THE COOK ISLANDS - A VERY BRIEF GUIDE
My wife and I planned a two week holiday in the Cook Islands, we had been before so we knew how great the place is for a relaxing break in the sun. The fishing can be great and the Rarotongan lagoon is fantastic for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking. The people are very friendly and kind and there is lots to do and see. The Cooks are a whole bunch of Islands spread over thousands of miles of the Pacific, but the two most visited Islands are Rarotonga and Aitutaki, with Raro being the main Island, about 38km around and surrounded by a lovely blue lagoon studded with coral heads inside a barrier reef. With the lagoon easily accessed from just about anywhere you like.
Aitutaki is a 40 minute flight away and is a long narrow main Island with a huge Lagoon full of sand bars, flats and deeper areas with a magnificent abundance of coral, giant clams, turtles and fish. The main lagoon here is harder to access and a boat is needed to get out to the more productive flats and the best snorkeling.
I have game fished out of Rarotonga and the more northerly Aitutaki before and had enjoyed the whole experience of trolling and enjoying the view and the warmth, the Humpback Whales surfacing almost within touching distance and often breaching with a glorious splash as they fell back to the water. But this time I wanted to try some salt water fly in the lagoon, on my own in Raro but with a guide in Aitutaki, so I booked a guide for the one day I would have available on Aitutaki. I was so excited about getting the chance to fish for the legendary bonefish of Aitutaki I could hardly wait to get there.
First though was 10 days in Raro, staying in a beachfront small hotel with the lagoon a mere step away, we had a great time swimming, snorkeling and kayaking, going to the local markets and the local restaurants and once in a while taking my fly rod for a stroll along the beach. I managed on the first stroll to hook 3 Flounder, one Piccasso Fish, a Puffer fish, a couple of large Cornet fish and about 20 Brown Rock Cod, mostly small and all released. There are a few Rahui or no take reserves in the lagoon, but these are easily avoided as they are well marked.
I fished this way a half dozen times in Raro and the results were pretty much the same every time, plenty of fish, but nothing big hooked. I am sure if I had fished from a kayak or boat at any of the channels leading out through the barrier reef I would have managed some bigger fish including some big Bluefin Trevaly. But I was content to bide my time and look forward to the gem that is Aitutaki, after all this was a holiday not a fishing trip!
The snorkeling in the lagoon right in front of our hotel was superb and as well as all the usual tropical fish like Angel fish, Blue parrot fish, Goat fish, Flame Tail Snapper, Puffer and Box fish, Unicorn fish and the hundreds of other colorful reef fish we were very lucky and spent a fair bit of time swimming with a school of about 8 to 10 long Tail Stingrays, it was a fantastic sight to see these lovely fish up close, they are so graceful and when you get close they generally circle round you and stay for quite some time before moving on. On one memorable snorkel I spent about 10 minutes with the Stingrays and then swam out to the far edge of the lagoon and as I circled back around I saw a large Turtle, he swam just ahead of me leading me around the coral heads and over the sand, staying about 6 feet in front of me for about 15 minutes, I came in from that snorkel with memories for a lifetime!
While all the fish I caught were released, we did feast on fish, having some lovely locally caught fish most days, including Tuna (yellow fin and albacore), Wahoo, Marlin and Mahi Mahi. The food was fantastic, salads of Spuds, Sweet Potatoes, pumpkin and green leaves, Pawpaw, Mango, Passion Fruit and Star fruit were available at almost every meal plus Taro, a root vegetable that is often served fried and the lovely Rukau, tender taro leaves minced with onion and cooked in Coconut Milk, and not forgetting the raw fish, in Coconut milk, yum!
Getting around in Raro is easy, the road circles the Island and there are Buses every half hour or you can hire scooters or cars once you get a driving license from the main Police Station In Avarua for $10. The currency in the Cook Islands is the $NZ and most everyone speaks English and Cook Island Maori.
On Sundays most shops and tours are closed, in the Cook Islands Sunday is Church day. Many of the older churches are made from Coral blocks and are well worth a visit, the service is open to all and the singing is fantastic. Please no beach wear in Church and be prepared to be introduced to the congregation and most likely be fed morning tea after the service as well!
