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Aitutaki Bonefish

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    Posted: 17 Nov 2009 at 4:19pm
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Bonefish of Aitutaki
By Mark Cullingford

Aitutaki is a coral atoll located 700km north of Rarotonga.  While most commonly recognised as a stunning holiday and honeymoon destination, the lagoon is home to some of the biggest bonefish in the pacific.  Bonefish are, pound for pound, one of the most powerful fish in the ocean.  They are built for power and speed, and have been clocked by researchers at speeds of up to 26mph.  They are almost completely silver, making them extremely difficult to see on white sand, hence the nickname ‘ghost of the flats’. 

We had been anticipating this trip for months, so it was with a sense of great relief and excitement that we finally saw Aitutaki atoll out the airplane window.  We’d been here last year, and were convinced that this time we’d come up with a better recipe to catch more fish.

Our trip was to be 9 days long, with the first 2 nights on Akaiami Island, the middle 4 nights at Ootu Beach, and the final 2 nights back at Akaiami. 

Akaiami Island
After an impatient, sleepless night spent on the main island, our Akaiami hosts, Des and Queen, picked us up bright and early.  After a quick stop to pick up supplies we were on the boat and heading for Akaiami Island.  Overcast, calm conditions greeted us when we arrived at the island.  The southerly weather was creating strong currents and high tides throughout the lagoon, but that didn’t seem to have affected the conditions at Akaiami beach.  The island is approximately 700m long, with a white sand beach that extends the entire length of the western shore.  The water depth is pretty shallow, making this area perfect for skinny water bonefish spotting. 

 
Akaiami beach

Once we’d been shown our accommodation we dumped our luggage and the race was on to get the rods and gear together.  This was my first saltwater mission with my new 8 wt Temple Fork Axiom and I was looking forward to giving it a workout.  Once we were geared up it was a 20m walk to the waters edge to search for bonefish, and find them we did!  During our stay we saw many bonefish along this section of shoreline.  While not as numerous as the bonefish, we also saw some good trevally and queenfish along this shoreline.  On several occasions we saw big trevally come marauding into the shallows to bust up schools of helpless baitfish sheltering in the shallow water.

The first day was spent exploring the beach, along with the flats and channels at the north and south of the island.  Dad caught a nice trevally around 3kg, and we got a couple of small queenfish as well.  We saw plenty of bones on the beach when the light and wind allowed, but getting these fish to take a fly was a skill we hadn’t yet mastered.
 

Dad’s trevally

The following day we loaded the fly rods into the kayak and paddled south, toward the sand bank next to One foot island.  This is an area we’d fished last time, and holds the most appeal to me.  Crystal clear water, a steep drop-off, alongside extensive white sand flats.  Bones and trevs often venture up onto the flats, or cruise the edges looking for food washed off the flats by the tide. 
 

Sand bank near One foot Island

About half way along the sand bank a shallow bay has formed, where the bottom tapers off much more gradually than the steep drop-offs on either side.  We found this to be the best area for spotting bones and trevs as they cruise in from the deep.  Dad set himself up in a prime spot, on the point at one end of the bay.  This allowed him to cast out into the deep, while also keeping an eye out for bones cruising into the bay.  This paid off when he hooked the first bone of the trip, fishing out into the deep.  The reason for our trip once again became clear as we watched the backing disappearing at an astounding rate, and listened to Dad’s new Lamson Konic scream.  In our experience the ‘typical’ bonefish will run three times during a fight, each time coming back to within 20m of the rod.  The third run is the shortest, after which the fish comes in and swims up and down until you can muscle it up onto the beach.  This proved to be the case with Dad’s fish, which was safely landed after a thrilling 15 minute tussle. 
 

The first bonefish of the trip


There was a huge sense of relief to have landed the first bone.  Many more to come we hoped!  We didn’t hook any more bones that day, but had some great fun on some decent sized trevs that were hanging just off the edge.  The trevally are great fun to catch, as they are extremely aggressive and smash your fly with reckless abandon. 

