Casting to the Ghosts of Aitutaki

By René Vaz

We’d picked the worst day of the year to fly into Aitutaki. I had been told by friends to look left as you fly from Rarotanga to Aitutaki and you’ll see Mania Island an untouched fishing paradise known only to the locals. However as it was I could hardly see the tips of the thirty seater Saab’s wings as we battled our way through a turbulent tropical storm between the two islands. Despite the feeling of adventure, it looked to me like a typical Auckland day of grey drizzly clouds and strong winds that pushed the aircraft around on its short journey. A little unimpressed I wondered weather our trip would be plagued by this storm and we would be seeing what is known as the worlds most beautiful lagoon from under an umbrella and more importantly would there be any conditions to spot the sparsely distributed bonefish in the shallow sand flats that transect the lagoon. As the plane bounced its way through pressure pockets on it’s decent into Aitutaki, we finally broke below the cloud layer and the sky opened to unveil a vista that instantly reassured us that we were indeed entering an island paradise. The pearly white flats framed the Listerine blue waters, contrasted even further by the countless palm tree laden islands that dissected the lagoon into a maze of secluded beaches and hideaways. The reception at Aitutaki’s international airport was equally charming, although we were instantly forced into doing everything on Island time as our pick up was late. These are not slick operations by anyone’s perspective, but the charm and genuineness of the people immediately put us at ease.

RENE VAZ, BONEFISHING AITUTAKI LAGOON, RAROTONGA, COOK ISLANDS, fly fishing for bonefish, giant bonefish and trevally, best guides for fly fishing

As a fly fisherman Aitutaki had been designed with me in mind. What is said to be the worlds most beautiful lagoon patrolled by what are arguably the worlds largest bonefish. Understanding how big these bones are in relation to other bonefishing destinations is best done with reference to the current world record which sits at 16lb. In contrast the bones of Aitutaki average around 9lb, compared to popular destinations such as Christmas Island where an average of 3-4lb is more common. But here’s the catch, at this size the bony nature of the fish from an eating perspective becomes obsolete and thus enters the fishes real threat. The locals. The Cook Island culture is centred around harvesting the ocean and the large bonefish are no exception. I was told of harvests over the last few years being taken of 3-500 bonefish from a flat. The interesting thing for the record hunter some of these fish are said to be in excess of 20 pounds. World record potentials? There’s a slight understatement.

So here I was in trophy bonefish land with five days of exploring and learning ahead. But first we had a couple of problems. Problem number one was how many days were going to be taken up by the violent coconut throwing storm that we were currently in. Problem number two was making contact with a guide to get me going. I’m normally one to plan ahead but for some reason I had trusted my buddies who had said you could organize your fishing once you get to Aitutaki. I quickly learnt that none of the charters or guides had answer phones and as they had a tendency to not be at home waiting for the phone to ring it wasn’t until the end of the second day that I made contact with Butch one of the two fly fishing guides on the Island. To be honest Butch was my second choice out of the two available guides as everyone I’d talked to on the island about bonefishing had proclaimed the excellence of the local guide Jubilee. On the other hand the American Butch who had traded his Oregon steelhead rivers for the flats of Aitutaki wasn’t related to everyone else on the island so came in as an afterthought to the promoters. As it turns out both of the guides are good friends and happily refer clients to each other, while Butch has certainly been the pioneer of Aitutaki’s bonefishing, Jubilee has certainly earnt his name. For all intents and purpose Butch had become a local, married to a local girl and was in the midst of establishing a market garden to service the island with vegetables. Unfortunately on the first occasion I spoke to Butch he was already booked to guide for the following day so we planned a trip for what was my second to last day. By this time I’d spent an afternoon throwing poppers to GT’s which is another story in it’s own right but for the time being I’d like to say it’s well worth doing and if I wasn’t so sore from fishing an 80lb popper outfit I would have put a jigging session in for the dog tooth tuna that parol the outer reef edge of the lagoon as well. With the fly rod I’d been less successful by that stage only managing a few blue fin trevally and goat fish. I’d seen one bonefish, moving quickly across a flat, unfortunately by the time I had freed my fly from the rods hook holder and stripped an adequate amount of line from my reel the fish was long gone and I was left with my first bonefish lesson. Get everything ready before the fish appear! So as it was there was plenty to do on my own without a guide, however I knew there was also a lot I’d been missing out on and couldn’t wait to get out with Butch to have a decent shot at some bonefish.

