really excited. One long strip and he jumped on the fly and inhaled it – this was almost at the rod tip! I set the hook and he teared off for the nearest coral head. Impressive power that I wasn’t quite expecting and I just managed to steer him off the coral. Now I needed to get a photo. The GoPro was in a dry bag strapped to my pack so it took a few minutes fumbling around to get the camera out and make sure the fish was looked after. I snapped a couple of shots of the fish and sent him off.

Another geet came up from the side and caught me unprepared and so I spooked him. At this point the water level was up and there was this awesome current kicking over the bommie. Very fishy indeed.

It was not long before I found another napoleon. He was cruising along the edge of the bommie and was a lot bigger than the previous one I’d caught. I had to take the shot so stripped some line off and locked the drag. Made the cast, same story. He jumped on the fly, short strips till I figured he was ready to eat then a long strip and game on! Jesus, that first run is amazing and I had to put maximum pressure on him to keep him off the coral. This time I had to get a proper photo so a few minutes was spent setting up the GoPro. I’m always very careful with the fish and try ensure that they are well looked after so I had to run back and forth to make sure the fish was submerged in water and that I didn’t spend too long with him. Got the camera set up and lifted the fish for a few time-lapse photos then unhooked him and raced him back to the deeper water for the release. Sprinted back to get the camera and put it back in the dry bag. My leader was frayed and the loop didn’t look in any condition for a geet. Shit, another several minutes wasted tying a new loop and changing the leader. My time was running out fast and I sprinted back out.

It wasn’t long till another geet came up onto the bommie, a good one too. He ate the Semper with gusto and headed straight for the nearest neighboring bommie. I wasn’t giving him any slack so doubled back on the pressure. Drag was up and I had my hand clamped on the spool and everything parted just as he was about to hit to the next bommie. The fly line loop had split. “Jesus, fucking fuck fuck fuck!”, all of that was going through my mind.

Back to shore to tie a new loop, put on a new leader and a new Semper (black/purple this time). At this point it was around 14H00 and I had to be back at the wharf by 15H00. I was feeling the pressure! Took off again but this time in the opposite direction, walking up the flat in the direction of the wharf. There were a couple of schools of surgeon fish. I spotted a big black geet cruising behind one of these schools and took the cast ahead of him. One long strip and he raced over. A few fast strips and he ate at the rod tip. Same story, max pressure to try force him off the next bommie and another split loop. I was getting pissed off now.

Headed back to shore to tie a new loop but this time I doubled the fly line over before I tied the loop. I was desperate and it was the best solution I had at that point. Headed back out as quickly as possible. Found a fourth napoleon and couldn’t resist taking the shot. This time I just stayed where I was and took the GoPro out of my dry bag and snapped a few shots right there and sent him off. The hook on my Semper was also fucked so I had to replace my fly. I didn’t want to waste any time getting my pack out so I just took the only brush fly off my cap and tied it on. I was frantic with the pressure building up to land that geet and with time heavily against me I was in desperate need of a cigarette. My dry bag was full of water and my cigarettes were soaked. Not good for my nerves.

Getting desperate... The huge amount of pressure I put on the fish caused the leader to cut through the fly line coating and core. I should have used braided loops and I would not have had the problems I experienced. Chalk it all up to the school of hard knocks!

Getting desperate… The huge amount of pressure I put on the fish caused the leader to cut through the fly line coating and core. I should have used braided loops and I would not have had the problems I experienced. Chalk it all up to the school of hard knocks!

Spotted a fifth napoleon and took the shot. He didn’t like the brush fly at all and completely rejected me. I didn’t see any more geets but I did see another napoleon, this one being a real tank, but couldn’t get close enough to take a shot. It would have been pointless anyway given the size of it.

I’d pushed time a bit too far and it was at 16H00 that I had to force myself to give up any chances of landing that geet. I ended my trip with a trigger then took a fast walk back to the wharf to start getting ready for the sail back.

Conclusion

I have personally fished in various saltwater destinations around the Indian Ocean from the Seychelles, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Maldives, Sudan and have experienced world class fishing on film projects in the Seychelles (Alphonse, Astove and Cosmoledo) and in addition to that I have been involved in lengthy exploratory trips in Sudan and Socotra. Kanton atoll was, without a doubt, the best fishing experience I have ever had, and comparing it to my experiences, both fishing and filming, I have to say that it is truly a top flats destination.

Kanton holds huge potential for various other species that we were not able to target. Bumphead parrotfish are definitely around but we did not see any on our short expedition. There are no doubt going to be some crazy sized dogtooth outside of the reef (one big fish was caught on popper from shore) and there will no doubt be billfish and other pelagic species roaming the waters outside of the atoll. Put simply, Kanton is a fish magnet!

Additionally we only scratched the surface of this fishery as we had extremely limited time and poor infrastructure. Luke Wyrsta is going forward with a new trip in May next year and my feelings are that it is going to be epic!

To end off all of this, I would also like to say that I believe that “the journey is the destination” is the most important part of any travel experience. Kanton will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Richard Morton

Author Richard Morton

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