Quarter to seven in the morning, it’s already light, and two Marlin Queen Game Fishing Charter boats motor out of Avatiu harbour.
The skippers cruise out of the harbour and into the dark blue sea; there are two crew and six passengers on our boat.
It is a long ride out to where the fish are. As Rarotonga becomes more distant I think, this has got to be one of the best ways to view the island. You can see the shape of the mountains perfectly from sea.
The fishing lines are put out, colourful lures disguising sharp hooks thrown off the boat. The six or seven lines drag far behind us and now it is just a waiting game to get a strike.
Fishing in the Cook Islands is actually bigger than I thought, especially when it comes to the game fishing charters speeding out every morning and afternoon with groups of tourists keen to see what swims in our waters.
They almost always get a catch.
The thought first came to me when I was making my way back home to Rarotonga on a Virgin Australia flight, and the couple sitting next to me were going on holiday.
They asked me: ‘Do you know when that fishing competition is going to start?”
I had no idea.
They proceeded to tell me they were excited to go game fishing and charter a boat to spend hours at sea. Later I saw them down at the harbour getting set up to board a little boat.
Most of the fishing charters use a method of trawling where one or more fishing lines, baited with lures or bait fish, are drawn through the water behind a moving boat.
It’s not the most glamourous activity on Rarotonga but it’s an extremely popular one. It’s thrilling – and thrills never go out of business fashion.
Nobby Clark, a former New Zealand Navy diver and international oil rig worker with 25 years’ experience working in restaurants, used to go fishing in his spare time.
Now, he lives in the Cook Islands after he brought Marlin Queen Game Fishing Charters last year in August. He has continued to give the business a good name.
“As soon as we leave the harbour we can set our gears, because back in New Zealand you have to travel four or seven hours before you get to a Marlin ground,” says Clark. “But here the fish are on our doorstep.”
They are very busy but they’ve got a good crew and run three boats with three skippers, two deckhands, and a marketing man, says Clark.
His game fishing charters bring back to shore mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna, marlin and wahoo. Last week they caught four marlins – the gamefish that holds the reputation as the toughest fish to catch. “It’s a healthy business,” says Clark.
In an international visitor survey report from Cook Islands Tourism, about 12 per cent of visitors from April to June this year says they went fishing.
But the survey found visitors rated fishing a relatively low 3.7 out of 5 for degree of satisfaction. Compare that to the average 4.7 ratings for a lagoon cruise or a cultural tour.
Perhaps tourists’ satisfaction depends on whether the fish are biting that day!
Cook Islands Tourism’s destination development director Metua Vaiimene says fishing charters range from under $250 to $400-plus for a half day. There are 12 fishing charters accredited with Cook Islands Quality Assured, but there are many more operating in the sector, says Vaiimene.
Back on the water, the boat’s skippers teach you the easiest way to catch these fish – and even if you’re got a fish on the line, you can ask for help if you need it.
Most importantly they tell you to get comfortable with the pull and never wind against the drag.
Local skippers Katoa Piniata and Kirikava Tutavake are two Marlin Queen favourites. Piniata has been working with Marlin Queen Game Fishing Charters for three years now, and he loves it.
“I come from Manihiki where we fish all the time,” says Piniata. “And Kirikava is from Penrhyn … we are both from the northern group so fishing is pretty much our lives.”
As we wait for a strike, I speak to some of the tourists on board.
Maile Erger, Grant Cooper and Scott Graham are all visiting Rarotonga from Tasmania.
Erger used to be a travel agent, she says, and Rarotonga always came back highly recommended – so she thought she’d discover for herself.
Most of all, she and her partner Grant love water sports and are eager to take on the Cook Islands game fishing experience. Graham stands up on the boat holding on to the rail above, and breathes in the fresh ocean air.
From New Zealand, two lovely ladies Nikki Stephenson and Belinda Williams tell me they came to Rarotonga just to go fishing.
Stephenson isn’t new to holding a reel, she’s from Coromandel, one of New Zealand’s game-fishing meccas. Probably the most skilled out of all of us, she says fishing is just relaxing – and she doesn’t mind the change to warmer weather, either!
It’s slow at first, we have been out for about an hour and still nothing.
It isn’t my first time on a boat, but this little vessel is bobbing left and right, stirring my guts into a mess that later comes out to feed the fishes. Yes, I got sea-sick.
Everyone else seems to be fine, though.
I’m hoping we’ll catch a fish soon so I can be put out of my misery. I’m not sure I’ll ever become accustomed to the smoky smell of the boat’s diesel, either.
But my prayers are answered and all of a sudden, everyone springs to action.
Tutavake is frantically pulling on one of the lines to see if we have something on the other end.
“Is it a mahi mahi? Wait, is it a marlin?”
Everyone looks out in anticipation as Tutavake begins to wind it in. Everyone gets a turn to hold the reel, wind and pull it up slowly.
One person can’t last long, and we know it must be one big fish with everyone fighting hard to pull the beast in. “It’s a yellowfin,” says Tutavake.
Yellowfin tuna are some of the most popular game fish in the world, and given their tremendous fight, size, and tastiness, it's easy to see why the whole crew was so excited to get a look at it.
When the yellowfin hits hard, it begins to yank the line off the reel rapidly.
Afraid the line will become slack, Piniata speeds up the boat until Tutavake can make sure the hook is set.
The line gets tight and we come to a stop with everyone vigorously winding the fish in.
Nikki Stephenson is last to reel the tuna in. She pulls and winds it in quickly until we find the tuna defeated, near the side of the boat. Stephenson and the crew battle for a short 30 minutes.
Tutavake takes a big gaff to the fish and hauls it up onto the boat. It’s massive.
Tutavake quickly grabs his wooden club, knowing all too well the yellowfin tuna will begin to thrash around on deck.
We all back up as it starts roughly bouncing itself up on the deck and sliding around.
I’m sure one of us will get a slap in the face from the giant fish. But after a few solid bashes to the head, the tuna goes still.
It’s lifted into the chilly bin and covered with ice.
The crew are ecstatic: the yellowfin weighs 56kg.
We head back to port and the fish is cut up and distributed. It has been thrilling, it has been terrifying, all in one.
Going out on the ocean and catching a big yellowfin tuna is a good trophy among gamefish.
The crew take their share of the fish home to eat, and that’s a fisherman’s tale they’ll be proud to tell.
And so too for the tourists: “It was awesome,” says Stephenson.
Satisfaction rating? 5 out of 5.