Ootu Beach
Our first stint at Akaiami was over, so we piled all our gear back into the boat and headed for the mainland.  Queen dropped us off at the Boatshed, which was to be the base for the next 4 nights.  Our intention was to fish the sand flats and drop-off to the south of the Lagoon resort.  During our last trip we had enjoyed good fishing in the channel next to the island.  On the incoming tide the channel gets a flush of clean water from the reef, causing it to go crystal clear.  Large numbers of fish could be seen cruising near the bottom, with big trevally and bonefish standing out in stark contrast against the white coral sand.  Unfortunately, the tides were so messed up by the southerly weather that we didn’t see this flushing of the channel while we were there.  We did, however, catch a few nice bones blind fishing along the drop-off, and the old man managed a really nice golden trevally, which was a new species for us. 
 



My two bones off the Resort flat.  Caught in 1 hour.


 
Dad’s golden trevally

Despite the odd bonefish to keep us interested, the fishing along this edge was poor compared to our previous trip.  Last time we had caught hundreds of trevally in between the bonefish.  This time the trevally were conspicuous in their absence.  Discussions with the locals confirmed that any wind from the south or west quarters will kill the fishing in this part of the lagoon.

One evening, after a very unproductive day on the flats, I decided to wander out to the reef outsite the boatshed and throw a few softbaits for some trevally.  I had my twinpower spooled with 20lb tuffline, and my 6-10kg Offshore Illusion, so not big gear by any stretch of the imagination.  I figured it’d be enough to land a few smaller trevs, and would likely result in some big bust-offs.  How right I was!  First cast – WHAM – fish on!!  I got a look at the 6-8kg trevally as it swam through a wave, before it powered off into deep water and rubbing me off on the reef.  I really do love the way the twinpower sings!  A quick re-rig and the next cast was nailed as well, this time by a smaller bluefin trevally.  Several of these fish were landed in fairly short order, the largest of which might have been 3kg.  During this period of mayhem Dad had wandered out to see how I was going, so I handed the rod over for him to have a go.  Before long the limited supply of softbaits I had crammed in my pockets was depleted and we had wide smiles.

It was fantastic sport to watch these magnificent fish following the lures right to your feet before nailing them.  At times they were fighting over the lure, with 5-10 fish easily seen following through the waves.  The most memorable moment was just after Dad arrived.  I turned to talk to him as he was looking at the water, and saw his eyes widen.  “Look at that!” he said.  I turned in time to see, framed in a wave, the biggest trevally I had ever seen.  A massive giant trevally was patrolling the edge of the reef.  To us this fish appeared to be 5-6ft long, about 4ft tall, dark grey and massive.  We guessed maybe 50-60kg, but there is really no way of knowing.  We saw it in 4 waves, before it moved along the reef and out of sight.

During our stay at the Boatshed we caught up with Butch Leone, the local fishing guide that we’d fished with during our previous trip. As always, Butch was great company, and regaled us with recent bonefish stories over a few cold beers.  He told us that he’d created a new fly pattern that was working really well on the bones at the moment, so we convinced him to tie us a few.  He offered to show us his local sand flat over by the fishing club, which is how we spent our last day on the mainland.  These flats showed some promise, but the tide was running strongly and the sky was overcast, making spotting difficult.  We did see a few fish, but didn’t get any good shots at them.

Back to Akaiami
Two and a half days to go!  Hardly any bones or trevs landed!  Time to save the trip!  The weather had really killed our time at Ootu beach, so we were hoping for a successful finish to the trip.  Back to Akaiami we went.  Butch had said that he was keen to head down to the southern part of the lagoon with his family, so he might see us down there.  If so we were welcome to fish with him.  Des and Queen picked us up, and in fairly short order we were heading off through the coral bommies toward Akaiami.  On arrival the plan was the same as before; dump the luggage, gear up and walk the beach.  I put my Axiom back together and walked down the beach in time to see Butch arriving with his wife and daughter.  I walked out onto the beach next to the wharf, about 30m down the beach from everyone else. 

