Sunday, May 5, 2019

Hawaii Fly Fishing - Bonefish (O'io)

Despite annual meccas to Maui and flying through Honolulu as a layover to Christmas Island, I never put much thought into fly fishing the Hawaiian archipelago.  That changed about three years ago after a little research and a few conversations with other anglers whom have had the same epiphany.   Turns out Oahu, Molokai, Kauai and Maui all have respectable bonefish fisheries.


I try to take the family to Maui once a year, but there is no way to break away to Kihei let alone other islands to do some fly fishing without finding divorce papers upon my return.  That led me to figure  out a way to fly over before the family vacation started to get it out of my system - that way I won't have the itch when they arrive - at least that's how I sold it.

Plan Around Tides: First thing I did was check the tides, forget the weather, you have to plan too far out.  There was an early AM low tide, not too early, the sun will be up already, and high tide was to be in the early afternoon.  It wasn't a big tide, so wasn't going to push food and fish around much, but I'll take an AM low tide as the wind is lightest then.  Plus, the sun will be to the east, and the trades (when they come - and they will) are to your back, which really helps with seeing fish as well as casting.

Logistics: There ins't an outfitter to book through, so you're on your own to figure out flights, lodging, transportation and guides.  I suggest start planning early and communicate with your guide(s) (preferably via phone) so as to be crystal clear on pickup/drop offs from your hotel (which is possible) and what times they'd expect to be on/off the water so you can plan flights, dinner, etc.  With a clear understanding of when we'd likely be fishing, next I inquired about where we'd fish (approximately) and asked the guides for Hotel recommendations.  Then it was off to the United and Mokulele Airlines websites for flights.  Luckily inter island flights are frequent, cheap and easy (plus they're awesome because they fly low over the islands).  Here is a summary of my experiences, hope you enjoy.

An average size Oahu Bone
Oahu - The second oldest island in the chain, it has some of the most extensive and developed flats in the archipelago.  Most of the fishable flats are within a 15 mile radius of Diamond Head, and most (not all) require a boat for access - enter your friendly local guide.  The most known flats (no secret) are right smack dab in Honolulu.  Keehi Lagoon adjacent to the HNL airport has some excellent flats if you can reach them.  If you can deal with Boeing 777's taking off just a few hundred yards away every 4 minutes, the fishing is outstanding.  (Note: Keehi Lagoon was awesome, but next time I also want to try Kaneohe Bay if the winds cooperate)  The 3 flats in the lagoon very from silt and sand bottoms, to dead corral and finally live corral/coral heads around the fringes where you're likely to still see bones but unlikely to land them.  Depths are fairly uniform and invasive mangroves, while present, haven't yet overly encroached.  Numbers are surprisingly good - they don't school like the Bahamas, but they're all big and travel in singles and pairs, occasionally 3's.


These fish are surprisingly thick and long.  Their broad shoulders and green backs are a contrast to the thinner lighter-colored fish of Christmas Island some 1,200 miles south.  They also pull like no other, largely because their size is like no other.  I generally find that 150 yds of backing is fine for bones, but I agree with the guides in Hawaii, 200-250 yds (preferably 50 pound Hatch braid) is recommended, and for good reason - because you're likely to use it.

What I liked best about these flats was the ability to spot lots of nervous water and tailing fish from a good distance (200ft sometimes), not that it made these green logs any easier to catch.  I have to say, what you hear about how challenging Oahu bones are....every word is true.  And its not for lack of shots, there were plenty, but these fish are the spookiest I've ever encountered - is it pressure?   A presentation 10 feet away may be too close, that extra false cast, they saw it, and that dreaded coral crunch just spooked the fish you've been stalking from a hundred feet away.  Once you spook a fish, its a chain reaction, they in turn spook their pals and it looks like a half dozen torpedos shooting off in all directions to the edge of the abyss.  Then, finally, once you hook them, they explode knots and rake your line across coral because they know that if you put the brakes on them, they can easily pop straight 20.

If the condition cooperate, and your guide has a flats boat (not all do), you can pole, but if you're luck was like mine and the winds are 20-30 knots, you're going to be wading.  Thankfully it was a "tailing tide" - the tidal range was only a few inches low to high which kept it shallow all day and helped us continually spot fish despite 50% cloud cover and howling winds (thankfully to our back).  Ankle to mid-calf is the ideal depth as the tide is coming in, and the water is generally clear so its all sight fishing and chasing tail at this depth.  #2 or #4 medium dumbbell eye mantis in tan or brown to match the substrate - then let the fish think it found the fly.  Give a gentle strip set and have your drag set right, or alternatively, keep your drag light and palm your reel if you know what you're doing.  I would say "keep them on the flats", as the edge of the flats are lined with a fringe reef with sharp coral, but its an exercise in futility - you can't stop them if they're so inclined.  Be aware, these fish do spook without you knowing (the guide was right).  A bad presentation and these fish either go into lock jaw mode or high alert.  In high alert, they look like they're still feeding, but the second they see your fly move, they bolt.
Image result for hawaii trade winds
Trade Wind Map of the Hawaiian Archipelago


