Ray Montoya & Scott Mitchell uncover new destinations.


Recently, I had the privilege to be one of the first anglers to fish a new bonefish destination in the Tuamotu Island group, some 400 km from Tahiti. Anaa Atoll (the name means ‘cluster’ of islets) is 28 km long and 5 km wide, and was once the centre of the Puamotu civilization, but now has a population of only 400 people.

Of special significance is the island’s large, mostly shallow lagoon with no deep passage to the sea. This means that there is no tidal movement as such, with the lagoon level controlled by wind and the swell coming across the reef. With only half a metre of movement at most during rough seas, the fly angler can basically fish at any time of the day, not being restricted by tides. Anaa’s position near the equator also ensures reasonably stable weather year round.

It was these qualities which drew the attention of Stephane Giraudeau and Georges Lenzi of Planet Flyfishing last May (2002). Planet Flyfishing has pioneered many destinations around the globe, including the Alphonse and Saint Francois fisheries in the Seychelles; so I gladly accepted when invited to join Garry Barmby (Angling Adventures) to help evaluate their new destination.

Georges had picked a week in November for our visit, with the local fishermen reporting that bonefish should be migrating into the lagoon from outside the reef at this time.

We flew via Auckland, then on to Papeete, which is the economic and ad-ministrative capital of French Polynesia. After crossing the date line and losing a day, we arrived early in the morning the day prior to our departure! It is this schedule which allows for a full day in Papeete before overnighting and connecting with the weekly charter flight out to Anaa. The flight takes around an hour and a half.

I can’t tell you the feeling of anticipation I had as our plane banked and flew over what appeared to be miles of shimmering white flats and turquoise waters on our approach into Anaa. Even the clouds were green from the reflection of the lagoon. This is apparently well known and ships’ captains can position the atoll from a long way off, by the colour of the clouds as they pass over the lagoon.

On landing we were met by Georges and driven a short way into the main village for breakfast. Georges explained that the lagoon was low as the weather had been calm and hot, with water temperature getting above 30°C by midday sending the bones into deeper water. With this in mind we quickly rigged our rods and headed to the lagoon.

Georges and Stephane are training a few of the village fishermen to become guides, with Raphael and Ruben looking after us for the week. The main language is a combination of French and Tahitian making communication a little challenging—I will need to practice my French before going back. Raphael had offered his boat as the main means of exploring the lagoon—a boat is required to access the flats. Georges informed us that by the time you are reading this article there should be two new Boston Whalers in use with casting decks, to allow the deeper flats to be fished.

We only travelled for ten minutes before gliding on to our first flat, with Ruben pointing at shadows departing on our arrival. The hard bottom made for comfortable wading, and small coral heads were scattered about. We had only waded a few metres from the boat when Raphael called “Bon Fish.” A nice bonefish was casually swimming along in just centimetres of water with its glistening back breaking the surface.

I cast a metre ahead of the fish and did not have time to react as the bone bolted to the fly, took it and departed so fast I didn’t see the loop in the line go around the butt of the rod. It was all over in seconds with the 6 kg tippet breaking so sharply that the line recoil-ed back up the rod.

“Well, they’re not spooky,” I conceded as I tied on another fly.

We had only waded another ten minutes before getting another shot, with three fish swimming out of a small channel only ten metres ahead of us. I again cast a metre ahead of the lead fish and it raced to the fly. This time I set the hook and trapped the rod butt hard up against my forearm, clearing the remaining line with my left hand as the fish departed the flat ahead of the rooster tail coming off my fly line.

It doesn’t matter how many books you read, videos you watch or stories you hear, that first run is something every fly angler needs to experience.

Our accommodation was in one of two small bungalows just back from the edge of the lagoon. These had open air windows and their own flushing toilet and shower. They were actually much nicer than expected for such a remote destination, with beds made and linen changed daily. We had breakfast and evening meals with our guides and were made to feel part of the family. The tasty local food included some great sushi-style fish platters and crayfish. Georges is working with the local people and hopes to build a new mini-lodge on the shore of the lagoon in the next year. We were also given new bicycles to get around on as there are only a handful of vehicles on the atoll.

The schedule was to start early each day when the water was at its coolest and fish the flats until midday for bonefish. We would then spend the afternoons exploring the lagoon and outer reef fringe. Some of the flats we fished were the prettiest I have ever waded, a thousand shades of blue and green with palm trees as a backdrop. The bonefish were nearly always willing to eat our flies, not having had any angling pressure. The average size was high, with the majority of fish being 2 to 3 kg. My largest went 70 cm, estimated at 4.5 kg. Garry actually had a bigger fish eat the fly at his feet, only to miss the strike in amazement at the fish’s size!

