Stalk Trophy Ghosts in the Land of Aloha
by Capt. Terrence Duffield
I’m here for the Behemoth Bonefish
Like the way most stories passed around the campfire or shared at the fly-tying table begin, so does this one. They usually start with the word “so,” or a slurred “sooooo” if enough single malt has been sipped. This one is no different, except that in this particular case, the best part of the story doesn’t center on the journey or the adventure, but on Hawaii’s behemoth bonefish.
So I’m racing to the Honolulu Airport to pick up my friends Dave McCoy and later in the day, Brian Jill. Dave is long time owner of Emerald Water Anglers in my born and raised city of Seattle. Running late, I fly through the H3, which connects my hometown of Kailua on the windward side of Hawaii to the H1, which connects Honolulu to just about everywhere. I have had one speeding ticket in the last 24 years so I don’t feel good about this quick pace at all, but I ‘m picking up and old fly-fishing buddy I haven’t fished with for years. Now, with three kids and a beautiful wife, I drive a minivan, but what the hell, I feel fast.
Fifteen minutes later Dave McCoy is in my sights standing on the curb with rod tubes, bags and camera gear galore. I hit the brakes, jump out, grab him in a bear hugand start tossing things in the minivan. As usual, Dave has brought a lot of stuff. A phenomenal fly-fisherman and accomplished outdoor photographer, he’s ready to indulge in both of his passions. While we wait for Brian’s flight to touchdown, Dave and I head to a military base flat for a couple hours of sight fishing.
As we head out on the water, my memory gets kick-started and I immediately remember how “fishy” Dave is. It all comes back to me as a very large blacktip shark, about six feet in length goes screaming across the flat like his rear-end is on fire. I handed Dave a a bonefish fly I tied in a size six, and for thelife of me I can’t figure out how he hooked this shark, let alone managed to get a run out of it without cutting 16-pound Frog Hair Flourocarbon on those razorblade teeth. The shark runs and runs, and finally Dave points the rod and Mr. Blacktip is home in time for dinner. He felt the prick of the Gamakatsu fly hook and got a nice job in, but that was about it.
We seldom see sharks on our flats, though there are a few areas where blacktips are common, which is about the only shark specie we see. We haven’t lost a hooked bonefish to a shark yet, knock on wood, but it’s possible scenario. As Dave and I get a laugh or two at what just happened, we see bonefish tails and off we go. No, not to stalk tailing bones, but to pick up Brian.
A few years back some guys grabbed a video camera and headed to Patagonia. Living in the dirt, fishing like possessed gremlins, they ended up creating a very successful idea for high quality produced fly-fishing videos and in effect launched the Trout Bum Brand, which has since its inception, revolutionized the way the world sees the sport. Brian is one of the founding “Bums” and practices what he preaches. He is a driven, accomplished angler, and I was looking forward to showing him Hawaii and its big bones.
Once home, we begin a fly tying session in preparation for the following day. As often happens when good anglers get together and tie, the session becomes a time to share past experiences on various rivers, flats, beaches and lakes we’ve drawn from. Brian is fresh from months in Skeena country and Dave has just spent a month in Mongolia. All of this goes into the fly patterns being tied and the end result is tronger and ar more artistic with this team spirit than if done solo. It becomes obvious that like so many bonefish anglers, Tim Borski and Enrico Puglisi influence the three of us, even though we live thousands of miles apart. The patterns show this, and the next morning the boys load up in my partner Captain Bob Tang’s boat to hit some flats.
Captain Tang is the brain behind Kelela Lures, the lures anybody who knows anything about fly-fishing uses in the Hawaiian Islands for big game. Bob has been hit hard by the fly fishing bug and preaches catch and release on all bonefish. He is also making new teaswers as we speak for big game fly anglers. As a long time jewelry make and local big game legend, it’s great to have him on our side.
It’s 6:30 a.m.Hawaii time when the first tail sticks out of knee deep water as Brian and Dave say in unison, “It’s huge!” I see these things every day and as I do so often to clients, I mutter under my breath, “They get bigger. Much, much bigger.”
