Every fisherman dreams about a secret fishing hole somewhere. Someplace no one knows about. No one goes. No one (or hardly anyone) has ever fished. A place where you show up knowing you won’t see a single soul and that the fish have never seen a fly. This dream fishing spot is naturally chock full of fish, too, everywhere you turn.
The Cook Island’s atoll, Penrhyn, might just be that place.
This atoll lays more than 800 miles of open ocean from anywhere. There are no flights. It is visited by just two supply ships a year. The only way to get here is in your own boat, sailing far off of the normal tradewind route. There was a time when expensive flights from the main islands of the Cooks occasionally brought an intrepid fly fishermen from New Zealand, though because there are no hotels or any other tourist infrastructure on Penrhyn the only way to fish these remote flats, even then, was to stay as a guest with the pastor at Te Tautua and have him take you. This apparently did happen at least once. Years ago. Basically, the only people who ever visit, in very, very small numbers are sailors. The intersection of committed bonefishermen and blue-water sailors who can actually get themselves to Penrhyn yields a very tiny slice of humanity. I’d bet there aren’t more than about five of us in the whole world, and that includes our friend Mike, who’s introduction to fly fishing was walking the flats with me in the Gambier and Rangiroa.
The pastor insisted on taking us to his spot, though we had our own dinghy and knew from Google Earth exactly where to go. Wishing to be gracious guests of the island, we accepted the ride. We spotted the first pod of fish even before getting out of the boats and over the next four hours (the limit of the pastor’s desire to stay and harvest noddy bird eggs), I landed at least fifteen bonefish (which is a lot of bonefish), considering the amount of time it takes to land each one and the fact that a fighting ‘kio-kio’ clears the immediate area on the flat of willing fish. Mike caught nearly that many, as well, and we were often doubled up with fish on at the same time.
We fished this singular spot for a couple weeks going back on our own, and it wasn’t always as good as the first day, the tide and the weather have a lot to say about how good the fishing is going to be, but it was always our spot and the fish were always there. They aren’t as big on average as the bonefish in French Polynesia, but Penrhyn is chock full of them.
We pinched ourselves regularly to make sure it was not just a dream. ~MS
We spent about 6 months in the Gambier between two visits, which was enough time to start to make some connections and get to know people a little bit. Herve and Valerie on the island of Taravai nurture these relationships with sailors, warmly welcoming everyone who drops anchor behind the reef.Eric and his family became near and dear and when tragedy struck (Tina was lost at sea in August of this year), we grieved together.
We learned our way around, becoming comfortable with how things worked with the supply ships, buying gas in 200L barrels and negotiating to pump diesel straight from the boat. We got used to the idea that it was nearly pointless to try to get an internet connection, even in town.
We got to know some of the people along the water in Rikitea’s harbor:
Mike the fisherman and his wife, Agnés, the school teacher, offered us fresh fish and tried to organize an excursion outside the reef with Marcus, but the timing never seemed to work out.
Vaitea, the guy at Jo Jo’s (the ‘magasin’ or market) who made key resources manifest when there were supposedly none and was the recipient of multiple loaves of banana bread.
Louison, the body builder who rented us extra scuba gear – always laughing and smiling, paddling his Va’a in the harbor, delivering us tanks and gear wherever, whenever.
Eric’s sister-in-law, Juanita, and her friend Tao who drove us around the island in search of fresh fruit and invited us into their homes with open hearts.
Tehoto, who grew up on Kamaka island, who’s wife, Noella runs the pizza place, which is sometimes open on the weekend, depending on what else they have going on, allowed us on his private island, sharing his haven with us.
Iolanie rented us her car for a couple island excursions and stored our bikes in her front yard and later, in her store and would accept nothing in return.
Josie and her husband from Las Vegas ran one of the magasins and they volunteered to bring us veggies out to our anchorage about 8 miles away, as they were going by to a nearby motu (island) anyway … and this on Christmas Eve!
And then there were the cruisers, considerably more this year than last, who sought refuge from inclement weather in these eastern Polynesian waters, namely cyclones. A comradery naturally developed as we ended up seeing the same boats around the islands. We sat out a tropical depression at Herve and Valerie’s place in Taravai with a handful of other cruisers and were all poised to help out our neighbors as need be. The community of sailors is one of the highlights of this nomadic lifestyle and generosity, much like in the local culture, is a ‘given’ concept and knows no bounds.
Over two seasons, we covered most of the waters that comprise the Gambier, and yet it was hard and strange to leave knowing we would probably never make it back to this beautiful, remote Archipelago apart from the world.
Aka Marlon Brando’s atoll, aka where Obama went to write his memoirs, aka the weekend get away for Tahitian royalty for hundreds of years before those two. This is a difficult atoll, not very often visited by sailors. There is no pass to get your sailboat inside the lagoon, so you have to find a place to be on the outside, which means that conditions have to be just right. There’s a bay on the southern side, but the prevailing swell in these parts is south, and it has to be less than a meter and a half, or it’s just not tenable. The trade winds are east-southeast, so those have to be mellow too. The other big, big problem is that it’s super deep right off the reef. There’s not really a place to anchor. Charter operations out of Papeete have put in five mooring balls. Only one of those is really good for overnight, and if the conditions are right, the charter boats are guaranteed to be using them. We sailed in from Makatea unsure if we were going to be able to stay. In fact we had to plan our schedule so that we arrived in the early morning. Then, if we had to move onto Tahiti, we’d be able to get there before too late in the day.
