Even before I first picked up a fly rod, I’ve always been fascinated by the lure of saltwater. I remember sitting in the family room studying photos displayed around our walls. There were pictures of family along with a few of my dad and his trophy animals taken in some remote part of the world, but there was one photo in particular that kept my attention the longest. It was of my mother holding a 12 pound bonefish. I was too young to know what kind of fish it was or even comprehend the fact that it was caught on a fly, but I do remember thinking how “cool” it was. It was then that I vowed to myself to someday catch one of those exotic creatures.
I was wearing my hair down that day. It was straight with a slight curl at the end to enhance it’s bounciness and give it the look of elegance void of any flaws. My dad and I had just landed on Rarotonga, one of the many islands in the Cook Islands, located in the Pacific. After a 9 hour flight from LA we were ready to be on solid ground again. I was wearing jeans and a long sleeve Simms fishing shirt, being from a cold environment (Montana in March) I didn’t think about humidity and heat once we crossed the equator. My hair went from beauty and elegance to a mass that resembled a lion’s mane that I quickly subdued with a hair tie. Kia Orana, which is welcome in some weird language, was displayed over the small terminal. We made it through customs only losing an apple and an orange my dad thought he could sneak in.
“I really wanted to eat those,” he says. I just shook my head in amusement then we boarded a small puddle jumper that took us over to one of the islands called Aitutaki.
Ian was waiting for us at the small airport, his face decorated with a large grin. Ian is from Australia who came to Aitutaki to manage the lodge and live the classic life of a fish bum. He’s a tall dark haired man with skin the color of molasses and a demeanor that’s typical of any hardcore fly fisherman.
“Goo’day mates!” he says.
I can’t help but chuckle because the first thing I think of is Crocodile Dundee. Montana isn’t the best place for cultural exposure. We make a short drive to a small restaurant and bar called The Boat Shed. We’re shown to our cabin and begin assembling our gear for the next 6 days of fishing. The lagoon was beautiful. No more than a 2 minute walk from our cabin, trevally, bonefish and several coral fish thrive and cruise the coral heads. Large palm trees line the shore, thick sand glimmers in the bright sun and there’s a faint roar as the surf hits the reef on the outskirts of the island. Being completely surrounded by hundreds of miles of water was weird. Much different than the hundreds of miles of wilderness I’m accustomed to in Alaska. There you may have a slight chance at survival, to walk out and get help. However, out here in the ocean? A person may need to settle with the Lord quickly for death is unmistakably imminent. A spooky thought for me.
My first encounter with a bonefish. It comes and goes like a lightning bolt, I even found myself questioning if it actually happened or was just an hallucination. I was walking a flat with Ian the first day which was basically a training session. He taught me what to look for when searching a flat. “Bonefish are a slightly different color blue than the water,” he instructs. “OK,” I think.” Searching for a fish in a river, a lake or even in muddy water has always been something I had no problem with. I figured this would be a cake walk….I was wrong. It was like trying to find a ghost, that wasn’t there to begin with.
“There’s one!” exclaimed Ian, pointing his finger in a direction to my left. I scan the water and I see nothing but the casual blue water rippled with a moderate wind.
“I don’t see anything,” I remark.
“He’s about 20 feet in front of you.” He comes up behind me and holds his finger right by my eye and points in the direction of the fish. “He’s moving from left to right, slightly towards us.”
I squint my eyes and focus hard, searching for the slightest movement, looking for the dark torpedo shaped back of a bonefish. Still I see nothing. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I just don’t see him.”
“Alright, cast about 15 feet out at about 2 O’clock.”
I do as he says and begin to do a very very slow strip. “He’s on it!” exclaims Ian. “Get ready! Set!!”
I rip the line through the guides and for a split second feel a heavy tug on the other end, then my line goes limp and my heart sinks. I try to speak but the only thing that comes out is a shriek and I abandon the attempt, embarrassed.
“Ah, that’s a rough one, mate,” says Ian in a strong Aussie accent. “You’ll get another shot at one, no worries!”
