As the orange skin dropped to the floor in a single circular piece, I watched on, amazed.
Here I was struggling to hold my balance – and keep my breakfast down – while Moko risked slicing his hand open for a pith-less orange. I guess it’s not such a gamble if you’ve spent your life on the sea.
I was lucky enough to have a morning’s fishing with the infamous Steven ‘Captain Moko’ Kavana last weekend, with four of my good mates.
After 10 months in Raro I’m heading home and this was a farewell from the boys.
I’d been out on the boat with Moko once before and knew that although he can be a grumpy bugger, he sure knows how to catch fish.
We’d heard the fishing had been a bit slow so weren’t expecting too much.
But Moko somehow put us in the right spot, time and time again, and we came home with a magnificent haul of mahi-mahi and a few yellowfin tuna. For us papa’a guys – four Kiwis and an Aussie – it was a brilliant day at sea and one we’ll talk about for a long time.
We arrived at The Mooring in Avana before sunrise and Moko soon had us out on the water. One of the lads, a teacher named Tas, had turned up with a light boat rod.
Compared to Moko’s thick game-fishing rods, Tas’ pole looked like a toothpick. Moko eyed it with disgust and banished it to the cabin. It didn’t emerge again until we reached land five hours later.
As we steamed out of Avana Harbour towards the nearest fish aggregation device, the island’s magnificent peaks rose up behind us.
For a few of the guys, this was their first chance to see Rarotonga from the water. It’s certainly a sight to behold – and one I’ll miss dearly when I leave.
A big south-west swell was running and it was clear we were in for a lumpy day at sea. But we soon had five lures in the water, set at various distances behind the boat.
If you’ve been fishing with Moko you’ll know that he prefers traditional methods of fish-finding to modern technology. He quickly had us scanning the horizon for birds, which can be a clear indicator that fish are nearby.
Moko isn’t the most conversational of fishermen, but one thing you’ll hear him ask repeatedly is: “Where are the birds?”
It’s less of a question than a demand. Every time he asked, we’d all look to the skies, scrambling to be first to spot birds and win Moko’s grunt of approval.
Having set off in the direction of some frigates circling in the distance, we soon hooked up to two small yellowfin tuna. Andy (a scriptwriter) and I managed to get the fish in without any problems.
We slowly motored our way southwards around the island.
Moko had pointed us towards another cluster of birds and positioned us slightly ahead of them.
What happened next amazed me.
Moko suddenly bellowed “mahi-mahi!” and launched out of the cabin with a wild look in his eyes. He began furiously yanking one of the lines to make the lure dance back and forth in the water.
We stood there, dumbfounded. The ocean was heaving and visibility was poor. How had Moko spotted a single mahi-mahi swimming in the surging seas?
But sure enough, the mahi-mahi leapt onto the hook like a steam train and the reel starting screaming.
Tas locked himself in for an awesome fight while we cheered in support.
It took five to ten minutes before he had the stunning fish near the boat, displaying its array of bright colours. Moko struck it expertly with his gaff and hurled it in the cooler bin.
Naturally, we began hooting with delight – until Moko bellowed urgently to close the bin. “Settle down, Moko, the fish is dead,” we all thought. But once the lid was closed, the thumping sound of its tail came through. Moko explained that mahi-mahi have incredibly powerful tails and are liable to smack you senseless if left flapping around.
Over the next several hours, Moko took us down to Avaavaroa and out to sea, before finally ending up back in Avana.
On the way we repeated the pattern; spot the birds, follow them, and catch the mahi-mahi.
The biggest weighed in close to 20kg and was wound in by Sean, who works at the New Zealand High Commission. Adam, a lawyer, landed another beauty.
Moko’s skill at both handling his boat and finding fish is impressive. He seems to have an uncanny ability to be in the right spot at the right time.
“When you spend every day at sea like I do, you soon learn,” he told me.
Moko grew up on and around the sea. His dad was a doctor and the family spent a lot of time in the northern group. At one point in his childhood, Moko even had a pet turtle.
He became a top dancer, entertainer and sportsman.
Rumour has it he was quite a hit with the ladies as well. “Not any more,” he told me later on land, stealing a nervous glance at the nearby Mooring Café where his wife Jillymae serves up her famous fish sandwiches.
He said meeting Jill helped him settle down and make a go of running his own business, which he’s done since about 2005.
Over the years he’s mastered traditional fishing techniques, which he draws on now as a fishing charter operator. It was fascinating to watch him scanning the ocean surface for objects floating in the water, which act as fish aggregation devices.
Sometimes we’d point out birds and Moko would watch them for a while, before declaring they weren’t worth following.
He told me he can tell from the way the birds are flying whether there are fish below, and even what type of fish they are. Indicators include the number of birds, their species, and whether they’re circling, diving or swooping.
Reviews of Captain Moko’s Fishing Charters on TripAdvisor paint a pretty clear picture.
The real fishermen – the ones who want to skip the niceties and catch fish – tend to love and admire Moko. Other people, not so much.
One person said fishing with Moko is “not for kids or people who have no fishing experience or listening difficulties but if you want to catch fish then this is the best value for money on the day”.
Another said Captain Moko is a man of few words who is not afraid to growl at you if you do something wrong. “But if you listen, follow instructions and act quickly when he tells you to, you will have an amazing fishing experience. So if you are serious about catching fish, we think this is the man to go with.”
“I’m a serious fisherman,” Moko explained to me. “It’s hard sometimes with people who don’t know game fishing, because I’m watching them and really wanting to get that fish in.”
We didn’t see Moko smile much during our morning’s fishing. He was clearly very focused on the job. But he did let his guard down at one point. After several missed attempts at gaffing a big mahi-mahi, he was starting to worry we’d lose it.
But then the gaff struck and he hauled the fish in. There were back-slaps and high-fives and even Moko seemed pretty happy about it all. One of the guys later recalled seeing a smiling Moko pat me on the back – but I don’t remember that.
Carrying four beautiful mahi-mahi and the tuna, we motored back in to Avana around midday and came to a rest at The Mooring. With spirits high, we proud hunter-gatherers offloaded our catch to the filleting bench as wide-eyed tourists looked on with admiration.
Moko filleted the fish and gave us a generous portion to take home, which we cooked up later on the barbeque. We hung out, snapped some photos and admired Moko’s skill with a knife. It was a nice end to a great morning’s fishing.
Captain Moko is undoubtedly one of the more colourful characters I’ve met in the Cook Islands and when it comes to catching fish, he’s second-to-none. He certainly made my last Cook Islands fishing trip an excellent and memorable one. Cheers Moko – I’ll be back out on the water with you next time I’m in the Cook Islands.