March 02, 2023
By Hilary Hutcheson
Getting duped by pea-brained los peces is the maddening, humbling, necessary, and inevitable part of fly fishing that always cracks me up. Except that, on one particular day in Mexico, I wasn’t laughing. Far from it. With steam coming out of my ears on the bow of a panga, I set the hook firmly and, after the first two strips, knew I’d been had. Again. A school of rip-off artists schooled me over and over. These bonefish could have won an Academy Award for the number of times I mistook them for permit. The truth is, a large school of small permit had been sticking to one shallow backcountry bay for quite some time, swimming slowly and feeding deliberately. I had ample shots, but every time I hooked up, I got the ol’ bait and switch. Bonefish mingling in the same clique kept zipping in on the shrimp pattern—snatching it up seemingly right from under a permit’s stubby nose.
On the seventh such hook-up, I fed a ton of slack into my line, hoping the bonefish would shake off. But the hook had been firmly set—because, of course, I thought it was a permit. With all the small permit around me and none of them at the end of my line, it was like being surrounded by mezcal, and not a drop to drink.
This is a story about perspective. That day in Mexico, I never wanted to see another bonefish. And that’s crazy. On that day I had set out, clench-jawed, to catch permit and nothing else would do. I caught no permit that day, but so many incidental bonefish that I lost count.
So, when the opportunity came up a few months later to go bonefishing in Hawai’i, I surprised my partner Ebon by saying, “Yeah, that sounds awesome, let’s do it!”
“I thought you hated bonefish,” he said.
“Well,” I said, smiling, “hate is an awful strong word.”
Hawai’ian bonefish, known in the native language as ‘ō‘io, are heralded as some of the biggest in the world, commonly with double-digit heft and double-ruler length. Scientists and anglers agree that ‘ō‘io are longer per pound than Caribbean bonefish, and typically girthier. The roster of Hawai’i state record fish lists the 18-pound 2-ounce bonefish caught in 1954 by William Badua as the state’s largest ever, a world record for 25 years. The state boasts two species of bonefish, known as the roundjaw (Albula glossodonta) and sharpjaw (Albula argentea) species, with the sharpjaw bonefish found nowhere else in the world.
Fortunately for anglers with experience bonefishing elsewhere, ‘ō‘io eat similarly, primarily zeroing in on shrimp. But there are plenty of differences in their behavior. In Mexico, anglers might find large schools of feeding fish that stir up the ocean floor to create discoloration in the water called “muds.” This can lead to a sure hook-up for fly fishers since even a sloppy cast into the center of the mud will likely turn up boney.
“You won’t find that in Hawai’i,” says guide Makani Christensen of Fly Fishing Hawai’i (flyfishhawaii.com).
Hawai’i bonefishing requires guests to bring their “A” game, stacked with stealth, accuracy, timing, a solid double haul, patience, and luck. “Out here you’re going for large, single fish that are rarely in groups and usually tailing,” says Makani.
Success is measured in opportunities and follows rather than actual catches. Personal experience and anecdotal audience polling tell me that first-time bonefishers in Hawai’i will have the best results if they hire a local guide rather than attempt a DIY.
We hired Makani on a friend’s recommendation. He picked us up from our Airbnb early in the morning on Oahu’s North Shore. “Weather looks like we’re gonna hammer.” He grinned, nodding at the pale periwinkle sky approvingly. Then to me, disapprovingly, “Got to change those sunglasses. You need to start out with Sunrise Silver Mirror Lenses if you want to see the fish.” He smiled and handed me a pair with yellow lenses, which I put on immediately.
Born and raised in Hawai’i, Makani is like other native Hawai’ians in his fondness for and prowess at multiple fishing styles, including inshore casting, deep-sea fishing, cast netting, spearfishing, fly fishing, and more. “It’s about understanding water and fish here more than being specific to the style of it,” says Makani. “You have to have a relationship with the ocean to guide here, and you have to want to introduce the ocean to visitors who will then also love it and care for it.”
