Welcome to Kauai. What’s the Strange Stick in Your Hand?
This article was originally published in Saltwater Fly Fishing, December, 1999
Almost every trip now is a fishing trip. Whether it is a professional conference in Anaheim or a visit to see my son at his summer camp in the Adirondacks. When the family decided we would go to Kauai for Easter, I read every old fly fishing magazine I owned and books available on saltwater fly fishing to see what I could learn about Kauai. Zip. Dinato. Nothing
It seemed that Kauai was a non-destination for fly fishing. The information I received from the Hawaii Tourist Bureau was also devoid of anything useful. It mentioned the wonderful off-shore fishing for billfish and huge caches of rock fish taken by the local charter boats. But nothing on fly fishing. Calls to the charter boat operations on Kauai were equally disappointing.
“Fly fishing? You mean like for trout? This is deep sea stuff man. Maybe you want to call the people who do inland bass.
“No, I’m interested in fly fishing for saltwater game fish. On the beach, or from a skiff or even for billfish offshore.”
“Oh, I see, you made a mistake, you wanted to call the Bahamas, but you got Kauai instead, right?”
“No, I’m coming to Kauai, and I want to do some saltwater fly fishing.”
“Forget it. Nobody does fly fishing here. Big tackle and big fish. You bring your spinning outfit for the beach and use bait like we natives do. You come with me offshore, and we catch Mahi Mahi, Ulua, Ahi, Uku, Ono, and A’a. Or if it’s no good, we go over to the reef and get many stuff there”. There was a pause, then in an angry voice the charter captain said, “Hay, is this you Mano? You trying to play a joke on your uncle?” With that the telephone was slammed down.
So much for friendly advise from the islanders. I was beginning to think that fly fishing in Kauai was going to be a Quixotic quest. There was still one chance left. The San Mateo International Sportsman’s Exposition was to take place a month before our trip. All the legends of saltwater fly fishing would be there: Lefty Kreh, Chico Fernandez, Dan Blanton, Flip Pallot, and who knows how many others. I would still be able to spend almost every day at the show, gathering information on all aspects of fly fishing, but especially on saltwater fly fishing. If these guys didn’t know what could be done in Kauai, nobody would. If I couldn’t get any information, then, and only then, I would then resign myself to taking along my old surf rod and fishing with cut-up squid.
The seminars at the show were terrific. I was able to correct years of ignorance, sloppy techniques and useless bits of advise passed on from one generation of fly fishers to another. Unfortunately, nobody even mentioned Hawaii in their presentations. I went to the podium after each of the presentations on saltwater fly fishing and asked the speaker the same question.
“Do you know anything about fly fishing in Kauai and what flies should I be tying?” The answer was always the same. “Fly fishing in Kauai? Nobody fly fishs there. I hear they have some bone fishing on the Kono coast, or is it Molokai? Why don’t you call some of the local charter captains there? They probably can give you more information.”
Although I learned much about every aspect of fly fishing at the show, Kauai was still a black hole. Fly fishing was either an outlawed houli (mainlander) practice or something so wonderful and private that no one was willing to talk about it.
The show was a wash-out in terms of getting information on Kauai, and the thought of throwing frozen bits of squid to fish was too depressing to accept. I would bring my fly fishing equipment! As the time for our trip drew close, I realized that this probably would be nothing more than a practice session for Costa Rica. I would be going there shortly after our Kauai trip to deliver a workshop on stuttering therapy, then off to fish for tarpon on the Rio Colorado. I was told that I would need to cast 100 feet using lead core if we fished in the ocean. After repeatedly banging myself with 35 feet of 385 grain line at the fog shrouded casting ponds in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, I couldn’t ask for a more beautiful training ground then Kauai. At least nobody knew me there and they might believe that raising welts on one’s back was a normal part of this crazy form of fishing.
