Before we left on this adventure, I spent some time on the internet looking for information on fly fishing opportunities in French Polynesia. Besides a few random and out of date blog posts and a couple of websites for resorts or fly fishing businesses, I didn’t find much to go on. However, I could tell from aerial photos andsome time spent on Google Earth that there were endless sandy flats in the Tuamotus. Often called the Dangerous Islands, the Tuamotus are a string of coral atolls that stretch several hundred miles. With a peak elevation of about 10 feet, the islands have been feared by mariners for centuries because of their shallow, fringing reefs and the fact that they are hard to see until you’re practically on top of them. This, of course, sounds like heaven to someone interested in chasing fish..
The Tuamotos are quite simply what most people dream of when they think of the term tropical paradise. The islands are small – just sunken volcano craters that just barely break the surface of the ocean. Most are covered with coconut trees and surrounded by deep, blue water on the ocean side. The interior lagoons are protected, accessible usually by one or maybe two narrow passes and the clear, warm water runs in shades of blue, green, turquoise and even yellow in the shallow, sandy edges. To top it all off, the islands are sparsely inhabited, if at all. Most of the islands we visited had very small towns or villages that subsisted on fishing, coconut harvesting or maybe some sparse tourism. Otherwise, these narrow strings of sand and coral are the domain of coconut crabs and not much else. The activity lies beneath the surface.
Because we are essentially backpacking across the ocean, I have scant resources for my underwater investigation: some snorkeling gear, a speargun, and an underwater camera. My fishing quiver has been pared down to the bare essentials: a handline for trolling while under sail and my fly fishing gear. I have a 9 weight Orvis T3 fly rod and an Orvis big game reel. The combo is about 10 years old but is solidly built and has endured expeditions in Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, the Florida Everglades and elsewhere. My fly line is a new 10 weight Royal Wulff Triangle Taper saltwater line. I used to think saltwater flats fishing was about precise 100 foot long casts to spooky fish in shallow, calm water. And while that does happen, my experience has proven otherwise. My saltwater fly fishing has necessitated quick, powerful casts in often very windy and sometimes overcast conditions. Visibility in the water is often scattered and the fish are moving fast. I need to react fast and I’m often making fairly short casts, not much longer than I would if I were trout fishing back in Montana. The Triangle Tape, along with overloading the rod helps me do that. The rest of my gear includes one extra fly line, two fly boxes, tippet from 10 to 50 pounds and a few tools and gadgets. I would, of course, love to have more.
Our first stop in the Tuamotus was on the island of Kauehi, where we were anchored just off of Kauehi “City” and traded with the locals for freshly caught grouper and snorkelled straight from the boat.. We also happened to anchor within spitting distance of a mile long sand flat that was in the lee of the island (sheltered by the prevailing easterly winds). Dodging friendly local kids (my first polynesian entourage) and mean dogs on my first excursion, it took me several hours of slow wading to find a shallow bay in the flat where scattered coral heads were sandwiched between the flat and deeper water. As five to six foot long lemon sharks patrolled the water around me (a good sign), I eventually found a pod of bonefish (“kio kio” in Tuamotan) in about a foot and a half of water. I paused, because this is a crucial moment: after travelling, 4,000 miles during about 38 days at sea on two different passages to get to this point, my temptation is to cast as quickly as possible. But that would be folly. If I spook this pod of fish, it could be the last shot I get at them. I have no idea how many others are out there.
Even though I have found that most bonefish in these remote destinations are not picky about fly patterns, I tried to calmly tie on one of my go to flies: the Corey Fisher Supercrab. A cruising bonefish will usually take just about any fly that is put in front of them, as long as they aren’t spooked by the cast, but I’m not taking any chances. My technique at this point is pretty simple: find out which way the fish are going, cast about 10 to 15 feet in front of them, wait and then twitch the crab as they get close. After a few attempts and misses, I finally hooked up with a 5 pound polynesian bonefish, took a few pictures and with trembling hands, slipped the fish back in the water. The fish in Kauehi were fairly spooky when the sun was up and they were in the shallows. If I had refusals on 10 or 15 pound tippet, I had to drop down to 8 pound test to get them to take.
If you had told me 10 years ago when I bought this saltwater fly rod that I would be alone on a flat in the Tuamotus, casting to bonefish, I’m not sure I would have believed you. During the next couple weeks, we visited several more islands, all of which had remarkable, picturesque flats and coral reefs. Not all of them led me to bonefish. On Fakarava, despite some of the most georgeous water and variable depth flats that I have seeen, I was shocked when I didn’t see any bonefish (I had also read a sailing blog talking about large bonefish on Fakarava) I did, however, have some fun catching a handful of other saltwater fish species (you’ll have to wait for Fly Fishing the Tuamotus: Part II).
We also visited a mostly uninhabited island called Toau, just north of Fakarava. The pass into Taoa is on the east side of the island and can be pretty ornery depending on the direction of the wind and status of the tide, which may be why we spent several days on Toau and had the place entirely to ourselves. North of the pass there is a small tidal river and lagoon fringed by mangroves. I spent two afternoons prowling this area and the adjacent sand flat. I found that the bonefish in Toau ran in pods of 2 or 3 fish and were generally eager to chase a fly or at least follow it. I caught a handful of fish on Toau and I’m sure some of them were pushing 8 pounds. They took small shrimp and crab patterns and pretty much everything I put in front of them if it was presented well. The fish seemed to prefer a slow twitching motion and often took the fly when it was motionless. The bonefish were close to shore in a foot or so of water. Despite not seeing very many people, they were quick to flee the area if I misplaced a cast or was too loud when wading. I could have spent weeks on this atoll fishing, snorkeling and exploring the rest of the island, but unfortunately, we had to leave this little gem and take advantage of a weather window to get to Tahiti.
I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever get to visit the Tuamotus again, and I’m still coping with the fact that I only got to spend a few weeks there. We only got 3 months on our immigration visa in French Polynesia and I would have gladly spent all 3 months in the Tuamotus. Bri and I biked along sandy coastal roads with our snorkeling and fishing gear strapped to our backs, lunched on coconuts and wandered along reefs that were in better condition than most places I’ve ever visited (watch this underwater video from a past blog on the marine life in the Tuamotus). With friendly locals and a laid back vibe, I was easily within my comfort zone. The Tuamotus are not easy to get to and the services are pretty sparse, but if you’re into some excellent flats fishing and water time in the backcountry of the South Pacific, this is the place for you.