A graduate of the United States Naval Academy with a bachelor of science degree in oceanography, Makani was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. He fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and joined a commercial fishing crew while he was still a Marine. “That’s where I got a better understanding of our fishery,” says Makani. “That’s when I became an advocate for fishermen, native fish, habitat, and public access. Fly fishing was the perfect route to being the best advocate I could.”
From the North Shore of Oahu, Makani took us south toward Honolulu, where he launched his skiff and drove to the famous Triangle Flats. We anchored and waded the flat near a drop-off indicating a channel funneling giant trevally, bonefish, and other prized gamefish. “The ‘ō‘io will slide up from the channel to feed where it’s shallow,” said Makani.
Over the next several hours, Ebon and I each had multiple shots at bonefish so large we barely recognized them as cousins of the bonefish in Belize, Bahamas, Mexico, or the Florida Keys. I briefly fought a big one that ran directly at me. I tried backpedaling to pick up real estate on my fly line and stumbled. My rod tip went toward the sky, and before catching myself, I saw the fly sail out of the fish’s mouth.
The fly burned a picture in my brain as it escaped a 9-ish pound ‘ō‘io. It was an all-black mantis shrimp pattern tied by Makani. “I just use black EP fiber and dubbing, and black dumbbell eyes,” he says. “They’re super small. But hey, elephants eat peanuts!”
After Ebon and I spooked a number of large tailers with our clod-hopping flats march, Makani reminded us of the importance of getting quickly into position by balancing haste and grace. Fortunately, when bonefish are focused on rooting for mantis shrimp, they tend to let down their guard.
When a particularly large bonefish swung the door of vulnerability open wide, Ebon made his play. Facing into a stiff wind, he positioned himself directly behind a tailing bonefish and crouched low.
He slingshotted a sidearm cast so that the line and leader landed behind and to the side of the fish, with the tippet curving slightly to the left and the fly softly plopping directly in front of the fish’s downturned nose. Ebon let the shrimp pattern hit the sand, then twitched it to get the fish’s attention. Typically, that action would be followed by either a slow strip or tiny “ticking” strips, but the bonefish charged the fly without hesitation. Ebon set the hook—an instant ticket to an authentic Hawai’ian flats rodeo.
It wasn’t exactly a running scene from Chariots of Fire, as the three of us splash-loped behind the rocketing animal. The chase led Ebon toward a deep drop-off, and the fish seemed to know exactly where it wanted to be. As it pulled toward the edge, Makani yelled between whoops, “Hey, give it a ton of line so it doesn’t cut off on the sharp rocks!” Ebon did. He teetered on the edge of the drop, now fighting the fish in deeper water that seemed to give Ebon an upper hand by allowing the rod to bend more. With the fight in his favor, Ebon reeled the fish close enough that he could pick up his rod tip and ease it over the drop-off without letting the line touch the rocks.
With the fish back on the flat, Ebon grabbed the leader carefully and brought the fish near enough to grasp its tail. Keeping it in the water, he unhooked the fly, turned the fish toward the paparazzi, and we snapped away before he sent the 10-pounder swimming.
With the satisfaction of a solid day already set in our skin, the sun began its descent over the ocean to the west, and I became aware that I had not yet landed a fish. As I tried to convince myself to ignore such pettiness, I also noticed that the late day’s visibility became challenging. Since the glare and shadows made seeing cruising fish more difficult, we hoped tailing fish would still give away their whereabouts.
When the setting sunbeams glinted off the vertical-bobbing rudders of single tailers widely scattered across the flat, the allure of multiple targets equated to the feeling of “powder frenzy” experienced by snow skiers. And, as with powder frenzy, there’s risk involved in barreling straight at the fun without considering consequences.
Makani stopped me before I ruined the flat by marching through it toward the closest tailing bonefish. “Yo,” he said, waving me off. “Fish might pop up between us and the one you’re seeing. These are happy bones and they’re not going anywhere unless you freak ’em out. Let’s just chill.”