With my hectic schedule, there was little time to tie flies. Contrary to the popular opinion, university professors work long hours. Based on all the information I received, I knew that what ever I went with would probably constitute the entire stock of fly fishing equipment in Kauai. The night before the trip, I tied a few Lefty’s Deceivers in various colors, some Glass Minnows and a Clauser Minnow. This was just going to be for practice anyway. and I desperately needed to sleep. I knew that my fishing would be limited with only six flies
Since once having an airline lose my rod for two days, I’ve always carried them with me on the plane. As it went through the metal detector at San Francisco International Airport, the security guard stared at me as if I was a terrorist and asked what was in the metal tube.
Although I was tempted to say “an air to ground missile”, my wife’s look of admonition caused me to think more rationally. “A fly rod” I answered. He smiled at me and shook his head with approval. Maybe this wasn’t going to be the disaster I envisioned. When we arrived in Honolulu, we had to go to the inter-island terminal for our flight to Kauai. Another metal detector, another security guard, and another question.
“What’s in the case?”
“A fly rod” I again answered, but this time with a smile.
However, there wasn’t an approving nod from this guard. After looking at me with the most pitiful look I had seen since I used the word “dungarees” instead of “jeans” in front of my daughter and her friends, he said, “A fly rod? Are you telling me that you’re taking a fly rod to Kauai?” I felt as though I had just committed an unforgivable sin and probably the headlines in the morning paper would read,
HOULE PROFESSOR BRINGS FLY ROD TO KAUAI
RENEWED CALL FOR SEPARATION FROM THE STATES
With great trepidation, on our first full day in Kauai, I decided to try fishing on the grounds of our condominium complex. The rocks jetted far enough out that I could get a line into the water that was at least 12 feet deep. The words of the 75 year old man came back to me, who, after watching me wince with each slam of the line on my back, had offered his advise to me at the casting ponds.
“Big slow open loops and never look back unless you want to look like Popeye for the rest of your life”.
With little wind, I was able to cast the most beautiful Lefty’s Deceiver I had ever tied 60 feet without permanently disfiguring my back. As I began retrieving, the fly immediately lodged in the coral just below the surface. No matter what technique I used, it wouldn’t come free. Finally, with a hard tug, I broke off the 15 lb. test leader. For some expert fly tiers, losing a fly as easy to tie as a Deceiver is something that can be easily shrugged off. But for me, a struggling semi-competent tier, losing any fly, while not as traumatic as losing a family member, is an event worth a little mourning. Especially, when it’s the best one you ever created! As I turned my eyes from the piece of coral that ate my masterpiece back toward the condominium, I saw 10 people watching the debacle. A young child had seen me go down to the rocks and thought this was something his whole family should see. As they walked down to the beach, they informed other guests that something interesting was happening on the rocks. Events like that make you want to think about mandatory vasectomies. I immediately put on a Glass Minnow and tossed this one 90 feet. As the fly turned over perfectly and plunged into the azure blue water, I thought the father’s expression said “maybe I should get into this sport”, and his wife whose look said “Oh brother, another stupid thing for him to fool around with instead of working on the house!” As a teacher, I was pleased. Here I was a pioneer, a role model for someone who wanted to join the fraternity. With self-adulation, I began retrieving. Again a hang-up. Again a break off. The expressions began changing now on the faces of my observers. I’m sure my new student was thinking “maybe this isn’t the great sport it’s cracked up to be.” Gratefully my son came down to the water and informed me that it was time to leave and find a place for him to boggy board. Since I now had lost 40% of my flies in less than 5 minutes, I thought it might be a good idea to stop off at a tackle shop before searching for the ideal boggy board – fly fishing beach.
“Could you tell me where I can find a tackle shop?” I asked the clerk in the office who was dressed in a flower shirt that I am sure all hotel personnel throughout the island must wear in the presence of mainland tourists.
“Of course. We’re close to the best tackle shop on this part of the island. They got everything there. Go down the highway about one mile and then go into the shopping center on the left. Payless Drug Store is right there.”
“Is it next to Payless?” I asked.