Most of the large resorts on Raro have an Island Night dinner were you get an Island feast and get to see some traditional Island Dancing with the fantastic drumming and fire dance. If you are going to Aitutaki I suggest you make a point of going to one of these Island Nights, the Aitutakians are the best dancers in the Cook Islands and the Island Night on a Thursday at Tamanu beach is a night not to be missed!
It was with some regret that our stay on Raro came to an end, but also with great excitement at the prospect of Aitutaki, surely the most beautiful lagoon in the Pacific. I really do not have the words to describe the beauty of Aitutaki and its blue lagoon. It truly is an absolute gem. Flying in over the main part of the lagoon, looking down on white coral sand, Green Palms, cyan flats and the deeper blue of the channels and holes with the purple ocean on the other side of the barrier reef was a great start to our brief visit.
As always we were met by friendly locals and a garland of tropical flowers draped over our heads with the Cook Island greeting of Kia Orana which translates as may you live on. What a great sentiment.
I used one of the resorts bicycles to ride up to the Boat-shed Cafe and bar to get my $10 Bonefish license which you must have to fish for bonefish in Aitutaki. If you are fishing the bonefish reserve, you must also fish with a guide. The guy at the Boat-shed made a bit of a cryptic comment when I told him who was guiding the me the next day. He said "you should have booked Itu" but he did not elaborate so off I went to check out the meeting spot for the morning and found it with no problem. I rode back to Tamanu Beach and the lovely lady on the reception told me she had tried to ring the guide to confirm my trip with him but had had no reply, she tried again while I was putting the bike away, but again no reply, surely he must be out with a client so no problem I will just see him in the morning.
The meeting was set for 8:00am but I was up and gone before first light, I was so excited I just could not sleep, so I was at the boat by 7:00am. I knew from all the emails with the guide before the trip what fly was needed so I set my rod up and waited for the guide to turn up, watching the light change on the lagoon as the sun rose higher in the sky was lovely, and when the guide had not turned up by 8:30 I was not overly worried, its "Island Time" after all. When there was still no sign of him at 9:00 I walked along the beach to the nearest Cafe (only about 100m) and asked the lady to ring the guide to find out where he was. She tried for me but there was no answer and she said to me "that's him for you, not very reliable" I felt like I had been punched in the guts, all my hopes for this fantastic fishing day of a lifetime were slipping away. I trudged back to his boat, after all he may be not answering the phone because he is on his way, but after another hour and another 2 phone calls I had to admit he was not coming! The ride back to Tamanu beach took about half an hour and seemed like about a week, I just could not believe it, all that planning, buying salt water fly gear and flies and getting to Aitutaki and all for the guide to just not show up.
By the time I got back to Tamanu Beach I was so angry and frustrated that had the guy turned up I probably would have punched him, more than once! The lovely lady on reception asked what was wrong and when I told her she said "we have had a few problems with him not showing up lately". What could I say, I retreated to our room just about ready to scream! My lovely wife calmed me down and went off to talk to reception to find out if any of the islands other guides were available.
Within the hour Itu was sitting on our deck talking to me about the fishing and offering to take me out for a couple of hours fishing in the late afternoon. He was not guiding that day as he was fishing with a good friend of his and I was welcome to come along! We had missed the tides and would not be able to get out to the outer flats but he would show me some of the closer flats and hopefully I would get a shot at some fish, maybe not Bones but you never know. Utter dejection had turned to elation and I was to go fishing after all.
He picked me up and introduced me to Tony his Kiwi mate who he was fishing with and of we went, talking of fish and fishing like old friends.
We stalked the first flat, with Itu spotting some fish within the first 30 seconds, Look, Milkfish he said pointing to a place where I could barely make out some ripples on the surface, I cast a green weed fly into the path of the school and the second slow strip was interrupted by a tug and I set the hook my first ever fish on the flats, but it was not a Milkfish, a small silver Trevaly had nipped in front of the Milkfish and took my fly from right in front of the Milkfish. Still that's one on the board Hooray!
We spent the next couple of hours casting to Milkfish and schools of good size Trevaly, it was an absolute blast and I enjoyed every minute of it. We did not manage to hook up on any Milkfish and my best shot at a big Trevaly I stuffed up by striking Trout style, lifting the rod to set the hook instead of strip striking, Duh! the fish was on for a few seconds then gone, I do not think the hook was ever firmly in the lip of the fish and it was my own stupid fault. Still I enjoyed that, the impression of a good fish, the unbelievable speed then a slightly sickening slackness in the line, ha ha this is what I came for, what fun!
