Aitutaki and its world-famous blue lagoon has always threatened to offer world-class bonefish fishing, but never really delivered. However, after years of false starts, fishing for bonefish in Aitutaki is really taking off.
Recently the island council and Cook Island government took steps to protect bonefish stocks and begin building a guided sportfishing infrastructure. There are now controls on the export of bonefish from the island and also on the number of fish people may take for their own consumption. The Cook Islands is one of the few places in the world where bonefish are valued as food.
Commercial netting has been banned and visiting anglers must now buy a licence to fish for bonefish ($NZ50) and can only fish the best areas of the lagoon with local guides, some of whom were in the past involved in commercial bonefish netting.
Previous attempts to halt the harvesting of bonefish had met with considerable opposition, sometimes leading to confrontations between netters and the supporters of a tourist fishery.
However, on my last visit in late 2011, opposition to netting restrictions seemed to have lessened and the fisheries department was policing the net ban. While (illegal) netting almost certainly continues, the scale of it is much reduced.
The guided fishing experience
In September 2011 I joined a group of Kiwi anglers on a bone-fishing trip to Aitutaki organised by Bonefish Adventures. The package included six nights’ accommodation in clean, comfortable share-twin bungalows, three days’ guided fishing and airfares to and from Auckland, New Zealand, including local flights and transfers.
I’m a regular visitor to Aitutaki. I’ve fished its waters on and off for 20 years with, it has to be said, limited success when it comes to bonefish. In my four most recent trips fishing with friends, we caught just six bonefish, though I enjoyed considerably better success at Manuae, an uninhabited island 60nm from Aitutaki.
Of the three Aitutaki bones I caught, only one fell to a fly, cast along the edge of a flat close to island’s small port of Arutanga. The other two took a soft plastic and a small chrome slice respectively, fished on spinning tackle from a boat in a deeper section of the lagoon. However, what these fish lacked in numbers they made up for in size: both spin-caught bonefish were well over 5kg.
I joined last year’s Bonefish Adventures trip after hearing about the success friends had enjoyed in 2010 fishing with newly licenced local guides. I was not disappointed.
From the outset I felt good about the operation and our fishing prospects. We met our guides on the evening we arrived. They supplied our bonefish licences and outlined the schedule for the next three days of guided fishing.
Itu Davey and his younger brothers have built a bonefish guiding business with two small runabouts converted to flats skiffs. Ex-bonefish netters, the Daveys know the habits of their quarry intimately and are superb fish-spotters.
Our party rendezvoused with the our guides, Itu and Rua Davey early the following morning and climbed aboard the skiffs for the run down the Ootu Peninsula towards a string of small islands (motus) fringing the lagoon. These motus boast extensive sand and coral rubble flats and it was here that we began our hunt for cruising bonefish, each boat targeting a different flat.
Aboard our boat it was a matter of moments before Itu’s quiet voice indicated he’d spotted a fish from his vantage point atop the poling platform bolted to the skiff’s transom. We fished two anglers per boat, taking turns to cast to fish from the bow at fish Itu spotted for us.
It wasn’t all plain sailing: Itu could see fish I couldn’t and the usual comedy of errors – muffed casts, tangles, miscommunication and buck fever – contributed to many, many missed chances, but eventually I placed a fly somewhere in the vicinity of a bonefish.
I couldn’t see the fish, but Itu could and he called the shots: “Strip, strip… slow… feel for him… strip… Strike!”
It felt strange to follow instructions in this way – like fishing by remote control – but no matter how I strained my eyes, no grey-silver ghost resolved itself, and much as I tried to “feel for him,” I felt nothing!
Until I hooked up, that is – then everything happened very quickly! The rod took on a deep bend and fly line whipped through my fingers, flying off the deck while I danced about desperately avoiding loose coils. Miraculously, the fly line cleared the guides without mishap, and within moments the reel was screaming and I was whooping for joy. Hook up!
The rest of the battle was almost an anti-climax, though not without challenges. The reef flats are characterised by outcrops of coral, so Itu had his work cut out poling the boat around to keep the line clear of obstacles.
After several scorching runs that took me deep into the backing, and plenty of tense moments when we struggled to keep the fly line clear of obstacles, the fish eventually came to the boat for release. At around 3kg, it turned out to be average size for the trip. We had been fishing less than an hour.
The rest of the day – and subsequent days – produced equally good fishing. We’d spend the morning sight-fishing the flats, sometimes casting to 30 bonefish or more, before breaking for a late lunch under a palm tree on an uninhabited motu. After lunch we’d spend the afternoon fishing ‘the milk’ for feeding bonefish stirring up the bottom in deeper parts of the lagoon.
As the days went by, we got better at seeing bonefish, which made them easier to catch. We also learned to listen to instructions because the majority of our fish were caught only because we followed the guide’s directions to the letter.
By the last day of guided fishing, I was seeing fish regularly and casting much more accurately. Without the benefit of a raised vantage point, I was never going to see as many fish as Itu or Rua, but all of us definitely got better with practice.
On windy days, intermediate flylines and weighted flies were best, but changing the weight of the fly to suit the conditions, water depth and moods of the fish was important. On a rare windless day a floating line is better.
