“This Historic Marshall Islands Hotspot Has Been Unfished for 50 Years and is Ready To Go!”
Adventurous anglers are always on the lookout for untouched fishing habitats. As the world shrinks due to modern technology and population growth such unspoiled venues are getting hard to find. Years of isolation created by natural or man-made calamity can also restore old fisheries to exciting levels. The latter is the case with Bikini Atoll. One of the 29 atolls of the Marshal Islands, it is probably most renowned for its role in atomic bomb testing that started in 1946. As part of the post World War II baby boomer generation I recalled the mushroom clouds of atom bomb blasts, news reports of radiation hazards and the displacement of an indigenous society that lived in harmony with nature on the atoll.
Today, after 50 years of closure, Bikini is completely safe to visit and its fish are safe to eat. The accounts from returning anglers have bordered on “tall tales” with 800-pound blue marlin hooked a hundred yards from the outer reef, witnessing hundreds of sharks clogging the channels and catching giant trevally non-stop in the calm lagoon being among the more notable. By the time I got a call from the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority asking if I wanted to test-fish Bikini as well as several other atolls I was ready to jump at the opportunity and find out for myself about those tales.
In September of 1999 lure manufacturer Mark Santiago of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii and I departed for Majuro, capital of the Marshal Islands, carrying an arsenal of his Pacific Island Lure Innovations (PILI) surface poppers as well as an assortment of trolling and deep jigging lures. We were intent on giving Bikini a good workout while also sampling the action at Majuro, Arno and Mili Atolls. Prior to touching down on Bikinis’ paved airstrip after a short stay in Majuro, we had a good aerial view of the atolls many sand cays and islands linked by coral formations encircling the 22-mile wide lagoon. The pristine, tropical environment appeared to had never been touched by the hand of mankind let alone atomic blasts.
Although Bikini caters to both diving and fishing it doesn’t take long to realize that diving is emphasized. Tanks, compressors and high-tech deep diving equipment is professionally maintained yet there isn’t one tackle shop. “Great” was Santiago’s reaction. “That just means the fish haven’t been hammered like in Hawaii. Let’s get going!” he emphasized. Anglers need to be largely self-sufficient, at least currently, and we assembled our 12- to 30-pound class spinning and plugging gear in record time in order to get a few hours of shorecasting in before dark. The trolling tackle could wait until tomorrow.
Bikini Island is over two miles long so we accepted an offer from Edward Maddison to take us to a few shoreline spots by van. Maddisons’ grandfather was one of the original Bikinians relocated to Majuro prior to the bomb testing and is a divemaster who knows the islands well. My first cast with a popper at the south tip of the island literally had a whole school of bluefin trevally racing for it, finally knocking it back to my feet while escaping a hookup. Down the reef a holler came from Santiago as he battled a powerful snapper or “ban” (called bohar or red bass in Australia) which took him for a jog before releasing the estimated 12-pounder. Wading the flat-topped coral edge and casting to deep water was the hot ticket for fast action (and several cutoffs) with giant and bluefin trevally, ban, barracuda and green jobfish. As the tide started rising Maddison politely suggested we walk back to the beach as the atolls notorious sharks start prowling the inner reef in only knee-deep water. Santiago was pumped. “I raised more fish in two hours than I would see in a week back home” he said excitedly. “And we haven’t even been on a boat yet.”
The next morning we boarded the “boat”, a 28-foot, U.S. built Hammerhead barge powered by twin 90 horsepower Honda outboards. It’s center console was the only feature reminiscent of a sportfishing boat but it is fast, fairly dry and a good casting platform. We strapped PVC pipe to the railing for rod holders and I brought heavy-duty safety lines to attach to the trolling reels in anticipation of the spartan facilities. The alternative is a heavy-hulled, 45-foot diesel dive boat that has lots of superstructure to interfere with casting and a top speed of seven knots. We opted for the barge.
