After several months of planning and day dreaming, I finally managed to add Bonefish to my list of fish caught on a fly rod. This is significant for several reasons:
Its the first salt-water species I have caught on the fly
Its the only fish that's "not a trout" that I have caught on a fly
It's the first "trophy" I have caught
And I did all of the above on a rod that I built and using a fly that I tied
But I'm getting ahead of myself, first, the background.
I decided around November 2016, after what had been a pretty trying year by all accounts, that I needed a something to look forward to in 2017. I would be celebrating one of those birthdays that has a zero on the end of it, and I wanted to get away from the bleak New Zealand winter. At the same time I had stumbled across the fly fishing film "Etu's Bones" that told the story of how a Bonefish net fisherman by the name of Etu Davey had given up netting and taking up up guiding in what was a newly established sports fishery in Aitutaki - a small island and lagoon within the Cook Islands.
I was hooked. I had always wanted to visit Rarotonga (the biggest of the Cooks, and the gateway to Aitutaki) and I had long wanted to visit Aitutaki - which has the reputation of being on of the most beautiful lagoons in the world. I worked out dates, secured travelling companions, booked flights, and booked a guide through Etu's business - www.e2sway.com.
In the 8 months I had to wait I studied up on all I could about Bonefishing in Aitutaki - and found that there was suprisingly little information out there. I got in touch with Rod Hamilton from www.diybonefishing.com, who provided me some good tips. I also found a good article on The Tongariro Fishing Guide blog, which provided inspiration for what fly patterns to tie. I then got busy.
Not only did I want to catch a bonefish - but I also wanted to do it on a rod I built. I had recently discovered Epic Fly Rods, and had recently build a nice little 4wt rod to use on the trout streams around where I live. The beauty with Epic is you can buy a rod for around $1100, or you can buy a "wrap your own" kit - with the blank and all the components for just over half of that price. I settled on the Epic 888 - a 8ft8in 8wt. This also scratched another itch - Epic make arguably some of the finest glass rods on the planet - and I had recently discovered glass rods. So I ordered and built the rod, and then turned my sights to flies.
Again, the internet was a wealth of information, and I set about tying up Clousers, Gotchas, and Crazy Charlie's in a variety of colours and sizes. And while I have been tying my own flies for some 20-odd years I was now using materials and techniques I hadn't used when tying trout flies.
The day finally arrived - and one of Etu's brothers, Tia, arrived to pick me and a colleague up from our accomodation. 30 minutes later and we were making our way across the most eye watering, bite-the-back-of-your-hand-its-so-beautiful lagoons towards the distant small uninhabited islands that dot the southern end of the lagoon.
Tia explained that we would be "fishing the milk" and I found myself breathing a sigh of relief that I had on a whim purchased a intermediate sinking line before leaving NZ.
"The milk" refers to an area of water that has been turned a milky blue hue thanks to the Bonefish contained within it that are feeding on the bottom, and stirring up the sand and sediment. This area stands out against the bright electric blue water as it does look like someone has tipped milk into the water. Hence the name. And while I had envisioned casting to sighted fish in the shallows - the strong winds that had arrived over night meant that this probably wasn't going to be an option in these condition.
As Tia swung the boat around upwind of the milk he gave the instruction to cast the lines out. We would then drift through the milk bouncing the fly across the bottom. No sooner had I got my line out, and I hit a fish. I stripped frantically to take in the slack, and was rewarded with a sharp bend in my rod, and a sudden surge in the opposite direction which confirmed what I had hooked was not a coral outcrop. The fish ran hard for a few seconds, and then I gradually wound it to the boat. In what seemed like no time I had a nice 4lbs glistening silver Bone in the net - and I decided that no matter what happened for the rest of the trip - it could now officially be deemed a success.
What then followed was several hours of very slow fishing - punctuated by the occasional Goat Fish. We changed locations a number of times, before arriving at a deep channel running up alongside one of the small islands, or "Motu". Tia pointed out a dark grey stain in the middle of it - "Bonefish school" was all he said. The drifts through here were relatively short - and involved not only stripping out all the fly line - but also a good portion of backing - in order to get the flies onto the bottom in the deep water. I was starting to regret leaving a 8wt trout reel loaded up with a Deepwater Express shooting head back at the cabin - as I wasn't sure the intermediate was getting down deep enough. After about 40 minutes and several passes through this water I was hit. But this time it was a much bigger fish. I got the fish onto the reel quickly and kept the pressure on it as the rod again bent over into a graceful arc. But then the fish decided to run. Now I am used to trout - who will give a powerful surge of maybe 10 seconds, before slowing down. And they may do this several times. But this fish just didn't stop. My Sage reel was dialled up to 7 out of a possible 20 on the drag, and I quickly increased this to 14. Still the fish ran. "What strength is your leader?" Tia asked. "20lbs tippet" I replied. "20lbs?" came the reply, and I suddenly felt guilty - as when I purchased the leaders I thought maybe I was overdoing it. I use 10lbs for big trout, and these fish were not much bigger - but then the comment "20lbs, 30lbs - both are good" that followed, left me wondering if perhaps I had gone too light.
The fish kept running, and when it gradually slowed I figured I probably had half my 200yds of backing left on the reel. I started retrieving line - and the fish felt like a heavy solid weight as it slowly drew closer. After what seemed like eternity the backing to fly line connection rattled through the tip-top, marking one small achievement. Then I could see the leader connection in the distance, meaning some 15 or so feet in front of that would be the fish. But she was having none of it, and stayed deep, sulking out of sight. Then came the second run. In no time all my hard work was undone - and I watched as fly line gave way to backing and the backing started to peel off the reel at an alarming rate. I now ratchated the reel up to 17 on the drag, and again the fish slowed, and finally stopped. I started winding again, and eventually got to the leader. The fish was still refusing to come to the surface, and the 888 was now bent in a very deep bow, the way that only glass does, and carbon fibre doesn't.
Now Tia was alongside me - instructing me on where to stand, and on what angle to hold my rod. Slowly the fish came off the bottom and I got my first sight of her. I didnt need to have seen a lot of Bonefish up close to know that this was big - as in really big. I have lost big trout at the net before, and started silently praying that this would'nt be the case here. I thought of all the things that could go wrong. Would the hook hold? - big Bones are known to straighten out the bends on fly hooks. Would the blood knot I used to join the leader to the tippet, or the "never-fail" loop I used to connect the tippet to the fly hold? Had I even hooked her properly?? The fish was now alongside, and ever so casually Tia slipped the net under her - and it was over.
After 15 minutes of pure adrenaline I had a much larger fish on board. As we looked at in the net I asked Tia how big he reckoned it was "You guess" he asked. I started cautiously and opened the bidding with 10lbs - the magic number to be considered a trophy. Tia smiled - "Bonefish are very heavy for their size" he said, obviously having worked out that I was comparing it to trout in terms of size. And he was right. But where a trout maybe deep, and at times broad across the shoulders, this fish was deep - but also very, very thick. Much thicker than a trout. "15lbs then?" I asked. Tia smiled and nodded, but "That is a very big Bonefish" was all he would say - a term that he repeated several more times as we went about photographing and releasing it. So, in the absence of any scales, and my determination that as a Bonefish guide Tia knows his stuff, then I'm taking 15lbs.
Overall it was a very successful day on the lagoon. Not only did I land a trophy fish, I also hooked and landed a 8lbs fish, and my buddy landed a smaller Bone. Tia even put me onto a school of GT's - one of which was hooked and then very quickly lost after it destroyed the fly line around a head of coral - but that's a story for a different time.