Town Flat Aitutaki

Jakub Kanok revisits the Cook Islands

Hearing the roar of reverse thrust and feeling the powerful brakes, my anxiety levels dropped dramatically. ‘Flight attendants disarm your doors’ — what a pleasure for the ears. I’m not afraid of flying, but with two flights having to return to Auckland Airport just a day before our departure due to bad weather, and conditions in Rarotonga causing crosswinds, the relief of touching ground in the Cook Islands was real. After clearing passport control and collecting our baggage, we carried straight through to drop off gear for the next connecting flight to the outer island of Aitutaki. With a couple of hours up our sleeves we quickly found ourselves at the Hula Bar, Rarotonga’s iconic all-day every-day happy hour place. During August to September humpback whales can often be seen from the foreshore. The whales come from Antarctica to the warmer waters of the Cook Islands to mate and calf. I never expected them to put on a show, right in front of the bar deck overlooking the ocean. Kia Orana! ‘Welcome to the beautiful Island of Aitutaki.’ The air was suddenly heavy with the fragrance of Tiare Maori and Tiare Teina (Gardenia) flowers. The garlands were placed around our necks by our host Sally, who I immediately recognised from my previous trips. Shortly after, we found ourselves at the doorstep of our accommodation. Sally organised a couple of 110-cc scooters ready to be used and abused, and first ride out the following morning was for bonefish permits. All non-Cook Islanders who wish to fish in the Aitutaki and Manuae lagoons and surrounding reefs are required to obtain a Visitor’s Lagoon Fishing Permit. The cost of $50 NZD will get you a valid permit for a week, or a donation of $500 NZD will see you with a lifetime Lagoon Permit. We were extremely excited to get started, so organised all of our gear over a couple of three-finger glasses of Sailor Jerry. There is no need to overcomplicate things, so we kept it pretty simple. We used 8- and 9-weight fly rods, set up with floating lines and intermediate clear-sinking tips. The sinking tip fits the purpose as it’s quite crucial to keep your flies at the bottom. We were using leaders comprising a rod length of 16 to 20 lb fluoro (if you are a mono guy there is nothing wrong with that), and one fly you definitely shouldn’t come without — the Clouser Minnow, yellow & chartreuse, in a variety of sizes. TOWN FLAT Finally! Two hours before low tide we were rigging up by the wharf in Arutanga, right in front of the Aitutaki Game Fishing Club. To access the town’s flat, you have to navigate your way around a few blue holes and coral channels. There is a detailed story written about fishing those in FlyLife #79 and I highly recommend doing so. Within just a couple of minutes we were rewarded with small-sized yellowfin trevally and the first bonefish of the trip. We followed the outgoing tide further and further, and when the sun started to peek through the clouds we were ready to play hide-and-seek. Bonefish fit perfectly into their environment, with exceptional camouflage. On the light sand bottom and with the sun out, bonefish will appear lighter in colour. If the bottom is dark or covered with patchy areas, the bonefish appear darker. It’s unusual to see a stationary fish; they are constantly on the move, patrolling flats and edges in search of food. Don’t be discouraged if you struggle to see them at first. Once you connect with one, do your best to keep your eyes on it. The same applies when you release a fish — this practice will help you to spot them in their natural habitat. Moving silently along the edge of the flat I spotted a school of five bonefish, well out of casting distance but moving in the right direction. Towards me! Just how I like it, at 11 o’clock, in water about a metre deep. I rapidly stripped more line out, made the cast and the fly landed about two metres shorter than planned. The fly sank to the bottom. ‘Don’t touch it, don’t touch it, wait,’ repeatedly sounded in my head. A long strip saw one fish disengage from the school, and the following strip connected. But I was somehow not holding the line tight enough, causing the fish to rip it out of my hand on the take. What a disaster! Wait… I was still connected. Making sure the fly was firmly set, the excess line disappeared and the bonefish streaked across the flat with awe-inspiring speed. The fight was on! The fish tried multiple freedom runs then proceeded to circle around me. It felt heavy and was hard to bring to the surface, just like a solid trout. Then I saw its true size. Definitely my personal best and only about 45 minutes into Day 1. I dropped to my knees, removed the hook and admired the beauty of the bonefish as I released it. Listening to the chorus coming from the nearby Aitutaki Cook Islands Christian Church (the oldest church in the islands) while wading the flat was like a ballad for our souls. We managed to land a couple of smaller bonefish — by Cook Island standards — along with a few hard-fighting trevally, before calling it quits. We definitely deserved a couple of cold ones after what, to us, was a pretty big first day. WILD WEATHER HUSTLE We had some guiding days lined up, but not exactly locked in. Later that evening my friend and guide Butch, stopped by our accommodation. Oh no, I instantly thought, Butch is wearing a jacket! Handshakes followed, then, ‘Today was the best weather boys, it’s going to be a damn washing machine for the next few’ — something we certainly did not want to hear. We decided to put guiding on hold till the weather improved, which ended up being a good decision. The weather turned wild. Forceful onshore winds, fast moving clouds and big swells flooding the lagoon. This created a lot of strong currents, which made fishing extremely challenging, but we didn’t lose heart. Knowing the island quite well from my previous visits, combined with tips from Butch, played in our favour. The next four days saw us fishing on our own, often moving between different flats, enjoying scenic scooter rides and of course making time for beer visits at the Boat Shed Bar & Grill. On one of our scooter rides we discovered Avatea Café, located in Tautu village. This became our everyday diner, hands down the best place to eat in Aitutaki. Bring your own wine or beer and enjoy Ika Mata or other delicious options from its island fusion menu. The island offers multiple spots where you can hide from the harsh elements, still get high on fishing and increase your species count. If the winds are making things difficult on one side of the island, then the other side will most likely be more protected. A quick and short swim or kayak across the small channels from Ootu flat to the other side of the Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort, will open more options to those wanting to explore on their own. Arranging a water taxi to those more remote places like the One Foot Island is another option. I would highly encourage anyone to hire a local guide. This will bring money into the local economy and make your fishing life easier. The Lagoon also has two bonefish nursery and spawning areas. If you intend to fish those you must be accompanied by a licensed guide regardless. HOP ON BOARD In the evening of day 5 we met with Butch again — this time he was not wearing a jacket. The evening was pleasant and calm and the next day’s forecast looked superb. The plan — 8.00 a.m. at the boat ramp. The morning ride across the lagoon was spectacular. A cloudless sky, gentle breeze and glassy water made us extremely excited. The paradox is that this was the only day on the entire trip that we did not land a single bonefish. The flat where we started was for some reason strangely barren, and the few fish we did see were moving unusually fast. We tried poling, and hitting various flats on foot, but unfortunately we did not sight many fish. We managed a few hook-ups right at the end of the day, but lost the battle. We were a bit drained mentally and burned out, but ‘that’s fishing.’ After a couple of beers and a few rums we came to the conclusion that our failure was down to the full moon. Next day, however, the diminishing moon reversed our luck and the fishing gods shone upon us. The lagoon was alive with schools of goatfish, trevally, parrotfish and even a passing hunchback green turtle. Ever heard of porpoising bonefish? It’s quite breathtaking… Meitaki Cook Islands.

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