Racing south eight miles from Bikini’s small wharf towards a string of cays between Enyu and Enirik Islands, our plan was to get a light tackle workout to calm us down before we did any offshore trolling. Enroute Captain Reno Reimer, mate Brown Lalimo and Edward Maddison shared stories of huge giant trevally and dogtooth tuna seen while diving the wrecks and reef points. Blue marlin, wahoo and acres of yellowfin tuna were reliable targets just outside the reef. Members of the Discovery Channel crew producing a Shark Week episode from Bikini had released several blue marlin a few weeks prior to our arrival.
Captain Reimer expertly maneuvered his craft parallel to the outer reef edge as we fired poppers from bow and stern over large, blue-water cracks in the emerald coral walls. Blind casting with surface poppers is probably the least productive of techniques in most venues but Bikini is different. Giant trevally (lané), bluefin trevally, ban, dogtooth tuna (jilo), green jobfish, schoolie yellowfin tuna (bwébwe), coronation trout, great barracuda (nitwa) longnose emperors, rainbow runner and even swift gray reef sharks (bako) crashed the poppers with a vengeance. Several times we caught two fish on one lure indicating the level of predatory competition found here. The only problem was losing many of the bigger fish to the coral. Even in the sandy lagoon the giant trevally over 50 pounds would find isolated coral heads for a quick cut-off. Santiago stuck with his 20-pound spinning tackle while I beefed up, spooling 500 yards of 50-pound Power Pro ® Spectra ® on my Shimano 700 level-wind reel. With a top shot of 100-pound copolymer P-Line I ignored manufacturers recommendations and punished the reel with 30 pounds of drag pressure which helped turn a lot of fish away from the coral, including giant trevally to 75 pounds during the trip.
After a few hours of casting along the reef we approached a quarter mile wide channel separating two idyllic, tropical islands topped with palm trees. The crew was smiling as Maddison said “watch this”. Within a few minutes an armada of dark shadows appeared heading our way. Hundreds of gray reef sharks quickly stacked up around the boat displaying agitated demeanors and arched body postures without an ounce of chum in the water. “This is shark alley”, explained Maddison “you don’t want to dive here outside a cage” he didn’t have to explain. Gray reefs are the dominant shark species but tiger, oceanic white tip, black tip and silky also show here. We not only lost dozens of hooked fish to sharks they will also race in packs to eat a surface popper as we soon found. The inner lagoon and long stretches of outer coral reef away from the channels hold fewer sharks. We even did some chunking while at anchor and didn’t raise any sharks at several of these spots. For shark hunters Bikini is probably a world-class fishery yet most anglers will probably try to avoid them.
RETURN TO BIKINI ATOLL
During the next five days we sampled just about every habitat Bikini has to offer from blue water trolling, deep jigging the open lagoon and a few remote wrecks, popping the reefs, coral heads and sandy shorelines to wade-fishing the shallow flats. One intriguing if not eerie experience was to drop metal jigs over the atom bomb craters that pockmark the lagoons bottom. The vast lagoon averages about 120-feet in depth but blast sites such as Bravo (the only hydrogen bomb tested and the most powerful) have left bottom impressions up to 240-feet deep which appear like blue holes from the surface. Dogtooth tuna, ban, barracuda and grouper were the dominant species found deep in the holes or near the surface. Ban in the 12- to 20-pound range were so numerous throughout the lagoon that we would move after releasing one of these aggressive snappers. We knew they would offer endless hookups and we wanted more time to find trophy size dogtooth tuna. Finding the elusive dogtooth was much easier than landing them as virtually all of the big ones, some of which appeared to be well over 100 pounds, either destroyed our terminal tackle or cut us off.
The fish were working us over pretty good and we occasionally felt somewhat undergunned for the task. It only got worse when we left the sanctity of the reef for open blue water. Our largest outfit was a Shimano TLD 30 Two-Speed filled with 80-pound Power Pro ® Spectra ® that was selected largely due to weight restrictions for air travel. Our second lineup included TLD 20 Two-Speeds with 50- Pound Spectra ® all of which have been successful with blue marlin, yellowfin tuna and other pelagics at other venues.
