Grant Blair travelled to Aitutaki to experience bonefishing first-hand and to learn about the economic benefit gained from a shift to catch-and-release for this prized saltwater species…
I’d read a lot about bonefish and what makes them a worthy quarry for saltwater anglers, learning about their powerful blistering runs, the heart-breaking encounters between leader and coral and the fact that you need bionic eyes to spot them. Once hooked, they run hard and fast. According to reliable sources, they have been shown to reach speeds of over 40kmph and while an average Aitutaki bonefish is in the 3-4kg range, they get much bigger.
There’s no doubt there are plenty of record fish (the current world record is 7.48 kg on a 10kg tippet) in the Aitutaki inner reef. The local guides, the Davey brothers, tell stories of netting bonefish well in excess of 30lb and fish in the 15-20lb range being hooked in the lagoon in recent times. Good luck with stopping one of those missiles on your 9wt!
There was one snag in my bonefish adventure plan: I’m a bit of a newbie at this SWF (saltwater fly-fishing) thing. I’ve always subscribed to the theory that it’s better to be lucky than good when it comes to fishing, but to cover the bases I enlisted the support of a couple of keen mates who are competent saltwater fly-fishers. Al Brown can cast as well as he can cook and Jeremy Coombes used to be a fly-fishing guide before he took up turning ugly bagels into something sensational! So, the trip was on and with only a brief stopover between the Air New Zealand and Air Rarotonga flights, it wasn’t long before we were enjoying a cocktail beside the pool at the beautiful Pacific Resort in Aitutaki while planning our fishing for the next few days.
Bonefish are a highly prized species for saltwater fly-fishers these days and can be caught all year round. In Aitutaki, however, it wasn’t long ago that they were being netted by the hundreds and dragged ashore to be eaten by the locals. They are relatively easy to net as they congregate in schools, feeding on bottom-dwelling fare such as shrimps and crabs.
The Aitutaki bone-fishery is now essentially catch and release only and the change in direction is an outstanding example of how significant value can be added to a species. The Cook Islands is one of the few places in the world where bonefish are valued as food and enjoyed by locals who’ve developed an acquired taste and an ability to navigate their way through a maze of bones. Eating bonefish is something the elderly members of the villages retain as their right as for many, it was their staple diet growing up.
Aitutaki bonefish - caught and released.
Traditionally, drag nets up to half a mile long were used for bonefishing in the shallow waters of the Aitutaki Lagoon. It may have involved dozens of locals in the process so it’s easy to imagine the absolute carnage when bonefish were schooling and literally thousands of fish were taken. Fish were cooked in an underground oven or umu and, as there was no refrigeration, eaten over several days.
Bonefish are now a protected species and providing a growing tourism opportunity for anglers. Bonefish are still occasionally taken for food but only in a mere fraction of the numbers that used to be harvested and certainly not on any commercial scale, which is banned. While you may see locals netting in the lagoon, they are usually targeting species other than bonefish.
The Davey family were the experts when it came to harvesting bonefish. Itu and his brothers, Rua and Tia, grew up spotting and netting schools of bonefish from a very early age under the guidance of their father, and they learnt fast. If dad spotted a bonefish before the boys, they’d get a clout with the long wooden pole he used to punt the boat around the lagoon! That honed their skills in record time and these days, with the additional help of quality Maui Jim sunglasses, my money is on these lads when it comes to finding these silver ghosts!
In 2008 Itu was approached by Richard Story to work for the local Marine Research Centre to not only study bonefish, but to look at options for a management plan and define the spawning areas from his extensive knowledge of the inner reef areas. Itu also learnt about the reputation of Aitutaki held amongst SWF anglers. He quickly picked up fly fishing and casting, taking his first clients out around the end of 2009. In Feb 2010, Itu started ‘E2’s Way Bonefishing Adventures’ and in November 2010 he bought their first boat. Brothers Rua and Tia joined him after spending some time touring the USA performing with a Cook Islands cultural group. Currently, there are two reserve areas on the eastern side of the lagoon which can only be fished with guides.
The brothers now have four small purpose-built longboats with spotting platforms and a larger 9m vessel with twin engines for trips outside the reef. All the boats have new Yahama outboards and are immaculately presented.