Molokai - There is no greater contrast between any two of these fisheries than that presented between Oahu and Molokai.  A 25 minute flight and you're a world away, going from from nearly 1 million people to 7,000, from noisy freeway traffic to a settlement without a single stop light, from tourist hustle and high rise resorts to a an island with nothing to do but enjoy the quiet and peaceful surroundings and its single, modest hotel.  This third oldest island of the chain, it has the most extensive fringe reef and adjacent flats in all of the archipelago which spans the majority of its southern coast (appox. 25-miles).  There is more lee towards the west, as the trades come out of the NE, but there is good habitat throughout.

This island is quintessential "Old Hawaii", and you're on island time out here.  I loved the laid back atmosphere and the fishing was fantastic!  Certain parts of the island are still unofficially "reserved" for indigenous Hawaiians, so word to the wise, mainlanders need to do some homework or go with a guide before casually strolling the shoreline without permission.

Things on Molokai haven't changed much in decades, unless you're talking about mangroves.  The archipelago was devoid of this invasive trees until the early 20th century.  In 1902, they were introduced by a rancher on Molokai to stabilize the island's coastal mudflats and prevent further shore erosion.  Ironically, the rancher was trying to mitigate a problem his cattle had created from over grazing, and the unintended consequences persist todays in the form of mangrove forests (some reaching as high as 80'- no joke) slowly metastasizing along the island's southern shore and migrating slowly out towards the ocean.  The mangroves reach anywhere from a few hundred feet out from shore to over half a mile out from shore.  Luckily the flats range between 1/4th and 3/4ths of a mile wide, so there is still plenty of unaltered bonefish habitat. Today, the mangroves have spread to almost all of the major islands.  Heads up - If you end up going with my guide, be prepared to allot some time for him to pull seedlings and use a hand saw to cut some of the smaller trees down as he attempts to stop their march towards the ocean and protect his island and livelihood.

A good Molokai Bone
The western flats are almost exclusively accessed by boat (there is only one shore access point), but there are numerous flats around Kaunakakai and extending to the east that can be reached by land (see my forewarning above).  In stark contrast to Oahu - these Molokai fish want to eat! I wouldn't go as far as to say you can line them or drop the fly on their head, but if they hear or see the fly hit the water, there is a good chance they'll have it by the time it settles to the bottom.  Unlike Oahu, there are substantially fewer numbers of bones, but like Oahu, they're big and they do tail as the majority of flats are uniform depth and of a coral or sand/mud bottom between mid-calf and mid-thigh in depth.  I'll straight-faced tell you I had a bonafide (no pun intended) shot at a +12-pounder who, uncharacteristically, wanted nothing to do with my a well-presented fly.  Another contrast to Oahu, don't expect to see fish all day long, there is about a 3-4 hour window starting at low ebb, through slack and lasting through half of the flood when you're most likely to see them.

I was pleased to find that these flats are expansive, both long and wide, and you can let fish burn off 400 or 500 feet of line without worry of them reaching the fringe reef.  That is unless you fish near the fringe reef, which we did a few times at low tide, and where I learned just how quickly these fish with throw their middle finger up at you on a coral  head.  Also near the fringe, as I utilized a coral head as a vantage point, we spotted a 70lb GT (Giant Trevally).  Had I a 12-weight in hand, it would have been an easy shot.  In my experience and in talking to the guides, these islands don't really have enough big GTs these days to warrant toting around a 12.  That said, if you're jonesing for a GT, take Fiji airlines out of HNL and head 1,200 mile south to CXI (Christmas Island)

Maui - I don't think I'm giving up any secret here, there isn't much to fish on Maui except for Kihei.  As the 2nd youngest island in the chain, Maui lacks a substantial fringe reef system to allow for extensive flats.  Unlike Oahu and Molokai, I wouldn't go out of my way to fish Maui, but if you're already there, Kihei is not a bad DIY get away.  A short 40 minute drive south from Kaanapali, this local's town has a decent adjacent fringe reef that fronts the town and extends a couple of miles to the south.  However, when the trades kick in after 10am or you get any cloud cover, it can be very tough.  The flats are generally waste to chest deep, making it extremely difficult to spot fish.  Blind casting is not just a last resort, but a go-to strategy, even for the one fly fishing guide on the island.  While I'm not at all a fan of blind casting, it does work for the patient angler with copious amounts of backup flies replacing the ones you lose every third cast.  The substrate is a very uneven coral w/ occasional coral heads and channels.  Be prepared to be up to you neck unexpectedly, and keep valuables protected in a water bag.  Waters will get murky when the wind picks up, and be prepared to have your heart stop when a turtle bumps into the back of your leg, but at the same time, be relieved it was just a turtle, he's in the shallows in part to avoid the 10 foot tiger 30 yards further out.

