Easy, Affordable Hawaiian Fishing

by Louis Bignami

The rotund Hawaiian girl had greeted my appearance on the pier with a soft, "Mister, you no catch fish. Your pole too short; your line too small, and where your bait? Want some of my bait?"

"If I catch any fish, do you want them, " I asked, "we're up at the hotel."

"Sure, I take," this with a disbelieving giggle and grins shared with the two tattered boys I later learned were her brothers. She knew the fat, old haole wasn't going to catch anything.

Seven papio of at least four different species , a cigarfish and a couple of dozen assorted butterfly and a half dozen other reef fish I couldn't name later, the young lady and I were fast friends. I'd catch a fish. She'd come over with her bucket. I'd offer it. She'd gravely accept, and then retreat to berate her brothers for letting the "big haole" catch all the fish.

After the first thirty minutes she had moved to my end of the rickety pier. I shared light line and tiny jigs. She started to catch fish too. By the time her father arrived, the kids had most of a five gallon bucket filled with fish. Dad was impressed enough to share his bento - the budget Japanese boxed meal that's a nice alternative to plate lunches.

Since it was our last day in the islands, I filled my new friends' coffee can tackle "boxes" with an assortment of light line, small jigs and tiny plastic skirts that I'd not need at home until ice fishing season.

"Malanie," I said, "I used to live in the islands. I may look like a haole, but I'm not." With that I offered her a signed copy of my book Live Bait Tactics.

"I knew you couldn't be a haole when you caught fish. Haoles can't catch fish," she noted as she gave me a hug and a shell bracelet "for remember."

Well, haoles can catch fish even though most do not. Share a beach, bank or breakwater and you meet friendly locals anxious to share their skills and, often, their lunch. So why do most visitors only fish off charter boats that can cost hundreds of dollars a day for elusive billfish when, according to the Division of Aquatic Resource experts, it takes ten or eleven trips to hook and boat one Pacific Blue Marlin or a massive tuna? Only reason I can suggest is most visitors just don't know what they miss.

Certainly less expensive alternatives, like shared charters, reduce costs. These offer an offshore look at darting frigate birds, the mate's fish stories and joys like deep blue ocean, and can be booked at the public docks anywhere in the islands. Just don't bring bananas. Hawaiians feel they're bad luck when fishing.

The shore action's free. You don't need a license to catch several dozen different kinds of fish from Hawaii's lava shores, protected bays and sandy beaches on the same kind of gear you use at home. Buddy up to a local and offer to share bait, beer and gas costs, and you may find yourself enjoying slider fishing and other specialized methods. You can expect some outrageous stories. Locals anywhere delight in putting visitors on, yes?

Last visit, for example, I watched a family fishing off a reef near Makaha at the mouth of the local harbor. Cemented into the reef were a number of store-bought and home-made memorials. I was told that there was a "killer wave" that washed a bunch of anglers off the rocks. "You gotta keep watching the wata, braw. Could be another any time now."

"Odd," I replied. "some headstones are from the 1950's, others from the 1960's and 1970's. You sure these aren't just for fishermen lost at sea?"

A grin -- then shared laughter, and "Guess you didn't just get off the pineapple truck." We discussed fishing, shared a beer and I got an invitation to "try the reef" that night. Too bad we got blown off the beach.

There's no excuse. Left your gear at home? Discount hardware stores sell what you need for less than you'd pay for dinner. Then pick up a set of regulations available from all tackle shops or from the Division of Aquatic Resources, 1151 Punchbowl Street, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96813.

"Da Regs", based on both historic fishing rights and modern management techniques offer what seems a confusing mix of special regulations, rotten sketches for fish I.D. and Draconian cautions about private beach ownership. Some species have closed seasons; others have size or possession limits or both. Oddments include two years of open fishing followed by two years of closed fishing, which obtain for areas like Waikiki-Diamond head. Clearly, "Da Regs" aim at locals who know what's what. Fortunately, you're almost always in compliance with a single rod and reel, and if you don't molest the shellfish. There are many public piers and beaches too.

Check with bait shops, ask locals about fishing. Many Hawaiians fish. If you offer to share your catch, locals you meet at the water will almost always help. Hawaiian tradition requires both kindness to strangers and prohibits wasted fish. So If they caught more than they could eat, the old Hawaiians either shared or stashed the surplus in shoreline fishponds until needed. Some of these ponds still exist and many still offer good fishing.