As we approached after an overnight sail from Makatea, we could see two charter boats already arriving. Our only choice was to motor up to the catamaran that was unloading his guests to take ashore and ask if we could use one of the other moorings.
Now it’s really easy to imagine the response you might get to such a request in much of the rest of the world. Even a polite, sorry, these are private buoys would not be surprising. Less polite, not surprising either.
Obviously, we got an altogether different response. The captain of this catamaran had twenty or thirty guests that have paid $150 each to get there and were lined up to get ashore. He’s a one man show, from running the boat to making sure everyone has a life jacket. So he’s a bit busy. Nonetheless, without hesitation he pointed to the closest buoy and said, that’s the one you want. We asked are you sure, not one of the others, no that’s ours and it’s the best one. Can we stay the night? Absolutely, no problem. His name was Moana.
After he ferried all of his charge ashore he came over to talk. Remember the thing about Tetiaroa is THERE IS NO PASS. Meaning, no break in the reef that will allow you to sail to the protection inside. That includes shore boats. Marlon Brando and Obama got there by airplane. The only way to get ashore is to time your approach with the waves and surf your dinghy across the reef. When the surf is out, there’s a three feet wall of coral wall to slam into. This is what we’d been watching Moana do – dinghy runs with his guests. Seriously, it took our breath away. Obviously, it was possible. No doubt centuries ago Tahitian royalty were paddled across the same section of reef by young, strong paddlers. Moana offered to take us in, but he was leaving at 2:00 (we preferred more time on the inside), so we decided to launch Namo (our dinghy) and go for it. We went over to ask for tips and instead of letting us just try it, he took me in his dingy and showed me how to surf across. The key is to line up with a palm tree that has no top. The other key is that the waves roll along the reef so you can see them coming and gun it at the right time. It’s too late to just wait for the water to cover the reef, you have to be going full speed by that moment. Then to get out, the key is to know which coral heads you might hit with your propeller if you don’t aim right. Spot them, then gun into the white water of the breaking surf.
So we did it, surfed in with Moana cheering us on. Basically, you get across the reef and land in a pool, then if you turn hard right you can wind your way through the coral heads and tie off on shore. It’s also possible, but very complicated, to wind your way along the royal Motu (small island) and into the lagoon. We opted for anchoring Namo up at the spot where Moana left his guests and walking around the motu (the opposite way from which he took his clients) into the lagoon.
And what did we find there? Huge bonefish, as big as I’ve caught anywhere. Diana got lots of pictures. It’s illegal to fish inside the lagoon, but catch and release bonefishing is allowed. However, all of the charter companies have signed an agreement NOT to bring fishermen. So the only way, other than the way we did it, to fish in Tetiaroa is to go the the hotel. Where Obama went. Yep, $4,000 per night, not including airfare, for the cheapest room in the off season.
The next day another charter boat showed up. A smaller, private charter, same company, POE Yacht charters. They took the same buoy as the other captain had, but then once he’d off loaded his guests he came over to tell us that he needed the buoy we were on for the night. Once again, sorry sir, but this is a private buoy, you need to get lost. Right? Nope. He said that since this was the only safe buoy for overnight (capable of holding five boat in deep water off the reef), we could tie up to him and be his guest. He also offered to ferry us across the reef, and if we wanted we were welcome to come on the tour. When we asked if his guests would mind, he suggested that it was his choice and they wouldn’t mind anyway. These very friendly people were there to celebrate a daughters 25 birthday, so other than some Karaoke late into the night who could possibly complain?
I took him up on the ride in because Diana had discovered that the best snorkeling was on the outside reef edge anyway, plus, the sharks we’d been seeing circling Allora were Lemon Sharks, which we hadn’t seen before. Diana cannot resist swimming with sharks. While I was away, doing what I do, a mother and calf humpback whale swam right by the boat. Diana was so torn about whether to grab a camera, get snorkeling gear and a wet suit, or what, that she wasn’t able to get in the water with them before they passed, but she had a wonderful close encounter anyway.
We were so reluctant to leave the next morning, but the swell was up, and the forecast was for building southeast wind… time to sail for civilization. In case you’re there already and don’t quite realize, civilization equals ice cream, chocolate and internet. Not to be taken for granted. Especially since we were completely out of coffee, too.
Our first instinct, on our initial pass through the Tuamotus last year, was to avoid Rangiroa. It seemed too popular – with actual hotels for tourists, including those ‘elegant’ thatched roof bungalows out over the water that plague Bora Bora. But on our second pass this year, we ended up spending a month in this largest of the Tuamotus atolls.
I’ll keep my part of the motivation for staying so long to one sentence: Rangiroa has the best bonefishing in the Tuamotus. Okay, moving on. Okay, well maybe not moving on. I broke both my nine and eight weight rods on these fish. I used up my entire stock of number 4 hooks. I fished everyday, and there were bonefish wherever we went, even at the touristy Blue Lagoon. We’re not talking armies of tourists, lets say a couple dozen for a whole day in three or four small boats. One group even waved me over and fed me lunch. The tour operator was an avid fisherman and pure Polynesian friendly. He told about a spot where he’d seen a giant bonefish, so big that at first he’d mistaken it for a shark.
Unfortunately, I never got over there. The wind shifted and we had to pull up anchor – which is a short sentence for describing a pretty harrowing situation where our anchor windlass failed, and we had to untangle the anchor from some nasty bottom, manually, and then with a little luck and jimmying of the windlass control, we raised the Rocna, just as the waves and wind built in earnest. Fortunately, we figured out the wiring problem at the next anchorage and it was an easy repair. ~MS