“This Micronesia Hotspot Offers Exotic Tropical Fishing – at Bargain Rates”
Bikini, Kwajalein Enewetak and Majuro are a handful of atolls of the Marshall Islands that mainlanders may recognize for various reasons including their rich history. For the adventuresome angler, however, legendary fishing venues such as Bikini Atoll are only a starting point in tapping the wealth of gamefish opportunities to be found among the 29 atolls and five single islands comprising the Marshall Islands.
After a rewarding trip to Bikini in September, 1999, it occurred to me that most of the atolls with their characteristic loop of islands strung together by coral reefs are either uninhabited or lightly populated – one of the positive trademarks for a pristine fishing experience. Anxious to test this theory, I returned in September, 2000, and July, 2001, for some of the best light tackle and big game tropical fishing to be found anywhere near remote, little-known atolls such as Likiep, Jaluit, Jemo, Mili, Knox and Arno. Additional good news is the affordability factor. With charter skiff prices starting at $60 U.S. per day and simple air conditioned accommodations found on most of the atolls it was clear that many traveling anglers could enjoy this new fishery. Blue marlin, yellowfin tuna, wahoo and rainbow runner are common offshore while a myriad of exotic reef species including trevally, ban (red snapper), coral trout (grouper), great barracuda, green jobfish, dogtooth tuna and gray reef sharks add up to fast inshore action.
The tropical heat and crystal-clear water of Jaluit lagoon with its jagged coral shelves, colorful “aquarium” fish and bright sandy floor bottom beckons one to enjoy a quick snorkel dive to refresh the body. Californian Sabrina Williams and I avoided the temptation because our poppers were being assaulted by aggressive bluefin trevally, ban, barracuda, green jobfish, long-nosed emperor and black trevally. Our outboard center console skiff slowly skirted the edges of coral formations allowing for strategic casts over the deep crags and holes in the reef where its inhabitants find shelter and good places to ambush prey.
This fast topwater action was fun but anyone with atoll-fishing experience will tell you that bigger fish will more likely challenge you on the ocean side of the reef – not the inner lagoon. After releasing over 20 fish by mid-day, including jobfish up to 12 pounds and coral trout to 16 pounds, I asked our guide Leti Abon, if it was time to go “outside”. “It looks good,” Abon said as he studied the swells breaking on the outer reef. Unless there is a deep channel through the reef, high tide is necessary to navigate safely over the top of a flat reef to open water. The upraised cavitating props made for slow progress over the reef just two feet below until we could see the deep blue just beyond. Choosing a lull in-between swells Abon gunned the engine and within seconds we were transported into a new environment with exciting potential.
The sea was smooth and cobalt blue contrasting with the mottled green hues of the coral edge that plummeted quickly into the depths. We replaced our medium-sized poppers with big six-to nine-inch versions produced by PILI, Braid and Osaka to reduce hookups with smaller fish. We were hoping to encounter giant trevally exceeding 50 pounds, big dogtooth tuna, cruising wahoo or anything that would be a challenge for our Shimano Calcutta 700 conventional reels and medium action plugging rods. Casting these magnum poppers to the edge of the reef and making splashy retrieves over the green-blue water interface was irresistible to 40-pound barracuda and some hefty red snappers called “ban”. Even the gray reef sharks chased our poppers here.
On one retrieve Williams got an explosive hit on a red and black Braid Pop Dancer which pulled line deep within seconds. Soon the rod bounced back as if the fish threw the hook but quickly reloaded with an even greater vengeance and powerful runs. Always concerned with a cutoff from sharp coral, Williams exerted maximum pressure with the aid of 50-pound Power Pro spectra and 100-pound P-Line copolymer leader packed on the reel. After ten minutes the runs were reduced to sporadic, short bursts. The unknown quarry was becoming manageable as Williams gained line steadily. All of us were fixated on the depths as a strange blue-green shape came into view. “Maori wrasse!” I said excitedly as the tired fish was led boatside. It’s bizarre, compact body was deceptively heavy and we estimated its weight conservatively at 80 pounds – well over the current IGFA All Tackle record of 43 pounds 10 ounces.
