Fish Cut Bait

Catching Kiribati’s trevally by any means possible.

man with large fish
By Chris Santella
Photographs by Dylan Rose

Hhen I first visited Kiribati, in 2011, there were three ways to pursue giant trevally: 1) post up on a flat adjacent to fast-flowing channels, and chum with chopped-up milkfish while waiting for the fish to show; 2) cruise the edges of flats in a motorized catamaran, scanning for GTs that could then be stalked on foot; 3) stalk the flats hoping to encounter a GT, perhaps slinging a 12-weight over a shoulder as you cast to bonefish with an 8-weight to pass the time.

I spent a bit of time pursuing methods 2 and 3 but must admit that I dropped them like a stonefish after one particularly effective day of chumming. On that day, as our guides tossed chunks of milkfish into the current, we fished a small coral island opposite a deep channel, scanning the turquoise water for a glimpse of fish. Our group of four anglers all hooked and landed GTs (one weighing more than 40 pounds) and lost several others.

While chumming for pelagic species—mako sharks come to mind—raises few eyebrows, the idea of chumming for shallow-water species is unsettling for many. One booking agent I know put it this way: “Part of the joy in chasing incredible gamefish like giant trevally is the challenge, and to dumb it down by chumming simply dampens the experience for everyone.”

He’s right, of course. But here’s my question: What if the fish aren’t showing up without that bloody elixir and you have only a day remaining to catch a GT in this lifetime?

In a moment of high-roadedness, I can say that the fish I landed—a modest 10-pound specimen—came before the chumming bloodbath ensued. I spotted two fish cruising by as the guides were anchoring the catamaran. I landed the fly before them and was duly rewarded.

man trying to catch large fish through wave

“They were finning in the current on one side . . . . on the other a half-dozen GTs circled, waiting for a taste of milkfish.”

Fast forward to 2015 when I visited Kiribati again. Since my previous visit, another lodge had opened on Christmas Island and fishing pressure had increased. Though the lagoon at Christmas Island is immense, the GTs apparently are sensitive to the added pressure. The guides said that chumming still brings fish in, but after a certain point those GTs no longer bite a fly unless it holds a milkfish morsel . . . sometimes called bait. At that point guides generally give up chumming . . . and presumably return to bonefish.

Our visit that February corresponded with one of these downturns in chumming/GT activity. So when my group voiced its hearty desire to catch GTs, one of the lead guides, Michael Tiim, nodded his head and said, “OK. We go to the milkfish farm.”

Reaching the “milkfish farm” requires an hour-long boat or ATV ride. At the milkfish farm an earthen levee separates a maze of shallow pools from the main lagoon; tidal water passes back and forth through a screened sluice. As my companion, Joe Runyon, and I approached the sluice, we saw hundreds of milkfish in the 10- to 15-inch range. They were finning in the current on one side, yearning for a taste of freedom; on the other a half-dozen GTs circled, waiting for a taste of milkfish.

bandaged hands
Giant trevally are tough on essential equipment, including your hands. Fish these bad boys for a few days and you’re bound to grab for a bandage—or in this case some athletic tape. The reward for your commitment is the opportunity to land and release one of the sea’s greatest fish.

“If you want to fight one on the fly rod,” Tiim said, “your best bet is to use bait.” Runyon and I declined and instead started stripping large streamers through the GTs until they slowly retreated out of sight. As I reeled up (high road, HIGH ROAD!), Runyon assented to Tiim’s suggestion. Tiim proceeded to snag a hapless milkfish, hook a size 6/0 fly through its tail and release the bait on the other side of the levee, instructing Runyon to let out line. Within a minute the water exploded, and Runyon was fast to a GT. Fifteen minutes later he posed for photos with a fish that Tiim estimated at 40 pounds.

But Runyon and I knew how that fish was caught. Its capture would hold a large asterisk in our imaginary record books. (Tiim, I sensed, couldn’t have cared one way or the other; he simply was happy that Runyon caught the fish he’d hoped to catch.)

Before his encounter at the sluice, Runyon summed up the consensus of many Christmas Island visitors who have yet to feel a GT’s pull and have flown 10 or more hours to do so: “Let me catch one any way I can, and then I’ll stalk them.”

Even if it meant a chunk of milkfish attached to his fly.

The stalkers on that trip, by the way, including me, hooked exactly zero fish.

Booking Kiribati

A variety of interests book trips to Kiribati and can even set up a day or two of fishing in Hawaii during layovers. And remember: Hawaii hosts some of the biggest bonefish on the planet. To read more about the bonefish and GT grounds at Christmas Island and to book your trip, reach out to one of these booking agencies:

Fly Water Travel, 

The Fly Shop, 

Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures, 


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