The alarm sounded at 5:30am but I didn’t need it, I was already awake and bristling with anticipation and nervous energy. The kayak from the hire shop was strapped to the roof of the car, the esky was full of ice and two rods and a backpack waited by the door. I grabbed my belongings, say goodbye to my dozing wife and raced out to greet the darkness outside.
Today’s mission was to catch bonefish on soft plastics.
I dropped in to a 7-11, which is the king of the convenience stores here in Hawaii, grabbed a coffee, some sushi hand rolls for lunch, a cold drink, and continued on my merry way. The destination was Kaneohe Bay – arguably the best spot to target bonefish on Oahu – if you’ve got a boat.
It just so happened that today I had a boat.
The early start was worth it and my timing impeccable (if I do say so myself!). I had the yak in the water and loaded up about 20 minutes before low tide. It was a leisurely paddle over to one of the flats, and an opportunity to soak in the sunrise and this amazing new environment. The water glistened and shimmered from the low angle of the sun. Occasionally a wrinkled head would break the surface, accompanied by an audible breath, as a turtle would come up for a gulp of air. Except for a couple of game-fishing boats leaving the harbour, there were very few people around. It was an absolute delight.
I arrived at one of the flats at low tide, just in time to watch and learn as the water rose over the next few hours. An incoming tide is commonly believed to be the best time to find feeding bones on the flats and today would be no exception. Despite the sense of anticipation and the mental images (courtesy of youtube) of fly fisherman connected to huge rampaging bonefish, the first couple of hours were fairly uneventful. I tied the kayak up and set out on foot on one of the ‘pancake flats’. They get this name because each flat is like a stack of pancakes. The centre is sand, fringed by a ring of hard and sharp coral before dropping off to deep blue water. The water was glassy and gin clear and I slowly waded around looking for any sign of tailing fish. I hooked a small trevally on a soft plastic but it decided to release itself mid-fight. There’s nothing too uncommon about this I thought to myself, small fish often come off. I was encouraged to see some predatory fish feeding, even if they were small.
I spotted a bow wave soon after and thought I had the perfect cast about 10 feet in front of its nose. I slowly twitched the plastic back towards it and felt the bite but struck on thin air and the line was limp. I wound in and discovered that the back half of the plastic was missing. Aaaah Barracuda! I considered the chances of a 50cm Barracuda biting a 4cm long soft plastic in half with such precision that it would miss the hook … and decided that this was one talented fish and it deserved its freedom.
I continued to wade around as slowly as I dare, wary of not sending out bellowing waves across the shallow and lifeless flat. An hour into the rising tide I spotted the first bonefish. I suspect he saw me long before I saw him though and it fled to the safety of the deep channel. After two hours I spotted a second, its location given away by two large white fins sticking up out of the water. Like a child hiding his face in his hands during a game of hide-and-seek, this trait of bonefish always makes me smile. Here is this elusive, flighty, shallow water specialist that seems to forget that its fins are taller than the top of its head. Mind you, unless its being chased by an eagle or some other airborne creature (fly fisherman?), I suppose it makes little difference to its chances of evading its main predators like giant trevally, sharks or big barracuda. Whatever the case I knew exactly where this fish was and didn’t want to make my usual mistake of firing casts towards it and spooking it. This time I calmed down, I waited and I watched. After a few minutes of remaining completely still I had no idea where the fish was, so I started firing off casts … you can guess the result.
At this point I had this overwhelming sense that I had either hooked or spooked all the fish in this small area, so it was time to seek out a new flat. I unhitched the kayak and paddled over to the nearest spot. I would pass a couple more turtles feeding on the fringe of the reef and swimming along in the channels. Nothing seems to phase a turtle. Not even a bright red kayak. They are fantastically relaxed and comfortable with their place in the world – the polar opposite to a bonefish perhaps?