Due to stormy weather our time outside the reef was limited to a couple of days. Flocks of diving seabirds commonly mark schools of oceanic skipjack and kawakawa that attract the big pelagic predators. The water depth drops to 100 fathoms within a stones throw of the outer reef and plunges to an abyss of over 1000 fathoms within a mile. Trolling softheads near the surface activity brought strikes from dolphin, rainbow runner, schoolie yellowfin tuna and wahoo but we could have used larger 80- pound class tackle for the shots we had with blue marlin and some unseen adversaries that either spooled us or destroyed our heavy-duty mono terminal tackle. I would recommend that visiting anglers bring at least one large rod and reel combination until they become available on-site because these fish go straight down with incredible speed and power. This is not a light tackle offshore fishery.
Bikini beckons anglers to return because the habitat is so diverse one visit doesn’t provide enough time to sample all it has to offer. The memory of lost opportunities with big fish may add to the tall tales but I’d rather strengthen my tackle and sharpen my fishing strategy for another shot at Bikinis’ behemoths. As it was we averaged over 30 releases per day on the reef and we could have gone over 100 releases if we had stayed in productive spots. That defines Bikini as a world-class tropical fishery that should be great for years to come due to light fishing pressure. Anglers who like an extreme light tackle challenge and an exotic setting should put Bikini Atoll and the Marshall Islands on their list of future fishing venues.
GOING TO BIKINI
Bikini Atoll is part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands located in the western part of the Pacific Ocean known as Micronesia. It is fairly easy to get to especially from the West Coast of the U.S. My Continental flight from Los Angeles stopped at Honolulu, Hawaii where I overnighted before boarding a five-hour Continental Micronesia connection to Majuro, Marshall Islands. Bikini is a two-hour flight north with Air Marshall Islands with one stop at Kwajalein Atoll. Due to limited airline service to the Marshalls and Bikini, most visiting anglers will spend a few days in Majuro waiting for connecting flights. The wait, however can be fun with exceptional local fishing available at Arno, Mili and Majuro Atolls where we caught giant trevally, dogtooth tuna and wahoo although not in the prolific numbers as found at Bikini. Preferred accommodations in Majuro is the Robert Reimers Hotel which offers new lagoonside, air conditional bungalows and its Tide Table restaurant, a popular American-style gathering spot.
Robert Reimers Enterprises also provides a comfortable base at Bikini Atoll, with new air conditioned rooms with private bathroom and shower, verandas overlooking the lagoon and a large dining hall nearby where hearty American-style meals are served. With a little coaxing head chef Mios Maddison will prepare tasty Marshallese side dishes featuring fresh seafood. Since only 12 visitors can be accommodated at Bikini, friendly personalized service adds to its enjoyment and a feeling of isolated, natural beauty permeates the Bikini experience.
Trips to Bikini or the Marshall Islands diverse atoll system can be booked through the following sources: Jerry Swanson at Kaufmann’s Streamborn Inc. 800-442-4359; Robert Reimers Enterprises, Inc. 692-625-3250 or FAX 692-625-3505; Pacific Unique Travel 692-625-3409 or FAX 692-625-3868; Majuro Charter Boat Association 692-625-FISH; and Marshall Islands Visitors Authority 692-625-3352 or FAX 692-625-3218.
IS IT SAFE?
William Robison of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been studying radiation on Bikini for decades. Time and natural processes have eliminated radioactive residue to the point where it is completely safe to live on the Island. Diving the lagoon, eating the local fish and drinking the water does not pose any hazard. However, all vegetables and fruits are imported as a precaution. A radioactive element, Cesium 137, has been measured in small amounts in the soil which the coconut palms and other flora can absorb as they mistake the chemical for potassium which it is similar to. Now Scientists are adding potassium to the soil which the plants prefer resulting in minimal cesium absorption. In any event, you’d have to eat an awful lot of coconuts over a very long period of time for it to amount to any level of risk. “I sometimes eat the coconuts myself” says Robison. If you want more data on the subject, Central Pacific Dive Expeditions will send you a copy of the study that finds the risk from exposure to radiation on Bikini is virtually zero. They can be reached at 800-846-3483 or 714-426-0265.
All rights reserved
The Roving Angler