Fly Fishing in Salt Waters Magazine
The Aloha State’s Bonefish Grow Enormous, But They’re Always Tough To Catch
by Dave McCoy – unedited version
Hawaiian Bonefish, O’io!
For many fly anglers, bonefish were almost fatefully placed on earth as the perfect segue from freshwater to warm saltwater. In most places they are not difficult to catch, contrary to some common beliefs… and are why many anglers who become addicted to saltwater fly angling move on to more challenging species such as permit to quench their desire for a challenge. Well, the time has come for bones to elbow their way back to the front of the line, so to speak, and command respect from the most savvy and experienced fly anglers on earth.
Not everyone knows this, but some do and everyone should: the South Pacific is home to some of the largest bonefish in the world and Hawaii might just be the crown jewel. World records have come from elsewhere, but in my mind, only because very few anglers have ever taken Hawaii seriously as a bonefish destination in part because the habitat isn’t necessarily suited to allowing a 15 pound or larger fish to run forever. Like global warming, they must be stopped and in Hawaii often times this may not be possible.
There are two ways to view bonefishing in Hawaii. One is to earn it, having fished every possible corner of the planet for bones of all nationalities therefore recognizing what this place is amid the initial experience. The second is to read this article, be compelled to hop the next flight to Honolulu and be simultaneously inspired yet humbled beyond belief. The former approach is preferable but choosing the latter will hopefully kindle within you the desire to travel the globe in the name of research that will lead you back to Hawaii for your crowning achievement. In the end a passionate angler will come to realize the pinnacle of bonefishing is here, where these fish are elevated to the stature of large tarpon and wiley permit because like these two species, their pursuit is a hunting trip executed with a fly rod.
Bonefish are easy to love as even the smallest representation of the species will quickly remove line from any rod and reel setup. Larger ones really engage the higher octaves of reels, and on long endless flats seem as though they will run forever. Aah, the luxury…not here, not in Hawaii. No matter what island you find yourself on in their pursuit, expansive sandy flats basically do not exist. Coral rimmed reefs along shorelines or just a pancake in the middle of the deep blue require intelligent tactics to bring these brutes to hand.
Due to how the flats are situated these bones here don’t necessarily take the same path every day, they aren’t that predictable. Often times the boat will end up right on top of a fish because it cruised in from the sunny side virtually invisible with the glare only to show itself a second too late.
Errant World War 2 bombs scarred many of the flats in Kaneohe Bay leaving large “pock marks” on the bottom which inevitably become easy escapes for these fish. Also, most of the flats are along the edges of deep water where bonefish actually live, so it is instinctual for them to try to go home. Common sense tells most anglers to try to put on the brakes and stop them which is occasionally possible but most of the time not. Near the famed North Shore of Oahu, the bottom is riddled with variegated bottom structure consisting of large boulders and coral heads so with the big fish, you must employ an age old mantra, “If you love something, set it free” meaning turn the drag off!
Releasing the drag does a couple of things. First it doesn’t put the pressure on your leader and line to the point where they will snap or cut as easily on coral. Secondly, it allows someone–namely Coach–to jump from the boat and follow the fish for a while as he lifts your line off and out of aforementioned substrate. Once line is cleared, game on again, but this fish would be long gone otherwise.
When a fish descends off the edge of a flat into the deep blue you have to let it go. Turn the drag off and let the fish go deep so the boat can get over the top keeping the line off sharp coral reefs that border nearly every flat here.
These are no ordinary bonefish–and not that they are ordinary anyway—but, while relatives of theirs in other locales travel in larger numbers and on flats with more physical contour which allows a more predictable direction of travel, these fish are not that easy.
With regard to quantity of fish, let’s set the record straight. This isn’t Bahamas bonefishing where schools of hundreds are seen on a daily basis. By numbers I mean sight casting to 5 or 10 fish a day averaging 7-9 pounds. Some days will easily exceed this and others maybe not.
There are small bones here too, three to five pounders who are willing; but these are not what anglers should concede themselves to pursuing. Even if you don’t land one, at least get out and see how big these fish are and play the game rather than keep the bench warm. The population of exceptionally large bonefish (9-12 pounds) is much higher than in other parts of the world, so much so: that most well-traveled anglers leave having already made concrete plans to return.
This is the big leagues as far as bonefishing goes, in fact I’ve had an easier time with permit in some places. Paying for a guide to take you to a flat on Oahu, park in you in a spot and have you blind cast for hours is not guiding, at least not for bones. While there are times when these fish do tail, these periods are often short lived and easily missed if not in the right place at the right time. Fact of the matter is, many of the larger bones are found consistently in deep enough water to conceal their tails when feeding which is why the boat experience renders the best shot at these sizable fish. For other islands such as Kauai, walk and wade is the only way to go.
