A number of fishing tournaments are held in the Cook Islands each year, but probably the most prestigious is the Gary Parlour Wahoo Tournament.
This tournament was founded by a Kiwi, retired Kaitaia farmer Gary Parlour, in 1997. Gary and his family have been regular visitors to the Cooks since 1990, and he wanted to contribute something to local fishing clubs.
The result was a hand-carved macrocarpa and kauri trophy that's keenly fished for annually between Rarotonga and Aitutaki clubs and awarded to the biggest wahoo, along with financial support. (Although Gary no longer fishes it, he still attends the tournament that bears his name each year and has considerable mana in the region.)
The two clubs take it in turn to host the competition on their home island, and it's been won by Rarotonga eight times and by Aitutaki seven times in the past. So this was Aitutaki's big chance to level the score, especially as they were to host the contest this year and would have a certain home water advantage.
There is a twist, though. Because of the distance over open ocean between the two islands, it is often not possible for clubs to run their boats across, so the host club spreads visiting anglers through the crews on each boat. Consequently, the members of each individual boat may be fishing against each other. This gives an inkling of what a relaxed and casual contest this is, despite bragging rights for the year being on the line.
And there is also a second, unspoken contest involved, with the respective clubs trying to outdo each other in hospitality over the three days and nights (two days fishing), with the evening banquets being legendary and the beer flowing freely. If you don't pace yourself, this is one tournament that almost requires a holiday to get over - even if you haven't been fishing!
I had been made an honorary member of the Cook Islands Game Fishing Club and was invited to fish on Makayla with Aitutaki club members John Winchester (who won the yellowfin section last year when the contest was held in Rarotonga) and Tiavare ('Ti') Henry. A total of 32 boats registered, and there were approximately 80-100 anglers, mostly from the Cooks and New Zealand, although this was fairly fluid, with not everyone fishing each day and some midday team changes being made, too.
The recent Pacific Forum meeting held in Rarotonga had seen the Gary Parlour rescheduled from its usual dates until September 28-29. This is getting to the tail end of the wahoo season, and fell across a full-moon period too. Personally, I am not fond of full-moon periods (except for broadbill fishing) as the fishing often seems tough, tides are big, and the winds usually seem stronger, too.
Although stiff winds in the 25-30 knot range were forecast for the tournament, the main pass through the reef into the atoll's magnificent lagoon (some say the prettiest in the Pacific) is on the lee side of the island and right in front of the Aitutaki Game Club's facility and tournament base. This allowed fishing in relatively sheltered conditions on one side of the island at least, and access to a couple of FADs in sloppier, but still fishable conditions - a good thing as, with a couple of exceptions, most boats fishing the tournament were around 6-7m outboard-powered hulls. The largest craft was the 10m charter boat Foxy Lady, and at the other end of the scale, Mike Henry, owner of Tamanu Resort, fished the contest from his jet-ski on the last day.
One of the good things about having such handy grounds soon became apparent when, after an unproductive morning, we could pop in through the entrance, pull up near the clubrooms, enjoy a cooked lunch and a cold drink in the shade, and take a bit of a break while getting a handle on what the other boats had been catching. Fishing was hampered by the tough conditions, but by the 5pm cut-off for the day a few fish had been weighed. A couple of modest yellowfin and a dogtooth tuna, a pair of barracuda to 13kg, six mahimahi to a respectable 17kg, a couple of rainbow runners, and three of the main target species, wahoo (called paara in the Cook Islands).
The best of this last species was a 23kg specimen caught by ex-league star and now Aussie fishing show host Andrew 'ET' Ettingshausen of ET Escapes. He was filming in the Cooks, recording a show in Rarotonga before coming out to Aitutaki to film segments on bonefish and the tournament's first day. Fishing from charter boat Wet & Wild - a 610 Quintrex Legend skippered by Quinton Schofield - ET was fishing for Aitutaki, and had the right spot in the rotation when the paara struck a rigged flying fish.
That evening's festivities were hitting full gear when I bailed in favour of getting some sleep; John, Ti and I were to be fishing again by 6am the next morning.
There is never any danger of visitors sleeping in at Aitutaki. A huge population of feral roosters start their crowing competitions well before dawn; if you want to sleep in, it pays to take ear plugs. (Ask the locals and they say: "what roosters?" - they are completely used to them and don't notice the crowing contests in the wee hours.) However, one visiting team became so incensed at being woken at 3:30am that they dealt harshly with the main offender in their neck of the woods. Then, perhaps remembering the effectiveness of the old Japanese feathered lures, they rigged the bird's head and hackles as a skip bait and towed it around for the rest of the day. I don't think they caught anything on it, but the 'cockadoodle lure' must have at least provided some satisfaction every time they looked at it running behind the boat!
