​Fire Dancing Bonefish - New Zealand style fly fishing for bonefish in Aitutaki's unique lagoon - 2016

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By Steve Vietas, 2016: 

When you hear the claim that the "world's largest bonefish" live in Aitutaki's spectacular lagoon, a South Pacific paradise that is part of the Cook Islands, you might first ask yourself, where is that, as images of monster bonefish dance in your head. A quick entry in Google and you see the Cook Islands are about half-way between Tahiti and New Zealand, or roughly a ten hour non-stop flight on Air New Zealand from Los Angeles.

Now if you're me, you start thinking, ok, I've fished for bonefish most places in the world, and I'd have to say the largest are on Andros Island in the Bahamas or around Islamorada, Florida. If we talked about the massive sea run browns, Argentina. Rainbows? Alaska and Russia. You get the idea. But back to that statement; "the world's largest bonefish". It gets you thinking, and if you're serious about the subject it starts you planning your trip.

Our planning began with a call to Mike McClelland, owner of Best of New Zealand Fly Fishing. My wife, Kim, and I had worked with Mike when we were the owners of Westbank Anglers. Mike put us in touch with John Peterson, General Manager North America, for Cook Island Tourism. John and his team did a great job of organizing our trip, including arranging our non-stop Air NZ flights to Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, and then to/from Aitutaki on Air Rarotonga.

Mike also put us in touch with the top bonefishing guides on Aitutaki, led by Itu Davey. Kaleena Davey, Itu's wife, is in charge of reservations. After exchanging emails we had our fishing dates secured, and Kaleena further assured us that the guides could be flexible on dates based on weather and our other activities.

So it all came together and we were on our way to the Cook Islands' 15 small jewels that have a land area of about 240 square kilometers spread across 2.25 million square kilometers of the deep blue Pacific Ocean with a population of about thirteen thousand citizens who speak their own version of the Maori language, along with English. And while the Cook Islands are self-governing, they have a special relationship with New Zealand which allows Cook Islanders to hold a New Zealand passport.

Arriving on Rarotonga, the mountainous capitol island, was a breeze as we were greeted by staff of Cook Island Tourism and ushered through customs. In about 45 minutes we were checked in for our Air Rarotonga flight of 50 minutes to Aitutaki. If you've seen the photos of Aitutaki from the air, you know its spectacular, the images dream-like, but laying your own eyeballs on this fantasy island, protectively encircled by a healthy white-capped reef system, defies imagination. After another smiling welcome from the local tourism staff, we were driven to Aitutaki Lagoon Resort, about five minutes from the airport.

And since the resort is on a private island, we took the two-minute ferry ride across a clear blue-green channel lined with palm trees where we were greeted by an authentic fire dancer dressed in Maori garb. Fire dancing is a traditional island/Maori dance accompanied by a frantic beating of drums where the men wear grass shorts, and the women grass skirts and shell bikini tops. And the dancers pretty much shake every part of their bodies, though the men focus on knees and legs, and the women on swaying their hips so fast their skirts become a blur.

Even though we arrived early, our over-the-water bungalow was ready and waiting. After all the planning, imagining and traveling, to actually step inside that bungalow was even better than any expectation we could have conjured. The surreal Aitutaki lagoon was framed by the sliding glass doors, and we stepped out onto the over-the-water deck and breathed in the fresh sea air.

Kiokio, as bonefish are called in Cook Island Maori, are extremely jumpy and jittery all over the world, but even more so in the Aitutaki lagoon when they venture on the flats. It's interesting because there are no sharks or other predators to threaten them, yet they still prefer to stay in the deeper water or along the drop-offs where their favorite food, large sand worms, are in abundance.

This was explained to us on our first day by our guides, Rua (Itu's brother), and Ben, (Itu's cousin). They picked us up at the resort's dock and we went through our tackle, flies and leaders; rigging up 8-weights for bonefish. They liked a number of our flies, especially spawning shrimp with lead eyes that work well in the Bahamas. For trevally we rigged a 10-weight with an Abel Anchovy, and had a 12-weight in reserve. The only hitch was with our fly lines for bonefish. We only fish floating lines for bones, but Rua was adamant that clear intermediate sinking tips were what we needed. And in that discussion we were told that we basically had to set aside everything we had learned about bonefishing over twenty-five years. Apparently, the bones on Aitutaki were a different subject, which at first was hard to believe, then frustrating, then fascinating, and finally a new challenge we enjoyed as we adapted and got better. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. 

Leaving the dock, Ben pointed the bow of his modified panga south, toward the opposite end of the lagoon, about a fifteen minute run. The sheer beauty of the place overtook us. Dark coral heads dotted the transparent blue water. Glimpses of waves crashing on the reef flashed between a chain of low islands to the east as the cool salt air washed over us. The main body of Aitutaki's land mass passed to the west, all green gentle rolling hills. The sky was a pale azure smeared here and there with wispy clouds.

