Words and images by Joshua Hutchins
JOSHUA HUTCHINS packs his lucky board shorts, his favourite fly rod and and jumps onto a tiny plane. He’s headed for a little dot in the South Pacific, where giant GTs elbow eager bonefish aside in their rush to engulf saltwater flies, leaving anglers trembling on the sand flats.
This was my second trip to Aitutaki. The first time was on a honeymoon with my new wife, Anna. We had sat next to each other, hand-in-hand alongside other newlyweds, skipping toward the Cook Islands in a twin engine Saab. We came up on our island and I looked down to a magical place where I asserted that fly fishermen go to die.
Inside this island sits a lagoon with a maze of turquoise channels meandering around white sandy flats. The flats are interrupted by small green islets, one of which would be our home for the next week. I spent that week as a model-husband, sipping cocktails and rubbing reef oil into Anna’s back. But not far from the surface was a tormented fly fishermen, wrestling with my desire to find a local guide, steal his fly rod and stalk the flats.
It would be five years before I could return to release my pent-up fly appetite on Aitutaki. I researched rods, flies, species, guides and seasons. My goal was to catch a giant trevally on fly – and a ridiculously big bonefish while I was at it. Without my wife on this trip, the accommodation rates were far more agreeable. Okay, it wasn’t an on-water bungalow – and it didn’t have a built-in spa – but I was still only a short walk to some seriously fishable flats. Arriving on the island late in the afternoon, I hired a scooter and hit the town to get some supplies. I tried to keep busy, distracting myself from the excitement of tomorrow’s long-awaited cast at a marauding GT.
I always have a restless night before fly fishing for a new species. I got up early, checked my gear and paced around waiting for my guide, Rua. One of the island’s leading guides, from company E2, Rua arrived in style with a centre-console long-boat, right out front of my humble abode.
Climbing aboard, I could already feel my knees begin to quiver. “When will we go after some GTs?” I asked, thinking the bonefish can wait.
“We will try for bonefish first,” Rua replied in a matter-of-fact way that was hard to argue with. Arriving at the first flat, we anchored the boat and waded out in knee-deep water. It wasn’t long before Rua’s keen eyes spotted a fish. I squinted in the morning sun, my eyes piercing the water, but I couldn’t see a thing. He only had a busted pair of Polaroids, but I grew to trust Rua’s judgment – and over time learned the signs myself; a silvery flash or suggestive shadow were some key signs of fish.
We worked over a few flats but the fish didn’t want to play. We only had one take and I messed it up. After a few painstaking hours of searching and casting, the wind picked up, so we decided to inspect the sheltered bays. The water was glassy, but this just made the fish more easily spooked.
Rua paused. “Fish at nine o’clock” he whispered, while carefully poling the boat into position. I made the cast and to my surprise the bonefish ate the fly. The brute screamed off across the flats in the opposite direction. “Give him more line” Rua said, as the line simultaneously came loose. “Bugger!”
I retrieved the line to find a straightened hook. In my mind I wasn’t being too hard on the fish, but Rua pointed out that I needed to play the bone. “Maybe I just need to warm-up on a GT first,” I suggested. Rua took the bait, and we made our way to the edge of the lagoon. As we motored over the channels, the water changed colour to a gorgeous gin-clear blue. Moments after stopping, we spotted a Giant Trevally cruising the edge of a large bombie.
GIVE ‘EM NOTHING
I replaced my 8-weight fly rod with a 12-weight and tied a big black brush fly attached to thick leader. The fish came into range. Rua instructed me to cast in front of it and leave the fly stationary. As it approached, I began to move the fly faster and faster, but the fish lost interest.
Minutes later another large GT came into range and Rua was quick to tell me the plan: “This time, make the cast, and slowly retrieve the fly. When the fish shows interest, retrieve even faster.” I diligently followed his instructions, and it was on about the third or fourth fast-strip when the GT decided my fly was his next meal. In a split second, the fish lunged at my fly, and I was connected to the strongest fish I have ever encountered.
A funny thing happens when you’re hooked up to a monster fish. All the advice I‘d ever received about fighting big GTs on fly came flooding back. It was a traffic jam of fishing fables. Advice such as: “If you hook a GT, give it nothing … You will lose nine out of ten GTs on the reef … Make sure you use 100lb-plus leader.”
In my imagination, I had fought this fish 100 times before. I locked the drag and gave him nothing. After charging in every direction and stretching my arms for five minutes, I managed to land my first GT! A respectable 20kg fish. I was ecstatic. Strangely, all the activity inspired other fish to come and investigate the commotion.