Right there in front of me, swimming show circles alongside the wharf, were two bonefish.  ‘This could be my best shot of the trip,’ I thought to myself. I stripped off some line, checked the back cast (not much), and flicked the fly out into the water.  Perfect cast, 4m in front of the lead fish.  Wait, wait, wait, strip, strip, strip.  Fail!  The fish completely ignored the fly, swimming past by about 10m before turning and coming back.  Another perfect cast, another rejection.  Fourth cast; pause until the fish is about 2m from the fly... twitch, strip... The fish turns and follows the fly.  Heart pounding, hands shaking, I continue a strip retrieve.  The fish follows, then suddenly, with a flick of its tail it turns and inhales the fly.  Fish on!!  I struck hard to set the hook, and in my excitement hung onto the line just a bit too long.  That’s one lesson I’ve learned from this trip; when the fish turns after it feels the hook you have to be ready to let it have line, even if you have to let go entirely.  It all happened in a millisecond, the fish hit the fly; I hit the fish; the fish turned and sped off, now adorned with new lip piercing and 9ft of 15lb fluoro trailing behind.  My leader to tippet knot had failed – I guess it had to break somewhere.

As you can imagine, I was gutted!  I lost my composure for a few moments, but with Butch’s daughter only 30m away I refrained from uttering too many bad words.  The perfect follow and take, and it’d clamped down and bust it off, right in front of everyone!  Bugger!

We all boarded Butch’s boat and headed south toward One foot island.  This was to be one of the best fishing sessions for me.  Following the lost bonefish, I was fishing with confidence, which can really make a difference.  I sight-fished several nice trevally from the beach, laying out perfect casts and getting a real buzz watching the fish come in behind the fly and nailing it as I stripped it back as fast as I could. 
 



Sight fishing for trevally


After a while we headed back over to the sand bank, where we got some great shots at big bones on the flats.  I was walking the edge when I looked back to see Dad bent up once again.  Another nice bone caught in the deep, from his favourite spot at the end of the bay.  Dad was developing a real skill at blind fishing the edges.
 

Another good bonefish off the sand bank


Butch dropped us back to Akaiami island around mid afternoon, so we decided to do a bit more exploring.  We walked to the northern flats, and fished the channel to the north for nothing.  We worked our way back along the edge, walking 5-10m between casts.  Once again, Dad struck and loaded up on a fish.  It wasn’t doing much, and I heard him mutter ‘trevally’.  Then... holy hell!  The fish lit up and stripped 250m of line in one scorching run.  A few more blistering runs and another nice bonefish was landed.  I must admit at this stage I was thinking things like ‘tinny bugger’ and ‘bloody fluke’.  I didn’t say that of course; it was all smiles and handshakes.  We were here to catch bonefish after all.  Blind fishing in relatively shallow water is a real lottery, so he’d done really well to hook this fish.

We wandered back down the beach as the sun dipped toward the horizon.  We figured a few more casts off the wharf before adjourning for dinner and a beer.  I opted to fish off the wharf, so Dad walked out to the nearby mooring float, using it as cover.  Everything was quiet, and we were starting to get hungry.  Then, on his last cast, Dad hooked another fish.  This time he was yahooing like someone that had just won lotto.  A torrid 20 minute battle saw yet another solid bonefish landed.  This time I did verbalise my thoughts, calling him a ‘jammy *******’ among other things.  He just beamed, and said ‘Be happy for me’.  And I was, of course. 
 



Dads Akaiami bonefish


The following morning we were up and walking the beach by 5.45am.  We had discovered that visibility is pretty good for the first hour before the glare comes on the water.  I walked north and Dad walked south.  About half way along the beach I saw a nice fish cruising about 10m from the shore.  I had a clear back-cast, so laid out a cast.  Perfect!  Wait, wait, twitch, strip, strip.  The fish turned and followed the fly.  ‘I’m on!’ I thought.  The fish followed, and followed, until I was stripping leader.  Then, with its dorsal out of the water and its nose under my rod tip, it turned away, cruising back out into deeper water.  Arrrggghhhhh!!’ I thought, standing there breathing hard and shaking.  ‘These bloody fish are starting to piss me off!’

