People often ask me about the state that was most difficult for the project, thinking I would mention a place they do not associate with fly fishing, such as North Dakota or Kansas. Many are surprised when I say Hawaii, assuming there are endless fishing opportunities in its Pacific waters. Indeed, there are, from blue water species to reef dwellers, and even rainbow trout in certain high mountain streams. Yet, our target species proved a formidable challenger, and I sure was not going to go all the way to Hawaii to get skunked. I was on a mission.
Bonefish—BIG bonefish—frequent the flats around Oahu and other Hawaiian Islands. It was certainly a surprise to me when I first heard about the prospect of catching them there. I was only familiar with the bonefish in the Bahamas and Caribbean Islands. I was warned that these fish were tough—you don’t get many chances to catch them and when you do, a lot of stars must line up for it to work out. They are finicky. I was under the impression that there were not very many of them. I would soon find out that was far from the truth. There are plenty of the “ghosts of the flats,” and many would soon make me hang my head in bewilderment and frustration after I failed to get a fly in their mouth. It became laughable. These fish seemed a different breed from those I knew in the Bahamas, where they are undoubtably challenging but certainly catchable. No, these fish were in a whole other league.
My days of Hawaii Bonefishing started with a taxi ride from Waikiki beach before the sun was up with Mark, a legendary taxi driver who daily transports fishermen to meet their challenge. Mark is from Korea and has heard many stories of anglers coming from all over the world, only to be left empty handed after days wading the flats. He chuckled as I rubbed my eyes awake, telling my dad and me that a mere 30% of anglers ever catch one. He was like the jeering spectator at a sporting match, mocking each player as they take the field, but in an endearing way. Before I had even stepped foot in the water, I was imagining back up plans in the event that we did not connect on the flats.
However, when we showed up at the boat landing, I felt utter confidence that Kenny, our guide, would put us on fish when his first words to me after introductions were, “WOOHOO Man, I’m excited!” I needed that enthusiasm to coach me through each missed opportunity. Indeed, Kenny showed unmerited patience and grace with every fish I didn’t see or shot I blew. What most shocked me was just how many fish we saw yet how darn tough it was to get them to eat! I had an expectation coming in that there simply were not that many fish, so those you got to throw to were well versed in refusing flies. No, no, no—to the contrary, there were tons of fish, and they were all on the same page about not eating the little flashy, feathery thing jigging through the water. AKA, my fly. What is especially tricky about the Hawaiian bones, as Kenny explained, is that they don’t eat the fly when it is moving. They are accustomed to chasing little crabs that try to burry themselves in the sand when a predator comes near. Therefore, the line and fly have slacked when the fish eats. Because you can’t feel the bite, it is common to pull the fly out of the fish’s face before it eats, eliciting a tail slap and spooked fish. Simultaneously, it is possible to wait too long on the hook set, and it has already spit the fly by the time you realize anything happened…this can be frustrating. When I finally watched a bone rush to my fly close to the end of the day, and I strip set into something firm, which quickly turned into the mayhem of line shooting through the guides, I began shouting out of amazement that I had actually fooled one of the pesky jokers. Like Kenny, I am so easily energized on the water, especially after a full day of receiving “the middle fin.” On top of the technical challenges related to bones, having the nerve to keep one’s cool when casting to a 10 lbs. bone fish tailing in 6 inches of water can be admittedly challenging, so I really let it out!
On the second day of fishing, my brother, Parker, and I enjoyed our ride with Mark as much as the fishing, laughing at stories about the people and things he’s seen in his many years in Hawaii, before meeting Kenny at the boat landing for another early start. The entire cast of characters, both on and off the water, are what make fishing expeditions so vibrant and memorable. When we got back on the flat, a high tide brought water and fish up into the mangroves. As the sun peaked over the horizon, tails lit up like glitter across the water. Every time you see one, your heart begins to pound as you imagine what may happen next—it’s like a hand waving and inviting casts, though far too often the fly gets refused. Thankfully, I got lucky early that morning. A tail popped up about 40 ft away. When we got into position, I made a cast to the fish and it landed right next to a little mangrove shoot. I got this fish’s attention as I began to slide the fly across the bottom until it got stuck on the mangrove shoot. The fly must have looked like a little crab trying to hold on because the fish beelined to the mangrove, pushing it over and sticking his tail up as he sucked in the fly. WHAM! I gave him a big hook set, and we were off to the races. The 6-pound bone pushed a lot of water in the shallows, trying to escape to the deeper edges, and wow was it fast! I took off across the sand, running and reeling, as he took me deep into the backing within 10 seconds of hooking up. The circus act began as I ran around mangroves, untangling the line when the fish took a sharp turn around a shoot sticking out of the water. My brother was laughing away, watching this fish tug me around. Thankfully, after I should have broken off a half a dozen times, we got our hands on it, snapped some pics, and set it free. I looked up amazed at the sun rise, taking in the seascape around me, and understanding why Hawaii is nicknamed the “Paradise of the Pacific.” As the day went on, I started to get the hang of the fish, though I spent far too much time watching wakes blow out away from me than I’d like to admit. Parker hooked into a bluefin trevally—a fish I didn’t imagine getting the chance to target—but the sharp coral edge got the best of his leader.
While polling across the flats in one of the bays of Oahu, it is powerful to think back on the men and women who died in those waters some 80 years ago during the Pearl Harbor attack. The flats border Hickman Airforce Base, rendering some sighted bones nearly impossible to point out as C130’s and F22’s take-off directly overhead, drowning out any other sounds: “Alright, I’ve got two fish at el…SSSHHHHHHHEEEEWWWWWWWWWWWWWW…. well, there were 2 at 11 o’clock, but not anymore.” In all seriousness, it caused me to reflect on the freedom and opportunity we have in this country to fish and enjoy outdoor recreation in so many different places. We must be grateful that public lands and waters are important pieces of our shared freedom, granting us the privilege to enjoy this beautiful country, its diverse natural resources, and the creatures that inhabit it. It is easy to take for granted the amount of access we have to some of the best fisheries in the world. Notably, many members of the armed forces who sacrifice their lives for these freedoms are ardent conservationists and passionate fly fishers and hunters themselves. Their role in providing us the ability to continue to enjoy the resources we love should never be overlooked.