Explore Hawaii

Stalking Bonefish in Hawaii

Researcher Dr. Aaron Adams heads halfway around the world to find out if bonefishing is as good in the Hawaiian Islands as it is in the Caribbean.

On the one hand, I was pretty tired after 12 hours of travel—departing Florida early in the morning, changing flights in Houston and landing in Honolulu on a sunny Hawaiian afternoon. On the other hand, the approach path to the Honolulu airport took the plane over a fantastic bonefish flat that caused my casting arm to twitch. Staring down at all that blue water out the airplane window, I could’ve been flying into the Bahamas, but the impressive mountains that stretch along Oahu’s island interior gave away our true location.

I was scheduled to call my guide, Terrence Duffield—who goes by “Coach Duff” since his days as a University of Hawaii football coach—at 7 pm to learn the plan for fishing the next day. I filled the few hours between landing and the phone call with car rental, the drive to the inn, and assembling rods, reels and leaders for the day of fishing. With a forecast for clear skies, Coach Duff told me to be ready for a 7 am pickup. 

The next day brought a fantastic, early-morning view of nearby mountains and a quick walk along the water revealed calm seas. As it is on most ocean flats, wind is usually a factor in Hawaii, so the calm morning was a welcome sight. True to his word, Duff rolled in promptly at 7 am, and we were off to the flats.

On this day Duff chose to fish Kaneohe Bay, famed for its big bonefish. (Under different weather conditions, we could have fished numerous other flats around the island.) The plan was to use the morning to test ourselves against the monsters that often cruise the shallows, and then fish an outer flat that typically had smaller fish in the afternoon. This is great psychological strategy by Duff: If we catch a big bonefish in the morning, the rest of the day is bright from the glow, and all is good; but if we are beat down by big, wise fish in the morning, more cooperative fish in the afternoon, even if smaller, would help boost our deflated egos.

After a short run, Duff pulled back on the throttle, and the boat coasted to the edge of a wide flat extending from shore to a deep channel. Duff handed me his special fly—a mantis shrimp pattern called Spam and Eggs—and then reached under the center console. “I like to keep things light on the boat,” he said. “Otherwise, people get too amped up and freaked out when they try to make shots to these big bonefish.” As he plugged his iPhone into a stereo port, an Eric Clapton number began to flow. “I find that by playing music, anglers tend to relax and not blow as many shots. And they calm down faster when they do.” This was a new approach for me, but I climbed onto the bow and got ready to cast. It’s worth a shot, I thought. After all I’m halfway around the world from my usual bonefish haunts. They do things differently in Hawaii.

Duff was on the platform less than 10 minutes when he pointed out a fish at 1 o’clock.  My first thought was that it was a shark, like one of the many small lemon and blacktip sharks found on bonefish flats of the Bahamas and Florida Keys. But there are no such sharks on these flats, and the fish’s green hue confirmed that it was a bonefish. By the time my brain convinced my arm to cast, the fish was too close, and it spooked. True to his nature, Duff took it in stride, gave a quick pep talk about getting the next one, and continued poling.

Once the incoming tide started to move a bit more, we had shots every 10 minutes or so for the next couple of hours. More than 80 percent of the fish were over 8 pounds, many of the bones were 10 pounds or larger, and we had legitimate shots at six or seven fish that were pushing the 13- to 15-pound class. Those fish were tremendous—long with broad shoulders, and never in a hurry. Four times these large fish rushed the fly, kissed it with their nose and turned away. The smaller fish (if you can call an eight- or nine-pound bonefish “small”) were in a similar mood, and they showed interest in the flies but never closed the deal. If you’ve fished for big bonefish, you know that they get this way sometimes, doing their best impression of finicky permit.

After yet another tantalizing refusal, Duff jumped down from the platform and said, “OK. No big deal. They just aren’t eating today. On to the outer flat where the bonefish tend to be more friendly.”

Aloha, Bones

As a bonefish researcher, I have often been asked, “Do you know a destination where I can fish for bonefish and my spouse or family also has fun things to do?” Many fly anglers find themselves in a conundrum when trying to balance vacation travel with fishing and family. There are but a handful of good bonefish locations that also offer attractions for non-anglers—sitting on a secluded beach, reading a book satisfies a non-fishing spouse for a couple of days, but that’s usually about it. And if kids are part of the trip, more options are needed. 

I often hear a quite different question from accomplished fly anglers simply looking for a challenge. These anglers have caught a lot of bonefish and are pretty proficient at the game. They are searching for the often-elusive, double-digit trophy—a bonefish that weighs 10 pounds or more. 

Combine the challenges of finding a family-friendly location and double-digit bonefish, and the list is whittled to only a few locations. The one that first comes to mind is the Florida Keys. There are big bonefish, and plenty of activities for the family. But Hawaii provides another option, especially if you are looking for a bit of adventure. 

Because bonefish throughout the world are so similar in appearance, it wasn’t until about 40 years ago that scientists started to take a closer look and identify multiple species. As of this writing, there are 12 species of bonefish worldwide, all similar in appearance.  So although they look the same as bonefish in the Caribbean, the bonefish in Hawaii are a different species. The species that makes up 98 percent of the recreational fishery in the Caribbean is the common bonefish (Albula vulpes); in Hawaii and much of the Pacific, the dominant species in the recreational fishery is the roundjaw bonefish (Albula glossodonta). 