I continued walking north, to where a couple of trees hang over the water.  I stepped into the water to walk around the first tree and froze.  Cruising alongside me, perhaps 4m out from the shore, was the biggest bonefish I had ever seen.  It was at least a metre long (maybe bigger).  I could see this fish in wonderful detail, and marvelled at its size and the shimmer of light off its long flank.  The fish hadn’t seen me, as I had plenty of cover from the trees.  I had to get a cast on this beast!  The trees surrounding me limited my back-cast, meaning I’d need to try a roll cast.  I moved into position just in front of the fish and gave the rod a flick.  I held my breath as the fly looped over and landed about 2m in front of the fish.  Some fish will spook if you land the fly within 5m of them, so my heart was racing as I watched for a response.  Sure enough, the fish took off... but directly at the fly!  I struck and felt the line tighten. 

The next couple of seconds were all about survival, as the fish felt the hook and decided it wanted to be anywhere but there.  A massive thrashing tail churned the water to foam as it tore off a top speed.  With maximum adrenaline flowing through my veins I got the line to the reel (somehow), and palmed the spool as flyline then backing disappeared at an alarming rate.  ‘There’s no way I’m going to stop this fish on 15lb,’ I thought to myself as my reel steadily emptied.  I decided I had to chase the fish when I had around 30m of backing left.  I was at the end of the bay, so followed the fish out along the edge of the sand flat.  I put as much weight on the gear as I dared, trying to turn the fish.  I thought it was all going well, I was even getting a bit of line back, when I felt vibration through the line.  “The ******* has wrapped me!” I thought.  Sure enough, I found a stick in about 4ft of water that had a single wrap.  I waded to chest deep and reached down, trying to untangle the line.  I got it free and the line whipped out straight as the fish tore off on another run.  Success!  A few minutes later I felt more vibration through the line.  The fish had found the only coral bommie within 500m.  The only one!! 

The game was over, the fish was gone, and I was wrapped around a bommie which was about 8-9ft deep.  Fortunately the old man, having finished his leisurely breakfast, came out onto the beach and realised my plight.  He brought the kayak and snorkelling gear.  Some fancy kayaking and diving resulted in a recovered line, completely intact and undamaged minus the fly – what a miracle.  I’m still hurting to have lost this fish!!  This is likely to be the biggest bone I will ever shake hands with.  Thinking back now I wish I had stayed on the beach and applied as much weight as possible.  Getting spooled would have been preferable to getting wrapped.

Butch had offered to guide us for our last day, and turned up bang on time.  Once again, we headed south to the sand bank near One foot island.  We spent the day down there, walking the bright white sand flats and casting off the edges.  We saw many bonefish, including one so massive that Dad saw it 50m away looking into the glare.  The fish was cruising the edge, and melted away before I could get a cast away.  I put a cast where it should have been, with no luck.
 
Butch and I were walking the flats when we heard a yell from Dad, who was once again hooked up.  He later described how he’d seen a fish cruising the edge, and how he had lead it with a cast, allowing the fly to settle and starting the retrieve when he figured the fish would be passing.  Sure enough, the fish nailed the fly on the second strip.  This was probably the best fish of the trip, measuring 31in and weighing maybe 9lb.
 

The last bonefish of the trip

That was the last bone we landed for the trip (making a total of 10 landed, 4 lost).  We saw plenty of fish from the beach the following morning, and had a few follows, but no hook-ups.  At one stage I was casting to four fish, all milling around in front of me just outside my casting range (no back cast).  Finally it was time for us to break down our gear and board the boat back to the main island.  2 hours later it was with bittersweet feelings that I watched Aitutaki grow smaller out the airplane window.  Bad weather had severely hampered our fishing opportunities at Ootu beach, but we had done better than expected in the southern part of the lagoon.  Big fish seen, big fish hooked, big fish lost.
 

Aerial shot of the Resort sandflat


We discovered during our trip that the accommodation at Akaiami Island is perfectly suited to bonefish anglers.  We think there is huge potential for Des and Queen to cater for bonefish anglers, as we found their accommodation to be perfectly located within the lagoon.  The beach seemed to have a healthy bonefish population, and the flats and channels north and south provided other fishing opportunities.  While we didn’t catch many trevally during our stay, I’m sure if you targeted them you’d find them in numbers.  We discussed with Des the possibility of him providing a small boat for angler use, perhaps a small Mac with a 4hp outboard.  He seemed open to the idea and said he would make enquires.  Using Akaiami as a base, with a small dingy for transport, fishing opportunities within the southern half of the lagoon are fantastic. 