” Next to? Oh no! It’s right there, right inside Payless. Go inside and then go to the back of the store. Look for the shoe section. You can’t miss it. Payless got everything. Shoes, candy, fishin stuff. Everything!”
As I drove toward Payless, I kept admonishing myself. Why didn’t I start tying a little earlier? So what if I didn’t send in those last two chapters to the editor? How important was the book anyway compared to fly fishing in one of the most beautiful places on earth?
As soon as I walked into the store I immediately saw the “tackle shop”. A prominent display located between shoes and auto parts. The whole back wall was covered with everything a bait angler or off-shore fisher person would need, from rods perfect for 400 pound tuna to power bait for bass in the inland waters. As I scoured the little packages of hooks, jigs and lures, I saw something that vaguely resembled a fly. There were 6 of these things in the package. It looked like a #12 1x hook poorly wrapped with green chenille and four pieces of hard monofilament spayed out toward the tail and attached to the head with a staple. I had no idea that these abominations were used for since the writing was in Japanese. I grabbed a pack and keep looking for anything that I could modify. Nothing. In the best tackle shop on this side of the island the only thing I found was a pack of ridiculously tied plastic flies with a description of how to use them in Japanese.
I took them to the clerk at the check-out counter who was humming what sounded like a Lawrence Welk classic.
“Excuse me, could you tell me what these are used for?”
He stopped in the middle of his rendition of “Lady of Spain” and slowly examined the package, turning it over twice, then thoughtfully said, “I think for fish.” In the states, I would have taken this as a bit of sarcasm, but not here. He was serious. He continued ” I’ve been working here for 5 years and I never seen anyone buy these.
“Do you really think fish are going to bite that? I said.
“How about some nice frozen squid? We got a new batch over there in the freezer.”
My depression grew. Hopefully nobody would be on the beach when I fished.
I have fished the surf in San Francisco, Florida, British West Indies and in Mexico, so I knew the importance of finding some place were the wind wasn’t too much against me and if possible to have the waves pull my line out. These conditions usually occur if you can find a sand bar close enough to shore to wade safely. They not only allow you to cast with the incoming wind and breakers, but the sand bar often creates a hole in which fish can leisurely pursue their pray.
I noticed a spot in Waihlua Bay as we drove around the island. Were the Waihlua River flowed into the sea, a nice sand bar created a trough that was at least 7 or 8 feet deep and 50 feet long. Logic said that this should be a good holding spot. I pulled out my rod and strapped on my stripping basket. Hopefully, nobody would be watching. I could use this as a practice session, perfecting my double haul for Costa Rica. The only place to park my car was in a lot at the far end of the beach. In order to get to the mouth of the river, I would have to walk about 100 yards down the beach, past the 15 locals who had positioned themselves throughout the stretch. So much for anonymity.
Hopefully they would be so engrossed in their own fishing that they wouldn’t see me in my Christmas Island wading boats, swimming trunks, Albert Einstein cartoon T-shirt, florescent blue flowered baseball hat and a 9 foot 9 weight rod and reel, the likes of which I’m sure had never been seen on the island. Although I managed to go unnoticed as I quietly walked behind the first few fishermen, the rest spotted me as I tried to stroll nonchalantly the 100 yards to my spot, which fortunately was unoccupied. It seemed that the longer the locals had to observe me, the more time it provided them to develop body postures and facial expressions designed to humiliate me. By the time I had passed the last person, I could see that my observations from the road were correct. Geographically, it was a great spot. I was able to wade on top of the bar about 40 feet from the shore and cast with the wind and waves into the hole. I tried each of my remaining 4 flies with no luck. At least the sandy bottom graciously gave them back to me. I knew that 30 eyes were fixated on my every movement,and with each cast watched by fifteen men, I felt more angst than when I presented to more than 600 of my colleagues.