A nice Maui Bone
I can't speak to the numbers of bones here, you're hard pressed to see them and if you do, because you're in deep water, they're probably almost at your feet and seeing you at the same time.  The bones I've come across are also big here, and while there are multiple sections of deep flats, there is only one flat that I've found that has decent protected shallow water that stays clean enough to consistently sight fish, and even then, the sun needs to be up and the wind needs to be moderate.  You'll have to hunt around for it, its not big, but the last two times I fished it, I saw two big bones cruising, but didn't get shots.  Also be aware that when the trades kick up just before lunch, not only is the sight fishing in jeopardy, but the kiteboarder hatch occurs.  When it does, they'll shred the flats and you might as well pack it up.

Kauai - A good friend has recently fished this with a guide so this is largely his account.  Despite being the oldest island in the chain, Kauai doesn't have as much of a developed fringe reef or flats habitat as Molokai or Oahu but has more than Maui.  Numbers are fair, size is what you'd expect (big) and the flats are absolutely beautiful ranging from mid-calf to mid-thigh in depth.  Much like Maui, there is really only one central section along the NE shore of the island with a fringe reef and flats system.   Just north of Kaneohe Bay is one such spot, plus its accessible from shore.  Weather can be fickle on Kauai, especial the north end of the island so be aware that frequent rain, wind and cloud cover can really put a damper on things (if not make in un-fishable).  Due to limited flats and weather, Kauai also goes into the bucket of, I wouldn't go out of my way to fish it, but its definitely worth a day or two if you're already there.  Don't rule out hiring a guide, it could be worth it to dial you in on your first visit.

DIY Opportunities:  All of these venues have Do It Yourself options, but you'll first have to do your homework and a little hunting.  I had this book recommended to me and I turn would recommend it, do-it-yourself Bonefishing.  I covers a ton of locations and give very specific advice to both foot and kayak accessible locations for the DIY'er.  Also, if you don't have it, get Google Earth on your home computer in addition to the app for your mobile device.  It's like your treasure map and by far the best way to find flats.  Flats can be easily spotted from aerial images, just look for the fringe reef where waves are breaking far off shore, between these reefs and the shore are usually flats.  You'll also need to search for the best access point and then check it out in person, that's the only way to see if the flat is wadeable or has fish.  You may also check for special regulations or restrictions. Hawaii doesn't require a fishing license and has very laxed enforcement of regs, but there are some air bases and private access points to be aware of.  Additionally, Molokai locals have some of their own unique rules which I don't fully understand, but which I would research more if I were to DIY anywhere I wasn't sure about.

Parting Notes: The quality of the guides and their programs varies dramatically from venue to venue and island to island.  They run the gamut, from top quality professionals to very expensive fishing pals that want to catch their own fish as you guide yourself.  I'm not going to post about that here, but message or email me if you have specific questions about guides, lodging, flight, DIY, etc.  Even if you're a DIY'er, I'd recommend hiring a guide - at least for the first day - for most of the islands.

I think these fisheries are one of a kind, but I don't think they're managed very well.  All the locals and guides I spoke to have nothing good to say about the state's governance in general, or the Department of Fish and Game's oversight of the in-shore fisheries specifically.  Keehi Lagoon is riddled with sunken ships and trash, its mangrove islands are becoming overrun by homeless squatters and Molokai is being slow taken over by Mangroves and the state's response sometimes feels like "crickets chirping".


Also, there is a deep fishing culture in Hawaii and it revolves around eating what you catch.  Add to this the fact that gill netting is still legal for the most part and you can see that bonefish really get hammered.  While the bonefishing is still good, from what I've read, it's only a mere shadow of its former glory due to all of the above.  There is an effort to designate the bonefish (O'io) as a game fish which would help protect it from gill netting.  I also understand gill netting in Keehi Lagoon was (recently?) prohibited, which is a big step in the right direction, but I'm not sure if its as impactful as it could be because of laxed enforcement.  In good part because fly fisherman have taken an interest in these sport fisheries and a small guiding industry has sprung up around that, I'm hopeful we'll see more similar protections put in place.  I actually believe that more public awareness of these flats would serve to add more protections and actually improve the fishery in time.  More C&R fly fisherman aren't going to hurt the population of fish, but getting rid of gill netting and sensibly managing the harvest of bonefish around flats could really help this fishery.

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