The intricate pinstripes of the blue and green of this wrasse are mimicked by the painted faces of the Maori people of New Zealand which it’s name is derived from. It’s flesh is highly prized and is similar to lobster as we found that evening over a dining table replete with drawn butter, steamed rice, ahi sashimi and chilled white wine. The only mystery was that Abon insisted wrasse don’t hit surface lures, so we speculated that another fish initially took the popper down to the wrasses’ strike zone, shook the lure free and gave the wrasse the opportunity to grab an easy “meal”. According to Abon, a healthy population of these giant wrasse roam Jaluit and at times schools will come into the lagoon to feed. Abon, who serves as the Conservation Site Officer at Jaluit, 140 miles southwest of Majuro, is part of a team implementing a marine preserve program for the northern reef area where we found the fishing to be on a par with Bikini. No commercial fishing will be allowed and sportfishing will be promoted as a long term revenue source. Jaluit has a small rustic hotel with air conditioning and a kitchen facility where guests are welcome to prepare personal meals. An airstrip provides convenient access from Majuro.
The abundance of life found on all the atolls we visited was impressive. Giant clams, live coral, thick flocks of seabirds continually working tuna and skipjack schools outside the reefs and quality gamefish were evidence of productive habitats. The atolls themselves vary greatly in size. Likiep, about 200 miles northwest of Majuro, is fairly typical with 65 palm-studded islands and low profile coral reefs encircling a 163 square mile lagoon. With only 482 residents concentrated on the southeasterly island called Likiep, most of the reef system is in a pristine condition. Subsistence, low-impact fishing is practiced by the Marshalese as close to home as possible and there is little incentive to travel the 18 miles to the northern side of the lagoon, No matter what atoll we were fishing, we found the best reef action to be as far from inhabited islets as we could get.
At the northern half of Likiep we caught (and lost) big numbers of bluefin trevally, green jobfish, ban, great barracuda, rainbow runner and large coral trout to 18 pounds. We released 33 popper-caught fish by noon when we opted to troll for pelagics, adding 80-pound yellowfin tuna, 40-pound wahoo and some blue marlin encounters to the day. The De Brum family has established a small resort on the sandy shoreline of Likiep's lagoon, offering a variety of outboard skiffs to 26-feet and clean, air conditioned rooms with a central kitchen and dining facility. Craggy Joe de Brum is resident manager and storyteller who offers special insight into Marshalese life. This energetic seniors goal is to catch a blue marlin single-handedly from his new 14-foot aluminum skiff which gives one a quick insight into his exuberance for life’s challenges. Anglers who fly to Likiep can be fishing productive outer-reef water minutes after unpacking.
Mili Atoll offers a different type of experience. Anglers usually travel to Mili, 60 miles southeast of Majuro, by boat with all provisions including tackle, ice and food to augment the daily catch. Robert Reimers Enterprises (RRE) accommodates anglers at its giant clam farm on tiny Wau Island about 25 miles across the lagoon from the populated island of Mili. Wau is only a few miles from Knox Atoll where a rich display of flora and fauna awaits anglers. All of the reef gamefish in impressive sizes are found at Knox. Capt. Ben Reimers maneuvered the 38-foot “Four X” among the reefs in calm seas for dogtooth tuna, black marlin, large barracuda to 50 pounds and yellowfin tuna to add to the standard reef fare. Legions of bluefin trevally, green jobfish and coral trout dominated the popping action and we finally discovered a central theme to atoll popping and trolling – black is a dominant attractor for lure color. Walking the remote beaches we found a possible reason. Newly hatched Hawksbill sea turtles are a favorite prey item and they happen to be nearly solid black in color.
Wau Island, smaller than a football field, is set up with eight scattered wood-framed billy huts with ceiling fans, flush toilets, freshwater showers, large screened windows and covered veranda. A generator provides power and huge barrels of cool rainwater supply each hut. A central kitchen and dining area is where both crew and guests gather for mealtime fishing tales before relaxing on beach chairs under a spectacular display of stars just four degrees above the equator. Both Williams and I agreed that this somewhat “rustic camping” atmosphere provided a closer tie to island living than a more modern resort would have afforded.
Arno Atoll, only eight miles east of Majuro, is fished by day charters from Majuro. Although populated with over 1,600 people, there is some quality fishing to be had at Arno. Captains Ronnie Reimers and Leigh Tobin guided me to giant trevally up to 75 pounds, dogtooth tuna and barracuda on the southeasterly point of the atoll. Majuro itself, the capital of the Marshall Islands with a population of over 20,000, is still a productive sportfishing center although pelagic species such as blue marlin, yellowfin tuna and wahoo are more reliable than inshore reef species due to the local fishing pressure. Traditional vacation amenities are available on Majuro including deluxe lagoon-side rooms at RRE and Outrigger Hotels.