Itu told me how his family had been netting bonefish for a living until about 5 years ago when he decided to set up a fly fishing guiding service. He has so much knowledge of the fishery and is currently helping the local fishery scientists do a bit of research by tagging Bonefish. There is now no netting of the Bonefish, and as he says he used to catch them once and sell them, now he lets them go and who knows how many times the fish may be caught?
Itus ability to spot the fish was truly an eye opener for me, I am from NZ and spotting trout can be hard in our rivers and I like to think I am fairly good at it, but this was a whole new ball game. At one point I saw a shadow about 50 feet away and said to Itu there's a fish, thinking I had seen it before him, he did not even look, just said yes, its just a puffer fish. As we got closer sure enough a Puffer fish swam away, he had spotted it and identified it from a shadow at more than 50 feet, remarkable. Every time he pointed to some nervous water he would not just say Fish he would say Trevaly, Milkfish or maybe Baitfish and every time he was bang on the money.
As the sun started to set we called it a day and Itu dropped me back at Tamanu Beach in time to get cleaned up for the Island Night. The generosity he had shown me was superb, he had not fished at all, just acted as my guide and looked after me the whole time and he would not accept any money from me. I thanked him profusely, but what can you say that is a good enough thank you for saving the day in the manner that he did for me? My wife had found out that one of the lovely ladies on the front desk was Itu's wife, so I got my brand new, Rio Tropical clear intermediate tip line and gave it to her to pass on with my thanks for a great day.
As I returned to our room the two Kiwi guys in the room next door saw the rod in my hand and asked how the fishing had been, I explained the whole story to them and they said "we have booked Itu for the next 3 days, you are welcome to come along and fish with us if you would like to". As I had already booked a lagoon cruise for the next day with Aitutaki Adventures I reluctantly and gratefully declined the offer but how fantastic is that to offer a place on your trip to a total stranger?
You just cannot come to Aitutaki and not do a lagoon cruise, there are a few operators to choose from but we chose Aitutaki Adventures as we had been with them before and knew how good they are and what a great lunch they put on. We saw turtles, nesting red tail tropic birds and untold numbers of tropical fish while snorkeling, before stopping at One Foot Island for a bbq lunch. While Puna and his lovely wife Tutu were preparing lunch I wandered out to a spit of sand with a long ribbon of reef running along it and had half an hours fishing alongside this reef. It was a fish almost every cast, Flame Tailed Snapper, Peacock Grouper, Goat fish, Piccasso fish, and lots of other unknown species all landed and released before retiring for a slap up lunch of bbq Tuna, salads, fried Breadfruit, Pineapple pie and lots of other treats. Did I mention how good the lunches are with Puna?
Anyway if you are thinking of giving the Cook Islands a go then I can highly recommend them, they are a superb vacation spot even without the fishing, so if your partner is a non-fisher it is the ideal tropical paradise. If you decide to go deep sea fishing the lures are set within minutes of leaving the wharf, in Raro the reef drops away from a couple of feet deep down to thousands of feet within a very short time, this is why during the months of August and September you can sit on the beach with a cocktail in your hand and still get a close up view of the Humpback Whales breaching and frolicking and why you can catch Tuna and other game species within minutes of Harbour. The game boats supply all the gear needed but if you want to fly fish or light tackle spin fish on your own you will need to take everything you need with you, you can not buy any kind of flies or fly tying supplies in the Cooks.
Anyway if you ever do decide to visit the Cooks you are sure to get a warm welcome and have a great time and if you ever want to have a shot at some of the biggest bones in the world try Itu on Aitutaki, the Kiwis I mentioned earlier managed a couple of bones over 10lb and Giant trevaly on spin sticks over 50lb! I may not have managed one myself, but that just gives me an incentive to go back and have another go, and this time I will book Itu from the start!
All the best.
(If anyone wants to visit)
Sunset on Raro Lagoon
Spot the Flounder
Red Tail Tropic Bird
Rarotonga as I like to see it