The easiest way of retrieving in the surf is to tuck the rod under my arm and use both hands to pull the line into the stripping basket. This allows you to have a more direct line to the fish and set the hook fast and hard. After 15 minutes of using various retrieving speeds, the locals mercifully began to ignore me. They probably thought, “Just another dumb houle doing his mainland thing here.” I had desperately wanted to catch anything, even a sand crab, just to show them that I wasn’t completely crazy. But nothing.
I had gone through every fly that I tied. The only thing left was those ridiculous looking Japanese plastic flies. Reluctantly, I tied one on without impaling my finger on the stapled head and started fishing. I got a strike on the fifth toss. Well, maybe not a strike, more like an anemic tug. As I retrieved the line I could feel that there was something that actually was fooled by my Japanese fly. The jubilation I felt equaled the feeling I had when I caught the first rainbow on a fly I had tied.I could see a thin wiggling creature about 10″ long as the end of the line came closer. It was a trumpet fish, a fish similar to a mainland needle nose fish, except blessed with a musical instrument for a nose. Not exactly a game fish, but maybe enough to rescue my self-respect.
Without releasing it, I let out line and looked to the shore. Nobody was watching. I tried to develop a little bend in the rod by leaning backwards and even walked up the bar, trying to simulate a decent strike. The men were sitting on their beer coolers and just barely looking at their own lines. I no longer was an interesting diversion, just one of those tourists who come to the islands, spend money and make fools of themselves. I pulled in the line and carefully released the little fish. I could tell that he was as embarrassed at taking the fly as I was of using it. As I looked to tie on one of my remaining real flies, I noticed that there was something hidden underneath my tippet spool. It was a Comet that I had been using for steelhead fishing on the Russian River in California.
I thought I might as well use it, after all, this is just practice for Costa Rica. The line went taut on the second cast, one foot into the retrieve. This was not a trumpet fish, nor obviously was it a steelhead. Whatever was on the other end that just got fooled by a poorly tied fresh water fly was angry and decided that the hole it had been using as a luncheon spot should be traded for the open sea. As the running line was pulled out, I still had no idea what I had hooked. I guess that is one of the most exciting aspects of saltwater fishing. Until the fish jumps or surfaces at your feet or at the side of the boat, you could have anything. As the fish turned towards me, I furiously reeled in line as fast as I could. About 100 feet from me, parallel to the sand bar and directly in front of the fisherman closest to me, the fish jumped at least 7 feet out of the water.
I still had no idea what it was, but I could hear one fisherman yelling something down to the next person, who in turned yelled to the next person, until everyone on the beach stopped fishing and began walking towards me. After playing the fish for ten minutes I saw it. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was an Ono, the Hawaiian equivalent of a bonefish. It was approximately twenty inches” long and weighed about 4 pounds. Hardly a trophy, but I don’t think I ever caught a fish that gave me more delight. I carefully lifted the fish out of the water, just high enough for everyone to see, gently pulled out my steelhead fly, revived the fish and let it swim away. All of this of course was being done in a most casual manner, as if this was just another day of fishing.
When I started to cast again, I could see that although fisherman had gone back to their rod locations, they were now watching my every move. Not in the way they had done when I was providing them with the material for what would be an amusing story, but with the kind of awe I have only seen in the eyes of a client who wrongfully believes that I was the person responsible for increasing their ability to speak fluently. It had to have been luck. Fishing blind with a steelhead fly in a place where nobody fly fished is not an exercise in fishing knowledge; its just dumb luck.
However, if I was to catch another one, I would have to replicate what I had just done. Since I thought I was just practicing, I didn’t remember the spot I had cast too, nor the length or speed of my retrieve. The only thing I knew for sure was that I was in paradise, fishing for something I didn’t know the name of, with a steelhead fly, an amazed audience, and the future reputation of fly fishing in Kauai depending upon that I was about to do. I tossed the fly in the general area of my first strike and began retrieving. This time I would try to remember what I was doing.