Fortunately for anglers, the Pacific bonefish behave like their Caribbean cousins and eat the same types of prey. This means that the same skills learned on the flats of the Caribbean or any other location with bonefish will apply to fishing for Hawaiian bonefish, with one caveat—Hawaiian bonefish have a slightly different look to them. The Hawaiian bonefish are longer per pound than Caribbean bonefish, which seem to have more girth at the same length. And the Hawaiian bones have an aqua hue to their coloration, more similar to a Caribbean barracuda than a Caribbean bonefish. 

The Hawaiian bonefish fishery is not like some of the Bahamas, where an angler can sometimes get seemingly endless shots at smaller bonefish, and there generally aren’t schools of mudding bonefish that make life easy. In Hawaii, the fishing is about stalking medium to large bonefish traveling in singles and pairs, each day with shots at legitimate double-digit fish. It’s a challenge that is worth the reward. 

A Change of Pace

After a quick lunch and a short run in the boat, we arrived at the outer flat. Within a few minutes Duff began calling out bonefish. I saw very few of them as they scooted across the dark bottom. And casting at a fleeing bonefish is pointless. As a friend says, “They don’t eat with their tails.” Finally, I spotted a bonefish as it crossed a small white spot on the flat, delivered the fly and quickly had a fish on. Whether it was the location, tide or just that these fish weren’t as wise and old as the brutes on the morning flat, I’ll never know. After a morning of refusals on the inner flat, “why” wasn’t really a question I was interested in asking. 

This first bonefish of the day wasn’t a beast by Hawaiian standards, but it quickly took me into my backing, and even palming the reel I was unable to stop it before it zig-zagged through a field of rock and coral. Duff put down the anchor, jumped overboard, told me to back off on the drag, and waded into the coral to free the line. Moments later, the line was free, the fish was still on and soon boated. 

About 20 minutes later, poling across a different section of the flat, we had a repeat performance—from blistering run to Duff hopping overboard to another fish at the boat. The rejections from the morning session were starting to wear off.

With the day coming to a close, Duff asked if I was ready to head in or wanted to make one last push along the edge of the flat. After some internal deliberation (plans for dinner with my wife awaited), I opted for one last chance. As we neared the end of the flat, a pair of bonefish crossed a white patch of bottom, visible for a brief moment. I cast to where I thought the bonefish should be, and with my fly line in the air, the fish tailed. The fly landed perfectly, as if the fish knew where to expect it. One strip, and the fish was on. This time I was able to put the brakes on and keep the fish from getting into the coral. It did its best impression of a jack—back and forth, each time a little closer, and when it came into full view Coach Duff and I did a double take. This was no five- or seven-pound fish; it was pushing nine pounds. We got this one to the boat and took some photos to end the day. All in all, a good day on the flats—three nice fish landed, some great shots at monster bonefish, and great company—there were smiles all around as we headed in. Oh, and the stereo was a nice touch, too. 

Planning Your Hawaii Trip

The great thing about Hawaii is that you can bring the non-fishing family along and fish guilt-free because there is so much more to do. While you’re out chasing bonefish, non-fishing family members can learn to surf or paddleboard, take a kayak excursion, hike the many mountain trails, or just relax on the beach with a mai tai. And that’s just on the fishing days. It’s well worth it to schedule plenty of non-fishing days so you can also enjoy all that Hawaii has to offer. 

Although there is plenty to do on Oahu, the other Hawaiian islands also have a lot to offer. My favorites are the big island of Hawaii and the northernmost island of Kauai. The island of Hawaii 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 rain forest 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 tallest point in Hawaii at 13,796 feet. The northernmost Hawaiian 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. 

Finding a Hawaii Fishing Guide

Although there are numerous guides on Oahu, I’ve fished with Coach Duff on my two trips there. I’d call his home waters Kaneohe Bay, but he fishes different flats around the island depending on the weather, tides and time of year. His propensity for music on the boat and a laid-back attitude may be a bit different from what many anglers are used to, but it’s fun and it works. I used an 8-weight both times I fished with Duff, but when the winds are cranking, a 9-weight or 10-weight might be more appropriate. 

I’ve also fished for and caught bonefish on the island of Kauai. The fishery there is entirely wading, at least as I’ve experienced it, and guides are limited. I had a good half-day fishing with Rob Arita, who guided me on a nice bay and invited me to revisit the flat on my own.

I think that most of the islands have bonefish, though not all have what might be considered classic flats opportunities, so Oahu remains the center for flats fishing for bonefish in Hawaii. However, since most flights from the mainland are to Honolulu, where you can catch flights to other islands, even if you want to explore other islands on the trip, it’s easy to plan a few days on Oahu at the beginning or end of your adventure.

About the author: Dr. Aaron Adams is a writer, lecturer and marine ecologist who is on the faculty at Florida Institute of Technology and serves as director of operations for the nonprofit Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. He is a regular contributor to American Angler, where this article originally appeared (March/April 2013). For more on Dr. Adam’s instructional books, travel information and fly tying, visit his website at www.fishermanscoast.com.