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Tahiti / French Polynesia Exploration 11-04-2002


Fiji, Bora Bora, Tahiti... these exotic names simmer in our subconscious and when heard, conjure up postcard images of lush little islands dotted with swaying palms, warm pale blue waters and nut brown natives in grass skirts. These islands epitomize the romance of the South Seas... and, as luck would have it, the truth is not too far from the fantasy.

What most of us call Tahiti is really French Polynesia, an island nation that sprawls over an area half the size of Europe, but with a total landmass less than 1/3 the size of Connecticut. Like jewels awash in a deep blue sea, French Polynesia is a mixture of volcanic high islands and classic coral atolls. These lush, green volcanic emeralds and dazzling coral sapphires are divided into five magnificent archipelagos: The Society Islands (which include Tahiti), the Tuamotus, the Marquesas, the Australs and the Gambiers. Only 6 of these 118 islands are larger than 60 square miles, yet some of the largest coral atolls in the world are in French Polynesia with lagoons that stretch more than 50 miles. The northernmost island, Hatutu, is 1200 miles from the most southern island Rapa. In between, over a hundred other islands ride the azure sea alone, almost 3200 miles away from Australia and 3000 miles away from South America. They doze quietly, light years away from the problems that grip our globe.

While Tahiti is the biggest and most historically interesting island, it is only the jumping off point for anglers interested in exploring this fascinating paradise. In recent years, anglers have begun to venture into some of French Polynesia's most remote areas. Some reports have been glowing, while other reports have been less than encouraging. Recently, the hubbub has reached a near din with some companies now promising some of the best bonefishing on our big blue ball. Confusion reigns.... abysmal or the best, what is the piscatorial truth in French Polynesia?

This much is certain, if you want to experience the best of French Polynesia, you must be in contact with people in the know. Anglers who have chartered boats and tried to fish atolls (with reputations for great angling) have been virtually shutout. You may be on the right island, but if you don't know the right spots, you may very well be disappointed. Bonefish aren't everywhere... even on flats that may look perfect.

We also are sure of this... if you want to experience one of the world's most pristine shallow water marine environments, have it all to yourself and be successful, you will have to visit the more sparsely populated and difficult to reach islands. For it is only on the most isolated of atolls that you will find what you seek.

In November, we organized two different trips with two different sets of A.D. staff into the Tuamotu Group. We visited Fakarava, Tahanea, and Anaa atolls. In addition, we visited Tetiaroa Atoll in the Society Islands. Here are some of the results of these recent explorations. We hope they represent a voice of sanity in a sea of ill-informed assessments and very persuasive marketing.

We chose the Tuamotu Group, which contains 76 of the nation's 118 islands and has less than 5% (a little more than 12,000 people) of the entire national population, because many of the atolls in this group are protected from over fishing either by geographical isolation or recent angling restrictions.

Tahanea Atoll

Let us begin this discussion with Tahanea, an atoll we chose because we had the benefit of the experience of seven previous successful live-aboard trips to this atoll over the last two years. On this most recent trip in November, our bonefishing was, unfortunately, only spotty and generally fair. On our trip, the bonefish (ioio or kio kio) were found only in very specific areas. Many delectable white sand flats that on previous trips were quite productive were on this trip totally barren. What gives?