Each flat has some warning markers to aid navigation for boats, and they make convenient kayak parking spots. Again I tied up and again I set out on foot. As I splashed out of the boat onto the sand I disappeared underwater from the waist down with a sudden jolt to the system. I hadn’t expected it to be this deep, the gin clear water had deceived me, but not my internal (and external) organs which were now reminding me that this flat was a little deeper than the last. From my limited, but steadily growing experience catching bones with plastics, waist deep water has been the most productive. My feeling is that I can’t see them, and they can’t see me. And so in my mind, this flat looked ‘fishy’. ‘Fishy water’ is that certain, often indescribable look that water has when experience and memories make an association between that look and catching fish from it. Yep, this flat definitely looked fishy. I flung my 1/12oz jig head as far as I could, carefully threaded with a little crab pattern soft plastic. As I started my now well-rehearsed retrieve, the plastic slowly bumped, darted and scuffled its way across the bottom. In the blink-of-an-eye the rod loaded up and then … SNAP! The leader line broke at the knot. Wow! I know it had been a while between hook-ups but I don’t think I had underestimated the power of that first run by quite so much? I was a little shocked the line had apparently broken so easily.
In my haste to explore the ‘fishy’ water on foot, I had left all the spare tackle on the seat of the kayak. So feeling a little disheartened from the break-off (but also very excited) I made my way back over to the boat to tie on a new plastic. To be sure, this time I released the drag a few more clicks. I had set modest drag pressure because if a rampaging bonefish makes it over the edge of a pancake flat you’re done for. The sharp coral and the angle of the line as they descend into the depths will make for a very short fight on spinning gear (in contrast, sometimes heavy fly lines can get wrapped up and not break). But losing a fish on the initial strike is heart-breaking and not something I wanted to experience again. I released a couple more clicks – just to be sure.
I wandered off from the boat and started the ritual all over again; patrolling the edge of the flat casting in towards the centre, the theory being that a fish would have the longest distance to travel before reaching the edge and I might have half a chance of stopping it. Then I thought about the edge itself, that lovely matrix of sand and coral and weed. It looked like prime foraging so I threw caution (in)to the wind with a cast along the edge and gave the lure a few small twitches. In an instant the line pulled taught, the rod loaded up and SNAP! The leader broke at the knot … again.
The spool was practically falling off the reel the drag was that loose. Well not quite, I’m exaggerating, but it was a very ‘sporting’ drag setting.
I glanced at the leader line suspiciously … and inspected it for damage. Any little nicks and cuts from the reef? Nothing. I ran it through my fingers. Smooth as baby’s backside. So I gave it a gentle test pull and snap! It broke again. This was brand new 10lb ‘Vanish’ line bought in haste at one of the local stores. It hadn’t sat in the sun or been lying around my tackle box for years. It was also my second experience like this with the same brand so there was only thing for it.
I couldn’t help it but I started laughing at my misfortune. Two bonefish which by world standards would likely have been ‘fish of a lifetime’ had just broken me off due to a dodgy batch of line. While I hadn’t spent a lot of money to put myself here ($50 to rent the kayak for the day, $15 for lunch and snacks etc) I had spent a lot of time. Not just the hour to paddle out and several hours wading around casting in vain. But I hadn’t caught a bonefish at the last few attempts so in essence, hours and hours of fruitless fishing had just culminated in these two incredibly brief moments. Further playing on my mind was that here I was in some of the most gorgeous tropical water in an incredibly picturesque environment. The clear white of the sand; the deep blue of the channels; the sea turtles casually cruising around feeding; young mountains rising up dramatically in the background. The carers of the local fishpond had been out earlier in the morning accompanied by incredibly moving Hawaiian chants and ceremony which echoed out across the bay. Perhaps it was these things, perhaps it was the lack of sleep, but I was feeling emotionally overloaded by everything around me. Or perhaps it was the inane and never-ending noise of the jet-skis which were now out in high numbers…
I digress. I returned once again to the kayak, not for a new lure as I had a small collection in my pocket now, but for my second rod. This was a slightly heavier setup (3000 reel, 10lb braid and 15lb leader) and I had thought it may come in handy if I couldn’t stop fish on the smaller original outfit (2500 reel, 6lb braid and 10lb leader). Being out in the middle of the bay and a long way home I was very grateful to be able to grab it and keep fishing. For the third time I would start my little trip around this flat casting towards the centre but now also working the edges, as the edges looked ‘fishy’ now as well. I got one more solid bite, but ironically, with the heavier outfit in hand and best positioned to battle with these incredible fish, the hook didn’t stick.