The Marshall Islands are a light tackle paradise. It’s consistent small to medium-size gamefish action on the reefs will entertain novice to experienced fly, surface popping, deep jigging or trolling enthusiasts. However, it would be an incomplete trip without spending some time exploring the blue water fishery. In just two afternoons of offshore trolling, which in the Marshalls usually means just one to three miles from the atolls, we hooked two 400-pound class blue marlin and released a small black marlin on Moldcraft Softheads. Concentrations of marlin, yellowfin tuna, wahoo and skipjack were found at the easterly point of Likiep and the south end of Knox Atoll at Mili. Atolls are irregular in shape with many having finger-like points that create visible current eddies and upwellings, providing a richer biomass environment than the open ocean. Birds, porpoise and pelagic gamefish predators feed off these points which provide a reliable trolling target for anglers.
While we were fishing at Jaluit Atoll on July 6-7, the Marshalls Billfish Club was conducting its 19th Annual Tournament back in Majuro with impressive results. A total of 29 blue marlin were recorded in the two-day event. Twenty of the 28 teams caught billfish. Thirteen year-old Kyle Aliven smashed the tournament record with a 719-pound blue which was hooked close to Majuro and took three hours and eight miles of distance to land. Second place was taken by a 533-pounder caught by Redmond Simeon on the “Baby-M”. In addition to the marlin, 31 yellowfin tuna surpassed the 40-pound minimum qualifying weight.
The Marshall Islands Visitors Authority (MIVA) is promoting sportfishing as a major tourist activity and this tournament indicated that quality billfishing can be experienced in the Marshalls. Tournament angler and MIVA Board Chairman Baron Bigler was enthusiastic over the results. “It’s more significant than just breaking a record. In terms of promoting sportfishing in the Marshall Islands, this takes us to a new level. The overall size of the catch proves that there are “serious” marlin in the Marshalls’ waters,” concluded Bigler. Based upon our limited exposure to billfishing Marshalese-style I would have to agree.
THINGS TO KNOW
IF YOU GO
Majuro, the travel hub and capital of the Marshall Islands, is easily accessed from Honolulu, Hawaii. Continental Micronesia offers three flights per week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Aloha Airlines has flights on Monday and Thursday. The approximate four hour and 30 minute flight crosses the international dateline and arrives the next day. Upon arrival, most anglers will take the complimentary RRE Hotel shuttle bus to this lagoon-side hotel or stay at the nearby Outrigger Hotel. Air Marshall Islands uses 19-passenger Dornier 228’s for atoll shuttles. There is currently a 33-pound maximum weight limit on gear per person, however, anglers can check-in excessive luggage as cargo to reduce overweight fees. The Marshall Islands offer many fishing options to choose from.
Roundtrip airfare to Jaluit Atoll is $170. A full day charter aboard a center console skiff is $60 which can be shared by two anglers. An overnight stay at the MEC Jawoj House is $50 for an air conditioned room. At Likiep Atoll, sample costs include charter skiff rates of $120 to $280 per day depending on size of boat and distance traveled. Rooms at the Likiep Plantation House are $65 per night with air conditioning ($50 without). Robert Reimers Enterprises has nine “Billy Hut” cottages with ceiling fans at Wau Island on Mili Atoll at $50 per night. Although 23-foot boats regularly make this 60-mile trip from Majuro, the 38-foot “Four-X” and other mid-size sportfishers are recommended at a rate of $650 per day. Four anglers can easily be accommodated on this adventure-type fishing trip. Regardless of venue selected, visitors should purchase grocery staples in Majuro prior to departing to these remote atolls to augment the local diet and seafood. Anglers must be self-sufficient with fishing gear. I have found that tackle ranging from Shimano Calcutta 400’s to TLD 50 two-speeds will cover most of the fishing situations.
Trips can be booked through the following sources: Marshall Islands Visitors Authority, (692) 625-6482, fax (692) 625-6771, email: email@example.com
Kaufmann’s Streamborn, Jerry Swanson (800) 442-4359; RRE (Wau Island, Mili), (692) 625-6474, fax (692) 625-3783, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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The Roving Angler