BONEFISHING COOK ISLANDS AITUTAKI, TROPHY BONEFISH, Giant bonefish, fly fishing in saltwater, cook islands, aitukai lagoon

I met Butch at the launching site of his Aitutaki bonefish skiff, which turned out to be a hobby cat that he’d salvaged from one of the resorts and replaced it’s sails with a ply casting deck and small outboard. Although a little lacking in comparison to the elaborate skiffs thrown around by the bonefish guides of the Florida Keys, but in a south pacific number eight wire kind of way the skiff proved to be more than adequate for my Aitutaki bonefishing experience. As we worked our way out to the outer islands within the lagoon I set up the two rods I brought, I put together a #9 with an intermediate line to fish through the channels and a #8 with a floater for the flats. To say the ride across the lagoon was a wet one would have been the understatement of the day, however I had as usual eaten too much at the resort buffet that morning so the cold shower blasted over me by the skiff helped to wake me up for the day and immediately forced me from being a relaxed holiday maker into no holds barred fishing mode.

Butch and I worked our way from flat to flat picking up a number of bluefin and yellow-tail trevally but there were no signs of bonefish. I upped the anti on the questions, finding out that in a good day you’ll see about five bonefish and get a shot at a couple of these. We were still on the tail end of the storm and the wind ruffled even the shallowest of water not to mention making the casting challenging. After a couple of hours my arms were starting to ache from the casting and I was beginning to think that we might have already walked past our allotted five bonefish for the day. Maybe we’d failed to identify their ghostly shadows as they worked their way along the end of the flats beside us. As we walked our way back to the skiff from our third flat I was already thinking of lunch when butch cried “bonefish”. I aerialised a false cast as I scanned the water for the fish, “there he is go, go, go”, shouted Butch. So I shot out fifty feet of line blindly in front of us. “Nope you’ve spooked him”, Butch said. As I stripped my cast back. I wasn’t sure if I had just blown my only chance of the day or was Butch just trying to keep his client happy by making up fish? I certainly hadn’t seen it. “All you’ll ever see is the fishes shadow, they’re like ghosts”’ explained Butch. But with the shadows of the rolling waves rolling over the flats I was sure I’d never be able to spot one and wasn’t convinced that Butch could see them either.

We broke for a lunch of fresh tuna sandwiches, tropical paw paw and a cold beer on One Foot Island. The beer and sun started to kick in and I started to think more optimistically towards the afternoon ahead. What if Butch was right and the bonefish had been ghosting along in front of us all morning?

TROPICAL FLY FISHING RENE VAZ, AITUTAKI, BONEFISHing in aituaki, cook islands, fishing guides, Butch Leone, fly casting

With my new found enthusiasm I hurried Butch along and we headed for a spit at the end of a long flat. I started to think that if that had been a bonefish that I had spooked earlier then perhaps my set up wasn’t quite right. I had a short nine foot leader to help punch the big 2/0 clouser into the wind, the trout fisherman in me questioned the presentation abilities of the set up so I changed this for a ten foot clear polyleader and expanded out the tippet to another eight feet giving me an eighteen foot leader to separate my line from the patrolling Aitutaki ghosts. I also dropped the fly size back to a small (in saltwater fly terms) size six clouser again with the idea of improving presentation. Half way down the spit butch again shouted “bonefish”, this time I looked up and saw a pale shadow working its way quickly along the flat. I waited for the fish to move into casting reach, only to see it fade away into a channel well out of range. Butch walked ahead trying to spot fish from the bank as I waded my way behind him. Now my heart was racing and I scanned my eyes furiously along the flat questioning every shimmer and shadow. Then they appeared a pair of bonefish moving fast just within range, I punched the long cast into the wind throwing over the leader and dropping the fly out in front of the two fish, as I started a pulsing retrieve the lead fish broke away and turned on the fly. I stripped hard to set the hook, only to feel the response of what I can only describe as the hardest pull I have ever felt in fly fishing. The fish tore through the water emptying over half of my three hundred meters of backing in its first run. I regained a couple of turns of line for the fish only to tear out another hundred meters of line so that I could see the colour of the bottom of my spool. I muscled as much side strain as I could put through the number eight rod and after half an hour led an eleven pound bone onto the sand. We photographed the fish and despite a few complaints from some of the locals who had come to watch, we released the fish in the hope that it would now be wise enough to dodge the set nets and go on to become the next world record.

11 LB POUND BONEFISH, TROPHY RENE VAZ, AITUTAKI, COOK ISLANDS, fly fishing in aitutaki, bonefishing in the cook islands, guides for bonefishing

We fished hard for the rest of the day but didn’t see any more bones although we did pick up a few more trevally, some long toms and a flounder that had teeth like a barracuda. The following day I walked a couple of the flats nearer my resort and again saw a few bones but struggled to get a fly in front of one before it glided into deeper water. As we flew back to Rarotonga I started to mentally plan my next trip. Step one would be to book in advance with Butch. Step two would be to make sure I don’t leave it too long or the ghosts of Aitutaki may become a myth only talked about by the locals of the world’s most beautiful lagoon.