Bonefishermen are trained to believe that tides and moon phase are the all-important variables. Pick the right tide and moon phase, have some luck with the weather and get enough sun to see the little buggers and it will all work... this may not be true in French Polynesia. On Tahanea, with tides of only seven inches, the tidal push never seems huge. But if you can see these coral atolls as giant teacups with salty sea water barely sloshing up and over the cup's thin edges, maybe one of French Polynesia's angling mysteries is revealed. For what becomes important, in addition to the tides and moon phase, is the swell. If an atoll is in the way of a big swell, lots of seawater flushes over the edges. The teacup becomes full... the water is kept cool... the salinity levels are not concentrated by daily evaporation, especially on the flats (where heating is most pronounced due to shallow water and the proximity of solar collecting land masses). If the swell is low, the flats heat up; the tide can't keep pace and the flats stagnate, becoming too salty and too warm. The bonefish and trevally stay away. They hover just off the edge of the flats in the deeper, cooler water...tantalizing anglers while they wait for their moment. Wade the edges and you'll see them make short forays onto the flats only to quickly retreat into the more hospitable turquoise cuts. We had low water (with a small swell) on Tahanea making our bonefishing best in the mornings and sometimes late in the afternoon. But on Tahanea, there is always a fall-back plan. By late morning, we abandoned the quickly warming flats to pursue bluefin trevally (paichero), giant trevally (uruaita) and striped trevally (manini paichero) in the lagoon... or tuna (thon), grouper, mahi mahi and a host of other species in the wild cuts that supply the meager tides to the atoll.

So is the bonefishing great in French Polynesia? The correct answer is not always, but it is also important to note that it most certainly can be. Should you go to French Polynesia? Absolutely, but only if you like pristine ocean environments, drop dead beautiful atolls and are happy pursuing a host of other species if the bonefish don't show up in great numbers. On Tahanea, there are plenty of other species to pursue from bluefin and giant trevally to bonito and yellowfin tuna to mahi mahi and marlin. It should also be noted that we saw no other fishermen (sport or commercial), no evidence of commercial fishing and NO fish parks (fish holding areas where natives store fish for market).

As such, Tahanea is more for experienced bonefishermen looking for a mixed bag than for beginners looking to rack up big numbers. It is not Christmas Island, but it is a much more intact ecosystem with much healthier general fish populations. If you are an angler that has caught lots of bonefish, have learned how to gracefully handle the frustrations and "angst" of the sport and love wild and natural far-flung spots, this may be for you... for there is no more beautiful place to fish. Swaying palms adorn the horizon's blue sky, while waves crashing on the outer atoll throb like a locomotive idling in a station. The flats are gorgeous, with the white sand edged with magnificent coral reefs. There is no prettier place to catch a bonefish... and those that you see will be big. The average size is 5 6 pounds. These bruisers are strong and naturally wary. They take a fly aggressively and these bones are certainly not experienced...

"One morning, I hooked a fish and broke him off on a piece of coral. An hour later, I hooked up again and landed a seven lb. package of quicksilver. In his mouth were two flies, both were the same pattern and both were mine (a fly tier knows his flies). I thought it was very sporting of this guy to come back and give me a second try!"

Our fishing for other species was superb, especially for bluefin trevally, which we caught up to 20 pounds. If we had been so inclined, we could have chalked up a few world records. We also caught giant trevally, grouper, barracuda, bonito, yellowfin tuna, black skipjack tuna, long nosed emperor (oeo), rai, triggerfish, jobfish, mahi mahi and black marlin.

There is nothing I have previously seen in the angling world to compare to the sight of Dick Hanousek (perched backwards on a jet ski piloted by Mike Chapman) prowling the cuts of Tahanea for tuna with his 12 weight. At one point, Dick's yellowfin tuna was cut-off by an 8' shark we were fighting in the runabout.

If you love to forage from the sea and enjoy the sumptuous "fruits de mer", this may be one of the best places on Earth. On our trip, we ate stone crabs, langostine, mantis lobster (each of these collected at night by lantern on the edge of the reef), land crabs, coconut crabs (collected in the jungle at night), bluefin trevally, mahi mahi and giant clams.

Yes, our bonefishing was not prolific, but we had an exhilarating and wonderful, even thrilling time. Our other angling opportunities were great, the scenery was spectacular, the snorkeling some of the best anywhere, and the ocean environment absolutely pristine. We're going back... pretty high praise from a bunch of die-hard bonefishermen. We'll just hope the teacup gets filled and the bonefish swarm onto the flats.

