Stalking bonefish in the Cook Islands
Will Bauer, of Blue Horizon Lodge in Belize and The Fly Shop in
Redding, California, prepares to release an Aitutaki
Scudding clouds afforded only brief glimpses of the surrounding coral strewn bottom as winds gusting to thirty knots swept white caps across the shallow flats, rendering them an almost opaque color. I was wading the flats of Aitutaki Atoll in the Cook Islands with Ian Dollery, Director of the Aitutaki Bonefish Management Committee. It had been a hard day with only fleeting shapes of bonefish as they bolted from the path of the unsuspecting anglers After a long and unsuccessful wade on the first day of our visit we were working our way back to the boat when a huge bonefish appeared in front of me, its form morphing into impossibly large proportions. The surprise of the sudden appearance and the fact that the fish was just six feet away only afforded me time for a quick roll cast that landed a bit long of and left of the bonefish. As I stripped the fly into its sight path it wheeled on the fly and rushed to inspect it. From experience I immediately let the fly drop to the bottom and the bone took a quick look and started to move away. With a short strip I attracted the fish’s attention once again and it tailed on and took the fly. I set the hook with a quick strip strike. The fish didn’t respond at first, but that all changed in short order as it bolted across the flat and into a nearby minefield of coral heads. Dollery and I followed as quickly as possible as I loosened my drag in an attempt to follow the fish’s path through the coral maze. We managed to navigate around the coral before the backing seemed to disappear under a coral head. As Dollery reached down to untangle the line it parted leaving only the ragged edge of my backing. This was my introduction to the legendary large bonefish of Aitutaki and despite the conditions I had been made an instant believer. Fortunately I had seven more days to redeem my wounded ego. In under a minute that bonefish, which Dollery estimated between fourteen and sixteen pounds, relieved me of my fly, leader, fly line and about fifty yards of backing. The experience made a definite impression on me and I’m sure will attract the attention of trophy bonefishers for years to come. Hopefully they will be able to relive the excitement I experienced at the site of such a huge fish.
As fly anglers the concept of catch and release is almost embedded in our DNA. The idea that a fish is more valuable in the water than on the dinner plate is a foregone conclusion. The fishermen on the atoll of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands have netted bonefish in their lagoon as a part of their culture, an activity that involved the combined efforts of the whole community, and sustained them as a food source. The reality of the limited resource and the need to protect it for future generations of Aitutakians has developed into an effort to limit netting and replace it with a way for locals to sustain themselves and their families. A new program being developed through the cooperative efforts of the Aitutaki Business Association, the Bonefish Management Committee, Marine Resources, and the Island Council is trying to make this a viable industry vi for fishermen on the island. Although the managers of the new program understand that the size of the lagoon and the logistical difficulties inherent in Aitutaki’s remote location will limit the number of working guides, they are confident of the mission’s value. The Director, Ian Dollery and his staff we are looking at establishing several other locations to increase the number of potential guiding opportunities. Currently the goal is to have six full time and several part time guides. I was on the island with Will Bauer, noted permit angler and principal of the Blue Horizon Lodge in Belize. Will was also scouting the location for The Fly Shop in Redding, California, one of the most respected booking operations in the States. With us were two of Australia’s most respect fly anglers. Brett Wolf from Exmouth, Australia is one of the country’s most sought after saltwater guides, a writer, formed trout guide and lodge owner. Peter Morse is synonymous with fly fishing in Australia, is a FFF Master Fly Casting Instructor, author and renowned photographer. The object was to get the word out to the world angling community of the program and the real chance of catching a world record bonefish on fly here. We were hosted by Alan and Maria Mills owners of the Popoara Ocean Breeze Villas. An incredibly comfortable and accommodating venue, the Villas provided wonderful food and activities at their nearby Boat Shed Bar and Grill. Over the first week we worked with aspiring guides to teach them fly tying and casting skills as well as knot tying. We had arrived with fly tying materials, rods, reels, and fly lines from manufacturers including Loop Tackle, Far Bank Industries, Maui Jim, Shimano Australia and The Fly Shop, all of which were incredibly generous in their support of this worthwhile project.
The Cook Islands in general are suffering a huge population drain with many young residents leaving for Australia and New Zealand due to limited work opportunities. Residents and stakeholders see the legendary large bonefish and the challenging giant travally of the region as an opportunity to enhance traditional tourism based employment opportunities. It is hoped that this will encourage some talented island resdients to stay and work in the industry. It will never be a huge amount of people employed but every job created will benefit a family here in Aitutaki. To give the program validity the committee has established a guide training program which teaches guides the skills expected from international anglers. More on the program and the fishing in Aitutaki in my next installment.
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