Destinations: A taste of the Cook Islands

I RECENTLY went on a family holiday to Rarotonga, the biggest of the 15 islands which make up the Cook Islands chain. It wasn’t a fishing trip per se but strangely enough three travel rods and a bag of lures found their way into my suitcase …

As well as my family (wife Mel and kids Suzie, 8, and Harry 15), my parents and my sister Jackie and her husband Gary and their daughters Sophie (15) and Sally (11) came along as well.

Harry and Gary are both keen fishos so there was always going to be fishing happening. Luckily Mel is used to holidays that involve fishing so there were no problems on that front.

After we settled into our house at Muri Lagoon (about a 15 minute drive from the main town of Avarua), Harry and I checked out the options.

Prior to the trip I’d touched base with an expat Kiwi by the name of Reuben Tylor, who runs Avana Waterfront Apartments (see HERE), which are popular with visiting anglers.

Reuben put me in touch with local charter skipper Captain Moko (see HERE). Moko’s wife Jill runs the award-winning The Mooring Fish Café, which was handily located just a 500m walk from our holiday house.

Harry and I went down to meet Jill and organise a charter with Moko. Once we had that sorted, I asked about land-based fishing opportunities. Jill then showed me a picture of a 40kg GT she’d caught at the little wharf near the café.

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Captain Moko is highly regarded as one of Rarotonga’s top charter skippers. He’s a good bloke and a very skilled fisherman.

Harry and I quickly got our gear sorted. My 6-8kg Nitro travel rods would be no match for trevally of that size but we’d give it a go.

Long story short, a school of massive GTs (which are berleyed in by the fish frames from the café) buzzed us several times. I didn’t bother trying to catch them – they were way too big – but it was cool to see these huge fish scooting around in the shallows.

Harry was particularly impressed with the speed and power of the GTs and couldn’t stop talking about them.

As far as other landbased fishing opportunities are concerned, Rarotonga is fringed by a coral reef. Depending on conditions, in some areas around the island (which is only about 30kms in circumference) you could access the edge of the reef to cast poppers at GTs and bluefin trevally.

Other areas are more like your standard tropical lagoon. We caught a few small bluefin and barracuda on metals and plastics and spotted heaps of small but aggressive triggerfish. Our house had a couple of kayaks for guests’ use and I saw a decent sized bonefish during an afternoon paddle. But if you want serious bonefish action, then Aitutaki Island, about 45 minutes flying time from Rarotonga, is the place to go. You can find out about this spectacular location HERE. It’s on my “must go” list if I ever win the lottery.


Moko expertly skins and fillets a rat yellowfin. His well equipped 7.4m boat is in the background.

While there are definitely landbased opportunities around Rarotonga, the island is probably a better boat based fishery. Like many South Pacific islands, it was formed by volcanic activity – it’s basically the tip of a massive undersea volcano. Thus the water gets very deep very quickly once you leave dry land.

Our trip with Captain Moko was scheduled for the Wednesday of our week-long holiday. The first few days were overcast and breezy but the weather reports signaled much better conditions later in the week.

At 6am on Wednesday morning we met Moko and his deckie Tom at the Mooring Café, where Moko’s boat, a 7.4m Osprey powered by a 225 Honda, was waiting. Tom’s a young English bloke supplementing his income as a semi-professional rugby player (both league and union are very popular on the Cook Islands) by working with Moko and at a local bar.

We headed out through the reef via Avana harbour. Interestingly, about 700 years ago 15 voyaging canoes left this site and made their way to New Zealand. Present day Maori people are descended from these intrepid explorers from the Cook Islands.

Little more than a kilometre out we were in 1000m of water and trolling for tuna, wahoo and marlin. Go another 4kms out and the water is 4000m deep. For anyone like me who’s used to travelling long distances to the contental shelf, fishing out of Rarotonga is pretty bloody fantastic!

Aside from one wahoo bite off, the initial troll session out from Avana was quiet. Moko made his way towards the first of a series of FADs set by local fishermen. These are hotspots for yellowfin and mahi mahi, the two most common catches out of Rarotonga. Moko’s caught yellowfin to 80+ kilos around these FADs.

We downsized the tackle – Moko generally trolls a spread of 10-inch skirts and Halco Laser Pros from his 50 and 80lb Tiagra game outfits when he’s searching for fish. We deployed smaller lures around the FADs – I had a couple of new minnows that Andy Summers from Mayfly Tackle gave me to try. Called Matzuo Kinchou minnows, these US-made divers trolled well and caught us six or seven rat yellowfin.


