The pearl of Aitutaki | PostIndependent.com

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The pearl of Aitutaki

Butch Leone Contributed photoFishing guide Butch Leone measures a bonefish prior to its release. Some of the world's largest bonefish are being caught in the lagoon in Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Leone has been guiding on the lagoon for 14 years.

AITUTAKI, COOK ISLANDS – The South Pacific has long been a place where people go to lose themselves. And few places are as remote as the Cook Islands.The Cooks consist of 15 small islands in an area of more than 850,000 square miles.Within the expanse of cerulean waters hides a true South Pacific gem, the island of Aitutaki.Aitutaki possesses a natural beauty rarely matched and is home to about 1,400 of the friendliest souls you will ever have the pleasure to meet.Flying over the atoll, with its breathtaking sapphire lagoon, one feels as far from everyday life as possible.The famous lagoon, which is often compared to Bora Bora, is also home to some of the largest bonefish on Earth.If Aitutaki were an oyster, the budding bonefishing industry would surely be its pearl.Bonefish estimated at 20 pounds or more have been sighted, and the average fish weighs in between seven and eight pounds, with about 25 percent of fish caught on fly weighing in at more than 10 pounds.Locals say one bonefish caught on a handline weighed in at nearly 33 pounds. This is amazing when you consider that the current world record, as listed by the International Game Fish Association, is a 19-pound monster caught in Zululand, South Africa, in 1962.With the number of large fish being sighted in Aitutaki, it’s likely that the next world-record bonefish will come from these waters.

Unique personalities from far and wide are drawn to remote islands, and Aitutaki is no different.Fishing guides have a notorious reputation for being laid back, a bit odd and a riot to talk to. Exaggeration, too, is a confirmed trait.These savvy fishermen methodically stalk Aitutaki’s flats for the elusive bonefish, but at day’s end they require a place to relax, exchange fish stories and enjoy a cold beer.The Boat Shed Bar & Grill is as interesting as the locals who call the venerable watering hole home.It’s filled with maritime trinkets and treasures, each with a tale if you have the time.From scrimshaw whale teeth to the spare wheel recovered from the wreck of the MV Bilakiki, which sank in the Solomon Islands in 1920 – all hands lost their lives – and a plethora of trophy bonefish photos, the Boat Shed has it all.There’s even a chunk of the Berlin Wall atop a German beer stein and a pet coconut crab, which are considered endangered on the island.A fixture at the Boat Shed is local Butch Leone, of Aitutaki Blue Lagoon Flyfish, who has been guiding on the Aitutaki lagoon for 14 years.Leone, 60, originally from the East Coast, and then living in Oregon, found his niche while vacationing in Aitutaki in 1997.”I was here for five and a half weeks and fly fishing every day on the lagoon and was the only person doing that at the time,” Leone said. “The resort I was staying at asked if I could guide a couple of people over some of the time of my stay. I had extra rods and things so I said yes.”After the trip, Leone headed back to Oregon, but the lagoon’s siren call rang in his ears. Six months later, he was flying across the Pacific again, ready to introduce more vacationers to the exciting world of bonefishing.”I did this for about two and a half years, two or three times a year, then I made a move to six months at a time [in Aitutaki] and I spent the other six months divided up between working for the Rogue Brewery in Newport, Oregon, as a bartender, and the rest of the time I fished and surfed on the west coast, east coast and in Mexico,” Leone said.In 2002, Leone married his wife, Mata, and made Aitutaki his full-time home. Mata was born and raised in Aitutaki, and the couple are proud parents of a 5-year-old daughter named Patti.”This has made this place home even more so,” Leone added with a smile.Also embracing the Aitutaki lifestyle is Australian Ian Dollery.Dollery, 40, hails from the small mining town of Mount Isa in northwest Queensland.He came to Aitutaki after “working as regional manager for a large labor hire company that looked after recruitment for a number of the largest mining operations in the Pilbara in western Australia.””I couldn’t work any longer in an industry that, in my opinion, was destroying the land,” Dollery said.Dollery is now a bonefish development consultant on the island.He trains new guides, handles overseas promotion, does media liaison work and helps with the review of fishing regulations and other tourism-related issues.He’s very excited about the prospects of a successful bonefishing industry here, especially due to the number of large fish in the lagoon.”Fishermen can go to Christmas Island and probably catch a 100 bonefish, but the fish will be smaller in size,” he said. “Aitutaki has a smaller population of fish, but they are of a much bigger size.”Dollery is enjoying his fourth stay in Aitutaki, and is under contract for 12 months on the island.

