Stalking giant trevallies and gray ghosts on the fabled flats of Captain Bligh’s paradise.
[Article by Will Rice, Photographs by Will Rice & Debra Caldera]
I knew from experience there was little chance of my spotting a bonefish in the choppy waist-deep water of the flat, but even I could see the pair of black shadows on the hunt. With the swagger of an apex predator, two giant trevallies halved the hundred-yard distance in the time it took to swap rods with my guide. Just beyond casting range, both fish angled to my left, and I threw the 5/0 streamer to intercept them. Before the fly hit the water, they switched directions again and cut in front of us. I picked up and dropped the fly 10 yards in front of the lead fish. I gave it one fast strip, and before I could strip it again, the fly disappeared in an explosion of water.
Hooking a giant trevally seemed an unlikely bonus when we first booked this trip to a tiny atoll in the South Pacific. Aitutaki is the gem of the Cook Islands, 2,000 miles northeast of New Zealand and 45 minutes by air from the capital, Rarotonga. The infamous Captain Bligh was the first westerner to see the island, a few days before the crew of the Bounty decided that life on the islands looked like a major improvement over life belowdecks.
Our knowledge of the island wasn’t a lot more extensive than Bligh’s. We knew that it was reputed to be the most beautiful island on earth, and that the bonefish came in two sizes—large and extra large. Both notions turned out to be true. What we had not anticipated was the warmth and hospitality of the Cook Islanders, who typically waved and smiled at us as we explored the island on our rented scooters. Kia Orana, a Maori greeting of welcome and friendship, is the most widely heard phrase on the island.
Rain Rain, Go Away
My wife, Debra, and I, together with two friends, booked seven days of guided fishing during a 13-day stay. Our beachfront bungalows looked out over a massive coral flat, extending several hundred yards to a line of surf crashing over the barrier reef. Small trevallies, probably bluefin, crashed bait along the shoreline. Our plan was to rent scooters the next morning and explore the shoreside fishing, and we strung up our 8 and 12 weights under a spectacular tropical sunset. But for the lack of available beer on our Sunday arrival day, it seemed idyllic. Then I pulled up the weather report. “Torrential rains, partly sunny. What the hell does that mean?”
It turns out the beauty of the island and the jungle lushness are directly related to those torrential rains, which are as fierce as they sound. We spent the following morning drinking coffee and staring out at black curtains of rain suspended from a series of dark, mushroom-shaped clouds that marched down the flat in front of us. By noon, however, the squalls had passed and we headed out to the Boat Shed Bar & Grill to grab lunch and buy fishing licenses.
As we worked our way through the fresh tuna burgers, a leather-skinned ex-pat noticed our fly rods leaning in a corner and offered us some great advice on fishable water, flies, and tippets. Our benefactor, Butch Leone, left the cold winters of Wyoming for the bonefish flats of Aitutaki 20-some years ago and hasn’t looked back. He pointed us in the right direction, and said the tides would be good for another few hours.
A chest-deep wade across a narrow channel put us on a classic white-sand flat, marred only by a couple of sunburnt newlyweds happily splashing through the best part. No matter, there were bonefish there. A school of fish saw me first, and I was stunned at their size as they moved away without any sign of bonefish panic. Near the end of the flat, I could see a commotion as a pod of bluefin trevallies chased bait into the shallows. Then, right at the edge of the channel, a tail popped up—a big tail. Big permit! was my first thought. Then it dawned on me there were no permit there. It was a bonefish tail that looked like a pair of waving hands. The fish was easily within my range, and I put my favorite mantis shrimp pattern four feet in front of its nose. When the fish reached the fly, I gave the shrimp a slow pull to get its attention. The fish swam over the pattern and ignored it completely. That process repeated itself three times before the fish, tired of the game, slipped into deeper water. I could see this was not going to be easy. But it wasn’t until our first day with the guides that I discovered how difficult it really is to target the big bones of Aitutaki.
There are no sharks, and very few barracudas in the Aitutaki lagoon. That may be reassuring for a wading fisherman, but the consequences for the fishing are not so good. Bonefish typically feed on the shallow flats because they have a speed advantage over their predators in skinny water. Without the sharks, there is no reason for the fish to move up onto the flats.
With the exception of the first day, all the fish we found were in water at least thigh deep, and more often, too deep to wade. For someone who believes in the bonefish adage of “Never cast until you see the fish,” this proved problematic.
I am not great at spotting bonefish, but if the guide tells me where to look, I
can find them. Not here. These fish are silver mirrors, and between the depths we fished, the choppy surface, and patchy bottom, I had no hope of seeing the target. Fortunately, our guides, Itu Davey, and his brothers, Rua and Tia, were reputed to have the best bonefish eyes on the island. It is a skill they learned in childhood.
The brothers had grown up netting bonefish for the table until Itu figured out that guiding was a much more lucrative way of utilizing the fish. The opportunity to cast a fly to Aitutaki’s massive bonefish is largely a result of Itu Davey’s campaign to treat them as a renewable source of income. Bonefish netting has stopped, but the Cook Islanders have a wonderful sense of bust-your-chops humor and delight in mentioning to fly fishermen just how tasty bonefish can be.