SALT WATER SPORTSMAN
May 2000 Issue
Story and Photos by Tony Peña
As a fishing writer and photographer, I'm always on the lookout for remote, exotic destinations that have escaped the destructive hand of modem technology. That's what makes my recent trip to Bikini Atoll so ironic: destructive modern technology is exactly why it offers such incredible fishing! The place is remote and exotic, all right, but you couldn't really call it pristine.
One of the 29 atolls that make up the Marshall Islands, Bikini is probably best known for its role in atomic-bomb testing, which began there in 1946. Today, after remaining off-limits for 50 years, Bikini is once again safe to visit and its fish are safe to eat. While so far there haven't been any reports of mutant game fish sprouting extra fins and heads, visiting anglers have returned with far-out tales of 800-pound blue marlin hooked just beyond the reef, of sharks so numerous they clog the channels, and of catching giant trevally non-stop in the atoll's protected lagoon. Needless to say, I was more than ready to investigate the rumors firsthand, and then came a fortuitous a call from the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority asking if I wanted to "test-fish" Bikini and several other atolls in the Marshalls. Sign me up!
Last September, lure manufacturer Mark Santiago of Hawaii and I departed for Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, carrying an arsenal of Mark's PILI poppers and an assortment of trolling and deep-jigging lures. We were intent on giving Bikini a good workout, as well as sampling the action at the Majuro, Amo and Mili atolls. Prior to touching down on Bikini's paved airstrip after a short stay in Majuro, we got a good aerial view of the atoll's many sand cays and islands, which are linked by coral formations encircling the 22-rnile-wide lagoon. From high above, the atoll appeared untouched by human hands, let alone atomic blasts.
Although Robert Reimer Enterprises' Bikini operation caters to both divers and fishermen, it didn't take us long to realize that the former currently receive priority. Air tanks, compressors and high-tech deep-diving equipment were everywhere, yet there wasn't a tackle shop in sight. "Great!" was Santiago's enthusiastic reaction. "That means the fish haven't been hammered. Let's get going!"
Wasting no time, we quickly assembled our spinning and plugging gear in order to get in a few hours of shore-casting before dark. The trolling tackle could wait until tomorrow.
Bikini Island, the atoll's main island, is over two miles long, so we accepted an offer from Edward Maddison to take us to a few shoreline spots by van. Maddison's grandfather was one of the original Bikinians who were relocate to Majuro prior to the bomb testing, and is a divemaster who knows the islands well.
My first cast with a popper at the southern tip of the island was greeted by a school of bluefin trevally. The ravenous jacks chased the lure all the way to shore and knocked it back at my feet. Down the reef, I heard Santiago holler as he hooked a powerful 12-pound snapper, or "ban" (also called bohar, or red bass, in Australia).
Wading the flat-topped coral edge and casting to deep water produced some fast action (and several cut-offs) with giant and bluefin trevally, ban, barracuda and green jobfish. As the tide started to rise, Maddison politely suggested we walk back to the beach, as the atoll's notorious sharks begin prowling the inner reef when the water gets to be knee-high.
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 the boat yet!"
The "boat" in question turned out to be a 28-foot, U.S.-built Hammerhead barge powered by twin 90-hp outboards. Its center console was the only feature reminiscent of a sport fishing boat, but it proved to be fast, fairly dry and served as a decent casting platform. We strapped PVC pipe to the railing for rod holders, and clipped heavy-duty safety lines to the trolling reels in case we encountered one of the monster marlin that were rumored to be lurking along the reef.
AMAZING REEF ACTION
Our plan was to start off with a lighttackle workout to calm us down before we did any offshore trolling, so we headed south eight miles from Bikini's small wharf toward a string of cays between Enyu and Enirik Islands. En route, Captain Reno Reimer, mate Brown Lalimo, and Maddison shared stories of huge trevally and dogtooth tuna that had been seen by divers on Bikini's wrecks and reefs. Better still, blue marlin, wahoo and acres of yellowfin tuna were said to be reliable targets just outside the reef. In fact, members of a Discovery Channel crew who were producing a "Shark Week" episode in Bikini a few weeks prior to our arrival had released several blue marlin.
Once Captain Reimer had positioned the barge parallel to the outer reef wall, we began firing poppers into wide, blue cuts in the coral. Blindcasting with surface plugs is probably the least productive of techniques in most places, but not in Bikini. Giant trevally (lan6), bluefin trevally, snapper, dogtooth tuna Oilo), green jobfish, small yellowfin tuna (bw6bwe), coronation trout, great barracuda (nitwa), longnose emperors, rainbow runner and even gray reef sharks (bako) crashed our poppers with a vengeance, and several times we caught two fish on the same plug! The only problem was that many of the bigger fish would break us off on the coral.
Santiago stuck with his 20-pound spinning tackle, but I eventually switched to a baitcasting reel with 500 yards of 50-pound super-braid. Using a top shot of 100-pound mono, I ignored the reel manufacturer's recommendations and pushed the drag to 30 pounds. This punished the reel, but helped in turning a lot of fish away from the coral, including giant trevally up to 75 pounds.
After a few hours of casting along the reef, we approached a quarter-milewide channel separating two idyllic tropical islands festooned with palm trees. The crew was smiling as Maddison said, "Watch this."
Within minutes an armada of shadows ap peared, heading our way. The dark shapes turned out to be hundreds of gray reef sharks, which began swimming around the boat, their aggressive mood indicated by arched body postures. The scary part was that we hadn't put any chum in the water!