The vast majority of the bonefish here are caught on fly and one very successful pattern is a yellow-white clouser with small solid eyes on a size 2 hook.”I would have to say that over 95 percent of my fish are caught on this pattern,” Leone said.About a third of Leone’s client base is out of the United States and Aitutaki Blue Lagoon Flyfish is the longest running fly fishing-specific guide service in the Cook Islands. His personal-best bonefish was measured at 37 inches.Dollery uses Wyatt’s Kung Fu crab in tan and olive and also Gotchas in tan.”I like to try new patterns and have found that when the fish are feeding hard, they will pick up most of them,” Dollery said. “Flies need to have a bit of weight to them, as most flats have a bit of current on them. It ends up being a bit of a balancing act to get a fly that gets down fast but still gives a nice presentation.”Dollery’s largest bonefish weighed in at 14 pounds.While bonefish get much of the attention in Aitutaki, it’s not the only species to pop a fly in the lagoon. Bluefin trevally and giant trevally are commonly caught as well.”Trevally is the most common catch of note, with some big fish swimming around,” Dollery said. “It is worth targeting them, as they are great fun on fly tackle. Biggest one I have got on fly is about 25 pounds, and on 9 weight in very shallow water, it was a lot of fun. Snapper, goat fish, rock cod and the occasional barracuda also turn up.”A fishing license is now required for Aitutaki’s lagoon, but only costs $10 (New Zealand dollar) to purchase.There is a strict catch and release-only policy on bonefish in Aitutaki.The license price remains the same for a period of one day and up to a year and it can be acquired at the Boat Shed.And with the fantastic Cook Islands weather, anglers can enjoy the fishing throughout the year.”Due to the nature of the lagoon, water temperatures don’t rise that much and this keeps the fish on the bite in summer,” Dollery said. “But winter is the ideal time as it’s a bit cooler on the water.”The Cook Islands are generally very pleasant year around, with temperatures between 64 and 82 degrees during winter (May to October), and 79 to 84 degrees in summer (November to April). However, December through March is the rainy season and has the highest frequency of tropical cyclones.

A veritable who’s who of fly fishermen will descend upon Aitutaki for a bonefishing tournament Oct. 13-19.Confirmed to attend are filmmaker Will Bauer from the U.S.; writer and filmmaker Peter Morse from Australia; journalist and writer Jim Holland Jr. from the U.S. (Holland currently holds the world record for Tarpon on 20-pound test leader at 202 pounds, 8 ounces); Australian guide Brett Wolf, owner of operator of True Blue Bones in Exmouth in western Australia; filmmaker Carl McNeill from New Zealand, who’s currently finishing a feature film on bonefish in Aitutaki; and American writer and photographer Rusty Chinins.Other celebrities are rumored to attend as well.If you’re interested in attending, traveling to Aitutaki has become much easier now that Air New Zealand offers a direct redeye flight (9 hours, 45 minutes) from Los Angeles to Rarotonga, home to the Cook’s largest airport.And Air Rarotonga offers several daily flights to Aitutaki. It takes about 40 minutes from takeoff to landing. The Aitutaki runway – which is massive considering the size of the planes that fly here – was built by U.S. forces during World War II.Traveling far can be exhausting, but the memories will last a lifetime.A week in Aitutaki feels like a lifetime of relaxation, and the possibilities are endless when exploring this magical lagoon.One can kayak out to one of the many motu (islets in the lagoon), scuba dive or snorkel the crystal-clear waters, kiteboard off of beautiful Honeymoon Island, take a lagoon cruise (Teking is an excellent guide) or just maybe catch a world-record bonefish.Crazier things have happened.Look how well it worked out for Butch Leone.”I came here for the trip of a lifetime,” he said, “and came away with a lifetime of a trip.”cszewczyk@postindependent.com