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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote Renegade Fisher Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Nov 2009 at 4:34pm
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Fantastic report Mark Clap. Well done !
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Excellent stuff and unforgetable trip to paradise, not many have tried that and have a bonefish or two under their belts.
 
Gee that 50-60kg Trevally must have been a sight to seeShocked
 
Great pics too, well done mate.Clap
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote SamMcK Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Nov 2009 at 4:42pm
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Epic report mate, enjoyed it, how much is accomadation over that way
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote EKO Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Nov 2009 at 5:03pm
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Sweet trip guy's, was a great story to read, Alsum photos.
Its not about the size of your boat! "But how you use it
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Accomodation varies significantly, depending on where you want to stay ($50-2000/night).  Ootu beach is the best on the mainland, as you're right next to a good channel and flats.  Options are Ranginui or the Boatshed, which are both about $80-90/night, with free kayak.

Akaiami Island was by far the best place to stay.  The facilities are like what you'd expect at a camping ground here in NZ.  The fishing options are mint, as you've read.  I recommend getting hold of Des and Queen if you're planning to trip to Aitutaki.
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote ozone Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Nov 2009 at 5:41pm
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awesome!
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote saltydog Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Nov 2009 at 6:18pm
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Great stuff, awesome report.
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote kIWir Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Nov 2009 at 7:23pm
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very nice report...great pictures too.....well done
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote fishyrich Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Nov 2009 at 8:21pm
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great report, thanks for sharing.
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote Lethal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Nov 2009 at 9:35pm
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thats an excellent report Mark, lovely read most enjoyable.....
plus those pics certainly give the story that little bit extra......


been there love the place, but mainly for the game fish which is also excellent....
yep one of the most beautiful atolls in the Pacific and they use our money.....
plus they can never do enough to help you, some dam friendly people...
reminds me of NZ 40years ago when no one locked up anything...    
Thanks for everything you did for us Eric. may you rest in peace, You were one of the real legends of NZ recreational fishing
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote sooshee Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Nov 2009 at 11:14pm
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Great read thanks!
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AWESOME!!!!
www.clarkreid.co.nz   FFF Certified Casting Instructor / Umpqua Designer Tier
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote Cheeko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 18 Nov 2009 at 3:10am
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Great report and pics, bummer about losing the monster bonefish!! When you were fishing blind for the bones along the edge were you using floating or intermediates?
 
Have to get there one day.
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote Marko Shark Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 Nov 2009 at 8:26am
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Hi Cheeko,

Off the drop-offs you absolutely need a clear intermediate, as the fish tend to be hard on the bottom.  We were using Rio Outbounds.  The floating running line makes long casting much easier.


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Great report Mark, I spent a few days on Aitutaki a few years back, but without a rod! I will return sometime with a fly rod, the lagoon is stunning. Thanks for sharing.
Mike.
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Anyone visiting this place should definitely take a flyrod!  Dad just got back from New Caledonia, and he said it makes Aitutaki look awesome!
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote CEEBEE Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25 Nov 2009 at 10:08am
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Fantastic reading, went to Raro about 5 years ago now and meant to go to Atutaki but didnt make it, Regret it now.
I STARTED THE DAY WITH NO FISH AND I STILL HAVE PLENTY LEFT
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Post Options Post Options   Likes (0) Likes(0)   Quote Aitutaki Flyfish Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 27 Jan 2010 at 9:45am
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Mark,   Just got my new computer up and running and it's good to be back on line after a couple of months.  Nothing good happens fast on Aitutaki as you know.  Great report.  Did the flys I tied work for your Dad in New Cal?  The flys are still taking some great sized bones here in the lagoon.  A few days ago we hooked 6 and landed 5.  A great day on the lagoon.  See you later this year.
Butch Leone
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