We took some photos, and no sooner had I taken the fly from its mouth when another frenzied GT rushed in to grab the fly, almost taking the rod from my hands. With line everywhere, I was lucky not to break something. “Rua, I want to land this one myself,” I called after jumping from the boat and running across the flat, trying to avoid the reef edges.
This was harder than I planned, struggling in waist-deep water, attached to an angry fish. But soon enough, I managed to grab that second fish by the tail and land another solid GT. I was on a huge natural high, forging unforgettable new memories by the second. That evening I found my way to the local fishing club, head held high and beer in hand. I had no trouble sleeping that night.
WIND IN THE SHALLOWS
On day two I awoke with a wide smile and great expectations of bonefish. I bustled around the hut, preparing my gear, before a knock came at the door. “Josh, Itu called to let you know they have to cancel today. There is too much wind.” My heart sank, but as I walked down to the water, I could see large white-caps all over the lagoon. Knowing my time on the island was already short, this news was disappointing.
I hired a scooter for the day and rode around the island enjoying the sights, but always keeping one eye on the water. I rode up to the island’s highest point that provides a great outlook across the lagoon and the many surrounding flats. Aitutaki is made up of simple village houses, churches on every corner and chickens roaming the roads carelessly. After an ice-cream stop in town I made my way back to the retreat for a relaxing afternoon in the hammock, a swim and a short, but uneventful fishing session out front. Sadly, I couldn’t emulate the previous day’s session. Deep down, I knew maybe I never would.
On my final day, I woke up feeling anxious about the wind. I glanced across the lagoon and gleefully spotted a guide boat, heading in my direction. My guide would be Ben, another eagle-eyed local and bonefish were in his sights.
My first few encounters resulted in donuts. The first bonefish ran me to the backing three times, and then popped the hook. The second somehow broke the hook clean off at the bend. It was exhilarating stuff – bone fever was running through my veins.
After some subtle advice from Ben, my luck changed and we started to land some bonefish. Each fish would run several times right into the backing, before finally surrendering themselves for a photo. This new species of fish was impressive to look at – silver, sleek and powerful, glistening in the morning sun.
As predicted, the wind blew up again in the afternoon and our chances of further catches became slim. We called it a day, but I was a very contented Aitutaki visitor (a lot like my honeymoon trip, really). Hi, honey!
GEAR AND FLIES
To keep it simple, the bonefish tackle I used was an 8-weight fly rod, set up with floating line and an intermediate sink tip. The RIO Saltwater General purpose F/I worked perfectly for me. A 9 or 10-weight rod would also be fine and 15-25lb fluorocarbon tippet is advised for bonefish.
For the GTs, a 10 or 12-weight setup is ideal, with a 12-weight being the preferred option to give you the best chance of muscling fish away from the sharp reef.
I used the RIO GT Floating line, Loop Cross S1 Flatsman Rod and Loop Opti Big Reel, and this fi my purpose perfectly. Make sure you can lock the drag on the reel tightly, as it makes all the difference. Leading up to this trip, I was advised to bring 100-120lb leader material for the GTs – not so much for the increased breaking strain, but just in case they take you onto the reef.
Also, I’d like to extend a big thanks to Ed Racke and Tim Angeli for helping out with flies. These guys tied me up an amazing array of flies. It was their generosity that set the tone for a fantastic trip. For the GTs you should be armed with an array of 6/0 Crease flies, and NYAP-style poppers, plus 6/0 black brush flies.
The baitfish in the lagoon tend to be dark, so black is best. For bonefish and smaller trevally, a selection of tan-coloured Gotchas with orange eyes on 2/0, 4/0, and 6/0 sized hooks is recommended. The water varies in depth so vary the size of the heads. A collection of yellow and white 1/0 Clousers doesn’t hurt to have as back-up.
Aitutaki is part of the Cook Islands group, with a population of 2000 people who are mostly employed in tourism when they’re not enjoying the laidback lifestyle. The fishing speaks for itself, but there’s plenty more to do – and non-fishing partners will also love the beaches, watersports and exploring the island.
Flights to Aitutaki are via Rarotonga (the largest island in the Cook Islands group), and some good low-season deals can be had from Australia. Flights take around six hours when flying direct from Sydney, and another hour from Rarotonga to Aitutaki.
- For fishing in Rarotonga check out Akura Fishing Charters at akurafishingcharters.com
- For fishing in Aitutaki check out Bonefish E2’s Way at e2sway.com
- For more information on the Cook Islands head to www.cookislands.travel