Bonefish used to be netted and sold, with an average-sized fish selling for around $4-5. After talking extensively with Itu and his brothers Rua and Tia about the fishery, some quick calculations would suggest that these days, each fish caught could be worth up to ~NZ$1,000 to the local economy. Surely there’s a very valuable lesson here for those managing some of New Zealand’s inshore species such as kingfish and kahawai. The latter is worth only a dollar or two per kilo when exported as cray bait but obviously would contribute a lot more to our economy when it’s caught on a fly or light spin gear by one of the many tourists visiting our shores. Food for thought?
Anglers must have a licence to fish which costs $50 per week or $10 per day. The licence revenue is distributed amongst the local community and the more productive areas can only be fished in the presence of a guide. While there are areas anglers can fish without a guide, for anyone serious about targeting bonefish, Itu and his brothers offer skills and years of local knowledge which are invaluable and are great company.
Aitutaki has large areas of flats in the lagoon which can be safely waded when hunting bonefish. Sturdy wading boots or reef shoes are recommended as there have been very rare stonefish encounters but even minor coral cuts and scratches turn septic quickly. Rua suggested the ‘Aitutaki Shuffle’ is the way to go. By adopting a slow stealthy shuffle with your feet, any nasties will be disturbed and flee – a much better option than lifting your feet and stepping on something that could put you in hospital.
Spotting and presentation are key aspects of flat fishing, however, the biggest challenge for most anglers is seeing the bonefish as there’s no point in casting to where the fish aren’t! Although my long-distance eyesight is good, I really struggled to see the silver ghosts through the rippled water initially, particularly when the light was relatively flat. Our guides were our eyes and by simply pointing the spare rod they carried in the direction of the fish and calling the distance Rua and Tia had both Al and Jeremy on to fish early on. Our eagle-eyed guides would also watch the fish as they moved towards the simple shrimp-like flies being presented and advise on when to strip, wait, or strike.
The trout lifting and striking technique is not particularly effective on bonefish so instead we used the ‘strip strike’ method, with the line held firmly between thumb and forefinger. There’s a tell-tale tap-tap-tap as the bone picks up the fly then tries to spit it out when it realises it’s not the real thing. I hadn’t planned on fishing initially as there were photos to take and I knew I had a lot to learn. Spending time between the two guides, listening to their instruction and watching how two experienced anglers went about their work was a real treat and good preparation for the days ahead.
Both Al and Jeremy caught their first bonefish wading the flats which is a considerable achievement on your first day out, given they’re so hard to see and are easily spooked.
Gotcha! Good teamwork wins the day.
Large schools of bonefish congregate in the deeper sections of the lagoon, stirring up the sediment as they feast on small crustacea. This creates large areas of discoloured, milky water easily seen and accessed by boat. These schools may consist of hundreds of fish and is another excellent option for visitors. ‘Fishing the milk’ requires considerably less skill than fishing the flats, however, is equally as exciting when you hook up. It also teaches you to feel the bite which is helpful when fishing the flats.
A sinking line is used to get to the bottom as the boat drifts through the milk and it’s a matter of differentiating between the slow occasional pull as the fly drags across shells and coral vs the tap-tap-tap of a bonefish snacking on your offering. A two-finger strike sets the hook and the fun begins.
Hooked up and hanging on!
Most visiting anglers use fly-fishing tackle, but casting soft-plastics and small jigs on spinning tackle also works well, especially in the milk. We accounted for several string-pullers on light soft-bait rods using small tungsten Catch Pocket Rocket micro-jigs.
The flats around the Aitutaki Fishing Club and lagoon areas are accessible and reasonably productive. You can have a wander around the flats without a guide, however, the best places – the spawning and nursery areas – are guide only and clearly marked on various signs around the island.
Your guide will show you exactly where to cast.
Simple shrimp pattern flies seem to be the most effective and your guides will have a range of proven flies if you run short. You’ll also need an intermediate tip in Aitutaki as your fly needs to be on the bottom for best results. A floating line tends to be adversely affected by any wind/drift conditions – we found the Rio Tropical floating/intermediate tip was ideal. An eight or nine weight rod is standard, as is plenty of backing on a sturdy, good quality saltwater reel. You’ll need a sinking line to fish the milk effectively. Fluorocarbon leader is essential – twenty and thirty pound weights are recommended as coral heads are sharp and unforgiving.
A selection of flies used to target bonefish.
Aitutaki boasts a range of accommodation options from the five-star luxurious Pacific Resort through to cabin style accommodation at $200 or so per night. There are also a number of 3-4 bedroom houses for rent on the island.
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