Quality in Paradise

According to most fly anglers, bluefin trevallies are not worthy of much attention. They’re just jacks with pretty backsides, and as a general rule, species of the jack family are undignified, opportunistic predators, like college kids with Golden Corral gift cards. On my 45-minute swim that first day in Rarotonga, I’d spotted four of them in close proximity to our resort.

The next morning, we woke early and shared tropical fruit and coffee at a table on the sand. The waves remained clean, feathering spray off their lips before they broke. The low-tide reef still looked sharp and shallow. While Amy showered, I went to the front desk with two requests: I needed a fishing license and someplace to rent a surfboard. The first was easy; no recreational fishing licenses are required in Rarotonga. The second proved more difficult. No one knew of any surfboards for rent anywhere on the island. Supposedly, some people surfed, but neither the managers nor staff knew anyone personally. This may have been luck. If I couldn’t find a board, there was no shame in ogling the surf without surfing. The swell seemed to be building, and the reef wasn’t getting any deeper or farther away from the frothing white water. I could be content catching jacks.

I rigged an 8-weight with an intermediate line, put three big streamers in the pocket of my board shorts, laced up my flats boots, and told Amy I’d be back in an hour or so.

Thirty yards up the beach, I spotted a mediumsized bluefin cruising the shoreline. I stripped out line and slapped the fly right in front of him, sounding the dinner bell of baitfish manna falling from heaven. Apparently, this particular jackfish was an atheist. His fear of the miraculous prompted an excellent demonstration of his speed.

A few minutes later, I found another one edging a round coral table. The cast was a layup, but I wanted to slow down, appreciate the precipice. Jacks are, after all, easy. He’s moving downcurrent, left to right. I should probably put the fly into that sand pocket, but if he eats—when he eats—he’ll wrap me around the coral head. I’ll have to move quick.

The term lit up is often used to describe fish chasing prey. I always interpreted it as metaphor. A fish’s demeanor is enflamed; its aggression is lit. But the light in this fish was literal. Its rear fins seemed to glow an even more vibrant electric blue when it saw the fly and charged.

I kept stripping, saw the telltale zigzagging of a jack in pursuit, blur in blue neon, a fish swimming through the world of Tron. The line would soon come tight, and I’d have to sprint through thigh-deep water to prevent a ragged stump at the end of my fly line. I needn’t have worried. My fly line was safe, as was my leader, my meticulously tied baitfish fly, and the bluefin itself.

The hour turned into two. I tried each fly in my pocket, cast to a half-dozen fish. All of them performed the bright blue zipping dance, but none of them ate. I quickly fell into what Pirsig would call a “gumption trap,” and justified quitting because I had told Amy I would be gone for only an hour.

Which brings me back to my beach chair and perspiring drink, to my book and the vacant look that must have been on my face.

“You can go fishing again if you want, babe.”

I love my wife for so many reasons.

The difficult part would have been explaining that, as much as I wanted to go fishing and surfing, I was, in a way, doing both, so long as I kept my ego out of it. From that comfortable chair, I could catch every good wave that pitched behind the reef, imagine the line I would take if I were on a board—not a random, rented beater, but the perfect shape for this reef break: short but thick, with sharp rails and a lot of rocker. I could see myself make the takeoff, race the lip, and kick off every shoulder, never having a leg or arm or my face smashed against sharp edges.

I could picture bluefin lighting up all over the lagoon, zipping back and forth. I could imagine infinite combinations of leader length, fly pattern, sink rate, and retrieve speed until all those zigging and zagging streaks of light came tight and all the blueness and life of the ocean itself traveled up my fly line.

I could remain in that state of stuckness, of emptiness, at the front edge of the track, with my hand on my wife’s knee the whole time.

Miles Nolte splits his time between New York and Montana. Sadly, as this issue was going to press, author and philosopher Robert Pirsig passed away. He was 88.