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Penrhyn Island is a huge coral atoll in the Cook Islands. It’s below the equator, almost due south of Christmas Island (see map). By all reports, it is a stunningly beautiful and remote island with a lagoon that stretches nearly 18 miles across. Mike and Lillian Grubnau host anglers there from the headquarters for a pearl harvesting operation that they euphemistically refer to as Pahonu Lodge.
We first called your attention to Penrhyn Island and Pahonu Lodge in October 2006. At the time, The Fly Shop was investigating the place’s bonefishing potential by conducting exploratory trips. Rumors were that the place could be the next Christmas Island. That didn’t exactly pan out, as our first subscriber-written report about the place indicated and as follow-up reports corroborated. Seems the bonefish that are known to exist around Penrhyn Island just haven’t shown up on the flats reliably enough and in sufficient numbers to make this a Christmas Island-type destination. Additionally, the place has proven to be difficult to get in and out of due to a once-a-week flight and sporadic shortages of aviation fuel.
At this point, the big news is The Fly Shop has decided not to represent Penrhyn Island at all any more. While the place offers a combination of fishing and cultural activities, according to The Fly Shop’s Pat Pendergast, it just has not panned out as a place to send die-hard bonefishers.
Enter the most recent subscriber report we received on Penrhyn Island, in which we learned that Scott Heywood of Angling Destinations has picked up the destination, at least on a limited basis. I called to chat with him at press time about Penrhyn and his plans to represent the place.
Heywood made it clear that he recognizes the limitations of Penrhyn Island and informs would-be clients of them. This is not a high-volume bonefish destination. End of story, he said. But it is a good place for the kind of angler who enjoys doing a little of everything, including some bonefishing.
The other attractions Heywood sees are offshore fishing for tuna, wahoo and sailfish, plus diving or snorkeling and experiencing the interesting local culture and history.
Heywood’s vision of Penrhyn Island is in synch with the recent comments we have received from two subscribers. The first subscriber is Eldon Larson, who booked a trip to Penrhyn through Heywood this past May for himself and his wife, Margaret. He says the bonefishing was indeed hit-and-miss and that he does not recommend the place for the angler who is focused strictly on bonefish. However, he says he and his wife enjoyed so much else about the destination that they want to return. Here is how Margaret Larson described Penrhyn:
Visiting Pahonu Lodge in the Cook Islands was what I would call a unique adventure. It started with our arrival on a four-hour flight from Rarotonga. The coral runway we landed on dates back to World War II.
The most striking feature of the island is its large interior lagoon. From the air, you can see it has a number of small to large coral reefs in it, all of which provide remarkable underwater viewing. As for the fishing in this lagoon, we found good numbers of tailing fish only one day out of five. The rest of the time they were few and far between, which meant we had to spend a good part of most days simply looking for fish.
Most of the time, we waded on firm white sand, which proved easy and pleasant. Occasionally, we tried flycasting from the boat. We did most of our fishing early in the morning when the water was cool, then turned to snorkeling when the heat became oppressive in the afternoon. The pristine waters of this lagoon proved large enough for several day’s worth of serious snorkeling. Each coral reef provided new and interesting adventures. Some of the reefs had the look and feel of underwater sea gardens. The sea life included giant clams (purple and magenta mantles), turtles, rays, sharks and a myriad of colorful tropical fish. Several curious 10-foot black-tip sharks approached us, which was disconcerting at first, but they proved harmless, and we accepted them as part of the normal landscape.
The lodge owner, Mike Grubnau, and his head guide, Ba, proved to be more than gracious hosts; they were fantastic in making our stay comfortable and interesting. Life is rather rustic at Pahonu, to be sure, but the cabins are large and clean with a shared outside toilet and bathing facility located a couple of feet away.
For the last 10 years, the Grubnaus have managed a pearl farm where they grow and harvest black pearls, similar to the large Tahitian pearls that grow in black lip oysters (pinctada margaritifera). They sell pearls to fishing clients at very reasonable prices, and you may want to remember that if you come here.
Grubnau is making an intense effort to understand the habits of the local bonefish, and he hopes to be able to find some consistency in their location and numbers. So far, it has been hit-and-miss. I hope he can overcome that because Penrhyn is a delightful place to visit. Reliable bonefishing would make it a real winner.
The second subscriber who filed a recent comment on Penrhyn Island is Peter Aravosis, who booked his trip there this past April through The Fly Shop. Aravosis describes the bone- fishing he experienced as OK, and reports landing a couple dozen fish, with the biggest going seven pounds. A group of Australians who fished before him also reported pretty good bonefishing, he says.
Ultimately, bonefish are not what the visiting angler should key on, though, Aravosis says. Besides being unpredictable in their movements on and off the flats, he says wind here can dirty the water, making it difficult to see fish. Also, there are a lot of coral heads around for your line to hang up on when you hook a fish.
Aravosis says he regrets not having spent more time chasing giant trevally, which he says provided excellent opportunities on Penrhyn. He reports catching a dozen or so up to 20 pounds. What was even more attractive, he says, was the offshore fishing. He caught a 55-pound wahoo, several sharks, barracuda and yellowfin tuna from 15 to 20 pounds. That’s in addition to raising four sailfish.
Aravosis says he also enjoyed local cultural activities, including a celebration of ANZAC Day, a memorial holiday commemorating the deaths of 9,000 New Zealanders killed in Gallipoli in World War I. He says the parade, the flag-raising ceremony, the speeches and the memorial service were all very interesting and moving. He says he also spent some time learning about Grabnau’s pearl operation and purchased a few pearls for his wife.
Aravosis says he travels to fish for reasons other than the numbers of fish he catches. He assesses a place by the complete experience offered and says he had a simply fantastic time on Penrhyn. He looks forward to returning, only this time with a bigger supply and wider variety of lures and flies for all the fishing available.
So, is Penrhyn Island right for you? That is a personal decision you will have to make. A continuing problem that may influence your decision is the uncertain transportation situation. Penrhyn is a truly remote destination, and fuel shortages can delay your arrival and departure. That is what happened to the Larsons, and they are the second couple to report a problem of this sort. The problem is the plane Air Rarotonga uses to fly between Rarotonga and Penrhyn. It does not hold sufficient fuel for a roundtrip flight and must refuel in Penrhyn. The crunch develops when fuel delivery to the atoll is late.
Fortunately, reports are emerging that Air Rarotonga plans to acquire a plane with sufficient fuel capacity to make roundtrip flights in the near future. In the meantime, if your life is a busy one and you tend to bracket your fishing trips with important obligations, Penryhn Island may not be the right place to go.