As far as bonefish numbers are concerned we experienced very good fishing with my best day landing 14 and my slowest landing six. These sorts of numbers are sure to put Anaa up there with some of the best bonefish destinations in the world.

We had a couple of sessions along the outside of the reef where it was possible to stand on dry reef and cast flies into cobalt blue water hundreds of met-res deep. I hooked some of the largest and meanest red bass I have ever seen, along with black GT’s the size of Volks-wagens! These sessions seriously depleted my selection of fly lines and flies, and I only managed to land some small cod, bluefin trevally and half a red bass that would have gone 12 kilos had it been whole!

Ruben and Stephane told us that they get very large bluefin trevally in the lag-oon during March and April with fish to 10 kg being taken. We did manage to get a few of these (to 4 kg) on our bonefish gear, which proved great sport on the flats. The full potential of this beautiful atoll will unfold as more anglers visit in the future.

Our tackle for the bonefish included 9-weight rods with matching tropical floating lines. We used 10 ft tapered saltwater leaders, adding 6 to 8 kg fluorocarbon tippets. Our best flies included Gotchas, Christmas Island Specials and Marabou Shrimps all in size 4 and 2 with lead or bead chain eyes depending on water depth.

The whole experience was fantastic and I am sure you’ll be hearing a lot more about Anaa in the future.

Booking information
now available:
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It has long been common knowledge that bonefish do inhabit the Cook Islands, but equally important for fly anglers and perhaps not so commonly understood, is that several of these atolls—Suwarrow, PukaPuka and Manihiki to name a few—possess exceptional lagoon flats for polaroiding these fish.

Unfortunately, with the exception of Aitutaki (see FlyLife #31), accessing the outer islands, many of which lack an airstrip, can prove a logistical nightmare, or at best involve a week on a rusty freighter. But there is one island that stands out. With an airstrip, semi-regular flights and vast tracts of white sand flats, Penrhyn could be the real thing.

Penrhyn, or Tongareva (pronounced Tongaleva), the most northerly of the Cook’s fifteen islands, skirts the equatorial Doldrums; hence its literal translation (south of the empty space). Given its proximity to Christmas Island, I didn’t have to think twice when native Mundubberan, Rob Watt invited me to join Graham Rowles on an exploratory expedition this past July. I offer this brief synopsis of our nine days on the atoll, which involved six days of fishing, a quantity of home brew, and several dozen hard earned bonefish.

Day One, Saturday
Given that we were the first visitors to the island in six months, the entire village of Omoka turned out to greet the plane. After a welcoming song and a short prayer, we were transported to Soa’s guesthouse by our hosts, Doreen and Purua Heria. After a few more local formalities, we were finally able to slip away for a brief explore of the reef.

In amongst heaps of black-tip reef sharks, schools of titiara (blue trevally) were the first fish we encountered. Given the ferocity the reefies exhibited ripping in to my trevally, I wondered if a hooked bonefish would even survive its first run. Though we saw no bonefish, we were comforted in the thought that tomorrow we would be fishing the distant flats, or so we thought.

Day Two, Sunday
Parua had failed to mention until this morning, that boat travel and fishing were not permitted on Sunday! Not wanting to offend our hosts, we relented to leaving our rods behind, and instead, spent the day with the Long family. Roland Long, known locally as Tuatini, and his wife Malawi are pearl farmers. Fortunately for us, they also dabble in a bit of brewing; their speciality, a libation concocted from tea bags, sugar and yeast—it was actually quite pleasant.

We were soon drawn to a breath-taking flat just outside the Longs’ backdoor. Fringed with overhanging coconut trees and pandanus forest, Penrhyn’s flats proved to be some of the most distractingly beautiful bonefish habitat I had ever seen. After sighting dozens of cruising bonefish, poor Rob had to be administered a stiff home brew to take the edge off.

Day Three, Monday
Though the main island of Moananui has a lagoon flat that stretches from Omoka to well past the Longs’—a good 6 km—seasonal trade winds forced us to cross the atoll to Patanga, a motu (islet) just south of the village of Tetautua. An hours boat ride rewarded us with a leeward facing, white sand flat that seemed to extend all the way to the horizon. Amongst nesting red-tailed tropic birds, frigates and delicate white terns, the flat paralleled a thin, convoluted jungle that braided into numerous small islets, coves and channels.

It wasn’t long before I was into my first Penrhyn bone, a green-backed fish
I spied foraging in a shallow inlet. Within an hour, the boys from Mundubbera had their first bonefish as well; Graham’s an exceptional 5 lb specimen that took him into previously unused backing—he was totally rapt. In addition to scores of trevally and orange emperors, we re-leased seven bonefish; undisputed proof of their existence.