We stood still, my eyes refusing to give up on the target I had chosen across the flat. But, suddenly, a third of the way between that far fish and us, another, larger tail shot up. Makani grinned. “There’s your fish, Hil!”
In another life, I may come back as a clutch player. But, in this life, I tend to airball important shots. And that first cast was no exception.
Still, some sort of island magic swirled around me and granted me multiple second chances—an uncommon gift in the hunting of Hawai’ian bonefish. When I finally came tight, I only remember giggling. I remember thinking, “Do I giggle? I guess I’m a giggler now!” I giggled my way across the flat, in an exhilarating jig of stumble-running and reeling until I could kneel with my biggest-ever bonefish before me in the water and Waikiki’s classic Diamond Head as a backdrop in the distance.
Keep Fish Wet
Keeping the fish’s gills submerged, I remembered what I learned from my friend and scientist Sascha Clark Danylchuk, executive director of the nonprofit Keep Fish Wet, to keep air exposure to 10 seconds or less, with the gold standard not to take bonefish out of the water at all. Danylchuk’s husband, Dr. Andy Danylchuk, professor of fish conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst says, “There has been a ton of scientific research done via my lab and collaborators that shows how vulnerable bonefish can be because of poor handling practices once they are landed. Avoid rough surfaces like dry hands, sun gloves, and sand, all of which can remove slime and injure scales and fins. And, minimize handling time—essentially, from the time your bonefish is landed to when it is released. This can be easier if you crimp down the barbs on your flies as well as think ahead of time about where you are fishing and how you will interact with that prized catch. If there are a lot of sharks around, move locations rather than increasing the chances of your bonefish being preyed upon following release.”
Later, during a happy hour of fresh, spicy poke, and Mai Tais, we chatted with a few visitors who had been fly fishing on outer Hawai’ian islands, and we started to make plans. The anglers we talked to suggested that Hawai’i has unlimited variety for couples and families who desire a multi-activity vacation rather than only fishing.
Dr. Aaron Adams, a marine ecologist at Florida Institute of Technology and director of operations for the nonprofit Bonefish & Tarpon Trust writes, “Although there is plenty to do on Oahu, the other Hawai’ian islands also have a lot to offer. My favorites are the big island of Hawai’i and the northern island of Kauai. The island of Hawai’i is so large that a week is probably not enough to see everything, so it’s best to do some research prior to the trip to choose what is most appealing to you. The western Kona Coast is sunny most of the time and is where the resorts are located; the south-central region hosts the active Kilauea volcano; the eastern side (including the town of Hilo) is the wet side of the island and houses the rainforest and some great waterfalls; and the northwest plains have the largest single cattle ranch in the United States, at the foot of Mauna Kea, the highest point in Hawai’i at 13,796 feet. The northernmost Hawai’ian island, Kauai, offers great surfing, and a generally laid-back vibe, as well as some opportunities for bonefish. With much of the island undeveloped, and a lot of land in state parks, the hiking opportunities are impressive. And if quiet time on a beach is needed for what ails you, there are plenty of opportunities.”
This being a story about perspective, I am pleased to report that my life has been positively impacted by a new view on bonefish. And it’s not about liking them more or less. I love bonefish and I always have. I just haven’t liked catching them when I’m trying to catch permit in Mexico.
But, in Hawai’i, fishing for bonefish feels a lot like fishing for permit. It’s the way they tail on the flats, the challenging hunt, the thumping in my chest when a clutch cast is required, and the way they rip line off the reel. But make no mistake, ‘ō‘io are uniquely themselves, and worth wading for.
Hilary Hutcheson owns Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana and spends her summers guiding multi-day fishing trips on the Flathead River. She is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor, and her most recent story was “Hebgen Malfunction: Fly Shops Rally to Save the Madison River”in the April-May 2022 issue. Hutcheson is an instructor at School of Trout, serves as a national board member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, sits on the advisory committee for Guiding For the Future, and is a well-known climate activist.
larysflyandsupply.com | @outsidehilary