Fly Rod and Reel Magazine
The secret is out–say aloha to bonefish off the beaches of Hawaii.
by Dave McCoy
FIFTEEN YEARS AGO. I’M FLYING back to Telluride from Belize. As always, I search the airport for suspicious-looking people carrying rods or gear that explains they suffer from the same fly-fishing affliction as me. This guy is an easy find: backpack with 3 Sage rod tubes sticking out of the top.
I casually walk over and ask him what’s up? He’s headed to Hawaii for bonefish. I sort of scoff at the idea, as everyone know there are no flats, much less bonefish, in Hawaii. My skepticism leads to a lesson in military-base access and a reminder that just because a place doesn’t offer flats leading to the horizon doesn’t mean that quality habitat and the accompanying bonefish doesn’t exist there.
Warp ahead 14 years. I’m living in Seattle, running a fly-fishing guide service, spending considerable time angling for bones and other species in the accustomed areas. A good friend, Terry Duffield, officially Capt. Duffield or “Coach Duff”, calls and says he’s moving to Hawaii to start a fly-fishing guide service.
Now, I tell myself, I need to get over there and check out this place. Duff tells me I shouldn’t bother bringing my 8-weight rods. “They won’t cut it,” Duffer says and again, measuring this advice against previous experiences, I take them anyway. Wisely, I soon learn, I also packed the 10-weights. These bones, I find out, aren’t Bahamian or Belizean schoolies–they are oversized rockets averaging five or six pounds and often stretching past 10 pounds. The Hawaii record bone weighs 18.5 pounds. Local fishermen say they’ve found 30-pound bones in their nets. All I can say about that is, Get the f— out of here!
Duff picks me up at the airport in Honolulu and 20 minutes later we-re walking a flat at Hickam Airforce Base. Duff is a former Marine, so we barely slow down at the entrance. Sweet!
After a fishless day one, I meet Duff the following day. We access some nice flats witha boat as Honolulu shines in the background. An hour into the day and experiencing some bad light in the direction I am wading, I cast to what I think is a shadow. Surprisingly, my line comes tight and the slack clears. The fish is off to the races, but the edge of the flat is about 350 yards away, so I’m confident with my state of affairs. Moments later, after I’ve tightened my Bauer Rogue 7 to its near max, line continues to depart rapidly and I see the fish approaching the edge of the flat. I backpeddle while looking at my part-time Spey reel and part-time permit reel–I notice there is barely any backing left and I know there used to be 400 yards of the stuff. I start wondering, bone…or something else?
Fortunately, the fish stops shy of the reef and I slowly tow it back, revealing the largest bone I have ever landed. The Boga says it weighs between nine and 10 pounds. I’m on Cloud 9 as Duff saunters over and says, “Nice fish. Just above average for what we see here.” After ample spirits and ringside seat at a bar fight that night, I still can’t sleep. I’m like a teenager with a new love–can’t wait for school tomorrow. Over the next few days we get shots at 30 or 40 solid fish, but only land one out of seven hooked. Despite that low success rate, I barely land in Seattle before booking my next trip to Hawaii.
BONEFISH, IN MY OPINION, WERE put on Earth to entice freshwater anglers into saltwater fishing. However, after a few trips targeting those fish, many accomplished fly fishers write off bones as easy, almost mundane targets, simply entertaining fill time between shots at permit, tarpon, trevally and milkfish.
Hawaii, I find, is a completely different story; at times Hawaiian bones are easily spooked and if you happen to hook one you won’t land it without fishing 30lb Maxima right to the fly because most of its flats are filled with coral and these fish, let me tell you, are giants.
When targeting Hawaii bones, realize that not all islands are equal. Oahu is rich with bonefish habitat. Other islands have a few reasonable flats here and there. Should you have the explorer gene in your DNA, Molokai and Kauai have flats and there are fly-fishing guides working them. To discover overlooked flat, try Google Earth and see what you can find. For those on family vacation, realize that productive flats are located right under your hotel room in Waikiki, which, I should warn, is at once a blessing and a curse. “Sure baby, I’ll be back in an hour.” Yeah right. Can you say, “Doghouse?”
Sight-fishing is the preferred method in Hawaii even though blind-casting works and is applicable when conditions merit, like when the wind blows up. The flats are not all hard-white sand, which in other locations allows light tippets to easily skim over them with little threat of abrasion. Not here: most flats are forms of coral and rock that eat through 30-40-pound Maxima leaders and fly lines.
While bonefishing in Hawaii typically takes place in deeper water than you might find in , say, Belize, anglers do see tailing fish. In fact, on the right flats and corresponding tides, I see tailing bones nearly every day I spend on the water.
Still, the Hawaiian bonefish gig provides its frustrations. One pitfall is that you need a boat to access some of the best flats or you need military-base passes. In some cases a kayak or, to be more authentic, a paddleboard is all you need.
Remember, too, this isn’t the Bahamas or Belize. These Hawaiian bones are big, but they aren’t abundant. Don’t expect to encounter a school of 100 bonefish. In fact, there are days when you may only spot a couple of bonefish, especially when wading. On other days, however, those bones come out of the woodwork and you have shots numbering into the teens.
Over the past few trips I’ve followed Duff around with some of his clients and I’ve found a new favorite phrase from experienced bonefish anglers–“What is that!” they yell. We answer: “That was the 15-pound bonefish you just spooked by screaming like a child.”
To me and other acomplished anglers, the Hawaiian bonefish fishery reestablishes the gray ghost as a legitimate trophy fish, worthy of pursuit. Hawaiian bones bring that old excitement rushing back and put the ghost of the flats back on your fly-fishing hit list.
Dave McCoy is a writer and fly fishing guide who lives in Seattle.