There are very few untapped marlin grounds remaining; the few remote places left to us require a mother ship and a game boat with some serious legs to fish for success. With this mode of exploration you are going in blind, learning the waters as you go. I’m not saying being the first to fish an area isn’t very special; there just isn’t anything like flying into a remote place, jumping onboard a well equipped game boat and going fishing with a captain that knows every inch of his home waters like we know our own backyards. Finding these ingredients (remote, untapped, airport, world class captain, year round and billfish) in one location, somewhere that everyone on the planet doesn’t already know about is extremely hard to find these days. There is one special place that instantly leaps to mind from my experience that would fit the criteria.
The Northern Islands of the Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga are nestled in the stunning South Pacific Ocean.
Most of the fishing takes place on the leeward East side of the Vava’u Island group, within ten miles from shore. The 500-fathom line drops off a scant four miles offshore. Numerous seamounts and pinnacles hold the vast schools of skipjack, kawakawa, and yellow fin tuna, the main food source for big blue’s, black’s and massive sailfish that prowl these clear blue waters. The Tongan all tackle record sailfish is 210 pounds, just a tad under the all-tackle world mark. The occasional stripe and short bill spearfish are caught to bring the local billfish species to five.
Mahi-mahi, ono (wahoo), ahi (yellow fin), giant trevally and dogtooth tuna are the other major game fish that an angler can expect to catch. Inshore fishing can also be quite spectacular; these waters hold coral trout, giant and bluefin trevally, jobfish and a huge host of other reef species.
Ika Lahi International Game Fish Lodge owned and operated by New Zealand born renowned billfish Captain Steve Campbell is located in beautiful Hunga Lagoon an hour’s boat ride from the main town of Neiafu on stunning Port of Refuge harbor, which is 10 minutes drive from the domestic airport.
The lodge was constructed in December 2001 after months of backbreaking work but an act of Mother Nature set Steve back five months. “Cyclone Waka” ripped though Vava’u on New Years day 2002, winds of over 160 knots wrecked havoc on the Islands. The brand new lodge was closed for the next four months to repair the damage from the storm, but Steve considers himself lucky knowing it could have been worse.
The guest rooms are large, with a queen size bed, and a single day bed, also a large private bathroom in each room. The log cabin style accommodations overlook the vast lagoon and private beach, to say the view is breathtaking doesn’t do it justice. The Ika Lahi International Game Fishing Lodge had its official “reopening” May 2002 and has been operating year round ever since.
In 2003 I fished with Steve 71 total days at sea on the Reel Addiction , our statistics; 129 confirmed billfish strikes, 22 unconfirmed strikes and the number of billfish caught; 89 blues, 13 sails and 3 blacks. A total of 105 billfish! 1.48 billfish per day! A staggering 81% hookup rate! The tag and release percentage is even more impressive; out of those 105 billfish 88 were tagged and released (84 %). Out of those 105 fish 21 were taken on live bait and 84 on lures. World class, yeah I’d say so.
There are also a growing number of operators offering surface lure fishing – casting poppers and stickbaits around the reefs with giant trevally the main target. The unofficial heaviest GT to be weighed in Vava’u was a substantial 43.0kg fish taken by New Zealand angler Peter van Eekelen last October when fishing with charter operator Lolesio Lui of Tongan Expeditions.
The US dollar goes a long way here in Tonga; one Tongan dollar is worth a little over 50 cents US, (A loaf of bread is one Tongan Dollar (Panga), for example). So if you visit the local open-air farmers market, and eat what the locals eat, you can really get by for way less than what it costs you to be well fed in the USA. That said there are many good restaurants and cafes to satisfy all appetites and budgets.
There is also lot to do besides fishing. Other activities available are, but not limited to: whale watching (you can even swim with the whales here, one of the few places on the planet), very good diving, snorkeling, scenic tours, kayaking, windsurfing, and some incredible reef fishing. I’ve spent hours in my kayak paddling around the inner lagoon with my 9wt fly rod, catching countless fish during the day, and pouring though fish identifying books figuring out what reef creatures I caught and released that day.
I also discovered that there are Coconut Crabs on the islands, but finding these massive land crabs, the largest terrestrial crabs known, isn’t easy. During the day they live in holes and in hollow logs. Hooking up with a local expert is the way to go. These crabs taste unbelievably good, (they should, all they eat are coconuts), but my wife Maggie, who is a nutritionist, limited me to very few due to their extremely high saturated fat content. No pigging out on those beasts for me.
Tonga is a true Kingdom, the royal family owns every inch of the Islands and you must lease the land to build on from the nobles. This has kept big name hotel chains and business away from investing on the Islands; there are of course pros and cons to this. The resorts are small, but there’s a beauty and simplicity about the place. It’s like stepping back in time and seeing South Pacific Islands where most of the traditional life style has been preserved by their culture and remoteness, it’s about as close to unspoiled as one can get. On the other side of the coin, there is an international airport near the capital city of Tongatapu, with scheduled internal flights. You can find accommodations to fit just about any budget, from a little hut on a beach, to a high end air conditioned catered room on a bay.
The local Polynesians are extremely friendly and go out of their way to make you feel at home. Tourist dollars go a long way, bringing money to what are very poor villages by our standards. Christian religion is very prolific and important to the locals. Sundays are a no-play day and there is no fishing on Sundays? So plan on kicking back if you don’t want to attend a local church service or three on a Sunday.
I found the Vava’u Islands in The Kingdom of Tonga, to be a very special place and even though it has been years now since I spent time there, I still keep in contact with the many great friends that I have on the Islands. The ex-pats that live and work there never seem to leave, no one seems to get rich on the Islands, but that isn’t why they have chosen Vava’u to be their home, it is the life style that makes these islands special.
While the charter boats aren’t high-end American class boats, they are safe well-maintained platforms and these guys have been fishing Tongan waters for many years (except on Sundays!). Moorings Yacht Group also has two power cats that you can bareboat charter, if you want to explore and fish on your own. My good friend Grant Dixon, Editor of New Zealand Fishing News has taken these cats out numerous times and has even fished them in local tournaments.
I highly recommend a trip back in time and vacation to these beautiful islands I guarantee you’ll never forget…
How do you get there? Isn’t easy from the good ole USA, you’ll have to fly into New Zealand first, Auckland, then connect into the Kingdom, well worth it though…
Phot credits: Corky Decker, Ika Lahi Lodge