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A different take on bonefishing in the Hawaiian islands.

by E. Donnall Thomas Jr.

MY FIRST FLY ROD ENCOUNTER WITH A HAWAIIAN BONEFISH was one of those seminal events that divide life into Before and After, with a moment of furious epiphany in between. Let me begin with the backstory.

Hawaiian flats differ profoundly from the expected, beginning with the view. Throughout the Caribbean, dry land adjoining bonefish habitat is rarely more than a thin meniscus of sand and palm trees between sea and sky. But in the Hawaiian Islands, towering volcanoes dominate the view with soaring vistas of jungle and rock.

For years I’d studied the water below while prowling those peaks with my longbow. From high above, the water inside the reef looked like a bonefish flat, with good visibility and inviting channels of white sand weaving among coral heads. Close up, however, those inviting flats became waist-deep water, constant chop, tenacious mud near shore, and sharp coral ready to lacerate a leg or slice through a line. When I asked our Hawaiian friends about bonefish, they confirmed their presence and offered to help me catch a big one. On bait. My fly rod would be futile, they said, suggesting I use it instead for trevally.

Then one day I was spearfishing near a rocky headland while our friends worked the deeper water a quarter mile offshore. I grew up swimming and feel comfortable submerged, but I couldn’t keep up with the Hawaiians as they free-dived to 90 feet, hunting giant trevally in their caves. I was swimming along the face of the rocks with a three-prong spear, hoping to contribute a lowly uhu (parrotfish) to the grill that night, when a pair of elongated silver shapes ghosted effortlessly past. Funny, I thought. They look just like bonefish, only bigger. By the time the OMG moment of recognition registered, they’d disappeared back into the blue. Fifteen pounds? Easy. Twenty? More? Maybe.

Don, Don, and Doug head home after a long morning. Wading for several miles to find fish is the rule.
Don, Don, and Doug head home after a long morning. Wading for several miles to find fish is the rule.

This got me thinking again about those intimidating flats, because I sure wasn’t going to catch those bonefish on flies in 20 feet of water except by accident. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a long list of arbitrary and at times faintly ridiculous proscriptions: no spring turkey unless I called in the bird, no spike elk during the first two weeks of archery sea son, no waterfowl without my retriever at my side. And no bonefish unless I saw the fish before the cast. Those monstrous bones proved only one thing: Hawaii has big bonefish.

A year later, I carried a box of bonefish flies when I returned to the islands. And one day when the trade winds dropped from their customary 20-plus knots to 15, I just did it. After a long slog through the mud, I reached firm sand, but chop, deep water, and peekaboo sunlight made spotting fish a challenge. If there were any fish to spot.

For over two hours there weren’t. I was ready to return to shore and go hunting in the mountains when something almost imperceptibly changed in the shimmering mosaic of shapes and colors, and there it was: big, if not monstrous, moving faster down the channel than I liked, but definitely a bonefish. The quick crosswind cast unfolded better than I had any right to expect. The fish turned toward the fly as it hit the water and accelerated briefly in response to the first twitch. I braced for the strike. And the fish disappeared.