The second - and last - day of the tournament was nice and sunny at least, but was still blowing fairly hard. John, Ti and I were on the water at first light, towing the Cook Islands traditional favourite, rigged flying fish, in tandem with the very popular Halco Laser bibbed minnows along the reef drop-off. In the event, it was one of the flyers that went off on a stand-up 24kg rig, and as the guest I was given first strike. The fish made a good first run, then fought powerfully and doggedly as I worked it towards the boat. It proved to be a reasonable giant trevally; I was happy to catch the fish, but it didn't put us on the scoring board.
Unfortunately, with the increasing advent of ciguatera poison in the Cooks, GTs cannot be safely eaten any more, and it goes right across the grain to kill a revered sport fish just to weigh it and waste it, so GTs have been removed from the contest and are now considered as a catch and release species. So we took a quick picture or two and slipped the fish back over the side.
We had no more action that morning, and at 9am popped back through the entrance for breakfast, coffee and a break, before heading back out for another session at about 11am. Very civilised.
John had a plan that involved a swing out wide to look for mahimahi. John and Ti have excellent eyes for birds, spotting the activity miles before I could, and despite the sloppy conditions out there, began a careful stalk of the fast-moving school to position the flying fish baits across them. The patient approach worked: we were treated to the magnificent sight of the bull mahimahi racing across the surface for the baits, followed by a slight pause, and then the reel screamed!
The boys would have given me this strike as well, such is their generosity, so I had to insist that John take his proper turn while I handled the boat and Ti gaffed. A nice 14kg bull, it was not going to win us the tournament, but at least we were on the board - and the mahimahi was on the dinner table.
We fished our way back to the clubrooms, were visited by mother and calf humpbacked whales on the way, weighed the fish, and managed to still catch the second half of the All Blacks versus Argentina test match while sipping a cold beer. That's my idea of a good fishing tournament.
At the final weigh-in, it seemed that the fishing was improving as we moved off the full moon. The 54 fish weighed included: 28 yellowfin; six barracuda; four paara (wahoo); 16 mahimahi; and a few other odds and ends.
ET's 23kg wahoo from the first day had held onto first place, but his schedule had meant he couldn't stay for the final festivities, so the much sought-after Gary Parlour trophy was collected by his skipper Quinton Schofield.
Two boats, Wave Runner (Mark Baxter skipper) and Foxy Lady (Jason and Don Watt) stood head and shoulders above the rest, producing nearly half the catch total between them. Both were equipped with live-bait tanks, so s they'd drift-fished the FADs using small mullet baits most of the time. Wave Runner, with 10 yellowfin, a wahoo and three mahimahi, beat out the Foxy Lady team (seven yellowfin and three mahimahi) to take out the second most coveted section: highest aggregate weight.
The home team, Aitutaki, was the overall winner, bringing the score up to eight wins for each club. (Consequently, next year's contest in Rarotonga, being a tie-breaker, is bound to be a ripper!)
The final prize-giving, banquet and wing-ding turned out to be a great do, and I was thankful that the next day was Sunday, the day of rest...
Who won what
The 'Gary Parlour' is one of the most casual contests in the Pacific, and this extended to the contest results supplied to me, with most of the winners listed by their first name only, perhaps on the feeling that everybody knows everybody else in the islands.
Gary Parlour Trophy for heaviest wahoo: Andrew 'ET' Ettingshausen, Wet and Wild, Quinton Schofield skipper
Second wahoo: Dick, Isopa
Heaviest mahimahi: Cambell, Wave Runner
Heaviest aggregate catch: Wave Runner, Mark Baxter skipper
Heaviest yellowfin: 'Trina, Foxy Lady, Jason Watt skipper
Heaviest other fish by female angler: Roslyn, Bubbles
Top junior angler: Jackson, AJ Mandy
Heaviest dogtooth: Morgan, Aquila
Heaviest barracuda: Mano, Exodus
Winning club: Aitutaki.
Fishing News and Sam Mossman would like to thank: Wayne Barclay; the Cook Islands Game Fishing Club of Rarotonga; Ben Ponia and the Cook Islands Ministry of Marine Resources; Air Rarotonga; Robert Skews and Island Hopper Vacations; the Cook Islands Tourist Authority; Mike Henry and Tamanu Beach Resort; Club President Clive Baxter and the rest of the Aitutaki Game Fishing Club; and John Winchester and Tiavare Henry for their assistance in putting this feature together, along with their help and wonderful hospitality.
- © Fairfax NZ News