Fakarava Atoll

On Fakarava, we had a similar bonefish experience, but without the abundance of other species. The bonefish we did catch were very large... on average 7 to 8 lbs. Since Fakarava is the jumping off point for many of the islands in the Tuamotus, it is an excellent place to spend a few hours before making an evening crossing to a more remote atoll, but we do not consider it a destination for bonefishing in and of itself. The cuts at either ends of the huge atoll were great for grouper, snapper and, given our experience elsewhere, probably held tuna and mahi mahi too. It should also be mentioned that we had great success with long-nosed emperors (oeo). These emperors are great sport on a fly rod and are very difficult to distinguish between bonefish when seen on the flats.

Anaa Atoll

This is the best spot we've found (as yet) in French Polynesia for bones both in terms of quantity and size. Anaa is most certainly a bonefish destination, although our bonefishing was best in the morning leading us to believe the "teacup" analogy also applies here (but maybe not as rigidly as on Tahanea). Anglers averaged 10-15 fish a day usually in the 4-5 lb. range. We weighed a 9 lb. brute and saw some real monsters. We caught bonefish estimated at 10+ lbs., but were not actually weighed. We would go back to Anaa in a heartbeat. The flats are hard-bottomed, beautiful and epitomize everything we love about the sport.

If the bonefishing slows up, giant and bluefin trevally are found in good numbers on the flat. In the cuts, we caught grouper up 30 lbs., red snapper, black skippies and striped, giant and bluefin trevally.

It should seem obvious at this point that Anaa is like Tahanea, but with more consistent bonefishing. If this is your primary goal, Anaa should be your first choice.

Our accommodations were rustic, clean and certainly sufficient for dedicated anglers. The food was good to excellent with an emphasis on fresh seafood. Our logistics were flawlessly arranged. We're bullish about Anaa. Anaa is easier to reach than Christmas Island, beautiful and virtually untouched. We are planning to return to Anaa in early April (April 7-14, 2003). So if interested, give us call. The limit for this trip is four rods. (We will be posting a more detailed report about Anaa soon, so please be looking for it.)

In addition to our explorations in the Tuamotus, we spent a few days closer to Tahiti on Tetiaroa Atoll.

Tetiaroa Atoll

In 1962, Marlon Brando filmed "Mutiny on the Bounty" on this beautiful, remote island (yet only 15 minutes by air from Tahiti). After production, he married his co-star, deposited his considerable paycheck and bought the island. Subsequently, Marlon fathered a family, outlawed commercial netting and fishing on his island and built a small lodge, which his wife and children now operate. Here, guests enjoy simple thatch-roofed bungalows shaded by huge coconut palms and cooled by consistent ocean breezes. From the bungalow's wraparound teak porch, the beautiful, hard-bottomed flats of this lovely atoll are only yards away, perfect for morning or evening diehards.

This paradise of swaying palms, healthy coral reefs, azure cuts and turquoise lagoons is bordered with hard bottomed, excellent white sand flats that hold BIG bonefish... very big bonefish. On Tetiaroa, bonefish are not seen in the numbers of the Bahamas or Caribbean, but the average size of the bonefish on Teitiaroa is simply awesome. Florida Keys' size, but catchable and without the jet skis and crowds. This may be the best spot in the world to get a personal best even if you're a world record holder.

In two half days and one full day of fishing, I caught two fish over ten pounds, hooked one I estimated at twelve (that I broke off on coral) and six or seven others... all over seven pounds. In addition, I caught two giant trevally and numerous rai, blue fin and striped trevally.

Tetiaroa is great for the experienced bonefisherman that has honed his skills on big bones in other parts of the world. Stealth, quick delivery and casting acumen will certainly be rewarded. . . having an itchy trigger finger will not! Let me explain: The Teitiaroa stripping technique is really almost no strip at all. These big bones grow to such mammoth proportions on a diet of worms and sand eels. So after delivery... 10 15 feet away seems best, a very small strip followed by no additional motion is required. Seems easy, eh?... ever had buck fever? Actually it is difficult to master! When a 10-pound monster charges your fly from 15 feet away, the urge is definitely to do something... anything. But this is the kiss of death strip again and your trophy is gone... evaporating into the shimmering blue mix of sky and water leaving you with that distinct feeling that maybe you just kissed your sister. This is not bonefishing for the faint of heart or for those easily frustrated. It is not for anglers seeking quantity over quality. But if you seek a few really big fish in an absolutely stunning locale, this may be your bell ringing.