Day Four, Tuesday
Heavy rainsqualls moved in overnight and hung on throughout the day. There would be no fishing. Having managed just four hours of fishing over the past four days, I could not help thinking we should have ignored the no fishing on Sunday rule. Then again, there’s a local belief that the sharks only eat sinners!

Day Five, Wednesday
I would like to take credit for the day’s success, but it belongs to Alex Maretapu William. It was Alex’s idea to fish the deeper flats surrounding Ruahara, a motu north of Tetautua where locals net ava (milkfish). With the tide falling earlier each day, fishing a deeper flat proved a wise decision, especially for Watty. After releasing his third fish, I finally swallowed my pride and cozied up to him for some advice.

Rob attributed his success to long quick strips, a tactic he used to entice golden trevally in Hervey Bay. I soon had an opportunity to employ Rob’s goldie strip on a brutish 5-pounder, with instant results. Unfortunately, this strip didn’t always work, and it soon became apparent that the Penrhyn bones were more finicky than we had anticipated.

In contrast, the trevallies were quick to snatch any fly, often right out from under a bonefish and, unfortunately, a hooked trevally meant instant reefies. Surprisingly, the sharks ignored our bonefish. In fact, the smaller reefies were actually intimidated by the larger bones. They would, however, occasionally rub against us, out of curiosity I imagine, but nonetheless, unnerving.

We soon discovered that shrimp patterns fished with an aggressive strip worked well on the deeper flats, while sparsely dressed Charlies fished with teasing strips (or no strip) took skinny-water fish.

Watty was a bit reluctant to use my smaller flies, but Graham, having few-
er preconceptions, was keen to try anything. The lad landed the two largest bones, including an honest 6-pounder, on a size 8, chartreuse-copper Charlie
—our most productive colour. Though finicky, the Penrhyn fish were also curious, sometimes circling back for a second look, which often provided just enough time to change flies or rethink our retrieve.

Day Six, Thursday
We began the morning slogging through a rain-drenched flat on the south end
of Mangarongaro, until we neared an opening in the reef. By mid-morning, the sun finally melted the cloud cover, revealing a striking white flat teeming with tailing fish.
Mr Rowles had the hot hand today, landing four respectable bonefish, while Rob and I each managed one satisfying fish. Most of Graham’s fish were large tailing singles, which he picked off with uncanny precision.

Day Seven, Friday
Back to Pantanga this morning, only to find slack tides and more finicky fish. Rob and Graham encountered a school of snooty tailers—they would not even look at a fly. I was lucky to score a couple of early morning tailers, but was shut out for the rest of the day.

We suspected that the full moon may have had something to do with the slack tide and the fish’s attitude. Water levels on the flats had been difficult to predict. Surf pushing through the reef, or lack of it, seemed to influence water levels as much as the lunar cycle.

Upon returning to Omoka, we discovered that the cargo ship, affectionately nicknamed ‘Next Week’ by the locals, had yet to arrive. On board were six precious drums of jet fuel—our ticket home.

Day Eight, Saturday
‘Next Week’ sailed in under clear skies and just a breath of wind—the best weather all week. Our flight had been rescheduled for Monday morning, so we decided to take a scooter down the air-strip to finally have a go at the Longs’ flat. It had been almost a week since our last visit; this time, however, we would be armed with a couple of three-piece, nine-foot companions.

Fifty metres from Roland’s backdoor, I hooked up a superb 4-pounder. For the rest of the morning, we were into it, sighting at least 25 bonefish, hooking 8 and landed 5, including our first and only double hook-up of the trip.

We stuck with small flies all morning and although we initially straightened a few hooks, once we backed off our drags, we landed nearly every fish. If the ship had arrived on time, we would have been back in Rarotonga today, but instead we had our best day, and the perfect end to our trip.

Leaving Penrhyn
I found Penrhyners to be a laid back and congenial lot. It was impossible to stroll through Omaka without receiving an invite for tea, a hand rolled cigarette, or just a chat. Though deeply religious, most islanders have held on to their traditional beliefs through song, dance and a subsistence life-style.

Penrhyn could support several small groups of self-sufficient anglers, provided they were careful to rotate the flats. Penrhyn’s pristine beauty, and lack of entrepreneurial trappings, are the real attraction.

Unlike some of the more developed islands, there is no need for a guide in Penrhyn, or permission to fish, thus, it is up to visiting anglers to regulate and conduct themselves accordingly. As of this writing, there are still a few uncertainties, but if you manage to get there, please remember to tread lightly, and do stop by the Longs’ for a brew.

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