As the bow dropped and we slowed, approaching a silky sand flat set against a crescent beach in one of two twin islands, it sounded like a massive jet aircraft was taking off nearby. It took a second to realize that sound was the constant assault of the waves on the reef, slamming against the coral, and sending spray a hundred feet in the air, then drifting in a sun-dappled mist over the lagoon.

It was adrenalin time as I stepped up on the deck knowing that monster bonefish could soon be in casting distance. Rua joined me, Kim tended my line, and Ben poled. Bonefishing is a team sport fishing from a boat, and it was a luxury having two guides on our first day. It didn't take long for Rua to spot a pod of six bones, and I cast where he said before I saw them myself. It all looked good to me, nice size fish but they didn't eat, and they didn't spook as I stripped. They just swam off into deeper water.

You were stripping too fast, Rua said, and your fly was rising, not staying on the bottom. Bones here eat off the bottom. Rua showed me what he meant by stripping slow. It was really slow and short and it relied on a tight connection from line to leader to fly. Rather than seeing the bonefish eat, Rua wanted me to feel it. I had always preferred seeing the fish eat, then setting with a long strip. Waiting for the feel was too risky, I thought, but ok, time for something new.

Next shot I still didn't feel anything when Rua yelled; set, long strip. I obeyed, but nothing, and the bones swam off. Kim's turn. I started to think about reels and spools that I'd left at the resort and realized I had a spool with a clear sinktip we used for permit and small tarpon. That would be with us the next day, but for now we improvised by lengthening our leaders. Kim took a shot, followed instructions from Rua, and hooked up. The bone ran deep into her backing, but Kim coaxed it back and we finally had our first Aitutaki bonefish; about seven pounds.

OK, so monsters aside, the average bonefish caught on flies in Aitutaki run between seven and eight pounds. Not a bad average. My next turn I followed Kim≠s success up with my first Aitutaki bone, a fish about the same size. And it blistered out almost all of my two hundred yards of backing. Whatever these bones were eating the big sand worms, or shrimp, crabs, mollusks they were healthy and supercharged. We started calling them fire dancers.

The name of Itu's company, Eagle Eyes, is no slogan. Rua has vision equal to the best bonefish guides we've fished with, and an uncanny ability to spot them in deeper water even in tough wind or sun glare conditions. Being able to follow his casting instructions direction on the clock and distance before seeing the fish helped our success rate considerably, and it's something every bonefish angler should learn to do proficiently.

With the ice broken everyone loosened up and we began chatting. Rua started on his family history. His father was a traveling fire dancer who put on shows around the world. Rua followed suit, spending five years in the States performing in fire dancing shows. Itu was a rugby player until he blew out his knee, and together the brothers and cousins were the most successful netting family on the island. They netted thousands of bonefish every Saturday, along with other species, so they learned the habits of the bones, and saw with their own eyes fish over thirty pounds. Imagine thousands of huge bonefish writhing in a net on the beach. Not a pretty image, but it was part of the Aitutaki culture, as natural to them as any of us going off to our chosen jobs.

That kind of cultural life is often hard, if not impossible, to change but when Itu was approached by the Ministry of Fisheries in 2008 to consider an alternative, more sustainable, way of making a living, he listened. Itu went to work for the fisheries department, studying the behavior of bones and other species, and in 2010 he started his catch-and-release fly fishing business with the help of family members.

It turns out that spotting bonefish had been part of Itu's life since he was a child. Out in the lagoon, Itu's father would put Itu up on a poling platform, and then his father would stand on the front of the boat. If his father spotted a bonefish before Itu, he would smack Itu's legs with a wooden pole. That's pretty good incentive for developing eagle eyes. The guiding business was built gradually, fly casting and fishing technics honed, and with the help of the Fisheries Ministry, islanders began to see fishing based tourism as a benefit to everyone. The Ministry developed an official guide training and certification program including first aid, safety training, captain's licensing, and tourism training for professionalism with clients.

Every day on a bonefish flat is different; sun, wind, tides, everything changes. Our second day we fished with Ben only. It was a little windy, a few more clouds, but Kim caught a shimmering golden trevally, rare on a fly rod in the lagoon, and we caught a few bonefish and broke off a couple. Lots of coral heads around that are not your friends. We enjoyed a laid-back lunch on the powdery beach of One Foot Island along with several lagoon tour boats that were having a barbecue. This island is not only beyond gorgeous, but if you take your passport you can get a stamp as if it was its own country. 

Our third day Rua joined us again, but wind and clouds made fishing on the flats tough. Ben and Rua suggested we try the big "milks" in the deeper parts of the lagoon. Milks? We soon learned they meant what we call "muds" cloudy water, caused by bonefish, trevally and other species feeding on the bottom. Well, as fly fishers weren't thrilled about fishing muds, but hey, when in Rome. Ben provided the rods and reels rigged with full sinking lines and short leaders.