Aitutaki’s bonefish are finicky and accept a very limited range of flies. Itu ties his own highly effective patterns, which worked better on the flats than anything else; out in the deep, almost any fly seemed to work.
On some mornings we took turns to get out of the boat and wade sections of flat. This gave the angler in the boat a shot at every fish we spotted and reduced the pressure to successfully hook a fish to give the other angler a turn.
Most of our party caught fish, either from the boat, or while wading, during these morning sessions. On my best morning I boated three good-sized bonefish, but lost as many again to various mishaps and misadventures.
Others in our party had similar success. More importantly we each had the opportunity to cast to plenty of bonefish, even if we spooked most of them! Indeed, for some of the less competent fly-fishers among us, casting to sighted fish proved frustrating. Fortunately, there was always the afternoon session to look forward to.
Fishing the milk
If you are a fly-fishing purist, fishing Aitutaki’s milky water is probably not for you. While we used #9 or #10 fly rods, fast-sinking fly lines and a variety of fly patterns, we couldn’t see the fish, there was really no need to cast and we didn’t need to retrieve – the drifting boat took care of all that.
It was, however, a remarkably successful way to catch bonefish, from tiddlers right up to monsters. We also caught a variety of other species, including trevallies, goatfish, ‘snapper’ and emperors. These were good fun, but by heeding the guides’ advice not to move the flies too much, most of the bites were from bonefish.
There’s no mistaking a bonefish hook-up. When you come up tight, you’d swear you’ve hung up on the bottom. Be careful not to pull back too enthusiastically or you risk breaking the tippet. We quickly learned that swinging the rod in response to a bite isn’t the way to go. As was the case on the flats, a ‘strip-strike’ is what’s needed to reliably set the hook.
Our guides would position the boat upwind of a section of milky water and we would drift through dragging our weighted flies along the bottom in 5-8m of water. A drogue was used to control the boat’s drift speed.
Once the flies were amongst feeding fish, multiple hook-ups were common, but so were lost fish. There are plenty of coral heads and they accounted for numerous break-offs, but we had other problems too. Bigger fish often ran so hard and so far that water drag from the belly in the line eventually straightened the hook or snapped the leader. Big fish sometimes took 200m of backing against hard-set reel drags. We used fluorocarbon leaders of up to 20lb breaking strain, but even these sometimes failed.
We also lost fish to sharks and giant trevally, but the drama only added to the excitement. Packing a popper rod is a good idea – the biggest giant trevally our party caught in the lagoon went an estimated 37kg.
Fishing the milk might not be too technical, but it is thoroughly enjoyable. Even the smallest bonefish pull hard while 3-4kg fish are a real battle on fly gear in the usual windy afternoon conditions. The really big fish simply busted us up.
Itching to return
Bonefish over 5kg eluded us in 2011, though we certainly hooked a few. Our largest bone was a shade under 10lb (4.53kg), but the average size was 3kg, which is already large by world standards. There are many much bigger bonefish in Aitutaki.
Nevertheless, it was a fantastic trip and I intend to join Bonefish Adventures as host on another Aitutaki guided bonefishing expedition in October 2012. Additional trips are planned as bookings allow. For details go to: www.bonefishadventures.co.nz
Also for Aussies
The Cook Islands are now accessible by direct flight from Sydney, Australia. From Rarotonga, Aitutaki is a 45-minute Cook Island Air flight with several flights daily.
Bonefish Adventures currently caters to groups of Kiwi anglers flying ex-Auckland. However, they can organise fishing packages for individual Australians to join an existing bonefish trip, or groups of anglers, who can put together trips of their own.
Experienced anglers who are also old Aitutaki hands lead each tour. Packages include flights between Raro and Aitutaki, three days of guided fishing and six/seven nights’ accommodation – all for around A$2000.
Customers will need to pay their own airfares to and from Rarotonga, buy their own for food and drink during their stay and purchase a visitor’s bonefish fishing permit.
Bonefish in good numbers are present in Aitutaki’s 74km2 lagoon. Since the worst of the netting has stopped, numbers of bonefish appear to be rising and local guides stick to a strict catch and release regime.
Bonefish can be targeted from boats or by wading using fly-fishing tackle, spinning gear and even bait. Best of all, they are on average large, many of them exceeding 10 pounds (4.5kg) with some twice that size. Locals tell me the biggest bonefish ever netted on the island weighed 40 pounds and I’ve seen fish swim past that were 20 pounds (9.1kg).
Large schools of bonefish are a feature of the lagoon, generally in the deeper sections, with individual fish and small groups moving up onto the sand and coral rubble flats with the tide. Big schools comprise hundreds, even thousands, of fish and can often be seen when traversing the lagoon by boat. When these schools feed they stir up the sediment on the bottom of the lagoon, creating large expanses of discoloured, milky-looking water. Fishing such areas is highly productive and one of the options local guides can offer visiting anglers.
The other guided option is to sight-fish on the flats from a poled boat or while wading in the lagoon. Using local guides will greatly increase your chance of success and also allow you to fish in the most productive parts of the lagoon. Most visiting anglers use fly-fishing tackle, but casting soft plastics and small metal lures on spinning tackle also works well.
An original article written for The Fishing Website - Fishing.net.nz Ltd
By John Eichelsheim 2012
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited
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