This little tuna was taken on a Matzuo Kinchou minnow, an American lure that will be distributed locally by Mayfly Tackle.

Keep an eye out for the Matzuos – they should be available in your local tackle shop later in the year. The lures feature a unique “flared gill” design and proprietary hooks which proved to be super strong and sharp. I was pretty impressed with these lures. A dolphin fish coloured one was unfortunately lost when a 10-15kg yellowfin played up boatside and I left a red and white headed one with Moko. It’s probably caught more tuna and probably a few wahoo by now …

Some local fishermen were tied up to the FAD and were handlining for tuna. As we trolled around, Moko explained how the locals did their tuna fishing. Interestingly, it involves a large leaf and a rock. Some berley is wrapped in the leaf, along with the rock. This package is tied to the heavy handline and dropped over the side. Once it reaches the required depth (which can be anywhere from 50 to 100 fathoms), a sharp tug on the line releases the berley (and the rock). The baited hook is then drifting around amid the berley. A nifty system – and it worked because we saw the locals pull up several nice tuna.

I’d wondered why Moko had a collection of rocks in the side pockets of his boat …

We only had time for a fairly quick trip out with Moko – in retrospect I wish I’d booked 3-4 days with him. He’s a switched-on skipper who combines traditional fishing nous with modern techniques. The way Moko watched and reacted to the different kinds of birds – “whites” and “blacks” seemed to be the main species – was really interesting. For instance, he could tell by the way the birds were flying where the tuna were and position the boat to intercept the school.

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You don’t have to travel far to get to the grounds. This shot was taken around three minutes out of the harbour.

And the ease of fishing out of Avana Harbour is fantastic. You’re in prime water as soon as you pass through the reef – as mentioned before, there are no long trips out to the grounds here. And the water was spectacular: 27.3 degrees and a rich purple colour. Although Moko specialises in gamefishing (mainly trolling and deep jigging), there’s a heap of opportunities for reef fishing and popping. Big GTs are common around the reef edges – the locals don’t target or eat them due to ciguatera – and there are plenty of drop-offs and edges to sink a jig, bait or plastic down in search of trout and other reefies (again, ciguatera is a concern so I’m not sure if I’d eat any of these fish. That said, the pelagics – mahi, wahoo and tuna – are all fine to consume).

In terms of seasons, May to October is the dry season with November through to April being wetter (with the chance of cyclones) You can expect good fishing year round but September-March is considered best for mahi mahi, November to April for marlin, June to October for wahoo and July to March for yellowfin.

Unlike a lot of South Pacific fishing operations I’ve been with, Moko had his boat nicely set up, used quality gear and had plenty of lures (albeit all well used). Trolling rigged baits (flying fish are popular) is also productive, especially on big mahi mahi. Moko carefully bled the tuna we kept and stored them in a big “chilly bin” filled with ice to maximise eating quality.

There are plenty of charters operating out of Rarotonga, most of which are based out of Avarua Harbour. I asked around and Moko came highly recommended by all I spoke with so he’s definitely worth contacting if you’re planning a trip to Rarotonga.


If you go to Rarotonga, you’ve got to try a FOB sandwich at the popular The Mooring Café run by Moko’s wife Jill.

Back at the café, Moko skinned and filleted several of the tuna so we could take a feed home (we ate it the following night, some as sashimi, the remainder in Panko crumbs and fried on the BBQ – bloody fantastic!).

The remaining fish would be used by Jill and her team at the café for their famous “FOB” sandwiches. We had FOBs for lunch several times and I can honestly rate them as top tucker. The crumbed mahi mahi was a particular favourite … I initially thought FOB meant “fish on bread” but it actually means “fresh off the boat”. Either way, very tasty and highly recommended if you head over that way.

All up, our holiday in the Cook Islands was pretty good fun. Apart from fishing, there was plenty to see and do. Relaxing on the beach under a coconut palm and swimming in the clear water of Muri Lagoon was pretty popular with us all.

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The author’s daughter Suzie getting some airtime on a swing at Muri beach.

Reaching Rarotonga is pretty easy as Air New Zealand offers direct flights from Sydney. The local currency is NZ dollars and everyone speaks English. There are no particular safety concerns as everything is pretty laidback and friendly. Lots of Kiwis go to the Cook Islands for their holidays and we noted plenty of other Aussie families as well.

I’d certainly like to return and do some serious fishing with Moko and also head to Aitutaki to target bones on the expnasive flats system around that particular island.

So much fishing, so little time …

For general info about the Cook Islands, see HERE.

Jim Harnwell travelled to the Cook Islands at his own expense and fished courtesy of Captain Moko.

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