Bonefish are the perfect introduction to saltwater fly angling and pursuing these fish encompasses everything that attracts people to fly fishing in the first place. All the senses are piqued simultaneously learning saltwater entomology, their mobility around the bottom of the flats, and best of all, sighting the fish, presenting the fly and watching their reaction culminating in supersonic runs to far off places.
Coming to Hawaii should be all about sight casting to these fish. They are large and deserve the anglers’ respect which only comes from seeking them visually. Dig deeply into the bag of tricks to see if you have what it takes as these are not Bahamian or Belizean bones, not even close. Signing up to blind cast here is akin to closing your eyes and hoping. Even if you do get a trophy there is no experience behind it and in your heart, it will never count and while the bargain trip may seem like the best bet, you will only be cheating yourself out of the true Hawaiian bonefish experience.
Where to Fish
Not every island is created equal with regard to amount of “flats” type water. Molokai, Lanai, Kauai and even a smidge on Maui, but the island that boats the most is definitely Oahu, with miles of flats on every corner of the island. Some can be self serving but by and large, your experience will be most fulfilling from the deck of a quality flats boat of which there is only one used by guides in the islands, Coach Duff on Oahu. Andros Boatworks of Florida who custom made a boat capable of poling across shallow flats as well as handling the extremely rough conditions encountered in transit to some of the best fishing grounds where swells of 4 to 6 feet are common, water other flats boats simply would not dream of entering.
As with all guides, each has his or her own opinion of what works and why and here is no different. I enjoyed the rare privilege of spending the day with long time Kauai guide Rob Arita and Coach Duff in the same boat which proved a tremendous learning experience. They banter about strategies, flies and presentation with a little chiding mixed in. “That small-fly-fast-retrieve stuff isn’t going to cut it here Arita,” says Coach Duff as another fish refuses the fly. “Put on this Mantis pattern, strip long and slow once, and then react to what the fish does, typically they’ll charge and then game on bro!”
Fly Presentation and Patterns
It is different everywhere. Some places you go, guides like the fly leading the fish, letting it drop then “Strip. Fast! Strip faster!!” In other locales, they like it right on their head and leave it, then a follow with a small twitch.
This past trip, Coach finally put his foot down. “Look, we are good friends but I’ve had it with this fast stripping crap,” he says. “Lead the fish by 5 feet or so, let it drop and then one long slow strip. Watch his reaction and if he rushes it, when he tips, hit him. If he hasn’t reacted by the end of the second strip, pick up and recast.” Coach believes the bigger fish key in on the descending fly initially and then on the first strip, they rush it.
Longer and slower strips mean that most of the time you won’t feel the take. This is why sight casting here is so important to consistently hook the bigger bones. When you see the fish nose down on the fly, they have eaten and need the strip set and if you can’t see this, more often than not, you will miss the hook-up and spook the fish. As a matter of practice, don’t give them everything you’ve got, these fish hit the road in 6th gear so too much and “pop” they’re gone, even on 16 pound test.
Just another reason this fishery has to be done on a sight casting basis because I have yet to feel the take of a single bonefish I have hooked in Hawaii.
This region is rife with aquatic life and while there are over 15 species of mantis shrimp (Aloalo) in the islands only 3 of them are believed to be endemic. This is their primary food source on their way to 10 pounds, the two most common are the Philippine and the Ciliated mantis which vary in color from dark green nearly black to tan, light olive to slightly orange with occasional mottling or striping. Philippine max out at about 2 ½ inches while the Ciliated can be up to 4. Snapping shrimp and swimming crabs balance out the rest of their diet according to Kimberly Harding who has been conducting studies of these bonefish for Bonefish and Tarpon Unlimited for the past couple years.
Rob Arita of Bonefish Kauai likes smaller patterns much of the time in lighter colors. “After living on the island for 12 years, I have come to notice a large population of these smaller mantis shrimp and snapping on Kauai” says Arita. Locals use octopus legs and Rob has even found the occasional baby octopus in their belly. On Oahu, Coach doesn’t believe these larger fish will even pay attention to such small pray, especially where there is so much for them to eat. “I just have seen so many large fish barely even hesitate when a small fly has been well presented but when you throw something like my Plate Lunch in front of them, it’s like the dinner bell went off in the mess tent.”
As with any fishery, there is always going to be the prime season to be there, Hawaii is no different. Considering a trip to Hawaii for these fish will require paying attention to all the same criteria you would for any warm water destination; tides and moon phases can make or break a day on the water and getting the weather to pay forward a long over-due favor.
Winter brings with it unpredictable weather and some off tides while summer months are more consistently clear blue skies, favorable tides and smaller seas creating ideal conditions for spotting these giants.