But the drama hadn’t ended there. The rod I was using now was a cheap 4 piece travel rod. On the next cast I would remember why the world has a funny way of reminding you that cheap is never best. I flipped the bail arm, loaded the rod up with the lightly weighted plastic (1/8oz) behind me and with a snap of the wrist to send the lure down-wind, there was an almighty crack (and no it wasn’t my wrist). The rod was now dangling by a few threads of graphite. It had broken.
I laughed and swore aloud; ‘you’ve got be f&^*g kidding me!’ I looked down at the broken rod. It was snapped half way down just above one of the guides. I returned to the boat to conduct a quick survey of the few remnants of my fishing arsenal. This was a moment to stop, take a breath, try to ignore the fact that I was in the middle of a hot bite and calmly compose a new outfit. I picked up the lighter outfit. The 6lb braid had cast the light lures much better than the 10lb braid anyway. So after removing the offending leader line, I tied a new (15 pound) leader made by a different manufacturer. After a few minutes I was ready to fish again. But by now the tide was nearly completely high and the fish had apparently vanished. Despite fishing for the next hour or two it was becoming clear that I would be going home without a fish, without a spool of line destined for the bin, with a broken rod and without two jigheads and three soft plastics. Not a good day of fishing in anyone’s book.
Now it is about this time when I should probably mention that there was a banana tucked in to the esky as a late breakfast snack. As a part-time runner I love bananas for their instant and easily digestible energy. I’ve never believed that bananas carry bad ju-ju or are magically able to send waves of fish deterring chemicals down to the depths, or to break lines or straighten hooks. There are very good scientific reasons why bananas and boats do not have a pleasant history together and I’ve written about this before here. Similarly, there are perfectly valid explanations why all of the events that unfolded today had occurred. Firstly small fish are difficult to set the hook into; barracuda have very sharp teeth and often bite their prey in half rather than swallow them whole; leader lines made by large multi-nationals sometimes have poor quality control standards; and the travel rod was cheap and made from a poor quality graphite. BUT the fact all of these things happened on the same day, AND on one of the very rare occasions that I decided to take a banana on board with me? This makes it very hard not to point the finger at our curved yellow friend.
All of this left me with a intensely strange feeling at the end of the day. When you add up the lost fish, the lost gear and the disappointment, it was without doubt one of the worst days of fishing I’ve ever had. But it was also one of the absolute highlights of my time in Hawaii thus far (and there have been many). The environment is stunning. The flats are amazingly unique geological formations and provide a concentrated little micro-environment for anglers to explore. I saw turtles and squid and strange scavenging worms. So I’ve come to the conclusion that this was the ‘best worst day of fishing’.
I am however looking forward to heading out there again, without a banana, and hopefully landing at least one bonefish next time. I learnt a lot and there are a few observations about fishing for the local Kaneohe bones which will help; They were easiest to tempt during the second half of the incoming tide, once the water was around 0.7-1.0m deep. Jigheads weighing 1/12oz were fine in light winds, but 1/8oz could be handy in more difficult conditions. Small soft plastics like the squidgy bug 70mm and Z-man crusteaz in natural brown, beige and green colours were all bitten. Six pound braid was much better for casting the light lures than 10lb, but for leaders 15lb should probably be considered the minimum line class. Bonefish don’t appear to be particularly line shy, so a couple of rod lengths of 20lb would probably be a good idea.
And like I said last time – bonefishing in Hawaii is hard!
Thanks for reading
Hawaiian fish dictionary
Bonefish – O’io
Trevally (juvenile) – Papio
Barracuda – Kaku
Green Sea Turtle – Honu
Fishpond – Loko i’a