The first retrieve consisted of 12-15″ strips with erratic movements. First fast, then slow, then medium. Nothing. I remembered reading in one of my books that there is nothing subtle about the movement of a bait fish when it realizes that it is about to become another part of the food chain. I tossed again and waited for the lead core head to drop into the center of the hole. My audience was still there, not caring if Neptune himself would come out of the sea and take their lines. I was the center of their attention now and probably would be until I left the beach. I placed the rod under my arm and retrieved fast with 15″ strips.
The line went taut on the sixth strip. I set the hook, held onto the line and before I had a chance to reel in the excess line in my stripping basket in order to play the fish off of my reel, it began heading for San Francisco. The line jumped out of the basket and peeled endless yards of Amnesia off the reel. My rod now resembled the neck of a crane looking for sand crabs. Catching that second fish was just as exhilarating as the first. Although I knew what to expect, the excitement of hooking into his aquatic performer was thrilling.
I could feel that it was definitely bigger than the first. It pulled out to sea for about 100 feet than began making a run that was parallel to the beach. With any luck it would position itself in the middle of the line of bait fisherman and perform an acrobatic movement worthy of a Michael Jordan dunk shot. Some days when you fish, you feel that you can’t do anything right. Other days no matter what you step into, you still smell like the expensive perfume you wish you had given your non-fishing wife before telling her about an upcoming fishing trip.
Today, I felt drenched in Channel No. 5. The fish not only had gone parallel to the beach, but had moved toward shore. The fishermen where pointing to the movement of my line when the Ono jumped straight up in the air, no more than 30 feet from the closest fisherman. Although the leap was not as high as the first fish, this was a much bigger fish, and being closer to shore, a more dramatic performance. After playing it for 15 minutes, I was able to bring it close enough to me to land and gently cradle it under its stomach. I felt like emulating the bass fisherman, Jimmy Houston, on ESPN who gratefully gives each fish a kiss before releasing it. Fortunately, I regained my senses; this fish should be respected and released without that indignity.
It was getting close to the time I was supposed to meet my family for dinner. As I walked back to the beach, I noticed that fishermen were positioning themselves so they could nonchalantly encounter me as I walked back to my car. The first two merely nodded their heads approving and barely smiled. What a change from the look of patronizing disbelief they had given me when I first came on the beach. When I came upon the third fisherman, he put down his pole and obviously wanted to talk.
“Can you show me what you used there to catch those Ono?” When I showed him my Comet, he turned it over, examined each part of it and shook his head. “You catch other things with stuff like this and that rod?”
I feigned the all-knowing “arrogant guide” look and said “Everything. I use them for all fish.”
It isn’t often when you can see the look of true reverence on another person. It is quite a humbling sight. To have that look directed to you may be great for the ego, but can also be very embarrassing when you know you don’t deserve it. When I walked back to the car, I could see fishermen standing together, and one was trying to demonstrate fly casting to others with his surf rod. I decided to come back tomorrow and try it again. The next day was Saturday, and as I walked down the beach with my son and daughter I saw the stretch of water I had laid claim to the previous day was now occupied by children in inner-tubes, adolescents on boggy boards and adults attempting to get the final crisping effects of the sun before heading home to the mainland.
This obviously was not the place to fish on weekends. I decided that this would be a day to relax, watch my son and daughter and remember what I had experienced the previous day. As I dosed, I could hear a conversation between a man and woman walking down the beach.
“No, I’m not kidding you. This guy caught two fish on a thing he calls a fly rod.”
“Get out of here! You been drinking again before you picked me up?”
“No, I’m telling you the truth. Ask any of the guys, they were all here. I realized that the couple hadn’t seen me and I enjoyed hearing the legend of the strange mainland fisherman.
“Look” the man said in hushed tones. “There he is”, pointing to me laying on the sand. “See, look at that rod. You call that a surf rod? No, that’s what they call a fishing fly rod. No doubt about it. Let’s go down to Payless and see if we get one and some of them flies he used.”
copyright 2003 Stan Goldberg, stangoldbergwriter.com
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