Avoiding "Ouches"

While saltwater fish can pull the scales off their smaller freshwater relatives, most aren't difficult to catch if you note a few mild hazards. To start, never go barefoot! Always wear reef runners or tennis shoes because coral cuts take forever to heal. So do "fish cuts." Some tropical fish snap dagger dentures. Some have jaws strong enough to crunch coral. White sand is, after all, dead coral that's "circulated" through reef fish. Some species protect themselves with sharp gills or spines. Surgeonfish sport lovely little scalpels at the small of the tail. Some octopi bite; that's fair. The old Hawaiians used to kill them by biting too..

So either tote a pair of long-nose pliers or hook remover, or seek a local's help with hook removal. If Mr. fish swallowed the hook, quickly cut the hook snell off, leave it in the fish and let the fish go. The hook soon rusts out.

Do realize that a few species, such as bonefish, aren't edible, and no fish improves if left in the sun. Conserve your catch in a cooler filled with ice next to the POG.

Note: an inexpensive color guide to saltwater fish helps you sort your catch -- Mine came from an Ala Moana Shopping Center discount book store -- and locals' advice at the wharf or beach will best match your catch to cooking method.

Wharf Winners

Start with any wharf in Hawaii -- if it's not posted -- to enjoy a variety of colorful tiddlers and, at times, fish so large you'd need a cargo net to haul them in. Since many saltwater tropicals are vegetarians, bait with bits of bread or bananas or try shellfish or small bits of shrimp or squid. A couple of size 6 or smaller hooks, a sinker and you're in business along pilings. Swing a rig back under the pier as some fish like to laze away in the shade. Watch for dark schools of baitfish off shore. Don't pass up piers with party boats where fishing's allowed. When mates clean out the bait tanks some surprisingly large fish queue up for a free dinner.

Good piers on Oahu include ones in Pearl Harbor, Sand Harbor and Wailua Bay. On Maui try Kahului Harbor Pier. On Kauai the Wiamea and Ahukini Recreational Piers are good choices. On Lanai, Manele Harbor deserves a shot. On the Big Island, they've prohibited fishing off the Kialua-Kona Pier, but it's good off the adjacent seawall. Piers in the harbor near the cruise ship dock at Hilo and in the Waiakea Public Fishing Area -- a traditional fish pond --offers decent Big Island action too.

Bay and Beach Basics

Wade along bays and beaches protected by offshore reefs for both a chance at smaller fish with modest tackle and a cooling dip. On Oahu, they used to catch big bonefish in Kaneohe Bay, but today's angler would be more likely to take papio and mullet. Bonefish seem a deep water species in Hawaii probably because there are so few shallow flats.

Use baits like sand worms or tiny crabs available for the straining from the wet sand. Wear Polaroids(tm) and a wide brimmed hat and sand- or dull-colored shorts and shirts and you may see the fish first. Cast bait ahead and past the fish. Draw your bait past its nose, and wait for the action.

Blind casting suits the sedentary who plunk bait in deeper channels with tidal action or over the shore break, place the rod in a sand spike and laze until the rod bends. A dawn and dusk approach can catch bonefish and other species

More active anglers walk a bit, cast once or twice just beyond the shore break and then move on up the beach. Sometimes you can see fish in the clear curl of waves. You can, at least two years out of four, even fish Waikiki, but the fishing is much better on more remote Oahu beaches or on less populated islands. Do check spots where beaches end at rocks or reefs; these tend to collect fish.

Since beaches also collect surfers, fish at dawn or dusk or on flat days when surfers sulk. If it's very windy, bag it for the day.

Realistic Reefs

Hawaii lacks the huge atolls of much of Polynesia as its volcanism is more recent and reefs haven't had time to build. However, there are nifty fringing coral reefs. With an eye on the seaward surf if you venture near the drop off, reefs extend the usual bay methods once you realize currents and deep spots key the action.

Careful wading gets you within casting range of the wild assortment of fish which inhabit pools and channels. You won't always see fish, so look for shadows. A quiet cast and you're hooked. Keep the tip up so line doesn't instantly abrade on the coral, and catch a nice selection of fish on the higher tides.

If you can, ask about nocturnal reef wading with lights! It's not for soloists new to the reef, but you can sometimes get an invitation for a trip with an expert who knows you won't be back soon. Since so many reef fish are nocturnal, action after dark when the surf's down offers a varied bag and the chance to see unusual aquatic critters like manta rays. It's a uniquely Hawaiian experience well worth the search.

