A life tied to the ocean has given Itu and his brothers the ability to identify
an individual moving shadow among a kaleidoscope of moving shadows. At one point, Itu stood at Debra’s elbow 20 yards away from me and still spotted fish for me in waist-deep water, and directed my casts to fish that to me were little more than ephemeral movements.
While Itu worked to improve Debra’s double haul, I waded an extensive flat with Ty, a young guide wannabe. We didn’t see many bonefish, but there was no mistaking those two giant trevallies that came roaring toward us. When the first one exploded on the fly, I wondered if I was overmatched. There was no need to set the hook—I just cranked the drag till it bottomed out and palmed the reel so hard, it burned my hand. The question was whether I could stop the fish before it reached the coral at the end of the flat. This was a mano a mano battle, or I guess in this case, mano a pez, and it was a good thing I had a 150-pound weight advantage.
With no other species does the phrase fighting the fish seem more accurate. Unlike bonefish, which you can let run until they wear themselves out, the trick to landing a giant trevally is to break its spirit. With 68-pound backing and a straight 100-pound-test leader, you can put a lot of pressure on these fish, but you’d better keep them out of the coral. I have lost more than one fly line to GTs, so there was a sense of relief when this fish’s tail popped up out of the water, waving like a piscatorial white flag.
On a trip marked by the stunning beauty of the surroundings, the visual highlight had to be a short hunt for giant trevally among the coral heads just inside the reef. The full force of the Pacific crashed against the reef a few yards away and sent surf 20 feet into the air. Itu poled us over eight feet of clear emerald water filled with vibrant coral bommies the size of small patios. I tried to keep my balance among the rolling remnants of the waves while we searched for the elusive blue shadows slipping through the coral. Even with the trevally rig I was using, this was a graveyard for fly lines. Perhaps fortunately, the fish we found saw the boat before any saw my fly.
Itu’s brother, Rua, has the same ability to pick out shadows among shadows. On the two days Debra and I fished with Rua, we waded the “town flat,” just across the harbor channel from where stacks of empty containers awaited the arrival of the next supply barge. The water was thigh deep, with a mottled bottom, and Rua spotted fish long before I could pick them out. He’d say, “Cast ten o’clock; twenty meters.” This is not an efficient way to put the fly in front of the fish, but on her first cast, Debra caught the biggest bonefish of her life (a record she broke soon after).
There were plenty of big fish on the flat that day, and like really big bones everywhere, they were not easily spooked, nor easily fooled. Still, we caught half a dozen bones between us, all between four and seven pounds, and Debra landed a beautiful yellowfin trevally. But, as on most South Pacific atolls, fishing at Aitutaki can be mercurial, and the next time we fished the same flat with Rua, we had few shots and no eats.
However, there is another option for times the fishing goes dead, and it’s responsible for most of the tales of double-digit Aitutaki bonefish. One slow afternoon we opted to give it a try, and headed to the “milks”—huge muds created by fish feeding in the deep portions of the lagoon. The technique is unique and far removed from traditional bonefishing tactics. With a sea anchor deployed, we drifted slowly through the milky water, using an entire sinking line (plus 50 yards of backing) to drag a weighted fly along the sandy bottom. It is undoubtedly an effective way to catch a truly huge bonefish. Debra lost one at the net when it straightened a size 2 hook. Our interest, though, was sight fishing, even if that meant relying on our guides’ amazing eyesight.
In spite of the unpredictable nature of the fishing, there was one flat that proved relatively reliable. Situated on the lee side of a small island populated only by a few pigs and a lot of herons, it was too deep to wade, but the white sand bottom afforded even someone like me a chance to spot fish. The fish’s size made them easier to distinguish, although it took some adjustment to look for such large shadows. We were playing with the big boys, but you can bet they were picky—even more so than permit.
Even though we shared the flat with our buddies in another boat, we all caught fish, and any of them would have been the fish of the week anywhere else. Over the course of two days, my buddy Rich caught a matched pair of fish that measured 28 inches long to the fork of the tail. We even managed to both bend our rods at the same time on one of those hookups, but mine added to the excitement by wrapping itself around the anchor line of Rich’s boat, prompting a swim by young Ty.
We fished that hot flat with Tia, Rua’s twin brother. Rua’s beard prevented faceto-face mix-ups, but their matching sunbleached ponytails made them indistinguishable from behind. Like his brother, Tia was a believer in the three pillars of Cook Island culture—religion (no guiding on Sunday), rugby, and traditional dance. While Itu was starting his guiding business, Rua and Tia were performing with a dance troupe in the Houston–New Orleans area (and they helped clean up after Hurricane Katrina).
Traditional culture is still a vital part of life on the island, where family mausoleums are located in the front yard, chickens and pigs wander free, and everything revolves around the sea. Pretty much everyone is related (“You fishing with Itu? He’s my cousin,” was the usual line), and we were treated like distant relatives visiting for holiday. We joined most of the island’s residents at the weekly rugby match, watching the Aitutaki Sharks beat the Rarotonga Eels.
Near the end of the trip, however, we realized we had missed much of what makes that part of the world unique. Which is why we found ourselves spending our last evening at “Island Night,” listening to the resort owner’s personal account of helping sail a huge traditional canoe across the Pacific. (The 20-footlong steering oar from the boat hangs on the wall of the restaurant.) The highlight of the evening was a dance performance, complete with grass skirts. It culminated with six large men twirling flaming batons while creating human pyramids, or passing the torches between their legs.It was not until near the end of the dance that I realized the lead performer was Tia.
Aitutaki is a special place. The bonefish are big and difficult, and if fishing conditions can be frustrating at times, the pleasures of island life make up for it. If I had been a seaman on the Bounty, I would have jumped ship, too.
Will Rice lives in Alaska and is the author of Fly Fishing Secrets of Alaska’s Best Guides and coauthor of Fly Fisher’s Guide to Alaska. You can see his photos at willricephoto.com