After the day's events, you can retire to freshen up in your bungalow's private bath. Then enjoy a wonderful, very Polynesian meal in the screened dining room. Meals emphasize local seafood and produce. A small bar by the ocean can mix your favorite island drink, or serve you a cold Hinano beer.

Teitiaroa is not fancy, but it is clean, comfortable and incredibly beautiful and of course, there are those BIG bones.

"OK, so I admit to having been a bit frustrated. My no-strip presentation had all too often deteriorated into a halfhearted crawl that no Tetiaroa bonefish would respect, let alone eat. By 10:00 a.m. we'd seen 3 or 4 monsters, but none had eaten my bunny gotcha. Our guide and Polynesian expert, Kiwi Mike Chapman, had suggested casting 15 20 feet away from the fish. After letting the fly settle, he suggested one small strip, then letting it sit. I was trying, but as each monster refused my creeping offering, I became more willing to commit totally to his approach.

Now it was a brand new game. In front of me, a broad tail waved in the warm tropical air while the business end rooted for worms in the white sand. I pushed water hard, if not getting totally upwind, at least I got somewhat even. I collected myself and pounded a 30-foot cast with a strong second haul as delicately as I could muster (given the activity being generated by my adrenal gland). I stripped one small scuttling strip in hopes of getting this big bone's head out of the sand and onto other matters. Man did it work! He rushed my fly. I waited an agonizing few seconds until I finally figured it was now or never. I stripped striked. As my internal chorus belted out HALLELUJAH!, I felt that delicious tension on my line... he was on! The big bone ran instantly through my fly line. Backing melted off my spool until the sun-bleached pale sherbet orange turned into the bright international orange of never used Dacron thread. Somewhat absurdly, I knew it was time to change my backing... until I managed to redirect my over stimulated synapses to the job at hand. I rarely had wanted to land a fish as much as I wanted to land, or at least see, this fish. I began racing around the flat like a crazy fool, lifting line over coral heads trying to get an avenue to apply pressure to the beast. The specific details are blurred, but eventually he tired and came to hand. He weighed exactly 10 pounds. I caught another just like him later in the day. I caught a total of 4 for the day... around 35 pounds of bonefish, I figured. Not a bad day... anywhere!"

For those anglers wishing to bring a non-angling companion or spouse, Tetiaroa epitomizes all the romance of the South Seas. The snorkeling is absolutely fantastic and the beaches are beautiful. The accommodations are elegantly rustic, the staff friendly and the ambiance very laid-back. We are happy to fill you in on all the details so you can make a proper decision on whether Tetiaroa is right for your non-angler.

Tetiaroa and Anaa are great bonefish destinations. Other species are certainly available here, but the bonefishing is consistent enough so that anglers should feel comfortable targeting only this species if this is their wish. Tahanea, in our opinion, is not a pure bonefish destination, but it is a GREAT fishing destination. Maybe one of the best multiple species spots in the world... this remains to be seen. So if you're interested in planning a trip to French Polynesia here is the best way to maximize your success:

1.) Go with someone in the know. Go with an outfitter with a proven track record.
2.) Don't believe everything you read. There is some slick marketing out there that is not 100% correct. Don't believe the negative reports either... some of these are as inaccurate as the glowing "best in the world" reports.
3.) Choose your destination based on what species you are targeting. Determine how much flexibility exists in your expectations and how important multiple species are versus pure flats fishing for bonefish and trevally.

Angling Destinations, Inc. will continue to explore French Polynesia. There are still a huge number of atolls out there that are essentially unfished and unexplored. Is the next Christmas Island out there? We don't know...but won't it be fun finding out?


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