"This is shark alley," explained Maddison. "You don't want to dive here without a cage."
Gray reefs are the dominant shark species at Bikini, but tiger, oceanic whitetip, blacktip and silky also live in the surrounding waters. The abundant sharks not only ate dozens of our hooked fish during the trip, they also proved eager to chase surface poppers, sometimes in packs. Fortunately, the inner lagoon and long stretches of the outer reef away from the channels hold fewer sharks. We even did some chunking at anchor at several of these spots without encountering any.
JIGGING THE CRATERS
During the next five days we sampled just about every type of fishing Bikini has to offer, including blue-water trolling, deep-jigging over remote wrecks, plugging the reefs and sandy shorelines, and wade-fishing the shallow flats. One interesting, if somewhat eerie, experience was dropping metal jigs into the nuclear-bomb craters that pockmark the lagoon bottom. The vast lagoon has an average depth of about 120 feet, but blast sites such as Bravo (created by the only hydrogen bomb ever tested) can be up to 240 feet deep. They look very similar to blue holes from the surface. Dogtooth tuna, ban snapper, 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 to another spot after releasing just one of these aggressive snapper.
While ban are certainly fun to catch, we had our sights set on trophy dogtooth tuna. Finding the elusive dogtooths 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.
In general, the fish were working us over pretty good, making us feel somewhat undergunned. The situation only got worse when we left the sanctuary of the reef and headed for open water. Because of airline weight restrictions, our largest trolling outfit was a Shimano TLD 30 two-speed filled with 80-pound Spectra. After that, our arsenal included TLD 20 two-speeds with 50-pound Spectra, which we've used to take blue marlin, yellowfin tuna and other large, pelagic species on previous trips.
Due to stormy weather, our time outside the reef was limited to a couple of days, yet we still enjoyed plenty of action. Flocks of diving seabirds commonly marked schools of oceanic skipjack and kawakawa, which attract the big pelagic predators. The bottom plunges to 100 fathoms within a stone's throw of the outer reef, then descends to an abyss of over 1,000 fathoms within a mile. Trolling Soft Head lures near the surface activity brought strikes from dolphin, rainbow runner, yellowfin tuna and wahoo, but we could have used larger 80-pound-class tackle for the blue marlin and some unseen adversaries that either spooled us or destroyed our terminal gear. I would recommend that visiting anglers bring at least one large trolling outfit, because these fish go straight down with incredible speed and power. This is not a light-tackle offshore fishery!
Lost opportunities with big fish may add to the allure of Bikini, but I'd rather beef up my tackle and sharpen my fishing skills for another shot at the atoll's blue-water behemoths. In the meantime, I'll settle for my memories of spectacular reef fishing. And it was spectacular, for we had at least 30 releases per day on the reef, and could have tallied over 100 if we had not moved on to investigate other spots. After my first visit, I would definitely classify Bikini as a world-class tropical fishery, one that should remain productive for years to come - as long as the government doesn't get any more bright ideas to start bombing it again. -J
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. My Continental Airlines flight from Los Angeles stopped in Honolulu, Hawaii, where I overnighted before boarding a five hour Continental Micronesia connection to Majuro in the Marshall Islands. Bikini is a two-hour flight north aboard 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 can be fun, however, since there is exceptional local fishing available at Arno, Mili and Majuro atolls, where we caught giant trevally, dogtooth tuna and wahoo, although not in the numbers we found at Bikini.
Preferred accommodations in Majuro is the Robert Reimers Hotel, which features new lagoonside, air-conditioned bungalows and the Tide Table restaurant, a popular American-style gathering spot. Robert Reimers Enterprises also provides a comfortable base at Bikini, with new air-conditioned rooms with private bathroom and shower, verandas overlooking the lagoon and a large dining hall nearby where hearty meals are served. Since only 12 visitors can be accommodated at Bikini, guests are assured of friendly, personalized service and a feeling of remote isolation.
Trips to Bikini and the Marshall Islands can be booked through the following sources:
Jerry Swanson (800) 442-4359
Robert Reimers Enterprises,
(692) 625-3250, fax (692) 625-3505
Pacific Unique Travel,
(692) 6253409, fax (692) 625-3868
Majuro Charter Boat Association,
Marshall Islands Visitors Authority,
(692) 625-3352, fax (692) 625-3218
How Safe Is It?
William Robison of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been studying radiation on Bikini for decades. According to his studies, 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, since a radioactive element, Cesium 137, has been measured in small amounts in the soil. Since Cesium is similar in structure to potassium, it is absorbed by the coconut palms and other fiora. However, scientists are currently adding potassium to the soil, which is resulting in minimal cesium absorption by the local plant life. 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. In fact, Robison admits to eating Bikini coconuts himself. If you want more data on the subject, Central Pacific Dive Expeditions will send you a copy of the study. Call them at (800) 846-3483 or (714) 426-0265. - Tony Peña
This Bikini Atoll website is sponsored by:
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The historical information within this site, while constantly updated, is drawn largely from the book, FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, Second Edition, published in September of 2001 by Jack Niedenthal. This book tells the story of the people of Bikini from their point of view via interviews, and the author's more than two decades of firsthand experiences with elder Bikinians.
Copies can be purchased from this direct ordering link at Amazon.com, or you can also buy and download the Kindle edition.