WAILUPE BEACH, OAHU — As he skulked along the shore with his steely gaze on the translucent shallows, Ollie Owens somewhat resembled a bear looking for its next scaly feast in an Alaskan stream. The veteran fly fishing guide was intently studying the water, hoping it would give up a couple of secrets without too much work.
The tide had slowly rolled in, bringing with it a host of prey animals, including different varieties of crabs and shrimp, and providing more water for predators to feel safe as they too scanned the skinny water with the intent of filling their bellies. When the sun peeked through the low-hanging clouds, an underwater web of light sandy spots and darker chunks of coral would materialize, providing an opportunity to also look for light green shapes resembling soda cans cruising just below the surface.
Out of the water, those cylinders turn out to be streamlined silver fish. In the water, they are a turbocharged delight for anglers.
Hawaiians call them o’io.
In the rest of the world, they are called bonefish, pound for pound some of the biggest fighters in the aquatic world.
As the wind picked up, Owens motioned to slide into the knee-deep water.
“There’s some coral that rises up a little higher than the surrounding structure all through this flat,” said Owens as he waved toward the shimmering horizon with a fly rod. “I call them pitcher’s mounds. You can get up on them and put your shot out easier.
“There are highways and channels running all through here, and there could be fish almost anywhere with the tide flowing in. For now, we’ll just see if there’s anybody around.”
After getting somewhat used to the wind while flipping line out, Owens directed me to a meandering maze of coral that stretched as far as I could see.
“We’ll keep blind casting until the sun pops back out,” he said, noting that it would probably rain, but pass quickly.
It took a few minutes, but the bright orb finally crept from behind the clouds, illuminating the watery labyrinth below.
Almost at the same instant, a green shape slowly skittered near the surface about 40 yards away, casually gliding toward the beach.
“Get going,” Owens said, motioning me to build up some line in the air.
Just before I could shoot out the line with the barbed, orange shrimp imitation at the end of it, the back quarter of a big, hungry bonefish came springing out of the water as it nearly did a headstand while no doubt inhaling some type of small crustacean on the bottom.
“Wow … that was cool. If you’d just got it out in front of him a few seconds earlier you’d be hanging on,” Owens said. “That’s bonefishing, man.”
Fly fishing in Hawaii
When anglers think of great fishing, in particular superb fly fishing, they don’t normally think of Hawaii, but they should because the fish on and around the most isolated island chain in the world can pack a wallop. Bonefish, in particular, are some of the most sought-after saltwater game fish on the planet, and Oahu has them in droves on its shallow flats. There are also different types of trevallies, jacks and other skinny-water inhabitants that will gladly take many of the same fly patterns.
When it comes to bonefish around Oahu, the bigger ones often are caught farther out at sea — the preferred habitat for the fish — in fishermen’s nets. However, there are still plenty of fish reaching the 6- to 8-pound range — or bigger — that will cruise the shallows looking to feed as the tide falls in and out.
As many accomplished bonefish anglers will tell you, the fish can be quite skittish as they enter smaller water, making for tougher going than in many fly-fishing situations. That means anglers must be able to place a fly on the water without a big slap, something they can get away with in other locales. Because the wind was up and I was focusing on cutting the line through it, I probably spooked a good number of fish that might have sent the reel squealing had I been more cautious with my casts and dropped the shrimp more softly in front of one of the vacuum cleaners.
Owens, who has built a stellar reputation on the island for his know-how and dogged determination to make it the best fishery it can be, was a wealth of knowledge when it came to understanding the ins and outs of fly fishing in Hawaii.
“For the last decade, I’ve just been trying to let people know what’s going on over here,” he said. “There hasn’t been much said about fishing in Hawaii — especially for bonefish — in the past, but more and more people are figuring out that the islands are a great place to fish.
“There’s plenty of little things I’ve picked up from fishing a lot here, but once you go out with a guide or learn the ins and outs of things, you’ve got it made.
“There aren’t many people who think about using fly rods here. Most guys who come here to fish or the locals are just focused on stacking them up. When you say ‘catch-and-release’ to people around here, they just kind of look at you funny. They wonder why you would want to catch something just to toss it back.”
Fly fishing for bonefish
While the release is easy, hooking up with a big bonefish — much less landing one — is a chore in itself. Because bonefish can make such potent runs, you should plan accordingly. That means if you take your own gear, you’ve got to have a rod with some backbone and a large arbor reel that can hold plenty of line when a fish makes a zipping dash in the opposite direction. Anything less than an 8- or 9-weight is too light, even for a relatively small fish.
With jagged coral and other obstructions, not to mention some wave action, you’ve also got to have sturdy line and leader material. A stripping basket is also a good idea if you want to avoid getting your hand-drawn line snagged on anything that might cost you the chance of landing a fish.
If you choose to fish with a guide, something that is always recommended on new water or when using new techniques, they can provide the exact gear you will need rather than force you to guess at what might work.
Hawaii may not be the first destination that comes to mind for most fly fishers, but it is certainly one that won’t disappoint. The sunsets alone are worth the price of admission.
Then again, there’s nothing like the squeal of the reel.