Breakwaters and Seawalls

Breakwaters, if you watch for the odd big wave, give access to deeper water and offer a safe chance at much bigger fish than in the shallows. It's up to you to figure out how to either hoist your catch or get down to the water!

Locals use a variety of bait and gear. Light gear presented around the rocks catches an assortment of colorful reef fish and smaller species like big eyed mackerel. Heavier gear, such as stateside "steelhead" tackle or, if you don't mind toting a big rod case, surf gear, lets you reach out to bigger fish. Tuna, jacks, barracuda and other predators are taken by drifting live baits out to deeper waters under a wind-borne balloon -- this works in bays too. Many larger fish are never seen as they buzz off a spool of line and pop off without slowing in the least. A buddy snagged a whale once; that didn't last long!

Convenient breakwaters include the breakwater at the Hawaiian Village end of Waikiki Beach. Kids catch fish at the Natatorium and, for that matter, in the Ala Wai Canal behind Waikiki. The mouth of Pearl Harbor and Pokai Bay breakwaters on Oahu and breakwaters at harbors on other islands offer solid action. Follow the locals.

Seawalls, like those at Kailua-Kona, offer solid footing without rock hopping at the price of snagging tourists on your backcasts. Check regulations and look back before you cast, the Pacific won't move! Neither will the tourist in black dress shoes, lurid baggies and an Aloha shirt.

Rig and Risk Ulua

Drive out past Makaha on Oahu, or come up off the beach at dusk near cliffs on other islands, and you may see one of Hawaii's oddest fishing systems. Anglers perched on rocky cliffs use rods the length of vaulting poles to sling heavy lead weights farther than most athletes toss a javelin, but there are no hooks on their lines.

Wait a bit and you'll see the line reeled taut and the rod stuck into a rest sometimes drilled or cemented into the rocks. A long leader armed with a large hook and a big bait snaps on the line. Gravity, wind and waves move it down the line. It's slide-bait fishing Hawaiian-style!

The results, on good nights that often come in full moon periods, can be more pounds of ulua than you can tote. Specimen ulua might top 150 pounds. Other big fish can clean even the massive trolling reels local anglers favor. Big fish gobble baits and head off as the sinker either pulls free of its coral or breaks off. With many fish it's not clear for a time who plays who. It's heavyweight action with heavyweight risk for the careless.

Look at the ledges that sprout "forests" of fiberglass rods twice, or three times, as tall as the anglers, and you'll notice the images of O-Jizo-san, the Japanese protector of fishermen, travelers and children on the rocks. This isn't accidental. Given the risk of rogue waves, steep, sometimes slippery rocks and trails to the best ledges, and the very specialized tackle, this isn't a game for solo tourists. But if you want to try to catch a fish that weighs as much as you do from the shore, check the Yellow Pages for tackle shops, or ask about a local guide. Some guide for cash; others don't mind sharing their evening action for a case of beer or whatever.

Hawaiian Holidays

However, the best part of Hawaiian fishing isn't necessarily the varied fish. It's not the chance to fill in odd hours between visits to popular tourist attractions at or in the water. It's not even the lovely scenery and spectacular sunrises and sunsets. It's the varied people you meet on their treasured days off. Locals who may resent the rich haoles at Waikiki quickly cotton up to "just folk" who share their lunch, bait and beer. So, to see the real Hawaii and enjoy the old-time hospitality that has made Hawaii such a tourist attraction, just wet a line from the bank, settle back, and prepare to share some outrageous stories. In return, you can explain to the locals why otherwise sane mainlanders strap on skis or ski boards and go out in freezing weather to "surf on snow."

You aren't limited to salt chuck either. You can if you like, catch exotic freshwater species like Peacock Bass, a freshwater Chinese catfish that eats lures, tilapia or even prize examples of feral aquarium species like Oscars. Add American classics like largemouth and smalmouth bass, channel catfish, bluegills and, on Kauai, rainbow trout from the rain forest. All you need here is your usual tackle, and a Hawaiian freshwater fishing license.

Good spots for peacock and black bass include Wahiawa Public Fishing Area on Oahu near Schofield Barracks where the limits allow no more than four Peacock, and an assortment of streams, ditches and farm ponds on the other islands.

Kauai visitors find trout from the Kokee Public Fishing Area an unusual August option during the first 16 or so days of the season and on weekends and holidays until the end of September.