Reel in a Good Time: Exploring the Cook Islands’ Gin-Colored Waters and Hooking the Elusive Bonefish
by Stefanie Michaels
Spoiler alert: Bonefishing and I are not friends in the end.
I board the small boat resting peacefully on Aitutaki’s powdery sand shore, vivid reminders of a recent fishing expedition in Botswana come flooding back to me.
It was work. All of it – the casting, the trolling, the endless hours of waiting for nibbles on the end of a flashy hook – all for nothing fishy.
Between my lack of casting stamina and eventual disheartened interest in bringing back a prize catch, I surmised that day on the Chobe River that “luck” is not on my side when it comes to the sport of fishing.
Yet, here I am hitting the gin-colored waters of the Cook Islands to test chance once again, hopeful I might catch a fish this time around, also figuring the worst-case scenario will be enjoying a day out on the ocean in paradise.
Apparently, there’s a 101 set of guidelines in bonefishing, with an even more robust set of policies applying to the “gray ghost,” or bonefish.
Rule No. 1: Luck.
Rule No. 2: Use the proper size lure.
Rule No. 3: While standing in clear shallow waters, “look for shadows cast on the sand below, because you might not see the bonefish, but you will see its shadow.”
These are just a few notes I grasp as my pro guide and master bonefishing fisherman, Ian Dollery, rattles off more than a dozen tips en route to the well-known local’s fishing site, a sandbar off of One Foot island.
Ian shuts off the boat’s engine as we coast quietly into knee-deep waters. “See that, see it there,” he whispers and points in front of us. “He’s huge, probably 30 kilos.”
I strain to see what he’s talking about when Anne, another novice fishing hopeful, inquires if it is indeed a bonefish. Not quite, as we learn that it is a more common but similar-looking fish called the trevally.
At this moment, I begin to comprehend the challenges of bonefishing and add something to the rules of fishing 101: Viewing any potential catch equates excitement, opposed to spying nothing at all.
Hour two of the tour, now feeling the sting of the sun through my 35-SPF sunblock, Ian pulls onto the beautiful palm-fringed island of Akaiami. Switching up locations gives us a break from the pounding sun while he strategizes landing a bonefish prize for us.
We watch Ian from the shoreline for several minutes as he wades through shallow waters, rhythmically casting his reel, stalking his prey with cat-like precision, then pausing as he spots shadows below.
As captivating as this balletic bonefishing mastery is, adventure beckons us beyond a cut-through leading to the windward side of the isle. Imagination takes hold as we breach the opposite shore and head straight into a string of tide pools.
We pluck soggy sea cucumbers from the shallows as kids would; a light squeeze turns them into makeshift squirt guns, and banter how it is possible these odd sea creatures can vomit their insides out and survive. We then turn gleeful when bashful sand crabs untuck from inside their shells, and pose for photo ops against nature’s backdrop – a nearby motu ringed by crystalline waters – while almost forgetting we’re there to learn to bonefish.
As our tour winds down, Ian gives us his last-ditch effort by casting a single line off the stern while trolling leisurely back to the dock.
Empty-handed in the end, the elusive bonefish’s tough-to-snag reputation remains intact, but somehow I’ve decided that however luck may play its part in the fishing world, it’s not just about having enough good fortune to catch one – it’s about the adventures that happen along the way.
Did you know?
Ita Mita is a traditional fish dish from the Cook Islands. The dish typically features grilled or fried fish, which is marinated in a mixture of coconut cream, lime juice, onion, and various herbs and spices. The fish is often served with taro or other starchy vegetables.
The recipe for Ita Mita can vary depending on the island or family making the dish. It is a popular and flavorful dish often served on special occasions and celebrations.
Ita Mita is made with reef fish or other fish commonly found in the waters around the Cook Islands. However, bonefish could be used as a substitute if it is available and widely consumed in the region where you are located. Bonefish have a strong flavor and may require different marinating times and techniques than other types of fish.