Rua, one of the three Davey brothers, was our guide for our first day of fishing. He’s an Aitutaki native who’d recently given up commercial net fishing for bones to become a full time fly fishing guide. This transition was very controversial not only within his own family but also throughout the community as the Davey family was the biggest supplier of bonefish on the island. We meet Rua on a sandy beach on the opposite side of the lagoon where he picks us up in a small flats boat. Rua was a quiet fella and when he did talk it was difficult to understand. I’m convinced that I did the exact opposite of what he was telling me to do on many occasions. He probably thought I was a stupid white girl from America, but after a few spooked bones and a game of Guesstures, we conquered the language barrier and finally had some luck.
We were blanketed in dark blue rain clouds as raindrops trickled off the brim of my hat and ran down my face. The cool rain was a Godsend. I could almost hear the raindrops sizzle when they hit my skin. The savage sunburn I’d received on the flat with Ian the day before was overbearing and I was applying aloe vera profusely; I was thankful for the rain. Rua was poling us through a flat while I was on the bow scanning the water. It was mid afternoon and I still hadn’t hooked a bone. I was tired, hot, my feet hurt from standing all day and my gumption was dwindling. Then Rua tells me to cast. I never did see the fish due to the cloud cover, but Rua told me what to do.
“Cast 20 meters, 12 clock.” he says. “Leave it. Now strip slow. Slow, slow, slow. Hesitation.”
I stop the strip completely then he says it again with more urgency. “I am hesitating,” I say. He looks at me with a confused look then gestures to me a quick strip. “Het his tension,” he exclaims. Then I understood what he was saying. He wanted me to get the fish’s attention by making two fast strips! I quickly stripped twice and immediately the fish turns then I feel a slight tug. I ream the line through the guides and I feel the weight of the fish as it takes off like a rocket. I was using a blue and red Allen Alpha II reel and the colors seemed to blend together as the fish spun line from the spool. My dad was cheering me on as the fish made three hard runs and proceeded to turn and come straight back forcing me to reel like my life depended on it. Finally, the fish tired and allowed Rua to scoop it into the net. I reached in and held it into the sun, taking in the blue iridescence of it’s fins, the mirror like shine of it’s scales and for a moment nothing else existed except for me and that fish. Firsts are always memorable, whether it’s a first car, a first deer or a first kiss. A first always holds a special meaning, occupies a special place in the memory bank. No matter what, that first will aways be carried with you, your mind can never break away from it. This was my first bonefish and I wanted to absorb every infinite detail about this special creature because I knew I’d never forget it. We snapped a couple photos then watched as the 6 pound bone evaporated into the clear water and swam away. I sat down, took a deep breath and tried to collect myself. There’s plenty of truth to the saying that the salt will change you. That once you go saltwater fishing, you’ll always be trying to get back to it, it’s forever in your blood. I love freshwater, I grew up around it but saltwater is incomparable. There’s nothing like hooking a fish that can rip you a new butt hole in a matter of seconds. No fly fisherman can disagree with that.
My dad slapped me on the back, bringing me back to reality. “You did it, girl! You got one.”
The rest of the week was spent cruising around the island’s flats chasing some of the biggest bones I’ll probably ever see. Later in the week I managed to catch an 11 pounder with Itu, Rua’s brother and fly fishing mentor, and had a shot at a Trevally the size of a small car. The evenings were spent catching reef fish in the lagoon and drinking beer with the locals in The Boat Shed bar. I was awarded a pair of Maui Jim’s sunglasses for being the first female angler to successfully catch a bonefish at the lodge and was presented with The Ship Wreck, which is a drink that should be called “Put you on your ass in 5 minutes”. The week came and went like a blur, it’s amazing how fast the time goes when you’re caught up in catching fish and getting sunburned. Before I knew it, I was back in snowy Montana, sitting in class, wishing I was still in the middle of the Pacific. As the professor preached as if reading from a teleprompter, I drifted back to that first bonefish and my dad congratulating me. Back to the moment when I knew there was no going back, that there was no anti-venom for the venom that now courses through my veins. I’m a newborn saltwater addict and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. So here I am sitting in Statistics class and instead of thinking about our next exam in two days, all I can think about is catching my first permit. Yup, I’m so screwed.