Even so, the first tailer of the day goes about eight or nine pounds, very respectable, but not in the big boy class here in the land of aloha.
Dave begins stalking the tailer, while Brian and I head toward a set of red mangroves. Mangroves, like alot of Hawaiian flora and fauna are not native, but they serve the same purpose here as they do at any bonefish destination. We are about one hundred yards away when the sound of a reel screaming can be heard across the flat. Dave McCoy is hooked up! I look back and can see immediately that Dave has a serious fight on his hands. The fish is trying to run to the edge of the reef and almost makes it 150 yards away when Dave’s experience and tenacity take over and he stops the 30 mph freight train. The fish turns out to be 9 pounds and is tagged by Captain Tang.
We are running a tagging program that is being headed by Kimberly Harding, a graduate student. With the support of Bonefish Tarpon Unlimited and its head scientist and well-known fly-fishing author Dr. Aaron Adams, Kimberly was flown to the latest World Bonefish Symposium and respresented Hawaii as well. We have our own Dr. Alan Friedlander here in Hawaii who is botht he foremost expert of Hawaiian bonefish and a strong advocate of conservation.
As Captain Tang and Dave tagged and photographed the fish, I got a shot at one myself. The fish refused my offering initially and then turned and began to swim directly away from me. I had never hooked on of these fish running straight away from me, let alone with the same fly it just turned down, but I made a long cast right alongside the fleeing fish. My custom Burkheimer saltwater rod never lets me down and the cast was in the zone. Kerry Burkheimer rolls his own graphite, and as a longtime student of the legendary Russ Peak, his name is well known throughout all fly-fishing circles as a master rod builder of things fresh, salt and spey. he flew to Hawaii and fished with me before he built my rods. His attention to detail is obvious in looks, feel and performance.
As soon as the fly hit the water, the smallish Hwaiian bone at five-and-a-half pounds turned like a hungry dog and sighting-in a pork chop and hammered the fly before it hit bottom. I was laughing and hooting, so Brian walked over and checked things out for a minute before going back into stalking mode. Sometimes luck trumps ability in this great sport and I got lucky. These fish can provide a very frustrating experience if one expects dozens of hookups a day. This is hard, technical fly-fishing due to the environment, the size and age of the fish and pressure. There is no exaggerating when i say bringing your “A Game” to Hawaii is a must.
Mintues later, as I tag and release my five-and-a-half pound “little guy,” Brian’s reel runs off screaming. He is now in hot pursuit of a monster as it runs for the reef edge. Like a veteran angler, he applies pressure in the direction the fish is heading as the determined bonefish turns back onto the flat. Soon after a fat, healthy eight-pounder is tagged and released. Brian, still relishing his experience, says it’s pound for pound the strongest bonefish he has ever hooked. Dave McCoy says the same thing a while later as he hooks into another. These are not lagoon dwellers; they are true blue water bones and the jets they have on their backs prove it.
As Dave, Captain Tang, and I stand in the falling tide admiring paradise, Brian is running across the flat one more time, screaming, “I’ve got a big guy!” He does not turn this big fellow and it takes him right over the reef. This indeed is a true trophy, 12 pounds plus. Brian does everything right, from applying pressure, to throwing slack, but the big one got away, Brian is all smiles and high-fives. He fooled a wild trophy bonefish and no matter what the outcome, that constitutes victory when hunting huge bones.
Later on, we jump on my custom flats panga that Andros Boatworks has built for me, made just for this rough, tough environment and these massive fish. They spared no expense in building this craft, which will give us the ability to chase fish near reef edges – completely uncharted territory when it comes to Hawaiian fly-fishing.
After two more days of hooking up Hawaiian bones, losing some and winning some, we said our goodbyes. The fish here are wild and huge and I was honored to share their magic on our Hawaiian flats with anglers as good and as well rounded as Dave McCoy and Brian Jill. On the way to the airport, they both couldn’t stop going on about how amazing the experience was and that this truly was the trophy bonefish destination paradise I had always advertised it as. No kidding!