OK, you cast out all your line, mend like a good trout angler, and let the line sink while the boat drifts until you can feel your fly bouncing along the bottom. I joked that it reminded me of crappie fishing, but then bam, and two hundred yards of backing melted off the reel. Definitely not a crappie. It was a nine pound bonefish. With each pass through the milk we caught bonefish, or a blue or yellow trevally, or a snapper species I'd never seen. Rua said we could catch a monster bone on any pass, but it never happened. Karma. And hey, for beginning anglers, this is a great way to catch some fish. Our last day with the guides turned into one of those days you never forget. Blue sky, gentle breeze, perfect tide as we arrived at one of our two favorite islands. Rua was intense as he stared at the edge of the flat and into the deeper water. He touched my arm and whispered; big fish. I could just make out the shapes moving over the bottom, sixty to seventy feet out. Put it to the left of them, Rua said. I did, and the clear sinking line did its job, settling the fly to the bottom and keeping it there as I stripped so slowly it hurt. Set, Rua shouted, and I was in tune with a long strip.

Fly line and backing shredded through the water. I couldn't see any coral heads but the hidden ones were most dangerous. Rua urged me to keep the tip of my rod as high as I could, which I was already doing. It's a big one, he said. And it was, a broad silvery blue double-digit bone that we all admired and released back into the vibrant Aitutaki lagoon. Success, a relaxing feeling of working well together, achieving a goal. At lunch we ate on a deserted beach and watched a huge Giant Trevally cruise in with some other smaller friends. Without saying anything Kim got up, walked back to the boat, picked up the 10-weight and hooked up the massive GT on the first cast. Ben ran down to the beach and helped Kim into the boat. I joined them.

An hour later, after following the GT out into the lagoon, dodging coral heads, and battling like crazy, Kim had the gray-sided slab back up on the flat. She was exhausted, straining, mad she hadn't picked up the 12-weight. But she had the bad boy beat. It was nearing the boat when the line broke, the 80-pound tippet finally giving way to the GT's saw-like teeth. How big was it? Big. A great fish story.

After lunch we cruised between the reef and a small island, in deeper water that with the tide falling we could see was a continuous flat. Rua spotted another GT. Ben swung the boat around. We couldn't find the GT, but then I thought I saw it, cruising in from the reef, slow and easy. But it was a bonefish, not a GT, a hundred feet out. The water was so clear I could see the fins, huge head, tail, and no one had to tell me again about the monsters in the lagoon. I was looking at one. Over fifteen pounds easy. And of course it just kept swimming and veered into a channel that turned toward some coral. We lost it.

But between us and the island was an expanse of white sand bottom, and it was covered with big bonefish. No way to hold the boat, so Ben anchored up, but those bones were smart. They milled around, feeding, teasing us, staying just out of casting range. But a big boy made a mistake and my cast reached it. The strip set was solid and the fish blistered toward the coral, boom, gone. Rua and I stared at each other, shocked, and then we laughed. Later, Kim hooked another monster. It sizzled off her backing and found coral again. No one ever said it was easy, but I can say it was adrenalin-pumping exhilarating fun, and the sort of fishing we come back for again and again

Back at the resort each afternoon, it was like returning to a slice of heaven. We enjoyed stand up paddle boarding out to the reef, swimming off the dock of our bungalow, kayaking, sipping sunset cocktails, and dining on delicious fresh seafood or New Zealand rack of lamb. On the days we didn't fish we went snorkeling in the lagoon through some of the most vibrant purple coral in the world, gazing at so many shapes and colors of fish that it was hard to process. The giant clams looked big enough to swallow a person, and those signature Aitutaki blue starfish pulsed like lasers as the currents swept over them. And ok, on days we didn't fish with a guide we couldn≠t help but explore the islands and flats to the south of the resort. It took a while but we began to find some bones and have a little success. And at night, GTs off our bungalow dock, no kidding.

Aitutaki has a well-established tourism infrastructure, with a number of hotels ranging from luxurious to comfortable casual where you can cook your own meals. Plus the island is completely safe and the people overwhelmingly friendly. And I've never seen a cleaner place. Every home had a perfectly manicured yard, and any public bathroom was spotless. Our last night we had sunset drinks with Itu and Kaleena. They have five certified guides now, and they've begun training their sons who are already having fly casting and fishing competitions among themselves. And Itu speaks passionately about his appreciation of bonefish as a beautiful and special species, where before when he was netting them, it never occurred to him. These are really great people to spend time with, and we plan to be back as soon as possible.

In thinking over the entire experience on Aitutaki, it's hard to imagine a better tropical island vacation, and when you add in the bonefishing, GTs, and an array of offshore fishing for marlin, tuna, wahoo, and dorado, you having something for everyone. Aitutaki would be an ideal destination on its own, but when you think of New Zealand nearby, why not combine the two.

- Steve Vietas, 2016

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