There resides within our fly fishing community those who enjoy taking large fish on lighter weight equipment and I am one of them. However, this isn’t the place to stroke your ego and bring the 7wt because it performed so well in on the Yucatan because it won’t here. My trip before last involved hooking some fish that with a lighter rod were simply not coming back. While it doesn’t matter much to me in the long run, frustration would be a kind way of expressing my immediate feelings. Thus, 9 or even 10 weight rods are recommended with floating lines and with all the coral in the area, bring an extra as lost or shredded lines are not uncommon. These heavier rods are also going to make casting larger flies, like Coach Duff’s Plate Lunch Crab in brisk winds much easier.
One common issue seen with anglers and not just here are these faster rods everyone is producing. For this type of fishing, over lining these rods will make for quicker starts at fast moving fish as the rod will load sooner in the casting sequence. Every advantage an angler can grab, they should because all the other variables working against you will undoubtedly cost fish anyway and something this easy and under your control should be utilized.
For leaders and tippet, bring the big and tough stuff. Flouro is fine but not necessary. Favorites of mine for different reasons have been Deep Blue, stiff butt supple tip for throwing smaller mantis patterns and other times, such as overly windy days, Maxima Clear is rock solid. You can make this complicated if you like but with everything else going on when one of these hot heads is hooked, just keep it simple. 10 foot leaders and 3 or 4 spools (50lb, 30lb, 20lb or 16lb) of tippet are all that are necessary. In fact, leave the leaders; build your own out of the tippet materials. This stiffer material will turn over large flies in heavy wind more effectively and harder material like Maxima is going to more abrasion resistant.
When using large tippet of up to 20 pound test, attach the fly with a loop to ensure a more natural presentation by allowing it to swivel or move along the loop instead of looking like it is on the end of a climbing rope. As with any species of fish when traveling to different areas in their pursuit, bring corresponding equipment for the high end of the species so the fish of a lifetime doesn’t cruise off into the sunset.
Getting There, Doing That
Looking for a fly fishing vacation your significant other or family can also enjoy? This shouldn’t be a tough sell at all. For Oahu there are a number of options, obvious would be the string of high end hotels along Waikiki where a flat rests under your nose as you sleep, bones visible from your high rise hotel room with strong binoculars, tough to get shut eye with that thought in your head. Personal favorite and this goes for all the islands is renting a house or apartment on one of the more serene beaches such as Lanikai. On Kauai, plantation homes are wonderful as you can sense the authentic island culture still vibrantly alive all around.
Each of the guides have connections for just such locations and are all well suited to helping find other attractions authentic to the region on each island. Luaus, jewelry makers, hiking and musicians all offer a genuine cultural experience in the land of Aloha.
Flights to Hawaii are a simple and short direct hop from all major west coast of the U.S. cities and are serviced non-stop by all major airlines from the U.S., Japan, China and Canada.
Guides to List
Emerald Water Anglers – ewa.wpengine.com 206-601-0132
Capt. Coach Duffield – Oahu www.hawaiibonefishing.com 808-292-9680
Capt. Mike Hennessey – Oahu www.hawaiionthefly.com 808-366-7835
Rob Arita – Kauai www.bonefishkauai.com 808-828-1173
This last trip over to Oahu set into motion a calamitous change in my perspective on bonefishing. While on a new flat with Coach Duff and a client, we came across a behemoth bone. “Doug, 12 o’clock 80 feet coming straight at you, one LARGE bone.” Said Coach. Taking pictures while Doug fished, I spotted him quickly and said, “No that’s a pair shadowing each other.” Coach smacks me with the pole while directing Doug, “Wait, wait till I turn the boat, THERE, 50 feet 11 o’clock, hit it!!” When the fish turned and made obvious what was true I took a seat, nearly dropping my camera, and apologized to Coach, “I just never knew a bone could be that size.”
We were able to get within 45 feet of this fish and get one shot before it decided it was time to go. All other bones I have ever seen, here or anywhere, once spooked exit stage left in a hurry. This bone was so large it seemed as though it knew we were no threat and slithered away at a pace lightly faster than Coach could pole the boat. We watch him swim away to about 100 yards when we lost sight and that was only because the sun went behind a cloud.
Now, the IGFA all tackle world record is an even 19 pounds and having seen and landed bonefish in the 10-12 pound class, this fish was easily twice as large as those plus quite a bit.
I am going to venture a guess and say this fish was in the 45 inch range, potentially larger. I don’t know what that equates to in literal pounds but my guess would be that if landed, would shatter the world record and bring Hawaii to the forefront of bonefishing world.
I will forever remain haunted yet intrigued by that fish: intrigued knowing it exists, haunted by the realization I may never see one like it again… and highly motivated to get back here frequently so that maybe I do.